Bible Literacy Project News
A Bible Textbook Begat by Church-State Separation
editors aim for a nonreligious approach to teaching public school
students about the verses so influential in Western culture.
K. Connie Kang, Staff Writer
Sept 24, 2005
Who asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Was it Cain, Noah, Abel
or King David?)
What happened on the road to Damascus? (A: Jesus was crucified. B:
Mary met an angel of the Lord. C: St. Paul was blinded by a vision
from God. D: Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.)
Only a third of the American teenagers in a nationwide Gallup poll
last year correctly answered the first question, attributing the
quote from Genesis to Cain. And, a similar percentage of the 1,002
teens in the survey were aware of the story of St. Paul being
blinded by a vision from God on the road to Damascus.
An overwhelming majority of the nation's students are biblically
illiterate, educators say. Yet, they add, knowledge of the Bible,
its characters and references is essential in understanding Western
literature, art, music and history even for students who come from
other religious traditions, are agnostics or are atheists. On
Thursday, a new textbook designed to help teach public high school
students biblical content without violating the separation of church
and state was released in Washington, D.C., by the Bible Literacy
Project, a nonprofit group that promotes the study of Bible content,
not belief, in public and private schools.
The project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, has the
endorsement of scholars, some 1st Amendment experts and officials
from such organizations as the American Jewish Congress and the
National Assn. of Evangelicals. Titled "The Bible and Its
Influence," the 392-page book, co-edited by Chuck Stetson and Cullen
Schippe, is a product of years of planning, including the Gallup
poll of teens' biblical knowledge. (It is listed for $74.95 to
individuals and $50 for schools.)
"It was created to satisfy all constituencies involved in the heated
public debate about the Bible in public schools," said Stetson,
chairman of the Bible Literacy Project, which is based in Fairfax,
He said the book treats various faiths with respect. It also meets,
he said, the "consensus standards" endorsed by teachers unions,
religious groups and civil liberty organizations as rules for
handling the Bible in public schools. In 1998, the Clinton
administration issued guidelines under which public schools may
teach about religion, including the Bible as literature, and the
role of religion in history but may not provide "religious
Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, calls
the new textbook "a signal achievement."
"Without question, it can serve as the basis for a constitutional
course about the Bible in the nation's public schools," Stern said.
But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United
for Separation of Church and State, said his group would look "very
carefully to see if it meets constitutional requirements."
"The courts have held that objective study about religion is
constitutional in our public schools," said Lynn, an ordained United
Church of Christ minister. "However, I am very wary of organized
efforts to introduce Bible classes into the curriculum. This effort
may be well intentioned, but it comes at a time when organized
pressure groups are seeking to undermine the religious neutrality of
Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC
Berkeley who reviewed the book, said he was impressed by it.
"I very much liked the way it relates the Bible to the later
literary texts and political and historical events and so forth," he
said. "It conveys that this is not just ancient, dead and holy
documents, it has something to do with our ongoing lives as a
For example, the chapter on the Psalms — sacred songs — begins with
a list of key texts, accompanied by an explanation of how the Psalms
are different from other poetry of the time and how translations
have influenced the English language, culture and music.
The narrative is accompanied by illustrations of Marc Chagall's
painting "King David on Red Ground," as well other works of art as
examples of the influence of the Psalms on people.
It notes that when people want to express strong emotion, they often
turn to music. The book asks students to think about: "How important
is your collection of songs? What do the lyrics mean to you? How
does your music help you communicate with your friends?"
In the New Testament section, students are told that the Gospel of
Luke consists of "two volumes," Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
Readers are asked to "discover" how Luke inspired writers, artists
and filmmakers with his narratives.
"Luke traced not only the life, teachings and death and resurrection
of Jesus, but also the beginnings of the Christian community," the
Tom Wiegman, an English teacher at Sunny Hills High School in
Fullerton who has taught a popular elective course, "Bible as
Literature," since 1992, used a draft of the book last year as a
study guide and plans to use the final text as soon as he can order
the books. He and his students liked it, he said.
"I had a kid who on the first day told me 'I am an atheist,' "
Wiegman recalled. "He turned out to be the best student in the
Genesis is particularly strong as literature, Wiegman said.
"Characters are interesting. There are so many stories."
He said he assigns his students to write an essay on the character
of King Saul, because "his story fits the elements of tragedy."
Inevitably, when they get to Job, students ask, "Why do bad things
happen to good people?" said Wiegman.
April Brown, a senior in Wiegman's class, says the course is helping
her learn to read the Bible in a different way.
"I just never really thought of the Bible as literature," said
Brown, who said she was a devout Christian. "I read it, but I
thought of it [only] as a sacred book."
Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, a Christian
school in Wheaton, Ill., was among the 40 experts asked to review
the book in draft form for accuracy, scholarship and legal
ramifications. He said he had no reservation about using the
textbook in public schools.
"The book presents information and does not proselytize," he said.
"The only person who might object to the book is someone who
believes that people should not be allowed to know about the Bible.
Students who enroll in college without biblical knowledge handicap
themselves from the outset when they come to study English and
Still, there is lingering confusion and extreme caution among the
public and educators about the legality of teaching about the Bible
in this way, experts say.
"Just mentioning the Bible and the public school in the same
sentence can start a fight — and people start shouting," said
Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, a
nonprofit free speech education group.
Still, he said he was confident that the new book would pass all
legal tests it may face.
"This is one that finally gives schools what I could characterize as
a safe harbor," Haynes said. "This text enables them, if they want,
to have a Bible elective that is academically sound and is also
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times