Bible Literacy Project News
The Christian Science Monitor:
A Bible course without the lawsuits?
Teaching about the Bible is critical - and contentious, teachers agree.
A new textbook may provide a safe path through a political minefield.
By Jane Lampman
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
September 29, 2005
Like prayer in the schools and the Ten Commandments in
courthouses, teaching about the Bible in public classrooms has long
been contentious. Some people question whether it is legal. Many
educators worry they might be faced with lawsuits.
|Here is an excerpt from
the textbook "The Bible and Its Influence" (Bible
Literacy Project, © 2005):
The Psalms as poetry
If you are familiar with poetry in English, you may
find it difficult to identify the psalms as poems.
Hebrew poetry does not rely on rhyme or familiar
metrical rhythms. Many of the characteristics of Hebrew
poetry are recognizable only when the psalms are read in
their original language. Alliteration, wordplay such as
puns, and the use of acrostics are lost in translation.
Psalm 119, for example, is an acrostic in Hebrew. Each
of its verses begins with a letter of the Hebrew
alphabet, in sequence. That technique is especially
appropriate for this psalm, which celebrates the power
of God's word in the Scriptures.
In English translation, however, you can get some idea
of the structural technique known as parallelism and the
rich use of figures of speech that mark the poetry of
the psalms. Hebrew poetry often features verses made up
of pairs of lines that parallel one another, echoing or
extending the same thought in slightly different
language or using inversion for contrast. Here are two
examples, from Psalm 19:
[A] The heavens declare the glory of God,
[B] the sky proclaims His handiwork.
[A] Day to day makes utterance,
[B] night to night speaks out. (Psalm 19:1-2, New Jewish
Publication Society of America version)
And American students, it seems, end up the losers. Without academic
knowledge of the Bible and its influence, many teachers say, pupils
can't understand their own literary, artistic, and cultural
heritage. In a survey last spring, 90 percent of leading English
teachers said biblical knowledge was crucial to a good education.
Yet a Gallup poll found that only 8 percent of public-school teens
said their school offered an elective course on the Bible.
For school districts, the difficulty lies in agreeing on what will
pass constitutional muster, and then actually having the materials
to teach it appropriately.
Help may be on the way. The Bible Literacy Project, a nonpartisan,
nonprofit group in Fairfax, Va., has spent five years developing the
first high school text on the Bible in 30 years. The project
involved scholars and reviewers from all major Jewish and Christian
"The Bible and Its Influence," released last week in Washington, is
designed to meet constitutional standards and to convey the
Scriptures' broad influence on Western civilization. Covering Old
and New Testaments, it presents the biblical narratives, characters,
and themes as well as their cultural influences.
Students may gain a more nuanced understanding of Shakespeare, with
his 1,300 biblical references; or grasp the import of the Exodus to
the African-American experience and musical heritage; or learn how
the Bible shaped Abraham Lincoln's vision. They may even recognize a
biblical origin for their hometown - Corpus Christi, New Canaan, and
Salem, for example.
The new textbook "treats faith perspectives with respect, and ...
informs and instructs, but does not promote religion," says Chuck
Stetson, the Project's founder and chairman.
Others express concern: "I don't think the Constitution prohibits
the use of this textbook, but I have real doubts about the wisdom of
this approach," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans
United for the Separation of Church and State. "At this time in
America, it's better to simply talk about religious influences when
they come up during the study of literature, art, and history, and
not take the text of one religious tradition and treat it with
Mr. Lynn also worries that individual teachers might go beyond the
text itself and "spin it in ways that may well violate the
As part of a pilot effort during textbook development, the Project
provided a training program for 27 public high school teachers over
an eight-month period. Five of the teachers received a classroom set
of the draft text to test with students.
"Students love the material - it's beautiful," says Joan Spence, a
language-arts teacher in Battle Ground, Wash. "It is formatted like
other textbooks, and puts them in the English-class mindset. They
don't have the temptation to wander off into a Sunday School frame
Ms. Spence taught a Bible literature course for two years before
having access to the textbook, and says she appreciates its "wealth
of connections to art, poetry, music - the artists who have created
out of inspiration from the Bible."
More than 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court said (in
School District of Abingdon Twp. v. Schemp) that it was appropriate
to teach about the Bible as long as it "is presented objectively as
part of a secular program of education." Still, some courses given
in schools have veered into sectarian territory.
"Some of the courses I've encountered around the country over 20
years would not pass muster in a court of law," says Charles Haynes
of Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "They're closer to Sunday
School than legitimate academic courses."
He sees the new textbook as important "because it's constitutional
and educationally sound, and may provide a safe harbor for public
Five years ago, the First Amendment Center - a nonpartisan group
that works with schools on religious liberty issues - brought
educational and religious groups together to produce a guide, "The
Bible and Public Schools." The guide provides districts with
information and clear standards to help them keep the teaching
academic and not devotional. Districts were left to identify their
own books or materials.
"I don't think many people feel well prepared to teach a class of
this sort," Ms. Spence says, "or have time to research important
background information, so this will make more people feel able to
take on the challenge."
At the same time, many US English teachers express concern that
students' deficient biblical knowledge is hampering their education.
Marie Wachlin, a professor at Concordia University in Portland,
Ore., conducted the national study earlier this year of high school
English teachers in which they said biblical knowledge was essential
for a good education. Ninety-eight percent also said biblical
literacy is a distinct educational advantage.
Biblical allusions permeate Western literature. In a book that
prepares students to take the Advanced Placement Exam, 60 percent of
the allusions listed are from the Bible. Yet polls in recent years
have shown that both students and adult Americans in general have
very limited biblical knowledge.
According to many teachers in the national study, if their schools
didn't offer courses, "it wasn't from lack of importance or lack of
community support, but due to political pressures," Dr. Wachlin
Another group now promoting Bible teaching in schools, which is
supported by several conservative groups, has stirred controversy.
The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools says its
elective-course material has been adopted by some 1,000 high
schools. Last month the Texas Freedom Network, a religious-freedom
advocacy group, released a report by a professor at Southern
Methodist University. The report charges that their material goes
beyond academic study to introduce conservative Protestant views,
and is not always historically accurate.
In several districts where their materials have been proposed,
fights have ensued, according to Dr. Haynes.
"It's not a curriculum, but a long outline of the Bible, and the
Bible itself is the textbook," he says. "The secondary sources are
mostly from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Schools don't want
to be sued - that's the heart of the matter."
The Bible Literacy Project's text has won the approval of key
leaders from the various strains of Judaism and Christianity,
Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, a
constitutional watchdog, says that, "Without question, it can serve
as the basis for a constitutional course."
Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, an
Evangelical school in Illinois, called it an "undisputed triumph of
scholarship and presentation."
The question is whether school superintendents and teachers will
embrace it. The $50 book, along with a teachers' manual, will be
ready for the next school year. A university-based, online
teacher-training program will also be available.
Tom Wiegman, who has been teaching the "Bible as literature" to high
school seniors in Fullerton, Calif., since 1992, has scouted out his
own materials. After using the draft of the new book last semester,
he intends to get a set for his classroom.
"The students were very positive about it," he says.
To help students make connections between the Bible and their own
experience, Mr. Wiegman has them do an allusion project, looking for
examples in American culture. They don't have to look far. Last
semester one student brought in a video that showed Eve picking the
apple from the proverbial tree, on advice of the serpent - from the
opening credits to the TV hit, "Desperate Housewives."
Copyright © 2005 The Christian Science Monitor.