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Indy Star:
Bible literature courses are rarities
Public schools in Indiana shy away from offering classes

By Robert King
Indystar.com
October 8, 2005

In Ken Knowles' classroom at Carmel High School, students portraying the remnants of the Israelite army have just won a great victory. Wielding small Styrofoam swords, they have killed the king of Ai, burned his walled city and slaughtered the women and children, some of whom now lie in a heap on the classroom floor.

Although the student actors giggle through much of this bit of theater, one of the lessons delivered here is clear: Holy wars aren't pretty.

Yet lessons like these -- drawn from the biblical book of Joshua -- are rarely taught in American public schools, largely for fear of violating the constitutional separation of church and state. A survey of teens last year found that only 8 percent were enrolled in schools that offered elective courses on the Bible. In Indiana, Carmel's biblical literature course was one of only 24 offered anywhere in the state last year.

The Bible Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the academic study of the Bible, hopes to change that. Last month, it released "The Bible and Its Influence," a new textbook vetted by scholars and religious leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Its purpose is to give schools not only a new tool for Bible education, but also a measure of confidence that they can successfully navigate a course that most schools have deemed too risky to offer, given the tension of the so-called culture wars.

According to Bible Literacy Project spokeswoman Sheila Weber, too many public schools fail to understand that it is possible to study the Bible legally from an academic perspective. Until now, she says, principals and teachers have been reluctant to do so because they didn't have a textbook specifically crafted for public school use.

"They don't realize that just because they can't read the Bible in a devotional way and can't use materials that seem to promote religion, it doesn't mean that they can't provide students with information about the world's greatest-selling book and its impact on the culture," Weber said.

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Abington v. Schempp, held that public schools couldn't require daily Bible readings. But, as the Bible Literacy Project points out, that same ruling recognized as legal the "objective" study of the Bible or religion in secular programs.

That's how Knowles has approached the job of teaching children in his classes.

Knowles has been teaching the subject at Carmel for 31 years. Over time, he has learned a few tricks to avoid trouble: He doesn't discuss his own faith. He doesn't ask kids about theirs. Despite entreaties from several local pastors, he doesn't allow guest speakers. And while the Bible is the only textbook for the class, kids can use whatever translation they prefer.

His basic theory is this: "You can teach the Bible in a public school if it is taught as literature or history or geography, but you cannot teach it as theology or religion."

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has had no complaints about the Carmel class.

On the subject of Bible courses in general, ICLU Executive Director Fran Quigley said it would seem most appropriate for public school classes to be broad in their instruction, looking at a variety of sacred texts from various religions.

Wide influence

In part, the Bible Literacy Project's new book was inspired by the idea that while there is no denying that the Bible is a religious text, there is also little doubt that it has had a profound influence on Western literature, history and art.

The Bible Literacy folks like to cite the 1,300 references to the Bible in the works of Shakespeare and to note that books such as "Lord of the Flies," "East of Eden" and "Paradise Lost" were sparked by the Bible in varying degrees.

From history, they point out that when Lincoln spoke of "a house divided" he drew from a reference in the Gospel of St. Luke.

When Martin Luther King Jr. talked about seeing the promised land from a mountaintop, and that he might not make it there himself, it was a speech about the civil-rights struggle. But it was also King's way of drawing a parallel to Moses, another leader who tried to lead an oppressed people to freedom.

As for art, some of the most famous works in the world have Biblical subjects -- da Vinci's "The Last Supper," Michelangelo's "David," Raphael's "Madonna and Child."

There also are scores of phrases that people throw around with little understanding of their biblical roots: prodigal son, casting the first stone, the wisdom of Solomon.

"They are phrases that are commonly found on the front page of the morning newspaper," said Weber. "Students don't realize that they come from the context of the Bible."

A survey the Bible Literacy Project conducted last year found that most children had a basic level of biblical understanding -- that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman identified in Genesis, that Easter is associated with the resurrection of Jesus.

But few knew other details that English teachers identified as fundamental to a good education -- what happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus (he was struck blind by a vision of Jesus) or what Jesus did at the wedding at Cana (he turned water into wine).

Knowles said the students in his classes show up with about the same amount of Bible background as they have for years. Some know it well from having attended worship services and religious school. Others know nothing. But they all can learn more, he said.

Jill Cimasko, 16, said she took the class because she wanted a historic view of the Bible to go along with the faith-based teaching she gets at church. "I have always been like, 'This is what I'm told,' and I wanted to see for myself," she said.

"You always hear these stories but you don't really know them."

Teaching them is just what the Bible Literacy Project is hoping its new book will do.

Copyright 2005 IndyStar.com. All rights reserved

 
 

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