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Associated Press:
New public-school textbook on the Bible
cleverly skirts trouble

By Richard N. Ostling
AP Religion Writer
October 14, 2005

Think it's impossible to create a textbook about the Bible for public high schools that's acceptable to varied faiths and legal in the eyes of church-state separationists?

That's the goal of the Bible Literacy Project of Fairfax, Va. And judging from initial reactions, it succeeded handsomely with its new "The Bible and Its Influence," just issued for use in the 2006-2007 school year.

Bible Literacy's strategy is to respect all religions and shun divisive controversies about biblical interpretation, merely reporting these when they're relevant.

For instance, here's how the touchy issues surrounding creation are handled: "Scholars and faithful readers differ on the date and authorship of Genesis. Even within the first two chapters, some see two distinct creation narratives. ... Some read Genesis as a literal account of the mechanics of creation. Still others read it as a poem about God's relationship with humans. Many read the book as both."

Consider these endorsers of this textbook -- folks who rarely agree on much else:

  • Robert Alter, Hebrew professor at the University of California, Berkeley
  • John Collins, Yale Old Testament professor (Catholic)
  • Charles Colson, prison evangelist (Baptist)
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain, University of Chicago ethics professor (Lutheran)
  • Ted Haggard, president, National Association of Evangelicals
  • Frederica Mathewes-Green, Eastern Orthodox author
  • Joseph Stowell, retired president of the very conservative Moody Bible Institute
  • Bishop Richard Sklba, chairman, Catholic Biblical Association
  • Marc Stern, American Jewish Congress attorney and advocate for strict church-state separation
  • Leland Ryken, English professor at evangelical Wheaton College, who calls the book a triumph of scholarship and a major publishing event.

The book applies principles in a 1999 accord, "The Bible & Public Schools," endorsed by seven major national educational associations and a variety of religious groups. It'll be interesting to see how these same organizations assess this textbook.

The lavishly illustrated book is filled with biblical references from literature, art, music, history and popular culture ---- things on which educators and pollsters find disheartening ignorance among American teens.

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial said that when public schools "decline to impart knowledge about such an important subject, they are not doing anything to preserve the separation of church and state. They are merely failing their students."

The book, written by 43 collaborators, took five years and $2 million to produce. It sells for $74.95 retail, $50 for school orders.

The editors are Cullen Schippe, just-retired vice president with McGraw-Hill/Macmillan textbook publishers, and New York City venture capitalist Chuck Stetson, who chairs Bible Literacy.

The book comes as a relief for Charles Haynes, religion scholar at Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. Hundreds of perplexed public school districts have consulted Haynes about Bible textbooks. He says "The Bible and Its Influence" is the first he's able to recommend.

The only previous textbook dates from 1976 and, in Haynes' view, slights religious aspects of the Bible's influence.

Nor does he favor a program, used by hundreds of schools, from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools of Greensboro, N.C. It prints a rough teacher's outline and has students use only the Bible as the textbook. The council says that's nonpartisan but its material, promoted by evangelicals, has provoked local conflicts.

Some educators and citizens might assume a public school Bible course is illegal, considering that federal courts have forbidden Ten Commandments displays and such in schools.

But the U.S. Supreme Court's decision barring schoolroom Bible recitations said "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" and favored "objective" classes "as part of a secular program of education."

Four decades later, Bible courses finally seem doable.

(c)2005 Associated Press


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