recent years, the textbooks used by America's school children have
become a major source of debate. The disagreement has usually been
about religion - whether textbooks should address the subject, and
if so, how.
But while educators in states like Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, and
Pennsylvania have been publicly arguing about the place of God in
the classroom, a group known as the Bible Literacy Project has been
quietly working on a book that they say will satisfy both ends of
the ideological spectrum. And the initial response from teachers has
The textbook, intended for use in high schools, is called The Bible
and Its Influence. It was recently unveiled by the Bible Literacy
Project, which spent six years and $2 million developing it.
According to a survey conducted by the Project, as many as
two-thirds of American public school students are un-familiar with
the basic characters and stories in the Bible. This same survey
found that 98% of public school Eng-lish teachers believe students
must be familiar with the Bible in order to fully appreciate western
According to Cullen Shippe, editor of the new textbook, the need for
biblical literacy extends beyond that. "Rock musicians, screen
writers, television producers, and ad-vertisers use the Bible as a
source," Mr. Shippe says. "Politicians use the words, characters,
and accounts of the Bible to frame their debates. The development of
the textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, is an opportunity to
share the contents of the Bible with public high school students in
an appropriate, honest, and direct way."
But it was not easy to
determine what, exactly, consti-tutes an "appropriate, honest, and
direct way." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First
Amendment pro-hibits public school teachers from endorsing any
particu-lar religious belief. For the last 40 years or so, that has
been interpreted to mean that religious beliefs cannot be discussed
at all in any public school.
But according to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the
First Amendment Center, that interpretation has been changing. He
says educators have begun to search for a different approach - one
that allows them to discuss relig-ion, without actually endorsing
"Parents and teachers and students come to us and say, you know, 'We
want a Bible elective (course). But how do we do it?'" Mr. Haynes
says. "'Are there any instructional materials available for us to
consider? How can we do this without starting a fight, or triggering
a lawsuit?' That's the question. Well, I didn't really have a good
answer until the release of The Bible and Its Influence, because,
simply put, there was nothing out there."
Charles Haynes says up until now, textbooks about the Bible have
taken a devotional approach to Scripture -- and that is really what
makes this new textbook different. The message is not that the
stories and ideas in the Bi-ble are true. It is simply that people
throughout western history have believed them be true - and that
their belief has prompted them to fight wars, construct buildings,
write poetry, and put paint and brush to canvas.
"It is really true that students who don't have a foundational
understanding of some of the archetypal stories in the Bible miss
out," says Barbara Murray who teaches Literature at West Linn High
School, in the northwestern state of Oregon. "When an author places
something as an allusion in a story, when they are assuming that you
(have) resonant pieces (of understanding) of what a symbol or a
reference means, if a student doesn't have that, they don't have
what the author intended."
As an example, Barbara Murray points to a novel she recently taught
in which a character is described as -- quote -- "washing his hands"
of a situation. The expression is a reference to the biblical story
of Pontius Pilate, who literally washed his hands after ordering the
execution of Jesus. According to the story, the people of Judea had
called for Christ's crucifixion, but Pontius Pilate could have
stopped it. He did not.
"Now, any time a person 'washes their hands' of some-thing, they're
not taking responsibility for something that they could have," Ms.
Murray says. "That piece is really powerful, and you don't use that,
as an author, unless you really want someone to see that this is a
serious flaw in that character - that they're going to bend to the
crowd, they're not going to stand up for what's right."
Barbara Murray is one of several high school teachers who tested the
new textbook in her classroom before it was officially unveiled. She
says it will undoubtedly be a valuable resource for history and
literature teachers across the country.
However, it is not likely The Bible and Its Influence will put an
end to the increasingly rancorous debate about the place of God in
the classroom, since much of that debate has been about the science
classroom. And the textbook does not say much about that.
©2005 Voice of America / voa