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Focus on the Family's Citizen Magazine:
High school textbook targets biblical illiteracy

Dick M. Carpenter II, Ph.D.
Freelance writer in Colorado

What do the following words have in common: adoption, cucumber, puberty, scapegoat, sex, blab, liberty, busybody, network, wrinkle and castaway? They are all English words that originated when the Bible was first translated into English.

News to you? You’re not alone. According to the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), the public’s knowledge of the Bible is meager, particularly among teens. According to a Gallup Poll of teenagers, fewer than half knew what happened at the wedding at Cana. One-quarter of them believed the statement “David was king of the Jews” was false. Unfortunately, evangelical teens weren’t much better. Just 44 percent of born-again teens could identify a quote from the Sermon on the Mount, compared to 37 percent of all teens.

In the face of such illiteracy, the BLP recently released a new high school textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, designed for use in public schools. To avoid constitutional entanglements, the textbook was created to satisfy First Amendment standards, which allow the presentation of knowledge about the content of the Bible, yet neither promote nor discourage belief.

It broadly covers the cultural contexts and influences of the Bible with examples of art, literature, rhetoric and music. As BLP spokesman Sheila Weber told Citizen, “English literature is replete with biblical allusions. The world’s great authors assumed readers would have an understanding of the Bible, and without this knowledge students fail to understand the meanings.”

Indeed, there are more than 1,300 documented biblical allusions in Shakespeare alone. Consider a quote from Henry IV, Part 2: “I am as poor as Job, my lord; but not so patient.”

Others include: The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, The Pearl and Lord of the Flies. The book also features historical connections, such as “The Bible and Emancipation” and “Abraham Lincoln and the Bible.”

A primary goal of the book is basic Bible literacy through a presentation of the language, major narratives, symbols and characters of the Bible. The book also provides detailed analyses, and, according to Weber, “When there are differences of opinion or interpretation of the text based on various religious traditions, the book defines and delineates those differences.”

It’s just this approach that makes the book constitutionally appropriate. In 1963, the Supreme Court, in Abington v. Schempp, prohibited the devotional use of the Bible in public school classrooms. In that same decision, however, the Court explicitly acknowledged that academic study of the Bible is not only constitutional but also part of a good education. In short, teaching about the Bible is acceptable; teaching what to believe is not.

Because of its approach, the book has been endorsed by 20 educational and religious organizations, including the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the American Jewish Congress. The list of individual endorsers also includes several prominent evangelical leaders, such as Os Guiness (Trinity Forum), Joseph Stowell (Moody Bible Institute), Ted Haggard (NAE) and Chuck Colson (Prison Fellowship).

But even some of those who generally support the project express concern. In a Weekly Standard article, David Gelernter questioned the lack of teacher preparation: “These are hard courses to teach, at best. Do we have teachers who are up to the job?” In response, Weber pointed to teacher training resources the BLP is currently developing, including a university-based online course, which will premiere in January, and a teacher’s manual slated for release in spring 2006.

Perhaps more significantly, Gelernter discussed the potential of “higher criticism,” the practice of “[picking] the Bible to pieces like vultures addressing a dead cow”—a method of textual interpretation English teachers typically learn in college. Weber recognized the possibility. However, she reasoned that a person interested in teaching the course would likely not veer from the book’s content out of respect for the sacred nature of the text.

“We can no longer be put off by fear. Fear is keeping generations of Americans from understanding one of the world’s most important documents. Instead, we’re raising children who don’t know the basic context behind newspaper headlines, art and literature. And when they lose that context, they lose their ability to understand and appreciate Western civilization.”

For more information on The Bible and Its Influence, contact The Bible Literacy Project, Inc., 122 W. 14th Street PMB 332, New York, NY 22630; phone 540-622-2265; Web: Go to the Web site to learn how to bring the book to your school.

This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Citizen magazine. Copyright © 2005 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.


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