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Bible literacy is needed in schools

By Michael A. Becker
CNHI News Service. May 5, 2006

Imagine a group of students on a summer tour of Florence, Italy, standing before Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of David inquiring of their guide, “David who?”

Or when given a copy of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” in a course on American literature, these same students ask unknowingly, “Where or what is Eden?”

Or in a class on government, they have only puzzled looks when the teacher begins to speak about the “Good Samaritan Laws” in our country – “Good who,” they ask?

These same students will see the movie “The DaVinci Code” and have no reason not to think that it is the truth, and may even use the term “gospel truth,” unaware of what a gospel is.

There is a growing concern in our nation that more and more of our young people know less and less about what is arguably the most significant book in western civilization, the Bible.

Unless these young Americans are churchgoers and/or attend Sunday school or religious education classes, they will find themselves at a serious disadvantage in understanding the fundamentals of art, literature and government upon which our culture was founded.

Can our children understand American society without knowing the biblical context of “covenant,” “promised land” or the “shining city on a hill?”

A year ago, the Bible Literacy Project, in association with the Gallup Organization, published a fascinating, yet disturbing study of what American teens need to know about the Bible and what they actually do know.

Titled “The Bible Literacy Report,” this study first presents qualitative research of what the best high school English teachers think their students need to know about the Bible.

The second half of the report presents the results of the only recent nationally representative survey of American teens’ religious knowledge and what they know about the Bible and other religious texts.

The results? Ninety-eight percent of surveyed English teachers believe that knowledge of the Bible confers a distinct educational advantage on students, whether in the field of art or literature.

Further, the report indicates that only a minority of students appear to be “Bible literate,” that is, knowing the basic characters and stories which have shaped our culture.

Dare I say it? It is time for our public schools to offer a well-rounded education to our young people by offering an elective course on the “Bible as Literature.”

The national initiative for this Bible literacy is spearheaded by the Bible Literacy Project. This is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to research and public education on the academic study of the Bible in public and private schools.

The recent publication of its student textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” has been applauded by parents, scholars and educators alike as a significant step forward in this regard. It presents a study about the Bible, which is respectful of various faith perspectives.

Teaching about religion in public schools is also in keeping with First Amendment concerns. In the Supreme Court decision that ruled that public schools may not require devotional use of the Bible, it went on to explicitly acknowledge that academic study of the Bible in public schools is constitutional and a part of a good education.

In the majority opinion of that decision (Abington v. Schempp) in 1963, Justice Thomas Clark wrote, “Study of … the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. … Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

Promoting an inclusion of an elective course on the Bible in our public schools is not advocacy for teaching religious belief. Even less is it a matter of indoctrination. Rather, a course on the study of the Bible as literature fulfills the complete educational needs of students, who deserve to learn the content of one of the most widely read books in the world.

It is time for serious public discussion of the need to promote Bible literacy in our schools.

Concerned parents and teachers can educate themselves on this national initiative by logging on to wBI.

School boards can better serve their constituencies by studying this issue and considering ways for curricular revisions which meet this need for an academic study of the Bible.

A meeting to discuss the importance of Bible education in our public high schools will be held at 7 p.m. May 18 at the John Paul II Center at St. Benedict's church, 2310 Bedford St., Geistown.

Monsignor Michael A. Becker is a parochial vicar at St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church in Geistown and an instructor of religion at St. Benedict’s Grade School and Bishop McCort High School.

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