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Group promotes use of Bible textbook in public schools
Pittsburgh Catholic

By C.T. Maier
August 18, 2006

The place of the Bible in public-school classrooms has been a flashpoint in the culture wars in recent years, with Christian conservatives, particularly Protestant evangelicals, taking the lead. At the same time, the courts, as well as civil liberties groups, have objected, arguing that giving Scripture a place in public schools violates the separation of church and state.

The Bible Literacy Project attempted to bridge the divide late last year by publishing “The Bible and Its Influence,” the first-ever Bible textbook designed specifically for the public high school classroom. The effort will by no means end the controversy, but it marks a new turn in a debate that has its roots in the 19th century.

The controversy

Though it may not seem that way, the place of the Bible in public-school classrooms reaches back to the first days of public schools. Horace Mann, the father of American public education, believed that moral education was essential to instill democratic values and that the Bible was central to that education.

Though Mann’s position was a good one, its implementation created a firestorm of controversy. The problem was that the Bible used in public schools was the King James Version, a Protestant translation that reinforced Protestant beliefs. The famous McGuffey Readers used in many public schools incorporated the King James Version, essentially force-feeding Catholic students with Protestant teachings.

The vigorous objections of Catholic leaders fell on deaf ears. The controversy over Scripture, among other issues, convinced American Catholics that they needed a separate system of schools where their beliefs could be protected.

Catholic education was the result of a conflict that still raises questions today. Though Catholics may find themselves on the same side as evangelical Protestants in the debate over the Bible in public schools, history suggests that the problem isn’t just over whether students should be allowed to read the Bible, but also which Bible students read and how.

The current Bible debate, of course, is in a completely different time, in which secular values are ascendant in culture. Though forbidding Scripture from public classrooms seemed to resolve the earlier Catholic-Protestant debate, it has created several generations of children who have little, if any, knowledge of the Bible.

According to a Gallup survey commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project of Fairfax, Va., in April, 10 percent of public high school students thought Moses was one of the 12 apostles. Half didn’t know what Jesus did at the wedding in Cana. One in four didn’t know David was king of Israel.

At the same time, the report said nearly all of the teachers surveyed in the study believed that basic biblical literacy was necessary for educational success. “From the standpoint of academic success, it is imperative that college-bound students be literate,” the report quoted a teacher from Illinois as saying. “For the others, I think it’s important for them to understand their own culture, just to be well-grounded citizens of the United States — to know where the institutions and ideas come from.”

The lack of basic biblical knowledge, the Biblical Literacy Project has argued, leaves students ignorant of terms and concepts that are essential to basic cultural literacy. At the same time, the presence of the Bible in public schools has a long history of conflict that has yet to be resolved.

In 1999, the project joined with the First Amendment Center of Nashville, Tenn., to research the constitutional issues involved. The result of their research, “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide,” argued for a “third way,” in which the Bible would be studied for its cultural and literary content, not its devotional or spiritual value. If a textbook walked this line, they argued, it would be acceptable to both those who wanted to study the Bible and those who were concerned about civil liberties.

Finding a third way

“The Bible and Its Influence,” written for public high school students in grades nine through 12, attempts to bridge the gap using the “third way” solution. The editors of the book emphasized the cultural importance of the Bible, and they consulted with 40 reviewers from every major Jewish and Christian tradition.

The reviewers included Catholic intellectuals such as Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand professor of law at Harvard University, and two bishops, Aux. Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, Wis., and Aux. Bishop Emil Wcela of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Though the book doesn’t carry the imprimatur or the nihil obstat that certifies it is free from doctrinal error, many Catholic leaders have greeted it with approval.

“Familiarity with the literary allusions of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures has been the classical mark of a well educated person in Western society,” Bishop Sklba has said. “The Bible Literacy Project’s textbook, solidly researched and professionally written, enables those enrolled in our nation’s public schools to savor that heritage in a way which respects religious freedom and prepares for the rigors of the very best of university education in the arts and sciences. I am pleased to endorse this effort wholeheartedly.”

“The Bible and Its Influence” surveys the broad themes of Scripture from the Old and New Testaments and how those themes have influenced the arts, Western culture and politics. From Genesis to the prophets, from the Gospels to Revelation, some of the greatest ideas in Western society come through.

Students, for instance, learn about the Passover and Israel’s history of slavery in Egypt and learn how to connect those concepts with literary motifs, African American spirituals and the history of slavery and civil rights in America. They learn about the prophets and the role of religion in movements for social change and justice.

In learning about the Gospels, they also learn about the history of missionary efforts throughout history and the role of the “golden rule” in shaping ethics. In reading about Paul, they learn about making arguments and the culture of the Roman world.

Catholic implications What should Catholics make of “The Bible and Its Influence?” Ken Ogorek, director of the diocesan Office for Catechesis and an evaluator of religion textbooks for the diocese’s 12 high schools, thinks the book is a good idea, though it most likely won’t be making a trip to a Catholic classroom because of the breadth and the depth of the Catholic resources already available.

Catholic students in public schools, though, may find “The Bible and Its Influence” part of the curriculum. How does the new book stack up?

The diocese evaluates Catholic religion textbooks according to three criteria, Ogorek said. Without question, it must be in conformity with the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” But it also must meet “cognitive objectives” — that is, deal with specific content areas such as the person of Christ and the paschal mystery — as well as have an appropriate methodology.

To be acceptable for a Catholic school, he said, a textbook must not only be accurate but also connect students to a broader understanding of the faith. A Catholic religion textbook is catechetical as well as academic.

“Catechesis is more than just conveying information,” Ogorek said. “It is inviting a person into a relationship with Jesus.”

Because it is written for public schools, “The Bible and Its Influence” lacks much of the catechetical components that would make it acceptable for Catholic religion courses. But he suggested that the book is nevertheless a positive development.

“You could make the case that any exposure to the Bible is good exposure,” he said. In addition, he suggested that Catholic youth ministry programs in districts using the textbook could build off of it to maximize their time. Instead of having to spend time covering basic biblical content, youth ministers would be able to talk more about connecting Scripture to Christian life.

Still, questions persist. Will “The Bible and Its Influence” satisfy civil liberties groups? Will Christians be content with an approach that treats the Bible as a regular book? And are public-school teachers equipped to handle the challenging theological and spiritual issues that will emerge from talking about Scripture? Time will tell.

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