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Tri-Country Leader
WHS teacher introduces class with focus on the Bible

By: Caitlin Giddens
Date: August 14, 2008

Opening the worn leather book cover, WHS History Department Chair John Keeling softly reads the verses. Then he glances over to a pamphlet of the constitution and compares the similarities. With a furrowed brow, Keeling scribbles in the margin of a book rarely found in a public classroom: The Holy Bible.

With the incorporation of the hybrid block schedule that adds another period in the school day, Principal Anthony Black asked teachers to consider new electives. Keeling offered to teach The Influence of the Bible on Western Civilization, a dream of his for years.

Since the state legislature passed a law which both approved and required the creation of biblical literacy in class in Texas high schools as an elective, this dream became a reality.

"I first thought of having a class about how the Bible influences the Western hemisphere as I was teaching in Houston back in the late '90s," Keeling said. "But time and availability within schedules was a real limitation, and the nature of the course itself was a hindrance. This is not the type of course you would just want to throw together and you wouldn't want just anyone teaching it."

In order to prepare for the class, Keeling didn't rush to plan curriculum or read "Teaching a Bible Class for Dummies." He's been preparing for this role his whole life.

"Raised as a Christian, I've studied the Bible devotionally since I was a small child," he said. "I guess I started attending services before I was born. Speaking from a faith perspective, all my life experiences prepared me to teach this class."

But from a secular point of view, Keeling's entire teaching career prepared him for this position. "I've been teaching World History for 14 years," he said. "And in World History you teach all of the major world religions. I've taught world religions in Whitehouse where there is little diversity, and I've taught in Houston where I experienced a lot of diversity. The key to teaching about any faith tradition is to do it with respect and enthusiasm."

The state requirements of the class are still undecided, but the course as it was created in the legislature called for training. So Keeling dedicated his summer vacation to taking a course called "Teaching the Bible in Public Schools" through Concordia University.

"That's kept me really busy, reading and writing, but it also has made me think a lot about how to teach the Bible course in an effective way while respecting separation of church and state," he said. "It's impossible to talk about the Bible without talking about religion or God. However, I will never preach or proselytize, or allow my students to do so."

When a student finds a topic of discussion or passage, Keeling plans to direct them to research it with their family, church or on their own.

"This still allows the student the opportunity to learn but it keeps some of the more sensitive issues brought up by the Bible content out of the classroom," Keeling said. "This is a class for students who want to know what is in the Bible, not how to live as a result. The class cannot be devotional in nature."

Instead, the course will follow of schedule of homework and tests, like Keeling's other classes notorious for their difficulty.

"Most of my students who have taken my courses will argue that all my courses are hard," Keeling said with a grin. "I will attempt to make the class interesting and relevant. Anything worth knowing or doing is worth doing well and this class will be no different."

The Impact of the Bible on Western Civilization will have a lighter work load than Keeling's Advanced Placement courses because there's no comprehensive exam at the end of the year. But the class will still follow a tight schedule.

"There will be a lot of reading together and individually, but we won't read the entire Bible because that's just unrealistic," he said. "Our textbook, 'The Bible and Its Influence' is fantastic however and designed for one school year and we will be covering about a chapter a week."

Each student in the class must have completed World Geography, World History and sophomore English before enrolling. With these juniors and seniors, Keeling maintains the same general goals as all his other classes.

"Most students I think are just curious," Keeling said. "It's always interesting to find out how much you do or do not really know about the Bible. But I want students to be challenged intellectually to learn new things, while figuring out how if fits into the greater world around them. I think relevance should be goal in any course."

Another goal is to find a balance between the secular and the sacred, to honor the First Amendment inside the public classroom.

"When dealing with the Bible you obviously are dealing with a text which is sacred to many people and you want a curriculum which recognizes that," Keeling said. "And at the same time, you have to make sure that a course which studies the Bible does not deviate into a sectarian or devotional study of the text. You have to really walk a fine line between the secular and the sacred to make sure that both religious sensibilities and the First Amendment are not trampled."

The school board approved the class based on the curriculum and textbook in less than a year, but Keeling insists it isn't because of his solo efforts.

"I am especially grateful and honored to have earned the trust of Mr. Black, Mrs. Lough, Mr. Miller and the rest of the school board to of fer this course this year," Keeling said. "I think the thing that allowed us to move so quickly on the course is the selection of the text we chose and the curriculum that went with it. It was devised by religious leaders of many different Christian demoniations, Jewish leaders and university academics from across the county. This gave the text and the course credibility that I certainly don't have as a high school teacher."

One of the main reasons these educators, academics and religious leaders have called for a class like this is the growing problem of Biblical illiteracy. While some would argue this is a moral issue, Keeling believes it's also a crisis of citizenship.

"Biblical imager y, allusions, references and influences permeate the culture in which we live," Keeling said. "Not to know the basic stories and characters of the Bible is to be at a distant disadvantage when it comes to understanding the world around you. Whether you are reading a sports headline talking about a struggle between David and Goliath, or listening to current political rhetoric or even watching a film like The Matrix, to best understand what is written or spoken you need a practical working knowledge of the Bible."


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