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
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
"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
"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
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