Bible Literacy Project News
Teach the Bible? Of course.
schools need not proselytize-- indeed, must not--in teaching
students about the Good Book.
By William R. Mattox Jr.
A member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
Web Bryant, USA TODAY)
held a successful "beer-and-nuts summit" to defuse the volatile
issue of race in public life, President Obama now needs to hold a
"wine-and-bread summit" to tackle the equally volatile issue of
religion in public schools.
Because as millions of American children return to the classroom
this month, most public schools do not know how to handle the
delicate issue of what to teach students about the Bible. Just ask
the Texas Board of Education, which is mired in a contentious fight
over how textbooks should characterize Christianity's influence on
The battle lines in the Texas shootout are familiar: One side wants
to purge public schools of almost any respectful mention of
religion, while the other wants the Bible to be given even more
reverence in the classroom than that afforded great Americans like
say, Martin Luther King Jr.
Given this stark divide, it's easy to see why some educators might
be tempted to skirt this topic. Yet, to its credit, the Texas Board
of Education is soldiering on, knowing that you can't effectively
explore American history without teaching about the Rev. King, and
that you can't teach about the civil rights leader without helping
students understand the meaning and power of his frequent references
to "the Promised Land" and other scriptural metaphors, verses and
Hopefully, Texas and other states can strike the right balance — and
raise our nation's biblical literacy levels without engaging in
religious indoctrination of one kind or another. For while people on
different sides will object to the Bible being misused in the
classroom, all of us on all sides ought to object to the Bible being
ignored in the classroom.
"Students who want to do serious study of Western civilization need
to know the Bible," says Barbara Newman, Northwestern University
professor of English, Religion and Classics. "They need to know the
Bible, even if they do not believe the Bible."
Professors sign on
Harvard professor Robert Kiely, for one, agrees. In 2006, he
participated in an academic survey of professors from many of
America's leading universities — including Yale, Princeton, Brown,
Rice, California-Berkeley and Stanford. The survey — commissioned by
the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in
public schools — found an overwhelming consensus among top
professors that incoming college students need to be well-versed in
the stories, themes and words of the Bible.
"If a student doesn't know any Bible literature, he or she will
simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney,
Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on and on,"
Kiely told Concordia professor Marie Wachlin and her research team.
"Knowledge of the Bible can be a key to unlocking other subjects. .
. especially literature, art, music and social studies," say Chuck
Stetson, co-editor of the visually stunning high school textbook The
Bible and Its Influence, and founder of the Bible Literacy Project.
And knowledge of the Bible can be a key to understanding much of
today's pop culture. Like Stephen Colbert's irreverent humor on
Comedy Central. Or Jim Carrey's screwball spirituality in Bruce
Almighty. Or the devilishly clever title of the band White Stripes'
release, Get Behind Me Satan.
Not surprisingly, students growing up in non-religious homes are
often behind the curve. "Many of my students are quite secular and
have very little knowledge of the Bible," Northwestern's Newman
says. "This is a major disadvantage."
Indeed, Newman says that trying to appreciate biblical allusions in
literature without an underlying knowledge of Scripture is like
trying to appreciate a good joke when someone has to explain the
punch line. You might eventually "get" the joke, she says, but by
the time you do, "it's not funny anymore."
Interestingly, a 2008 study published in Sociological Quarterly
found that regular church attendance positively affected students'
grade point averages. And while lead researcher Jennifer Glanville
of the University of Iowa attributed much of this effect to the
social and psychological benefits of being enmeshed in a wider
community of like-minded peers and adults, some of this effect might
also be explained by the greater biblical literacy young people
typically acquire by attending church.
An 'objective' approach
To stem the decline of biblical literacy, three states — Georgia,
Texas and Tennessee — have passed laws in recent years calling for
public high schools to offer elective courses that teach the Bible
"in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt to
indoctrinate students" (as Georgia's law puts it).
In addition, some educators have sought to shore up world religion
units that too often, in Kiely's words, "go rapidly over all the
Quran in one week and all of the Bible in two days."
Though these are welcome developments, Obama could give them a real
boost by holding a wine-and-bread summit at the White House to
legitimize Bible courses in public schools. And in a strange sort of
way, such an initiative ought to please everyone.
For while true believers will no doubt hope that elective Bible
courses might whet students' appetites for more, non-believers can
take solace in the fact that if schools don't start doing a better
job of teaching students about the Bible, many parents who want
their kids to be high achievers just might start taking them to
3 ways to do it
In Abington School District v. Schempp, decided in 1963, the
Supreme Court stated that "study of the Bible or of religion, when
presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,"
was permissible under the First Amendment. Here are three ways
states have facilitated the teaching of biblical text in public
>> Texas, Georgia and Tennessee have passed legislation promoting
historical or literary biblical studies as an elective.
>> In Alabama, the state Board of Education approved The Bible and
Its Influence as a textbook for public schools.
>> South Carolina has passed "released time" legislation. It allows
students to take (and, if the course is eligible, receive credit
for) a religious class off-campus during school hours.
The State of
study of the