By Christopher Gunter
The debate over whether to include the Bible in
school curricula is not new. Although the U.S.
Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that using the
Bible in instruction is constitutional, attempts to
do so are met with vigorous debate.
The most recent flare-up relates to a Texas law
passed in 2007 and put into effect this fall that
requires schools to offer an elective class on the
Bible. The discourse is dominated by two groups:
those who fear that discussion of the Bible will
undermine the separation of church and state, and
those who welcome the Bible as a moral guide and an
aid to spreading Christianity.
Both viewpoints are misguided. The Bible has no
place in schools for purposes of evangelism or moral
teaching. But it does belong in schools.
We read parts of it in my 9th grade English class
in New York state. And it raises some eyebrows. My
students are surprised, at the start of this unit,
to hear that I am passionately in favor of the
separation of church and state. But I tell them I
believe a Bible unit in public schools supports that
separation. To avoid the Bible because it is
religious tacitly gives it privileged status. Our
secular school system should include it for its
literary merit and its profound social significance.
In English class, we study literature that has
shaped our history and continues to exercise
influence; that speaks to the human condition,
providing insight into who we are and where we came
from; and that surprises, entertains, and moves us.
The Bible should be included in any list of books
that meet these criteria. But there is a vast amount
of literature to choose from, so why teach something
sacred and controversial when so many other good
books would suit the purpose?
The Bible is not merely one choice among many
that would serve the same purpose. On the contrary,
it warrants study more than any other literature we
teach. Here’s the quick list of reasons (beyond its
strictly literary value) I share with my students.
First, its influence on the other literature we
study is vast. Biblical allusions appear in nearly
every book taught in high schools. The College Board
recommends that students be familiar with the Bible
to do well on Advanced Placement exams, and we do
our students a disservice by ignoring it. Any
college student who studies literature is seriously
disadvantaged without basic knowledge of the Bible.
Second, the Bible’s influence spreads beyond the
literary realm into the artistic and the cultural.
Any student of art or music will deal extensively
with religious material. Moreover, biblical
allusions in culture persist into the 21st century:
in movie titles, song lyrics, newspaper headlines,
billboards, and so forth--even television’s “The
Simpsons” draws extensively from the Bible. In
short, biblical knowledge enriches our understanding
of both high art and popular culture.
Third, and most important, the Bible exercises
enormous influence on our country today, since so
many Americans consider it a holy book (84 percent,
according to a Barna Group poll). Consequently, it
holds a special place in our public discourse--all
students must have enough familiarity with the Bible
to understand and participate in that discourse.
It is this third reason I wish to explore here.
Despite the widespread belief in its sacredness,
there is remarkable ignorance about the Bible’s
content. Even for lifelong churchgoers, it remains
highly mysterious. Few of those professed believers
have a working scholarly knowledge of what it says,
and too often, biblical study is limited to a
relatively small number of passages taken out of
context. Yet that doesn’t stop people from using the
Bible as a political tool. It is cited to justify
almost every side of every political issue, upheld
as a sacred repository of wisdom.
So what are young people to think when they hear
biblical passages taken out of context to both
support and refute gay rights, or the Iraq war, or
any highly charged issue? They must not be afraid to
question and challenge biblically based sound bites.
They must have the courage and the foundational
knowledge to understand for themselves the source
and context of biblical passages. Our reluctance to
teach the Bible perpetuates its mysteriousness,
which has grave consequences in our intellectual
lives and in the wider world in which we live.
Teaching the Bible in a secular setting
encourages intellectualism and reasonableness in
public discourse. The Bible’s reputation inspires
worship, faith, anger, fear, suspicion, and a host
of other reactions, but it also discourages rational
study. Believers fear that such close study will
taint or contradict their dearly held beliefs, which
are often based in dogma rather than the text.
Nonbelievers might wish to disregard it as ancient
fiction, or they fear it will somehow undermine
their own, different beliefs. As teachers, we must
fight the mystical notion that the Bible should be
exempt from critical study.
Biblical scholarship helps American citizens
understand the often-ignorant use of its passages in
debating national issues. There are plenty of
examples to choose from.
In a 2002 speech, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Antonin Scalia explained his rationale for
supporting the death penalty by claiming in effect
that government has divine authority. His support
for this comes in part from the Bible’s letter to
the Romans, in which the author, Paul, argues that
earthly rulers deliver God’s divine justice (Romans
13:1-5). Justice Scalia makes the following
commentary: “[T]he core of [Paul’s] message is that
government … is the minister of God with powers to
revenge, to execute wrath, including even wrath by
the sword, which is unmistakably a reference to the
Regardless of one’s stance on the death penalty,
it should trouble each of us that Scalia extracts a
few lines from a 1st-century text to inform
life-and-death judicial decisions. With a basic
biblical education, one can understand the context
of that line: Before his conversion, Paul had
zealously advocated the murder of Christians, likely
using the very rationale cited above, before
changing his mind as a follower of Jesus. Scalia’s
position both blurs the doctrine of church-state
separation and uses a biblical quotation recklessly
out of context.
But I don’t get into all that with my students.
Nor do I debate condoms, abortion, gay rights, the
Iraq war, or other hot-button issues in the
classroom. It is not my pedagogical goal for them to
agree with me, and it would be inappropriate to use
the classroom as a soapbox. Students should be
equipped to draw conclusions--informed
conclusions--about those topics on their own.
Naturally, the enactment of the Texas law raises
additional questions about how exactly teachers
should conduct instruction about the Bible. It is a
sensitive endeavor, to be sure. But we first must
recognize the value of undertaking that task. The
Bible is a remarkable document, parts of which can
stand with Plato in their philosophical depth, with
Tolstoy in their political complexities, and with
Shakespeare in their poetic beauty.
The religious sphere does not have exclusive
ownership over those important words. We should give
our young people the tools to understand the Bible,
both for their own enlightenment and to better
inform their decisionmaking as citizens.
Christopher Gunter is a high school English
teacher in Pittsford, N.Y.
Vol. 29, Issue 15