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Teaching the Bible as literature

Del Stover
April 12th, 2010

How can high school students understand the subtleties of great literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, The Canterbury Tales, or the plays of Shakespeare, if they cannot recognize or put in context the biblical references in these works?

Can students really understand the historical and political development of the United States without understanding how the Bible influenced political, social, and cultural thought of Americans from colonial times to today?

Those questions have prompted hundreds of school districts to implement academically rigorous, non-prosthelytizing courses in English literature and social studies.

How some of these schools are doing that—yet avoid potential First Amendment conflicts involved in mixing religion and schools—was the topic of today’s Exhibitor Workshop sponsored by the Bible Literacy Project.

Although school boards should always consult with their local attorneys, the bottom line is that public schools are not barred from using the Bible as an educational tool, said the firm’s vice president, Deborah Hicks.

“We built [our program] in an academic way to address the Bible’s connections to literacy and historical documents, and the Bible’s impact on various aspects of culture,” she said.

Several state legislatures have adopted laws emphasizing the legal right to teach the Bible for secular, educational purposes, and today, 365 schools in 43 states are using The Bible and Its Influence—published by the Bible Literacy Project—in high school courses that examine the Bible’s role in literature or in history, Hick said. None have faced any legal challenge or significant public controversy.

Gaining public acceptance for these courses—and sidestepping legal challenges—takes work, panelists say. Bill Adkins, a consultant for the firm, said it’s important to approve a course description and rationale for the program that highlights its academic value. It’s also important to make course material available to ward off inaccurate rumors.

Also essential to any successful implementation is the selection of a teacher who understands what’s at stake—and who gets some training in how to teach the course and guide students away from discussions that stray from the academic course, he said.

“I can tell you, as a former assistant superintendent,” Adkins said, “if I handed a Bible to a teacher and just sent them off, I’d be scared to death.”

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