Bible Literacy Project News
Christian Science Monitor
Studying the Bible in public schools can help US students 'win the
A critical study of the Bible as literature can
prepare students with the thinking skills needed in the
21st century. As an all-time bestseller, the Bible has
had a profound impact on history, literature, and
culture. It remains a vital part of American life.
Nyasha Junior / August 2, 2011
The 2011 Miss USA pageant contestants were asked this
summer, "Should evolution be taught in schools?" The
winner, Alyssa Campanella of California said, "Yes."
Perhaps a better question for the young women would be,
"Should the Bible be taught in public schools?" And the
answer should be "yes" again.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King
James Version of the Bible. This all-time bestseller has
had a profound impact on the history and development of
the United States and remains a vital part of American
life and culture. Yet, Americans are less biblically
literate now than ever before. In order to increase this
vital cultural literacy, public schools should teach
courses in biblical literature.
Of course, any mention of both public schools and the
Bible in one breath sparks fear of a slippery slope that
leads to teaching creationism or mandating compulsory
prayer in school. I am not advocating indoctrinating
students in a particular faith tradition but rather,
Reading the Bible as literature in public schools
does not violate the First Amendment nor our hallowed
notions of the separation of church and state.
The Supreme Court has made that clear on multiple
In the seminal Abington vs. Schempp ruling in 1963,
the court ruled against state-sponsored devotional
reading of the Bible. Yet, it supported the secular
study of the Bible. It stated: "It certainly may be said
that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and
historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates
that such study of the Bible or of religion, when
presented objectively as a part of a secular program of
education, may not be effected consistently with the
In 1973, the court ruled in Committee for Public
Education vs. Nyquist that the state could not provide
financial support to nonpublic schools. It stated, "The
First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion
in public schools; it is the advancement or inhibition
of religion that is prohibited."
In Stone vs. Graham in 1980, the Court ruled that the
posting of the Ten Commandments was unconstitutional.
Yet, it affirmed, "The Bible may constitutionally be
used in an appropriate study of history, civilization,
ethics, comparative religion, or the like."
English classes read "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"
without parents assuming that teachers are recruiting
devotees for Greek polytheism. Biblical literature
classes would not teach from a particular religious
viewpoint but would teach students how to critically
engage great literature.
Record low rate of biblical
The Bible has played an important role in education
in our nation. In colonial America, people used the
Bible to learn to read, and many desired to learn to
read in order to read the Bible. Until recently,
well-educated Americans could be expected to be familiar
with and even quote biblical texts and to recognize
biblical characters, imagery, and allusions such as
"forbidden fruit" and "killing the fatted calf." Not to
be able to do so would mark you as a Philistine.
While earlier generations would have had little
difficulty recognizing Cain and Abel or the Beatitudes,
currently, biblical literacy is at a record low.
According to a 2004 Gallup Poll of US teens, only 34
percent recognized Cain as saying, "Am I my brother's
keeper?" (Genesis 4: 9). Only 37 percent identified
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the
kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3) as a segment of Jesus'
Sermon on the Mount.
In my experience teaching biblical studies to
university students over the past four years, I have
found that many students know little about biblical
characters and events. At best, they can recite a few
Bible verses. While many students assume that they
"know" the Bible, once we begin to read texts carefully
and critically, the scales fall from their eyes. They
are stunned when they realize how little they actually
An anthology of ancient literature,
central to modern texts
Many students think of the Bible as a collection of
stories about meek and mild role models. When we read
about Samson, they realize how compelling biblical texts
can be. We discuss Samson's anger management problems
and list criminal charges for his actions. We debate
possible reasons why he tells Delilah the secret to his
strength, and whether his death makes him a suicide
bomber. Regardless of their faith, students enjoy the
The epic story of Joseph provides another example of
great biblical literature. Joseph, the favorite son of
Jacob, is sold into slavery by his brothers. Despite
starting out as a Hebrew slave in Egypt, Joseph works
his way up to a high-level job in Pharaoh's
administration. This may be an ancient story, but the
tale of Joseph's rise to power and eventual reunion with
his family provides tearful drama that rivals any
current episode of Lifetime's "Coming Home."
William Faulkner. John Steinbeck. Toni Morrison.
These and many other American writers use biblical texts
extensively. In fact, one can hardly understand their
work without a clear understanding of biblical writings.
The Bible is an anthology of ancient literature that
resonates with both classic and contemporary texts. The
nonsectarian, academic study of the Bible can enrich our
reading of other texts regardless of one's faith.
Bible study can help US students
'win the future'
While the Bible is undeniably central to American
written texts, it also remains part of our public
discourse. It is used in speeches and public debates.
Too often it is taken out of context and used to support
a particular argument. Greater knowledge of the
historical and literary contexts of biblical texts would
help to bring about more informed debate. It would help
citizens understand the continued use and misuse of the
Of course, public schools face numerous competing
curricular demands. Some may argue that schools do not
need one more subject imposed upon them as they are
already making bricks without straw. Yet, teaching
biblical texts can contribute toward making the US more
competitive in the global marketplace. We need to
educate students who can read critically and make
coherent arguments. The Bible is not easy to read, and
it does not provide easy answers. Studying the Bible
helps students to formulate questions about themselves,
their communities, and the texts that they read.
The Bible continues to be an important part of
American literature, art, and music. Let's let public
school students engage this important work. For
starters, the Society of Biblical Literature website has
resources for using biblical literature in public school
At a time when religious differences continue to
divide us, let's not use the Bible for Bible-thumping
and hurting each other. Instead, let's use it to
preserve and to celebrate our common heritage. And to
equip our students for the future. Come now, let us
Nyasha Junior is an assistant professor of Hebrew
Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of
Divinity and a member of the Society of Biblical