Biblical Literacy in the Public School System

For the past few days, my Facebook feed has been lighting up with shared posts cheering on the idea of biblical literacy laws. My Twitter feed, by comparison, has filled with posts amounting to “be careful what you wish for.” Several armchair pundits have pointed out that the same Christians who have been fighting against sex education, modern scientific cosmology, and evolutionary biology should be equally as suspicious of a government-sanctioned biblical studies curriculum.

I myself have weighed in on Twitter, but it’s difficult to mount a full review in only 280 characters — thus, this longer piece.

Rabbi Jeffery Salkin offers a nuanced take, writing about the importance of biblical literacy but the immense practical challenges that make such a curriculum impossible to introduce. Providing more nuance than the 280-character crowd, noting that “because of the atmosphere in America today, such classes would undoubtedly become part of the culture wars.”

Religion journalist (and Candler alum!) Jonathan Merritt expounds on the Twitterverse question. He asks, “If many evangelicals don’t trust public schools to teach their children about sex or science, why would they want those schools teaching scripture?” before going on to explore the legal and religious implications of the proposed curriculum. Like Salkin, Merritt believes any religion curriculum would reignite the culture wars.

On the whole, I tend to agree with Rabbi Salkin that any sort of nuanced curriculum wold be nearly impossible to implement. Likewise, I share Merritt’s opinion that the very people cheering on such legislation would be horrified if they ever sat in on a secular religious studies class. Still, though, I do firmly believe that religious literacy should be an important part of any curriculum.

First, my bona fides. I am the product of pubic high schools. In high school, I was a student leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. My AP history teacher made room in the curriculum to focus on religion as an integral part of world history. I attended a public university where I majored in religion, taking undergraduate courses in Islam, biblical studies, Native American religious traditions, and religion and the arts. I have two masters’ degrees from private seminaries. Suffice it to say, I lived through the culture wars and have some expertise in the field of religion.

When it comes to religion in public schools, conservative Christians are living in a world of contradiction. They bemoan that God has been taken out of public schools, that prayer and Bibles have been banned; at the same time, they constantly remind their children that they have a right to organize religious clubs at school. This was part of my training as an FCA leader. At FCA camp, they offered workshops explaining the reasons why Christian clubs could be established. We were expected to know that schools can host religious clubs, and students can pray. Those clubs and that prayer must be student-led and may not be compulsory. Bibles are not banned from schools; I carried mine with me every day, often out in the open. (The horrid thing is that my FCA faculty and outside advisers tried to get the gay-straight alliance shut down. We were so worried about being oppressed, but our mentors were doing the oppression.)

Likewise, sacred texts may be part of the curriculum so long as they are studied for their literary or historical value. And so, in middle school, one of the many poems my public school lit teacher made us memorize was the King James translation of the 23rd Psalm. When we studied the rise of Islam in tenth grade history, we read portions of the Quran, and there’s no way to teach European Renaissance history without touching on religion.

But this brings us to culture war. There is a world of difference between the academic study and the devotional study of religion and sacred texts. Let’s start off with an easy question that is often overlooked. Say a local school district is going to introduce a biblical studies elective. What Bible are they studying? The Hebrew Bible or the Christian Bible? You may respond that the Hebrew Bible is the first section of the Christian Bible, but you would be wrong. The Hebrew Tanakh is organized in a different order. As Rabbi Salkin points out in an earlier article, the Tanakh ends with the hopes of a rebuilt Zion while the Christian Old Testament ends with messianic expectation. Now let’s suppose we decide on the Christian canon. But whose canon? Protestants and Catholics can’t agree on which books are part of the Bible — and this before you bring in Eastern Orthodoxy or the Oriental Orthodox communions. And then which translation do you use? Because there are those out there who deny the validity of any translation other than the King James Version.

Planning a religion curriculum is difficult. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried to teach the Ten Commandments only to realize that there are vast disagreements over something as simple as numbering a list of ten things.

Let’s assume that our hypothetical school district has decided to simply copy the curriculum of a local state college’s religion program. What happens when a student gets home and informs her fundamentalist family that the Torah was actually written by at least four sources, that there may be a fifth Gospel known as Q, and that Paul didn’t write all of the letters that carry his name?

Or what happens when the same school district introduces a class on Islam? Or Buddhism? Or the Hindu vedas? Each of these religions is worthy of study, crucial to understanding world history. And an attempt to introduce them into the curriculum would be met with fundamentalists picketing the school. What so many people want is not an open exploration and discussion of sacred texts (in a word, study) but rather indoctrination.

This is what Salkin and Merritt are warning about. The academic study of religion will anger a lot of the very people who say they want the Bible taught in schools. I cannot tell you the number of times someone has stared at me in disbelief when I say I studied religion at the University of Georgia. One family member, upon learning the distinction between academic and devotional study, remarked, “Oh. I wouldn’t have paid for that.”

Teaching religion in public schools would definitely disturb a hornets’ nest, but I firmly believe that we should.

Religion intersects with history, with culture, with economics, with science. To fully understand the world, one must understand the religious foundations of the societies that shaped the world. Do you want to understand the imperial attitudes that led to Japanese expansion during the Second World War? Study shinto traditions. Want to understand Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon? Study the Enuma Elish.

Biblical literacy is key not just to being a faithful Jew or Christian but to understanding the history of the world. Today, we are living with the consequences of how people read and interpreted the Bible. Want to understand some of the greatest and the worst art in European history? Study the ancient Jewish and Christian texts. Want to understand the history of colonialism slavery and the debates that raged before and after the Civil War? Study Christian Scripture.

Religion and sacred texts shape the world, and any robust curriculum that fully explores the intricacies of human existence must take seriously that we are homo religiosus.

I write this as one formed by both the academic study of world religions and the devotional study of Christian texts. My high school education barely scratched the surface of world religions, but it changed the way I view the world. My public university education challenged my beliefs and gave me a deeper understanding of how to live in and comprehend a religiously diverse society. Today, I can confidently say I’m a better pastor because I had an academically rigorous curriculum. I’m a better Christian because I was forced to confront doubts introduced in religion classes. I’m a better person because I have been taught to value the beliefs of others.

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