My turn: Bible is a primer to English literature, American history

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Teaching the Bible in public school raises ticklish problems. Because our public schools must not be used for preaching religion, they must teach the Bible purely as literature. And they must teach it tactfully, in light of the radically different viewpoints of various religious (and irreligious) communities in the United States.

But without knowing the Bible, you can't begin to understand English literature or American history. And a recently published survey finds that American teenagers don't know the Bible well enough. (The study was commissioned by a group called the Bible Literacy Project, conducted by Gallup and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.)

How to respond? Do we dare teach the Bible in our own public schools, built and staffed with our own money? Or do we surrender to Creeping Litigation Anxiety? To the fear that any course that includes the Bible is bound to provoke lawsuits -- although there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching stories and language fundamental to American culture?

Some background: Shakespeare and the Bible in English are the twin foundations of English literature. Many believe that the Bible (especially the King James translation of 1611) is the more important twin by far. It "has influenced our literature more deeply than any other book," wrote the British scholar Arthur Quiller-Couch. Bible-blind students are apt to misconstrue "the implications, even the meaning (of what they read)," wrote educator and critic Herman Northrop Frye.

Can you understand American culture without knowing the biblical context of "covenant," "promised land," "shining city on a hill"?

Further, the Bible and Bible-centered Protestantism are central to U.S. history -- to your history if you are American, whether you are Protestant or not. The founders had varied beliefs, writes the philosopher-historian Michael Novak in "On Two Wings," but they found common ground "by appealing to the God of the Hebrews and the religious heritage of the Torah, a 'Biblical metaphysics."'

And the Bible remained central throughout American history. Abraham Lincoln (for example) called Americans the "almost chosen people" -- one of the most pregnant phrases in our history. His important speeches are steeped in the Bible.

To explore Bible knowledge in the United States, the Bible Literacy Project survey addressed students and English teachers. Teachers listed references their students couldn't identify -- from Noah and Moses to Cain, Abel, Absalom and Lazarus. Students did well on trivial questions -- "identify Adam and Eve" -- and badly on harder ones. Two-thirds hadn't heard about St. Paul and the road to Damascus. Slightly more than one-third recognized a quote from the Sermon on the Mount.

Most teachers described most of their students as Bible illiterates.

Litigation Anxiety complicates the problem. "Some educators expressed fear and discomfort over the issue of teaching the Bible in school," the report says. "Their desire to benefit their students, by teaching this important work, was not as strong as their fear of getting in trouble for doing so."

Children worry too. "The kids seem to think there is a very strict division," an Illinois teacher said, "and that the Bible is not allowed in school."

Let's be clear: If the Bible is taught strictly as literature, it's sheer nonsense to claim that it is disallowed in public school. Where on Earth could people have got hold of that idea? (Hmmm.) According to Michael Johnson, attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund (which promotes Bible-as-literature courses, among other things), the American Civil Liberties Union routinely tries to discourage school districts from adopting such courses, by implying that they are unconstitutional -- even when the curriculum has been painstakingly tweaked to be lawsuit-proof.

And let's not be coy about the underlying cultural context. Bible-reading used to be routine in public schools. Novak again: "Beginning about 1948, one Supreme Court case after another turned the judiciary (and the law schools) into aggressive enemies of religion in public life." The Bible began to seem tainted no matter how you planned to teach it.

Favoring Bible-as-literature courses doesn't imply that you favor religion in public schools, but you might fear litigation anyway. In Odessa, Texas, more than 6,000 people signed a petition demanding an elective in Bible literacy. Opponents argued that it would invite lawsuits. Finally, the course was approved. In Frankenmuth, Mich., people argued for a year about such a course; the board finally turned it down.

Americans should demand that their children be taught what their cultural heritage (their literature, their history) is all about.

The great thundering secularist tide that swept the Bible out of public school education is about to turn. Tides always do. Odessa is a portent.

• David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.



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