Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Bible in Public Schools-- Should it Be Taught There?

Today, Jan. 16th in the news there is a story that various Georgia Democrats, presumably trolling for votes in the upcoming elections, are proposing that there be legislation allowing the Bible to be taught as literature and as a cultural artifact, in the public schools. But wait--- Should we see this as a violation of the separation of church and state? Inquiring minds want to know. Here are some of the considerations to keep in mind.

Firstly, there is no doctrine in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence establishing the separation of church and state! What there is, are statements that there will be no "establishment of religion" or "state church", by which was meant that the government would not sponsor or 'establish' any particular church or religion for that matter. The Founding Fathers knew enough about state sponsored churches in Europe to think that was not a good thing.

But the intent and the concern of our Founding Fathers was quite specifically to and primarily to protect the various churches from the state, not the other way around, so as to establish freedom of religion. Of course it is true that various of our Founding Fathers were Deists, and they were wary of a specifically Christian influence on politics and the state. This is perfectly clear from the correspondence of Adams and Jefferson. But even Jefferson wanted his edited down version of the NT taught to children in schools.

So, the question about the teaching of the Bible in public schools is an entirely different matter than "the establishing of a state church" by national or state government. If you study American history you will discover that the Bible until late in the 20th century had always been part of public school life, and even curriculum. In fact, when I went to elementary school (back at the dawn of time when the earth was still cooling in the 50s and 60s) we used to recite the Lord's Prayer together before we went to lunch, and of course we learned the ten commandments, among other things.

If you are a student of American educational history you will discover that into the 20th century even major public and state universities required courses in "natural and revealed religion" the latter usually referring to the teachings of the Bible. In short, there is plenty of cultural precedent for teaching the Bible in public schools, and there is no prohibition of this in the founding documents of our country. But this does not settle the matter.

The proper questions to ask would include: 1) who would teach the Bible in public schools: 2) how would it be taught? Would it be taught as literature (as in the Georgia proposal). But what exactly does this mean? Does it mean one would study the cultural impact of the Bible on other literature and art in our culture? For example, I once did an essay for a literature class at Carolina on the use of the Psalms in Shakespeare's sonnets. That would be one non-sectarian approach. Does such a proposal mean the various genre of literature in the Bible would be studied and examined in themselves (e.g. poetry vs.prose, oracles vs. narrative and so on)?

Does it also mean that one would study the Bible as a book of history or is that excluded? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the question becomes--- who is sufficient for these things? Who would do the teaching? Certainly it would have to be someone who is actually qualified, indeed, considering the controversial nature of the subject, they would probably need to be over-qualified, by which I mean they would likely have to have higher degrees in the Bible and in literature mor broadly, not merely ministerial degrees of various sorts. But this still doesn't answer all the questions. There are plenty of people out there who have higher degrees in Bible, whom many conservative Christians would not want teaching their children the Bible.

Now in the Georgia proposal all they were proposing was an elective course and I doubt that one could hope for a required course in this subject. About electives it would be harder to complain, as it would not be compulsory education for anyone.

It would be interesting to hear all your opinions on this subject. Even if we just say the Bible is an important cultural artifact of American life and should be taught in public schools, how do you react to this? Do you see it as a good thing and a window of opportunity for more to be exposed to the Bible, or would the worries about unhelpful teaching about the Bible outweight these interests?

And last but by no means least, such a course would prompt a debate about which Bible should be taught in public school, and when I say which Bible, I don't mean which translation. I mean would it be the Christian Bible or the Jewish Bible, or both? It is worth pondering.

27 comments:

A Christian Prophet said...

Messages from the Holy Spirit on The Holy Inheritance blog seem to indicate that the problem is public schools. If I'm interpreting correctly, the Holy Spirit would say eliminate public schooling and let people keep their tax money and educate their own kids.

Ben Witherington said...

That's very interesting, and who is speaking for the Holy Spirit on this blog? It surely can't be the Holy Spirit that inspired Paul to rent the hall of Tyrannus and give public lectures in a public school (Acts 19.9). One would also assume it can't be the Holy Spirit that led Jonah to go speak all over Nineveh in public and call them to repentance. Nor was it the Spirit who had Esther instruct her pagan overlords about various thing. It certainly doesn't seem like the Spirit that inspired Daniel to be a counselor to pagan Babylonian Kings either. Of course the problem with letting so many folks keep their tax money and educate their own children is that they themselves have not been properly educated.

Greg Hazelrig said...

I would love to see it as an elective. I personally believe that if it were taught as a required course, then not only would we have to fight those opposed to the teachings of the Bible, but we'd also have liberals and conservatives fighting.

Maybe the best course would be a very general course that would inspire students to pick the Bible up and read it for themselves.

Ben Witherington said...

Yes Greg: I agree with you that it must be an elective, and considering the Biblical illiteracy rate in our culture, I would assume this could help a bit.

philosapologist said...

This is an interesting and complex issue. On one hand, I would love to see it taught in schools. On the other, I think Dr. W is right in being concerned over how it is taught and by whom. Is it going to be treated by liberals as fictional literature, or by someone fair enough to give it the respect and attention it deserves?

Isaac said...

I think that it might alleviate some fears (while raising others, I'm sure) if the class was changed to a Survey of Ancient Religious Texts.

Ben Finger said...

A class called "Bible as History" has been taught in the North Carolina school system since the 1990s. I remember taking it when I was in highschool. At the public high school I attended it was a two semester history class. We could use it to fulfill some of our hours for history. Anyhow the first semester was the OT while the second semester was the NT. It was a fairly descent class for when I took it as a highschool junior. However to think back on it the teachers who taught it where highly underqualified. All we had as textbooks was a parrallel bible with the KJV on oneside and the NIV on the other.

Anyhow I would be glad to field any questions about the experience.

Ben Finger said...

Correction: The course is called Bible as History & Literature.

Josh Linton said...

I think you've brought out some good points. I feel that anytime Christians wait on the government or public education to promote morality or biblical literacy, we are forfeiting our duties to reflect the light of Jesus.

I wouldn't mind seeing it as an elective. But, it should be that the Bible is taught in every Christian home regardless of what our public school system or government decides to do.

R. Mansfield said...

When I was in high school (late 80's, North Louisiana), we had an OT elective called "The History of the Jewish People." It was one semester long, usually well-attended and quite popular. The teacher (while I was there) was a devout Christian, but set in a public school, obviously, not all the students were. I don't see why a course like this couldn't be offered in any public school.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks to all of you thus far for sharing. Anyone know of a Bible course taught at a public school outside of the South or Midwest in the last ten years. I am thinking this is a Bible belt thing.

John Wilks said...

Just wondering if anyone knew of any successful Bible courses offered during school hours but off campus as per the release time approach. It seems liek a good idea to me.

BP said...

I think it's very important to ask, "What's the goal here?" Your answer to that question should instruct you in outlining the subject, "Should the Bible be taught? if so how? and who should teach it?"

Personally, I think it should be taught and using a 2 semester elective approach. Call it whatever you wish because I can already see how it's going to play out.

As the Book is opened, regardless of who the teacher is, some evangelical student is going to speak their conviction and discussion will be exchanged. And this is good and should be the goal. We need to rely on the Spirit.

Students will begin to think, which is more than many are doing now. "Screwtape Letters" page 1, C.S. Lewis writes, "It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was not proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning."

Is the goal discussion or salvation in the classroom? Certainly discussion can lead to salvation, but without it, there comes no salvation (Romans 10).

It’s the responsibility of the church and family to equip their children and student’s for this battle. They’re the one’s who will be given a voice inside the classroom and that’s where the battle will be fought, not on Capitol Hill.

Bobby

philosapologist said...

Dr. W, well I'm in California and I haven't heard of anything like this.

dave beals said...

I would be concerned that difficult critical and theological questions that would come up would in many cases not be answered by informed individuals with balanced scholarly awareness. I believe this also happens in many Sunday School classes in evangelical as well as liberal churches.

dave beals said...

I am concerned that unqualified individuals would be answering complex theological and critical questions posed by the students of such classes. I believe this happens in both conservative and liberal sunday school classes as well. This is unfortunate. The collection of canonical documents demands responsible study...especially in the conservative churches !!!

Ben Witherington said...

Dave: I hear you, but unfortunately most of us know that even from the pulpit and even from conservative ministers we often hear bad exegesis and bad application, when no time is spent in sermon preparation, no commentaries are read, the original languages are not even thought of, and points are made on the assumed meaning a particular translation. We are along way from the description of "The Reformed Pastor" that Richard Baxter tells us about. And unfortunately, the bigger the church it seems, the less good the actual sermon preparation in terms of quality time in the word. So I am not so worried about the misrepresentations that might happen in a public school class on the Bible--- at least the Bible is being discussed.

Ben

Ben Finger said...

Hey here is the primary group in the USA who are pushing for Bible as Literature courses in the public school system. There website is http://www.bibleinschools.net/sdm.asp . They also have helped to implement a number of bible classes in the public school system outside of the bible belt.

davebeals said...

Ben...You are right...What a treasure it is for a congregation to have a pulpit minister able to connect responsible scholarly exegesis of the ancient text with living application truths for today. I had a pastor like that...unfortunately his Monday thru Saturday people skills destroyed his ministry.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks so much Ben F. for the address of that site....

Patrick said...

Dear Ben,
Have you seen the book "The Bible and its Influence," co-edited by a fellow-parishioner of mine, Cullen Shippe?
http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2005-10/2005-10-13-voa56.cfm

This book shows the way forward by looking at the Bible both as literature and as a crucial cultural influence over the centuries. It is respectful of religion but without advocating any position. I hope your readers will take a look!
(I am a first-time poster, so let me add that I have learned a lot from your books!)
Patrick

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Patrick..... I will check it out.

Ben

jean said...

FYI
In West Virginia in the 50s and 60s we were already cool.

Trierr said...

Professor Ben,

I took a Bible as Lit class 25 years ago in, of all places, Boulder Public Schools. It was heavily influenced by textual critism and JEPD and the "text book" was highly abridged (to remove redundancy, I was told), but the course was taught. And in the people's republic of Boulder, no less!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I fear that if you teach the Bible in public schools, kids will come to consider the text with as much disdain as they do math, history, and everything else we're teaching kids these days. Treated as history, literature, philosophy or religion, if the Bible is taught in public schools it will be taught as lowest-common-denominator pablum. That won't benefit anybody, IMO.

John said...

As a Christian, I definately want my (future) children to read the Bible and be immersed in a Christian environment, so I can understand that point of view. But as a former atheist, I can also understand why secular parents do not want their children reading mythological claptrap, nor for my tax dollars to support such a venture.

So the answer is to privatize public schools so that parents can get the education for their children that they want.

T.B. Vick said...

When my father was in grade school, in the mid 40's, he told me they would teach the Bible as history and also use the Bible (KJV) in their English classes to read from the Psalms, etc. (as poetry). He said no one made a uss about it, it was commonplace in those days.

I don't see any problem with public schools usinf the bible as a text for poetry or history, but . . . that'll be the day!