Amy Hess makes a good argument this week in favor of teaching more Bible-as-literature classes, arguing that:
Public schools offer classes on Greek and Roman mythology. Why? Because those myths permeate our culture. Students should understand the many allusions to ancient myths in everyday American life, from the planet Jupiter to Midas mechanics. Why should we "Trust the Midas Touch"? Because everything King Midas touched turned to gold. "Oh yeah. Yeah, I get it."
Yet, kids don't understand why Faulkner would name his book Absalom, Absalom. Who in the world was Absalom? They don't have a clue. And maybe... neither do you. Too many young people are just not being taught about the greatest book in literature - a book that has influenced several religions and countless generations. America is so skittish about maintaining a separation between Church and State, [it has] neglected its children's education ...
This chasm of biblical ignorance has grown mighty obvious, and many public schools are now working to offer Biblical literacy classes as electives. They are permitted to do so constitutionally as long as they neither promote nor attack the religious elements of the Bible.
Here in Jackson, Mississippi, one local state-funded community college offers an A.A. in Philosophy and Bible instead of Philosophy and Religion. Why? Because, well, there are only three religion classes--World Religions, Old Testament, and New Testament--and one 3-hour course does not a concentration make. So it makes more sense to call it a Bible degree than a religion degree.
The kicker is how to cover the Bible. As someone who has written both a guide to the Bible and several books dealing with church-state issues (including one that focuses exclusively on religion in schools), I've seen both sides of this debate up close. Do you say God wrote the Pentateuch, or do you say that it came from four traditions that we can call Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomistic, and Priestly? Do you use the Protestant version, or the slightly longer Roman Catholic version, or the truly massive Ethiopian Orthodox version? And which translation?
Back in the 19th century, when nobody much cared about church-state separation because the idea had not yet been applied to state law, both the Bible and the Lord's Prayer were taught in public schools. But the Bible was taught using the Protestant King James Version translation, the Lord's Prayer was not spoken in Latin, and the little devotional lessons that came with the Bible study were generally pro-Protestant at best and anti-Catholic at worst. This was a serious problem for new immigrants, who tended to be Catholic, so they responded to this by creating a parochial school system that still thrives to this day--a system where, at the time, the Douay-Rheims translation could be used instead of the King James, the Lord's Prayer became the Pater Noster, and the theology lessons reinforced the teachings of the church rather than condemning them.
There is no sensible reason why the Bible can't be taught at all in public schools, and there are many sensible reasons why it should be, but determining how to teach it is a tricky proposition. In the Alabama case Amy refers to, for example, some evangelicals object to the idea of using a non-sectarian Bible textbook because that would be seen as a way of further pushing a secular agenda. But if you use a sectarian Bible textbook, then you are by definition promoting religion. Facing this dilemma, folks responsible for designing curricula tend to throw their hands in the air and leave the issue of Bible classes to churches, religious schools, and to colleges and universities. That unfortunate compromise may well be the one that school administrators are stuck with until the culture war becomes less heated.