The Bible’s Other Anniversary January 8, 2009

The Bible’s Other Anniversary

It’s already the 100th anniversary for Gideon Bibles.

It’s also the 15th anniversary for Mooresville High School’s Bible class.

How did that class begin at a public school?

Approaching the Mooresville Graded School District Board of Education with the idea that individuals “need some knowledge of the Bible to become culturally literate,” [teacher Kathy] Black said the program was approved as “MABTA agreed to fund the teachers and the MGSD agreed to furnish the room.”

With the community’s monetary help through donations and fundraisers – MABTA pays the school district for the teachers’ annual salary and benefits — Black said the course has grown each year, welcoming more and more students as word of mouth piques an interest in the program.

Reader ungullible is skeptical about this program:

I’m curious how your readers might react to this if it were their local high school. Personally, I’m tentatively OK with it and may even encourage my kids to take it when they reach high school age, *IF* the article’s description of the class is accurate.

The reasons I am OK with it when I otherwise might not be are: (1) it is reported to be privately funded, and (2) according to the teacher, it focuses on “history, geography, literature, culture, art” and not on the Bible as “an object of faith or worship.”

However, I must admit some skepticism towards their claims. The article’s description is of a class that sounds genuinely academic, but the source and history of the funds makes me wonder. And the article only states that the teachers’ salaries and benefits are covered by private funds, without mentioning the classroom space itself, utilities, supplies, etc…

If this type of program began in your community, how would you handle it?

Even if you were ok with an academic study of the Bible, how would you make sure the class remained proselytization-free? (Or would you leave that issue to the district?)

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  • stogoe

    If it replaces for-credit courses at any time during the school day, I’m against it. Bible Study should be extracurricular, always. Religion is nigh impossible to teach without bias, and I’m of the opinion that all attempts to do so in public schools will inevitably fall into evangelism and proselytization.

  • Honestly, it might not be the worst idea, if they do conform to simply studying the Bible objectively. Going through my high-school English and French classes, I seriously considered taking up some kind of Bible study, even just reading the thing at home, because so many of the books and poetry we studied somehow drew from Biblical passages and I didn’t want to leave any unfair advantages to my Christian classmates (yeah, I’m competitive like that). Whether we like it or not, the Bible has had a profound influence on Western culture. Besides, if it is an objective study of the Bible and its history, who’s to say it won’t give kids a better understanding of precisely why it’s not a holy book, or how Christian Right organizations manipulate its message in certain cases?

  • Evan

    Speaking as an atheist that was raised in a very liberal and agnostic/atheist friendly church I’d like to come out in (tentative) support of this class. While I am completely in favor of stripping the “In God We Trust” from our money and removing invocations from inaugurations and congressional sessions, I think that this kind of study is completely appropriate.

    In order to fully appreciate Western culture and literature one needs a working, if not thorough, knowledge of the bible and its history. It is, I admit difficult to avoid proselytism in a class such as this, especially if the community surrounding the school is a religiously inclined one. A better strategy may be to include a week or two of biblical history in the history class or a unit on biblical stories important for allegory in an English class. There really is no “be-all-end-all” answer in a situation like this but it needs to be looked in a relaxed, yet cautious, fashion.
    I think though, that, in toto, the bible and the religious books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are too important to understanding the literature and cultural flow of Western society to be left untouched, even at a high school level.

  • Troy

    Provided its taught as literature and not literal history (which any historian worth his pillar of salt can show you its not) it makes a certain amount of sense. For that matter so does letting them read a wide assortment of religious texts, because they can give them a grounding in where the authors of other books read through the year might have been coming from.

  • Freak

    While teaching Egyptian / Greek / other culture, it’s important to discuss their corresponding religions. If this class discusses the bible with the detachment that is standard for those subjects, it is fully appropriate. But I have little trust that will be so.

  • Here in England Religious Education is part of the curriculum for all school age children. I agree that

    individuals “need some knowledge of the Bible to become culturally literate,”

    but we don’t live in a Christian nation (even if the Queen is nominally head of Church and state) so RE typically covers world’s religions, ethics and life skills. Focusing on pluralism goes in the right direction in reducing proselytizing as it provides a range of ideas to draw from.

    Perhaps the UK’s general atheism has something to do with this exposure. I know that my children at 8 years old invented their own religions as a school project. Once you’ve gone through that exercise it is harder to take as fact the mythology of a real world religion.

    Having said that, would I support a Christian bible class for school children? No. For adults I would be interested in attending myself but then I have the experience to resist attempts to convert me. For children I would resist the promotion of one religion over another.

  • Per

    In sweden we studied “Religion” (in public school) and not any religion in particular (no bible classes). That is, we studied everything from ancient religious beliefs to Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. I think that is a good solution to avoid that one religion is being favoured.

    I guess, the teacher can always give more time to his/her favorite religion, but that can happen in any class.

  • SarahH

    I’m all for religious studies in secondary schools – but I think there should be at least an effort to offer some variety. Teach a world religions class, for example, and have units on Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.

    If it’s a small school district and that sort of thing isn’t available, I still don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a class on Christianity – so long as it’s taught from an academic perspective. However, academic perspectives on Christianity would likely be more controversial in many areas than teaching evolution or comprehensive sex-ed. Even the theist professors I had in college were professional and didn’t let their beliefs into the classroom. They covered material from Biblical scholars, historians, archeologists, theologians, etc. and that meant including theories and discoveries that would probably not be a big hit with many American families.

  • Nancy

    Wow, this almost is my local high school. I live one county away. Fortunately my kids both graduated from a large public high school without anything like this ever discussed. If my kids wanted to take such a class I’d probably be OK with it. They would get the exposure to bible stories and people that I did not provide for them. My biggest concern would be the other kids in the class.

  • astrogal

    My old high school had a supplemental class to AP English III. In that class, they studied the Bible as a academic piece. I didn’t take the supplemental class, but some atheist friends of mine did, and they didn’t mind. It was completely academic, no forcing of religion (although the religious kids in the class tried to make it so). It helped the students to draw more parallels in the novels we read.

  • Teaching the historical facts of all religions is something that all atheists should be in favour of, even if it is during school time. Also, from my experience, all theists are against this. (We don’t want to start our flock ‘thinking’ now do we?)

    As this is being privately funded, and there’s no attempt to teach any other religion, (how can you teach any religious history without including the bloodshed due to the confrontation with other religions?), I very much doubt that there is no Christian agenda here.

    Would they be open to the class being taught by an atheist?

  • Siamang

    I tend to think these kind of classes (while important) can be taught better in college.

    Why? Well specifically history. Are they covering actual history, or are they teaching the Christian mythology of the history? Teaching actual biblical history is controversial and can step on people’s beliefs.

    Better handled in college where an angry PTA cannot come down on your head because you cover some part of the Bible in some way that parents get into an argument about the real way it needs to be taught.

  • no, no, no!
    So many issues…
    why study just the bible to be culturally literate?
    what are they teaching exactly? that the bible is literal, that it’s symbolic, or that there are different approaches? or something completely different?
    a basic world religious class would be great and is desperately needed, but this, not so much.

  • Andrew C.

    I live just five minutes north of Mooresville. Can’t say this surprises me.

  • Dan C.

    Support. Objective study of the Bible is necessary for cultural literacy in America today. While I look forward to the day that this will no longer be true, it is necessary to understand where the idiots around you are coming from 😉

  • My high school had a “Bible as Literature” course that was offered as a regular part of the curriculum and taught as part of a regular teacher’s load. I do think it was intended to be taught in a similar manner to the Epic (Greek and Roman epics, along with a consideration of Dante’s use of the genre) and the Comparative Mythology (a variety of cultures, followed by a consideration of the role of mythology in literature) courses. In that context, I have no issue with the course and actually wish now that I had taken it.

    But the fact that all of this is done with money from outside the district does make me wonder about accountability and how well the course description is followed.

  • I’d rather see an overall study of ancient literature of several religions. The Talmud & Torah, the Bible (and discussion of apocrypha), the Koran, writings of Confucius, etc.

  • Spurs Fan

    I agree with the previous comments that it would be a better idea to teach a comparative religion class, drawing from multiple scared texts.

    While I’m also skeptical about this being taught as an objective class, part of me thinks it may be a good idea from a skeptical perspective. When I was a Christian, I sort of accepted other people intepretations of the Bible. Yet, as I read more and more, I realized that I just didn’t believe this stuff. Perhaps our high school-aged youth, who probably have their view of religion from authority figures and rarely crack open the “Good Book” for themselves, will now be exposed to the details of the creation myth, giant people, talking donkeys, virgin births, and people being “caught up in clouds”. Then, it could be the first step to a critically-minded generation.

  • When I was a (religious) high school student, I took a class called “Classical Literature” that was one quarter of Ancient Greek Lit (especially the Odyssey) and one quarter of “Bible as Literature.” The “Bible as Literature” part was a secular look at the Bible as literature, and it encouraged me to analyze the Bible in the same way one might analyze any other text.

    I’m not saying all “Bible as Literature” courses are like that, but it’s certainly possible, and perhaps legitimately useful: Since the Bible is incredibly influential in our society, it’s valuable to understand it.

  • skinman

    I took a Bible as Literature class in high school. This was over 20 years ago and I’m not aware of any outside funding for the class. It was strictly an Old Testament course. There wasn’t any preaching by the teacher and I got an A on my class presentation: UFOs and the Bible. Seriously, with how long some of those folks lived and the powers they had, how could they not have been ETs?

    I did enjoy the class and it certainly didn’t convert me to any sort of religion. I think, handled in a secular fashion, a Bible literature class is a good idea.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’d be uncomfortable with the outside funding. I’d want the school system to have direct control, to be sure no preaching was happening. And I think that, as part of the course, other religious texts should be read for comparison.

    I encourage my kids to read parts of the bible when they have questions about one of the stories. I wish you could have heard UbiDuiKid#1’s reaction to reading the story of Lot. Actually reading that book is one of the better ways to reduce belief in it.

  • Erp

    I agree if handled correctly a course on the Bible would be good. There are several ways of teaching it secularly.

    1. Bible in literature and the arts. The use of the Bible as literature as well as the use of the Bible in literature and art (music, painting, sculpture, etc).

    2. The Bible as a historical document. This would include the Documentary Hypothesis, dating the various sections of the Bible, early manuscripts, translations (and their pitfalls), variants, how the canons were decided, etc.

    3. The use of the Bible by religions. How do different religions/denominations approach the Bible. Changing theological perspectives (e.g., to slavery, divine right of kings, women’s position). Would have to be carefully constructed to be about religions and not indoctrination in a religion.

    Method 1 is the best approach for a high school.

    Having it as part of a classical literature class that includes the Greek/Roman epics/myths might be the best method as the Greek and Roman myths are the other big well that European culture (and therefore much of American culture) has drawn upon. A student familiar with both wells is well placed to extract much from later western art and literature.

  • Todd Campbell

    I live in Mooresville and my daughter attends school in the district in question. She’s not in high school yet (5th grade). But, if this class is still offered when she gets there, I might encourage her to take it. If it turns out to be what it should be (non-proselytizing), then it will be worth it from a pure cultural perspective. But, if it turns out to be otherwise, then we’ll have standing for a lawsuit. 🙂

  • I was not raised in America so I’m not sure exactly what the education system is like.
    But I think study of the bible as a book only is fine but should be left for English class to be studied in the same way as Greek mythology and Shakespeare.
    Western Culture is so heavily influenced by this book and because I never read it (not that I would want or expect students to read the whole thing) I miss out on a lot of references scattered through other books, movies etc.

    It would be exceedingly difficult to make sure that religious instruction was not given when studying the bible though, probably too hard to make the inclusion worthwhile.

  • I think history of religions and religious knowledge should be a part of social studies, history and literature classes. Religion, like it or not, is central to societal behaviors, history (including a breathtaking number of wars) literature, paintings etc. Understanding basic Bible mythology is as central to understanding art as basic Greek mythology. Likewise, students should be versed in at least the basics of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism in order to understand the world that surrounds them.

    That’s the ideal, but I appreciate the immense difficulty in maintaining those classes bias-free. It seems like a hell of a can of worms. In the US, you could probably reliably depend on teachers to teach Hinduism and Buddhism objectively, but the Abrahamic religions would be very hard to keep objective. The only way I could imagine would be to disallow any teacher from speaking about their own religion, whatever that may be. However I can see how this requirement would make for a large number of practical problems. The safest course of action is what’s taken now; disallowing it altogether. That’s a pity, given how rich the subject is on a purely intellectual front.

  • Tao Jones

    Like it or not the Bible has shaped our culture. I actually approve this course as long as it is presenting the Bible on its literary rather than literal merits.

  • Zar

    In my AP English class in high school, we had a little unit on the Bible, actually. It was taught strictly as literature, no preaching at all. It was pretty interesting, and those of us in the class did NOT treat the text in a worshipful way (I remember some of the female students making fun of Adam for pussing out on taking blame for his actions, and one of the male students saying, “What is this God guy’s friggin problem???”) We didn’t stick with the pretty bits, either; I remember we went over Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, and the whole Job bit (which I think makes God look like a petty douche).

    I think to teach about the Bible in a secular way requires a fair amount of maturity from the students and the instructor, so I’m not sure it would have been the best idea for one of the average classes.

    Oh, and one more thing: our history book had the passage of the Flood story in Gilgamesh, and pointed out that it predated the Biblical Noah story, and in fact probably influenced the latter. I <3 NY.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I don’t see how the Bible can be studied as literature at the high school level in a reasonably neutral way. Part of analyzing literature is discussing what the text meant to the people who wrote it, and understanding that it might not be the way that we understand it now. If this is honestly done, it’s fairly anti-fundamentalist (and arguably anti-Christian), and I don’t think our schools should be teaching anti-fundamentalism any more than they should be teaching Christianity. For example, any reasonable reading of the first few pages of the Bible would teach that (1) some editor has put next together two different (and contradictory) stories about creation and (2) in the garden of Eden, the snake is telling the truth, and God is lying and (3) the author(s) of Genesis 2 had no intent to communicate anything resembling modern ideas about original sin. I don’t see how a teacher can deal with these issues without effectively proselytizing for or against religious beliefs.

    Still I see that a number of commentators above say that they had such a class in high school, and it was fine. I’d be curious if some of you would be willing to share how your class did in fact handle the issue of the original understanding of the authors of the Bible.

  • Steven

    As a parent, I’d have a few questions about any course of study involving the bible. For example, will they be including all of the violent and -ahem- “pornographic” bits? After all, if they filmed the whole thing it wouldn’t exactly get a “G” rating. There is also the very real possibility that getting up close and personal with the Bible will lead to doubts and questions and who wants that?
    I do, of course, and strongly encourage a critical examination of all major belief systems, past and present. Plus, your religious knowledge will make you a big hit at parties – well, maybe not.

  • absolutely in favor of the idea of the class–but really do not think that having the class be funded by an outside source is ok.

    the bible is one of the most influential books in western culture. Our literature, art, even our history has all been molded by this book. The Bible as Lit class i took in college was great–it was well done, we read the whole thing cover to cover and a bunch of the appocrypha (sp?) and the prof encouraged us to all bring in different translations.

    i don’t, oddly, think that adding in other religous texts to a class like that would serve any purpose–unless those texts were influenced by, or taken as source material for the bible.

    All that said–the class i took was NOT easy on the christian folks (even the ones who weren’t really religous) in the class. they had a really hard time dealing with the academic approach to thier holy book. I’m not sure the average high school student with any sort of religous background could handle it without some serious introspection.

    which isn’t a bad thing–but it’s not always a good idea to ask religous questions of your parents. they might not…ah…react in a manner that we’d like to see in a parental figure.

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