We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Bible Goes to School

A Textbook for teaching the Bible in public schools
Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona recently signed into law a bill promoting the teaching of the Bible as an elective course in Arizona's public schools.  According to a largely critical posting (here), the purpose of the course is to, "among other things, educate students on the influence of the Old and New Testament on laws, history, morals, government, literature, art, music, customs, values, and culture."  The bill has been, of course, controversial.  The ACLU opposed it, and an editorial at The Arizona Republic (here) raises the objection that the proposed course opens the door to a number of abuses that include not only proselytizing students by Christian teachers, but also the possibility that teachers critical of the Bible will have a bully pulpit for subtle attacks on it.  In sum, teachers can't be trusted to teach the Bible fairly and circumspectly.

In theory, the idea of teaching biblical literacy in public schools is a good one.  The Bible is a key cultural document, and students should have some knowledge of it on that basis alone.  Teaching the Bible, furthermore, offers the possibility of students gaining at least some knowledge of religious concerns, which generally are barred from public education in spite of the importance of religion to our society.  This is not to say that the schools should promote religion as such.  Rather, it would be good for students to have some background in religion, especially for those who aren't getting anything at home.

The objections raised by opponents of the new law, however, also carry weight.  The opportunities for abuse are obvious and serious, especially because the law protects teachers from legal prosecution or disciplinary action so long as they can show that they followed the course outline mandated by the state. This does seem to open the door to abuses by both "pro-Bible" and "anti-Bible" teachers because any teacher can pack their own meanings into the outline.

And there is a further concern, which has to do with qualifications. Science teachers are expected to know science. Math teachers have a math background. It is unlikely that most Arizona schools have teachers who have any academic training in the Bible, and it is not likely that they would have the time to become conversant with the Bible as an academic field of study. And those most likely to abuse the course (both pro-Bible & anti-Bible) are the ones least likely to be interested in the academic study of scripture. That is to say, these courses are liable to promote ignorance and/or bias as much as or more than provide an open opportunity to discover the contents of the Bible.

Brian Jennings, a Christian blogger writing from a more conservative perspective observes (here), "We need to be very careful when using the state as a means to achieve Christian ends and think through possible unintended consequences. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as something that grows in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, not something imposed by them." He goes on to state that, "I’m sure those who want the Bible taught in public schools are well-intentioned, but we should call a time out to think. Can we really reduce the Bible to literature or history without betraying its life-changing message? The Bible needs to be studied academically, but in light of what it claims to be – the self-revelation of God – not as a history book without colorful pictures."  These are real concerns.