Legislation of Biblical Proportions: Can We Really Have an 'Academic' Study of the Bible in Public Schools?

My first full-time teaching job was as a Latin and religion instructor at a religiously-affiliated (Episcopalian) middle and upper school. I had just exited seminary, and was now faced with the rather daunting task of teaching biblical literature to classes ranging from the seventh-grade level to seniors in high school. I was highly anxious and hopelessly naïve, but still confident that I could convey my experience of academically engaging the biblical text with a critical eye to these young students. It came as a surprise then that I was most often challenged not by the students themselves who embraced such an enterprise, but the parents. One particular seventh-grader came up to me one day, relating that she told her parents of our class on the tower of Babel story as an etiology, a creative mythic account explaining why things came to be for a particular audience. "My dad told me that you are wrong and that I should not listen to you," the student sweetly said, "but I like this class anyway."

I have ruminated on episodes like this recently as the issue of teaching the Bible in schools has entered public debate. The commonwealth of Kentucky passed a bill in the Senate in February proposing that "Bible courses" can be offered as electives. Known as Senate Bill 56, the stated intention of such legislation is "to acquaint students with a book that has had tremendous impact on American society and western culture." More recently in early March, the general assembly of the state of Arkansas passed a similar measure in the House to direct the Board of Education to adopt an elective course on the "academic study of the Bible" in any public school district. Such measures not only blur the line between government and religion but they should force parents and students to question whether such an adoption is truly worth the effort, and whether this movement is more politically inclined than pedagogically motivated. Using the Bible in courses at the secondary level is not only beneficial (Song of Solomon as an illustration of Hebrew poetry) but sometimes inevitable when discussing European history or art history. Unlike in Europe, where teaching a course on biblical literature is a non-issue, here in America it becomes a problem as the dip towards a more confessional and less-academic approach seems inevitable. By looking closely at both pieces of recent legislation, one can realize the problem of offering such a course in an American context.

The legislation from Arkansas, known as House Bill 1032, employs the phrase "academic study of the Bible" throughout, stating that the course would be "nonsectarian, nonreligious" and purely an unbiased study of the Bible and its influence on other disciplines. But what exactly are the representatives implying by invoking the word "academic" throughout? By consistently quoting the term "academic" in their legislation, the representatives are attempting to legitimate the teaching of the Bible as safely impartial and nonsectarian. But by justifying their stated intentions as "academic," the authors of the bill are really presenting a wolf in sheep's clothing. Personnel hired to teach such a course under the Arkansas bill's language shall be licensed to teach in the state, and will not be assigned to teach based upon a person's religious faith. In fact the bill goes so far as to say the course will not indoctrinate students as to "truth or falsity of the biblical materials." But nowhere in the bill's language does it state any requirement for a teacher of this course to be trained and prepared to truly instruct a class in the "academic" study of the Bible. The bill merely states what the teachers will not be, and nothing of what they should be: actually steeped in the discipline of biblical literature. Even in a private, religiously affiliated school, it was expected that a religion teacher would have a degree demonstrating their knowledge base in the discipline before setting foot in the classroom. With this legislation, it is unlikely any such instructor would be hired to teach an elective course. Instead, it will devolve as Rita Sklar of ACLU Arkansas fears, into classroom proselytizing. Sadly, many of us can recall moments in our secondary education where the teacher was woefully unprepared and unqualified to teach the material (where the instructor prefers to be addressed as "Coach"). The same standard must be applied for such an elective course or it will only be Sunday School in a weekday setting, and far from any "academic study of the Bible."

The Kentucky legislation that passed on the Senate floor 34-1 in February is even more aggressive in its language and intention. Unlike the Arkansas bill, there is no word or phrasing resembling the "academic study of the Bible." Kentucky seemingly does not desire a strictly "academic" study of the Bible but a course devoted to the study of the "Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament of the Bible." The bill contains no specific language as to personnel requirements of the instructor of such a course, and there is no clear and didactic mandate to teach the course objectively in a non-devotional manner. Unlike the Arkansas legislation, the Kentucky bill makes some curious moves regarding the course's implementation. According to the bill, students "shall not be required to use a specific translation" of the Bible in class. Any student is free to use a different translation than one specified by the instructor of his or her own choosing. For any student or instructor of biblical literature, this certainly opens Pandora's box. Not only are there multiple translations readily available of the Bible, there are many poor ones that manipulate the original text. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is usually regarded as the most scholarly translation, and easily accessible for classroom use. But there are many other translations that are intended for devotional usage not academic purposes, such as Eugene Peterson's The Message. Phrases of Jesus are updated to contemporary English, moving far from the original Greek where things are not only lost in translation but created ex nihilo. Allowing multiple translations in a classroom setting clearly reveals the motivations of voting such a class into the public school curriculum. An elective course on the Bible under these guidelines will not be an academic pursuit but a faith-based endeavor. And such legislation clearly favors and speaks from a Christian worldview.

There seems to be little impetus to provide the same energy applied to this curriculum change towards a study of the Bible in a global context, including the study of sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, or perish the thought, the Quran. Students (and lawmakers) would be surprised to discover that the scripture that seemingly endorses radical violence such as genocide, incest, and slavery are found in the holy book known as the Bible. Studying such controversial biblical stories would create very tangible and fruitful discussions of the nature of the Bible itself and its place alongside sacred books of other religions. The American Academy of Religion has even published guidelines for teaching religion in grades K-12. However, it appears highly improbable an elective Bible course will mirror such thoughtful models in its praxis. The representatives in both states are not as interested in developing critical thinkers as fomenting unquestioning believers sacrificed on the altar of creating good "character."

An elective course focusing on the "academic study of the Bible" is undoubtedly a noble pursuit. I teach such a course now at an undergraduate college and find it a keen contributor to a liberal arts education. I cannot, however, see such a course as outlined by these states' lawmakers as having the same type of impact. Opening the door to even an elective teaching of the Bible would only continue the sad tradition of myopically reading scripture, and would surely reduce to evangelism during school hours. Teaching the Bible "academically" is a serious enterprise, and it is easy to realize that such a course implemented under these guidelines would not be taken very seriously.

The recent legislation in these two states poses a larger question to the general public: why waste such energy on a problematic task when there are larger issues with education in this country. Students desiring a serious academic study of the Bible can easily find such courses at different institutions outside of a public school curriculum, and they will certainly not find such a course at publically funded high schools no matter what these bills say. Just as the young seventh-grader commented to me about her parent's displeasure with my teaching of the Bible, it consistently appears that the parents are more of the problem than the solution when it comes to curriculum choices. Instead of forcing a course that will ultimately become biased, why not let our young people explore other works of literature to hone their young minds and critical thinking skills. Let them read Shakespeare, Dante, Austen and Ellison. The Bible will always be there. It will be in their homes, their places of worship, and apparently always on the minds of politicians that seem to know best when to utilize the Bible to gain political capital.