Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 1)

Anyone who wants to major in the arts and humanities, the natural sciences, the helping professions, or simply wants to be culturally literate, must come to terms with the Bible, that literary Mount Everest that has shaped Western humanity's view of itself and the universe.

It is a book so central to our cultural identity and heritage that a familiarity with its stories, lessons, and significance is an essential part of being human, if not for the answers it gives, at least for the questions it raises.

Colleges and universities simply assume a basic familiarity with this foundational text for anyone laying claim to being an educated person who is open to the deeper dimensions of human existence.

In today's tabloid world, however, the traditional assumptions no longer prevail about what areas of knowledge students can be expected to bring to school from the home, so it devolves on the school to remedy this deficiency for students' long-term success in this short-term culture.

Because so many seniors no longer possess an understanding of this seminal book, I developed and taught for almost 30 years a six-week unit on the Bible as Literature as part of the senior college-prep and AP English curriculum to prepare graduates more broadly for the college experience.

As may well be imagined, however, teaching the Bible in a public high school is a daunting endeavor. Students come from all different backgrounds -- Protestants of every denomination, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, while others profess no religious affiliation or belief at all.

Some come from religious homes, and others do not. Some see the Bible as the inspired word of God, others as the inspired creation of the human spirit. Some interpret it literally, others figuratively. Some view it as a positive force for good in the world; others see in its pages only ignorance and bigotry.

Some view it as the heartbeat of their spiritual lives; others as the worst superstition ever to curse the face of the earth, responsible for no end of evil and suffering; and still others have no opinion about it.

In a word, students came from a wide assortment of homes, a microcosm of our pluralistic, multicultural society, with its multiplicity of different perspectives, few shared assumptions, and virtually no common ground about anything, save that their children receive the best education the school could provide.

Owing to the unique nature of this book, students were initially cautioned to be mindful of each other's sensibilities when expressing their views. Over three decades, however, this was never a problem, as students intuitively sensed the special place this iconic text has in our culture and unfailingly showed respect for everyone's feelings as they listened with interest about what those in class had to say.

Students were also reminded of the distinction between "teaching the Bible" and "teaching about the Bible" in a public school. It is one thing to teach the Bible as if it were the word of God, and another to teach about the Bible -- its stories, characters, events, and lessons -- as a human book, and to discuss the many interpretations that have been advanced over the centuries.

One can teach this book as long as one doesn't seek to promote it as a religious text, but only to instruct students about its literary nature and historical background, address the many theories about its meaning, and explore the range of questions it raises without taking a position on any of them.

As befits the study of any great literary work, students received an overview of twenty-five different theories and interpretations that embody different perspectives about this multi-dimensional text: a book of literature that raises profound questions about the human condition in a luxuriant profusion of literary genres; a source of historical and archeological information about ancient Palestine; a storehouse of folk wisdom and anthropological insight that illuminates the origins of Middle Eastern psychology.

A repository of divine revelation that must be interpreted either literally or figuratively; a book of profound spiritual comfort and meaning for countless generations; a book teeming with messianic prophecies; a book of superstition that has inspired hatred, bigotry and persecution for centuries; a book that has transformed and ennobled the lives of millions; a book full of contradictions, horrors, and cruelties, which could not possibly have been inspired by God.

A book which traces the spiritual evolution of a people from primitive barbarism to ethical maturity; a book that has caused many to lose their faith in an all-good and loving God; a book that has blocked social and scientific progress; a book whose purpose is not to teach the truths of science, but moral and religious truth ("not how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven"); a book that justifies man's basest instincts of violence and blood lust.

A book that calls for social justice and revolution (liberation theology); a book that supports the status quo; a book of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal oppression of women (feminist theology); a book whose meaning must be disengaged from the trappings of its mythological, pre-scientific worldview and reinterpreted to become intelligible to a modern audience (demythologization).

A book whose meaning must be sought in the symbolical, archetypal, and depth-psychological understanding of human existence (C. G. Jung and Mircea Eliade); a book which embodies the worldview of Neo-Platonism (Augustine), Aristotelianism (Thomas Aquinas), Romanticism (Friedrich Schleiermacher), and Existentialism (Paul Tillich and Martin Buber).

A book which embodies the personal, class, national, economic, social, political, sexual, religious, and denominational concerns, prejudices and blind spots of those who read their own predilections into this text for cosmic validation and equate their own agendas with the will of God. In sum, students were given a sense of the chameleon-like character of this protean book, which admits of many diverse and contradictory meanings.

Students were then introduced to the core issues of hermeneutics, the study of meaning and interpretation: Does a book have one or several meanings? Who decides? The author? Each reader? What if the author is dead and left no record about what was intended? What if the work is anonymous?

Is meaning read "into" or "out of" a text? Are some meanings right and others wrong? Who decides? Or does the book provide its own meaning? And, if so, why are there so many different meanings assigned to the text? Or are all meanings right? Or just one?

Can a book's meaning change over time and outgrow its author's original intention or the understanding of the generation for whom it was written? Or is meaning like a rebellious child who goes his or her own way? Does the judgment of authority decide a book's meaning? What if authorities differ? Or is meaning decided by political necessity, changing conditions, or those in power? How does one prove one's interpretation without circular reasoning?

Students read 20-page excerpts from the Old and New Testaments in "The Portable World Bible," Robert O. Ballou (Editor), as homework assignments and submitted ten short reaction paragraphs by discussing a story's characters, actions or motives, or reflected on the story's meaning and their reaction to it.

After five assignments, students wrote ten general reactions to what they had read in the Old Testament and then six similar assignments on the New Testament. Finally, they chose twenty statements from the editor's introduction and critically evaluated them. Throughout these thirteen assignments, students were encouraged to say whatever they wanted.

Student responses ran the gamut from being intrigued, troubled, charmed, moved, shocked, awed, through being revolted, affirmed, mystified, empowered, surprised, bored, to being uplifted, fascinated, terrified, skeptical, and puzzled.