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A Bible course without the lawsuits?

Teaching about the Bible is critical - and contentious, teachers agree. A new textbook may provide a safe path through a political minefield.

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At the same time, many US English teachers express concern that students' deficient biblical knowledge is hampering their education. Marie Wachlin, a professor at Concordia University in Portland, Ore., conducted the national study earlier this year of high school English teachers in which they said biblical knowledge was essential for a good education. Ninety-eight percent also said biblical literacy is a distinct educational advantage.

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Biblical allusions permeate Western literature. In a book that prepares students to take the Advanced Placement Exam, 60 percent of the allusions listed are from the Bible. Yet polls in recent years have shown that both students and adult Americans in general have very limited biblical knowledge.

According to many teachers in the national study, if their schools didn't offer courses, "it wasn't from lack of importance or lack of community support, but due to political pressures," Dr. Wachlin says.

Another group now promoting Bible teaching in schools, which is supported by several conservative groups, has stirred controversy. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools says its elective-course material has been adopted by some 1,000 high schools. Last month the Texas Freedom Network, a religious-freedom advocacy group, released a report by a professor at Southern Methodist University. The report charges that their material goes beyond academic study to introduce conservative Protestant views, and is not always historically accurate.

In several districts where their materials have been proposed, fights have ensued, according to Dr. Haynes.

"It's not a curriculum, but a long outline of the Bible, and the Bible itself is the textbook," he says. "The secondary sources are mostly from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Schools don't want to be sued - that's the heart of the matter."

The Bible Literacy Project's text has won the approval of key leaders from the various strains of Judaism and Christianity, including Evangelicals.

Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, a constitutional watchdog, says that, "Without question, it can serve as the basis for a constitutional course."

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, an Evangelical school in Illinois, called it an "undisputed triumph of scholarship and presentation."

The question is whether school superintendents and teachers will embrace it. The $50 book, along with a teachers' manual, will be ready for the next school year. A university-based, online teacher-training program will also be available.

Tom Wiegman, who has been teaching the "Bible as literature" to high school seniors in Fullerton, Calif., since 1992, has scouted out his own materials. After using the draft of the new book last semester, he intends to get a set for his classroom.

"The students were very positive about it," he says.

To help students make connections between the Bible and their own experience, Mr. Wiegman has them do an allusion project, looking for examples in American culture. They don't have to look far. Last semester one student brought in a video that showed Eve picking the apple from the proverbial tree, on advice of the serpent - from the opening credits to the TV hit, "Desperate Housewives."

Here is an excerpt from the textbook "The Bible and Its Influence" (Bible Literacy Project, © 2005):

The Psalms as poetry

If you are familiar with poetry in English, you may find it difficult to identify the psalms as poems. Hebrew poetry does not rely on rhyme or familiar metrical rhythms. Many of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry are recognizable only when the psalms are read in their original language. Alliteration, wordplay such as puns, and the use of acrostics are lost in translation. Psalm 119, for example, is an acrostic in Hebrew. Each of its verses begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in sequence. That technique is especially appropriate for this psalm, which celebrates the power of God's word in the Scriptures.

In English translation, however, you can get some idea of the structural technique known as parallelism and the rich use of figures of speech that mark the poetry of the psalms. Hebrew poetry often features verses made up of pairs of lines that parallel one another, echoing or extending the same thought in slightly different language or using inversion for contrast. Here are two examples, from Psalm 19:

[A] The heavens declare the glory of God,
[B] the sky proclaims His handiwork.

[A] Day to day makes utterance,
[B] night to night speaks out. (Psalm 19:1-2, New Jewish Publication Society of America version)