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.

Like prayer in the schools and the Ten Commandments in courthouses, teaching about the Bible in public classrooms has long been contentious. Some people question whether it is legal. Many educators worry they might be faced with lawsuits.

And American students, it seems, end up the losers. Without academic knowledge of the Bible and its influence, many teachers say, pupils can't understand their own literary, artistic, and cultural heritage. In a survey last spring, 90 percent of leading English teachers said biblical knowledge was crucial to a good education. Yet a Gallup poll found that only 8 percent of public-school teens said their school offered an elective course on the Bible.

For school districts, the difficulty lies in agreeing on what will pass constitutional muster, and then actually having the materials to teach it appropriately.

Help may be on the way. The Bible Literacy Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in Fairfax, Va., has spent five years developing the first high school text on the Bible in 30 years. The project involved scholars and reviewers from all major Jewish and Christian traditions.

"The Bible and Its Influence," released last week in Washington, is designed to meet constitutional standards and to convey the Scriptures' broad influence on Western civilization. Covering Old and New Testaments, it presents the biblical narratives, characters, and themes as well as their cultural influences.

Students may gain a more nuanced understanding of Shakespeare, with his 1,300 biblical references; or grasp the import of the Exodus to the African-American experience and musical heritage; or learn how the Bible shaped Abraham Lincoln's vision. They may even recognize a biblical origin for their hometown - Corpus Christi, New Canaan, and Salem, for example.

The new textbook "treats faith perspectives with respect, and ... informs and instructs, but does not promote religion," says Chuck Stetson, the Project's founder and chairman.

Others express concern: "I don't think the Constitution prohibits the use of this textbook, but I have real doubts about the wisdom of this approach," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "At this time in America, it's better to simply talk about religious influences when they come up during the study of literature, art, and history, and not take the text of one religious tradition and treat it with special deference."

Mr. Lynn also worries that individual teachers might go beyond the text itself and "spin it in ways that may well violate the Constitution."

As part of a pilot effort during textbook development, the Project provided a training program for 27 public high school teachers over an eight-month period. Five of the teachers received a classroom set of the draft text to test with students.

"Students love the material - it's beautiful," says Joan Spence, a language-arts teacher in Battle Ground, Wash. "It is formatted like other textbooks, and puts them in the English-class mindset. They don't have the temptation to wander off into a Sunday School frame of mind."

Ms. Spence taught a Bible literature course for two years before having access to the textbook, and says she appreciates its "wealth of connections to art, poetry, music - the artists who have created out of inspiration from the Bible."

More than 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court said (in School District of Abingdon Twp. v. Schemp) that it was appropriate to teach about the Bible as long as it "is presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." Still, some courses given in schools have veered into sectarian territory.

"Some of the courses I've encountered around the country over 20 years would not pass muster in a court of law," says Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "They're closer to Sunday School than legitimate academic courses."

He sees the new textbook as important "because it's constitutional and educationally sound, and may provide a safe harbor for public schools."

Five years ago, the First Amendment Center - a nonpartisan group that works with schools on religious liberty issues - brought educational and religious groups together to produce a guide, "The Bible and Public Schools." The guide provides districts with information and clear standards to help them keep the teaching academic and not devotional. Districts were left to identify their own books or materials.

"I don't think many people feel well prepared to teach a class of this sort," Ms. Spence says, "or have time to research important background information, so this will make more people feel able to take on the challenge."

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.

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)

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