Studying the Bible in public schools can help US students 'win the future'

A critical study of the Bible as literature can prepare students with the thinking skills needed in the 21st century. As an all-time bestseller, the Bible has had a profound impact on history, literature, and culture. It remains a vital part of American life.

The 2011 Miss USA pageant contestants were asked this summer, “Should evolution be taught in schools?” The winner, Alyssa Campanella of California said, “Yes.” Perhaps a better question for the young women would be, “Should the Bible be taught in public schools?” And the answer should be "yes" again.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. This all-time bestseller has had a profound impact on the history and development of the United States and remains a vital part of American life and culture. Yet, Americans are less biblically literate now than ever before. In order to increase this vital cultural literacy, public schools should teach courses in biblical literature.

Of course, any mention of both public schools and the Bible in one breath sparks fear of a slippery slope that leads to teaching creationism or mandating compulsory prayer in school. I am not advocating indoctrinating students in a particular faith tradition but rather, teaching literature.

Reading the Bible as literature in public schools does not violate the First Amendment nor our hallowed notions of the separation of church and state.

The Supreme Court has made that clear on multiple occasions.

In the seminal Abington vs. Schempp ruling in 1963, the court ruled against state-sponsored devotional reading of the Bible. Yet, it supported the secular study of the Bible. It stated: “It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

In 1973, the court ruled in Committee for Public Education vs. Nyquist that the state could not provide financial support to nonpublic schools. It stated, “The First Amendment does not forbid all mention of religion in public schools; it is the advancement or inhibition of religion that is prohibited.”

In Stone vs. Graham in 1980, the Court ruled that the posting of the Ten Commandments was unconstitutional. Yet, it affirmed, “The Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like."

English classes read "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" without parents assuming that teachers are recruiting devotees for Greek polytheism. Biblical literature classes would not teach from a particular religious viewpoint but would teach students how to critically engage great literature.

Record low rate of biblical literacy

The Bible has played an important role in education in our nation. In colonial America, people used the Bible to learn to read, and many desired to learn to read in order to read the Bible. Until recently, well-educated Americans could be expected to be familiar with and even quote biblical texts and to recognize biblical characters, imagery, and allusions such as “forbidden fruit” and “killing the fatted calf.” Not to be able to do so would mark you as a Philistine.

While earlier generations would have had little difficulty recognizing Cain and Abel or the Beatitudes, currently, biblical literacy is at a record low. According to a 2004 Gallup Poll of US teens, only 34 percent recognized Cain as saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4: 9). Only 37 percent identified “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3) as a segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

In my experience teaching biblical studies to university students over the past four years, I have found that many students know little about biblical characters and events. At best, they can recite a few Bible verses. While many students assume that they “know” the Bible, once we begin to read texts carefully and critically, the scales fall from their eyes. They are stunned when they realize how little they actually know.

An anthology of ancient literature, central to modern texts

Many students think of the Bible as a collection of stories about meek and mild role models. When we read about Samson, they realize how compelling biblical texts can be. We discuss Samson’s anger management problems and list criminal charges for his actions. We debate possible reasons why he tells Delilah the secret to his strength, and whether his death makes him a suicide bomber. Regardless of their faith, students enjoy the class.

The epic story of Joseph provides another example of great biblical literature. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, is sold into slavery by his brothers. Despite starting out as a Hebrew slave in Egypt, Joseph works his way up to a high-level job in Pharaoh’s administration. This may be an ancient story, but the tale of Joseph’s rise to power and eventual reunion with his family provides tearful drama that rivals any current episode of Lifetime’s "Coming Home."

William Faulkner. John Steinbeck. Toni Morrison. These and many other American writers use biblical texts extensively. In fact, one can hardly understand their work without a clear understanding of biblical writings. The Bible is an anthology of ancient literature that resonates with both classic and contemporary texts. The nonsectarian, academic study of the Bible can enrich our reading of other texts regardless of one’s faith.

Bible study can help US students 'win the future'

While the Bible is undeniably central to American written texts, it also remains part of our public discourse. It is used in speeches and public debates. Too often it is taken out of context and used to support a particular argument. Greater knowledge of the historical and literary contexts of biblical texts would help to bring about more informed debate. It would help citizens understand the continued use and misuse of the Bible.

Of course, public schools face numerous competing curricular demands. Some may argue that schools do not need one more subject imposed upon them as they are already making bricks without straw. Yet, teaching biblical texts can contribute toward making the US more competitive in the global marketplace. We need to educate students who can read critically and make coherent arguments. The Bible is not easy to read, and it does not provide easy answers. Studying the Bible helps students to formulate questions about themselves, their communities, and the texts that they read.

The Bible continues to be an important part of American literature, art, and music. Let’s let public school students engage this important work. For starters, the Society of Biblical Literature website has resources for using biblical literature in public school curricula.

At a time when religious differences continue to divide us, let’s not use the Bible for Bible-thumping and hurting each other. Instead, let’s use it to preserve and to celebrate our common heritage. And to equip our students for the future. Come now, let us reason together.

Nyasha Junior is an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Howard University School of Divinity and a member of the Society of Biblical Literature.

via The OpEd Project

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