Truth or consequences?

National | Public schools nationwide are starting to teach the Bible. Is that good for Christianity?

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

in Duncanville, Texas-"Death, burial, and resurrection," recite 12 students in unison, answering their teacher's question about the central event of Christianity as he hands out shiny red King James Bibles. That may not seem controversial to most churchgoers, but this isn't Sunday school. It's the new Bible studies class at Duncanville High School-a public school 20 miles south of Dallas. In a classroom next to the school cafeteria, retired Baptist missionary Wendell McHargue teaches a 90-minute Bible class three times a week. Today's introduction to the Gospel of Matthew marks the second portion of a 16-week Bible survey. Students who sign up for this optional course study the Bible's historical and cultural significance and each week memorize scriptures, including the 23rd Psalm. In Texas alone, about 200 school districts offer Bible classes. School boards in Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Illinois have recently followed suit with their own Bible-class proposals. The nationwide spread of Bible courses taught in public schools has refueled the ongoing church-state debate. There's the usual outcry from left-leaning interest groups. ("Bible classes in public schools are often used as a vehicle for unconstitutional religious instruction," warned a press release from People for the American Way.) Such groups often demand that Bible courses include viewpoints from Bible skeptics and other religions. But more surprising is the disagreement over the courses in Christian circles. Some Christians believe state-sanitized Bible classes will divorce the Bible from its theological underpinnings, and ultimately undermine its message. Others argue that the courses offer an unprecedented opportunity to foster basic Bible literacy among increasingly secularized youth. "Unless you have a working knowledge of the Bible it is difficult to understand even the basis on which our Constitution was founded," said Elizabeth Ridenour of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. From her North Carolina home, Mrs. Ridenour has distributed her "Bible as History and Literature" curriculum to 131 school districts nationwide. The curriculum has reached over 60,000 public-school students. "How can you study Middle Eastern history without incorporating the Bible? What about art like Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Last Supper'?" she said. Bible course advocates believe the Supreme Court left open a tiny window when it slammed the door shut on public-school Bible reading 40 years ago. That window exists in the form of elective Bible courses. In its 1963 Abington Township vs. Shempp ruling, the high court declared that it never intended to create an antagonistic environment toward religion, and stated that the "Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities." But the ruling also mandated that all public-school Bible discussions remain "neutral." That buzz word worries Christians like Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In reality, the Bible's bold-faced "truth claims" make it impossible for public-school teachers to teach the book neutrally, he said. "How do you teach the resurrection objectively and neutrally in a way that's not going to offend either nonbelievers or believers?" he said. "People who want to have the Bible taught in public schools are going to hate the end product after the civil liberty groups and courts get through with it." Duncanville High School's Mr. McHargue insists his class is neither a politically correct religious criticism class nor a theological sermon. He simply introduces students to the Bible and lets them make their own conclusions about its veracity. And to ward off accusations that he "proselytizes," he uses "pew Bibles" void of commentary or annotations. Wearing a silver pentagram around her neck to signify her interest in Wicca, 18-year-old Juliette Miller explained why she took Mr. McHargue's course. "I have no religious background and come from a non-Christian home," she said. "If I'm going to be an English major I need to understand biblical allusions." Next to Miss Miller sits Katie Loshi, 17, a fresh-faced missionary's kid who intends to follow her father's footsteps. She believes the course will prepare her by giving her a more historical understanding of the Bible. Both students giggled together and shared notes during class-unaffected, at least for now, by the church-state debate swirling outside their classroom walls.

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