A good look at the Good Book

Special Issue | Teaching the Bible in public schools just got easier

Issue: "Rita: Strike 2," Oct. 1, 2005

When John Steinbeck called his 1952 tale of two families' migration, angst, and betrayal East of Eden, he had good reason to believe most readers would recognize the title as a biblical allusion to humanity's exile from earthly paradise. America then was still an unabashedly Christian nation and the Bible was still the Good Book.

Today, though, the Bible itself is in exile from many public schools, as administrators-even those not hostile to biblical faiths-feel the Good Book is more legal trouble than it's worth.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may teach about the Bible so long as that teaching isn't religious, many schools, lacking appropriate curricula, have simply steered clear. That's a problem, according to college and high-school English teachers who overwhelmingly say that biblical ignorance equals cultural and historical ignorance.

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Enter the Bible Literacy Project, an eclectic mix of scholars, theologians, and businessmen, from Os Guinness, a well-regarded Christian conservative, to Rabbi Marc Gellman of New York's Temple Beth Torah to George Gallup Jr. The group in 2001 set out to write a Bible textbook that dispels cultural ignorance while respecting both the law and the sensibilities of Jews and Christians, who consider some or all of the Scriptures sacred.

The Bible and Its Influence, released on Sept. 22, hits the mark. The curriculum, designed for high school, works its way through the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, introducing each section of Scripture, discussing the text and its themes, and showing where elements of each section manifest themselves in the culture. The textbook does not shy away from religion-which would be like discussing Moby Dick while ignoring whales-but abides by its promise and the legal statutes that religious ideas "neither be encouraged nor discouraged."

The cultural connections include the Bible's influence on language (giving us words such as "scapegoat," "shibboleth," "Armageddon," and expressions such as "my brother's keeper," "house divided," "two-edged sword"); music (from Bach to spirituals); art (throughout the canon of Western painting); literature (from Shakespeare to the movie Matrix); and history (the biblical allusions in famous speeches, the American colonists' application of "covenant," the use of the Bible in the Civil Rights movement).

"Some people read Genesis as a literal account of the mechanics of creation," says the unit on the Bible's first chapters. "Still others read it as a poem about God's relationship with humans. Many read the book as both." Note that the authors don't put creationists down. All can agree, the unit goes on, that the passages depict God as transcendent, but personal, and the universe as ordered and good.

The unit draws out the important worldview elements of Western thought from the creatillows a liberal arts methodology, showing the interconnectedness of knowledge across the disciplines. Abundantly illustrated, it is both appealing and educationally rigorous. Even secularist critics should admit that the material taught in this textbook is good to know and that there is no cultural literacy without Biblical literacy.


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