Elective Bible Studies

Via the Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn that North Carolina has just had a bill proposed that would allow for an elective Bible class (or, more accurately, potentially three, one in each Testament and one that combines them) in public schools. Let’s take a look at some of the stuff being proposed.

(g4) Bible Study Elective. – Local boards of education may offer to students in grades 7 nine through 12 elective courses for crediton the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) , the New Testament, or a combination of the two subject matters. A student shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text of the Hebrew scriptures or New Testament and may use as the basic textbook a different translation of the Hebrew scriptures or New Testament approved by the local board of education or the principal of the student’s school.

OK, so it’s an elective course, which is a step in the right direction. That a specific translation isn’t used helps as well, though it could pose a problem in that translations can be vastly different, not include the same verses, and often say drastically different things. When I was in college and taking a Chaucer class, we studied Troilus and Criseyde which was, of course, written in Middle English. Thinking I was clever (I wasn’t), instead of buying the book with the translation that the teacher assigned, I got it online for free. And I was so damn lost! That’s Middle English, which is still pretty close to modern English (though nothing like Modern English), not Greek and Hebrew.

The problem is, of course, that the law is too narrowly defined. In order to pass First Amendment muster, it cannot just allow for Bible classes. It has to offer the option of a full Talmudic survey, an in depth look at the Bhagavad Gita, a hard hitting examination of the Tripitakas, and even, FSM protect me in your saucy embrace, a deep study of the Quran! In order to not show favoritism to any one faith in public schools, not only must a school allow the possibility of elective classes in all religions and no religion, they must also demonstrate that the law will not favor any particular religion in practice. I don’t see that happening in North Carolina.

This bit of the law is what really jumped out at me, though. Emphasis by the Curmudgeon.

(1) Knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratories, and public policies.

Actually…that’s kind of true. Over Christmas when I had a problem with one of our guests, a family friend who is a fundamentalist with all that entails, said friend was trying to feel me out about possibly being a True Believer because of my knowledge of the Bible. I didn’t mention that atheists tend to know his holy book better than most Christians, but I did mention that when I got my English degree, it came with an unofficial certification in Biblical scholarship, since Biblical allusion is among the most common literary techniques in Western literature. If you don’t know your Bible, you’re missing out on a lot of the subtext in the vast, vast majority of the literary canon. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m really glad I have that background since it makes literature much more rich for me, adding dimensions to the texts that aren’t clear on the surface and regularly improve them greatly.

For example, without knowing the parallels that he’s trying to make, Steinbeck is depressing and largely unreadable. Sorry, but he comes from the “everybody suffers in the end or it’s not art” school of writing. However, knowing and understanding the Biblical references he’s making in most of his work gives the story scope and context, transforming his works from singular sad tales to a larger, more human commentary. They’re still depressing, and I still don’t really like them, but they are significantly improved.

That being said, that’s what literature class is for. Understanding the religious underpinnings to war should be covered in history class. I’m not sure where we would address religion in math courses, and it has no place in science courses, but the point is that another elective class is not necessary to create a sense of the impact of the Bible on our culture.

The biggest problem with this is that it’s very, very difficult to teach about a specific religion without running into First Amendment issues. It’s one thing in English class to point out the parallels with between John Casey and Jesus, quite another to have to avoid every passage in the Bible that proclaims its absolute and uncontested truth. Plus, there is the high likelihood that teachers who instruct these classes will use the opportunity to preach.

So, yea, I see what Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, is trying to do, giving him the most charitable interpretation of his actions, but it’s not going to work. It’s a waste of time and resources that will inevitably be brought to court and lose. If his concern is actually teaching about the religious underpinnings of Western art and culture, then there are ways to accomplish that. The first is the pay teachers better so you can get better teachers with advanced degrees who know this stuff. The next is to encourage school boards to discuss these things as they relate to specific areas of study, not as a stand alone project.

In other words, there are eight churches in downtown Davidson, NC alone. Surely one of them offers a Bible study on the weekends. Let them handle the Biblical instruction and don’t waste time and money on a law that will ultimately fail.

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4 thoughts on “Elective Bible Studies

  1. Had a class in my high school (small-town Kansas) called “Bible as Literature.” It was taught by a teacher who was known for ecstatically dancing and speaking in tongues in her fundamentalist church. She wrote Scriptures on the chalkboard every day, which were visible to all her students, not just those in that particular class. Would anyone think for a minute that such a class wouldn’t be a publicly funded class in religion?

    • Exactly! Most of the time, these classes are a Trojan Horse attempt to get back to forcing students into learning Christianity. There are ways to teach the Bible as literature, sure, but they are incredibly difficult to do in public schools without running into the problem of indoctrination, which in many cases is a feature, not a bug for those teaching it.

      An example of how Biblical allusion can be taught well was in my high school Humanities class. One of the lessons that stuck with me was our discussion of the repetition of the number 40 in religious texts, including the Bible. It was then linked to natural occurrences that may have inspired that fixation, like that pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks (give or take). It was not an attempt to say, “Women are pregnant for 40 weeks because the Bible says the world was flooded for 40 day and 40 nights, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert.” Rather, it was to say, “The writers of passages like this saw numerical significance in pregnancy’s length and used that number in constructing their stories.”

  2. My first reaction is that hell yes, I’d love for Su, when she gets older, to be able to formally study the Bible in a school setting. It’s a hugely influential book whe it comes to our culture, and a) I have neither the interest nor the in-depth knowledge to teach it myself, and b) I certainly don’t want her studying it at a church! Somewhere neutral like a school, where she could learn to intellectually appreciate it as a cultural and literary phenomenon without bias or proselytizing, would be perfect.

    …and then I remember that I live in the real world. Sigh.

    • Right there with you. Ironically, if the likelihood of proselytization didn’t exist in this cases, it likely wouldn’t have been such an influential book. The Bible is such an important part of our culture because of centuries of fanatics and True Believers forcing people to adhere to it.

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