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.