Should Public Schools Bring Back Bible Study?

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Recently, there has been a bit of discussion about the possibility of teaching “Introduction to the Bible” courses to a generation of students illiterate about the most foundational document in Western Civilization. Not surprisingly, discussion has tended to polarize into two groups: those who insist on the “wall of separation” between Church and State, and those who insist on getting “back to the Bible” if we hope to save what little remains of civilization in a schoolyard dominated by drugs, guns, and teen pregnancy.

I believe both positions are wrong-headed, but for very different reasons.

“Wall” advocates tend to regard any mention of the Bible in the schoolroom as an act of “establishment of religion” by the State. Therefore, courses on the Bible are synonymous with attempting to “convert” children. When confronted with well-meaning people who mumble something about the need to understand the Bible, Wall advocates often employ an “all or nothing” strategy to stop discussion. “Why just the Bible?” they say. “Why not study the Q’uran too? Why not also the various holy books of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Scientology, Deism, Pantheism, Wicca, and all the other pagan religions of European origin, as well as all of the hundreds of African, Australian and American tribal religions? Or, why not just keep all religious material out of the school system of a pluralistic society?”

On the surface, this “drinking from a fire hose” method of pluralistic intimidation seems cogent. But it only works by assuming that the real purpose of studying the Bible in the classroom is to proselytize. This is not so. The normal reason an “Introduction to the Bible” class is proposed is because, whether Wall advocates like it or not, it is the Bible, not Jainism or African animism, which undergirds both American and Western Civilization. If you do not understand the Bible, you cannot possibly understand most of what has been thought about and done (for good or ill) in Western culture for the past 2,000 years. And notably, the Pluralistic Intimidation card is not played anywhere but here. Nobody says, for instance, that we must either study every single political theory, writer, trend, and notion (as well as every obscure tribal arrangement, tin horn dictator, and obscure national government from every time and place in human history) or else concede that classes which concentrate on major Western political theories are hopelessly biased and have no place in a pluralistic society. Only the mention of the Bible provokes such absurd arguments.

Which, of course, must mean I advocate teaching the Bible in public schools, no?

No. Here’s why.

I oppose studying the Bible in public schools since doing so is like taking an ember out of the fire and trying to see what makes it glow. Soon, you have only a dead coal. If I want to learn about the Bible, I think it is far more sensible to ask somebody who not only knows the technicalities of authorship, date, context, etc. but who actually believes its message, than to ask a paid educator with no fundamental sympathy for it. Likewise, if I wished to understand the Q’uran, I would ask a Muslim, not a technician. The wrong-headed attempt to reduce a religion to an academic subject rather than take it first as what it claims to be—a Way—is hopelessly inadequate to comprehending what the Bible or any sacred text is about.

This is not, in any way, to disparage biblical studies as, for instance, they are carried out in universities and seminaries. These are, in fact, invaluable. But I think, especially at the high school level, that it is important to receive a sacred text as an expression of a community and to develop some sympathy for that community before one begins the act of dissecting that text. The Bible is not a mere “document” to Christians and Jews. It is something more like a beating heart in the body of their community. To take the Bible out of the context of the community that produced it and place it in the hands of a secular culture which seeks only to dissect it is exactly like taking a living heart out of a living person in order to study the heart and the person better. What you instantly have is a dead heart and a dead person. For this reason, I think a secular “intro to the Bible” class would be more a way of inoculating students to the Bible than “introducing” them to it. If kids need an introduction to the Bible (and they do), let them get it at Church.

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