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Friday, March 1, 2013

The Bible and Public Schools

           In the February 28th edition of The Wall Street Journal filmmakers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett published an opinion column[1]concerning the teaching of the Bible as history and literature in American public schools. The motivation behind their article is the premier of their 10-part miniseries on the Scriptures appropriately titled The Bible, which will air on the History Channel beginning Sunday, March 3rd.
            I’m interested in the series and will definitely watch the premier episode. The Bible has already received good reviews from at least one source I trust, namely in an article[2]that appeared in The Christian Post on the same day. The series is the latest attempt to tell the great stories of Scripture to a wide audience that has largely ignored those same stories.
            As excited as I am about the miniseries, the filmmakers’ article in the WSJ teased my interest even more. Downey and Burnett, both of whom were raised in Europe where the Bible is taught much more widely as literature, believe that the time has come to take the teaching of the Bible in American schools more seriously “for the sake of the nation’s children.” They continue “it’s time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”
            Anticipating the predictable response of those who draw a bright line between public education and the establishment of religion, the authors remind us that “the Supreme Court has said it’s perfectly OK for schools to do so [teach the Bible as literature], ruling in 1963 (Abington School District v. Schempp) that “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.””
           The authors’ goal is not to evangelize, but to preserve a literary and cultural touchstone without which Western culture would be greatly different. At no point is a specific interpretation of Scripture implied, nor is the concept of faith in God in any way advanced. Rather, the thrust of the argument is that not studying the Bible is un-American because the vocabulary of the Scriptures has, at least in part, defined what it means to be an American.

            One of my convictions as a pastoris that the Bible must be taught with more diligence, urgency, and expectation in our churches. There is far too little basic knowledge of the Bible in our pews, which renders preaching, Christian education, and especially discipleship more difficult and, in many cases, an endless cycle of remediation where on-again-off-again Sunday School teachers re-hash the same juvenile spiritual truths to occasional participants.
          What this article reminded me of, though, is the essential nature of Biblical study. When I approach the Bible to prepare for a sermon or lesson, or even when I read it for personal devotion, I do so as a person who has a fundamental assumption that the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures can (and certainly will) speak to me through those Scriptures. Reading the Bible is dangerous for that very reason: diving into the depths of Holy Scripture renders the reader liable to a transformation by the Spirit of God, an outcome that can hardly be anticipated and certainly not prevented by abstract notions of “reading the Bible as literature.”
          Downey and Burnett are not interested in your faith; they are interested in reclaiming and re-popularizing the language of the King James Bible so that we can be better-informed and perceptive citizens. Without getting too much into history, the phrases that the authors are so interested in defending are idiomatic expressions that were poetic interpretations of difficult Greek and Hebrew ideas that appeared in the ancient sources used in the creation of the KJV.
          I appreciate the cultural impactthat the Elizabethan language and phrasing has had on America. I enthusiastically agree with the authors that such literary and linguistic artistry is worthy of promulgation and preservation. It does seem interesting, though, that the argument about the teaching of the Bible as literature and history is predicated on the specific vocabulary contained within a single translation of the Scriptures.
          The separation of the form of the Scriptures and their content is certainly worthy of academic examination, even at the secondary school level. Further, the analysis of the literary themes and modes of Scripture as well as the sitz imleben of those texts are also fertile areas of study. However, the fears of those who would avoid or preclude such study in public high schools is well founded and very real. It is difficult, almost impossible to separate the reading of Scripture from the faith that such study develops at the leading of the Spirit, especially when those doing the studying are young and not professional academics.
          The use of the Scriptures as a devotional collection is inescapable, even for the authors of the article. Notice how they end their argument – “Can we hear an amen?” Even in the faith-phobic, sanitized classrooms that the authors would like to see made mandatory in American public schools the presence of the language of worship, of community, and of the participation of like-believing men and women is unavoidable. Yes, I’ll give you an ‘amen,’ but only if you recognize that such a call-and-response invitation undermines the position that the use of the Scriptures separate from participation in a relationship with God is not so easy to achieve.


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