One more time: The Bible in Public Schools

I posted yesterday a clip from Jon Merritt’s forthright stand against the teaching of the Bible in public schools. I disagree for a few reasons:

I see the Bible in a public conversation to be a good thing since it will enhance the reading of the Bible;
students are mostly sharp enough not simply to believe whatever a teacher in a public school might teach;
this will generate more conversations between parents and their children about the Bible;
this will encourage pastors and churches to be more aware of alternative views and it will necessarily sharpen their own readings;
one needs to be exposed to alternative views about the Bible;
Paul was happy someone was talking about the gospel even if he didn’t like all they were saying;

if pastors are going to hide the documents of the Pentateuch from the church then let the public schools do it…

We use too many scare tactics about the character and intent of those who will be teaching the Bible in public schools. I’d like to see some stats on the faith orientation and perspectives of those who do teach Bible in public schools. Our public high school had such a class, our daughter loved the class, and we were happy for her to take it.

And then I read this comment, from “Abby,” and it makes me aware that many Christian communities do not teach discourse or how to have a good conversation.

As a ninth grade english teacher in a public school I can tell you this. The Bible is already taught in public schools. How do you teach Lord of the Flies or any Shakesperean text without talking about the Biblical references. How do you teach what a hero journey is without talking about Job, and Jesus. You know why it is hard to teach the Bible in my classroom? The evangelical kids. (I say this as an evangelical.) They have been taught they have to DEFEND the Bible and make sure everyone knows it is THE TRUTH. So, I have to constantly battle them if I want to teach it in a literary context. I too believe it is the truth, and I trust that the truth stands and defends itself. My friend teaches history and dreads the world religion unit because the evangelical kids are so obnoxious about representing Jesus beyond a historical context.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Todd Rivetti

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this issue and a bit about your family’s experiences. Our children have also benefited from hearing those outside of our church community reflect on the bible in their public school classrooms. Currently, our son is in a world religions class that has the students in his class interfacing with other students from other parts of the world on religious topics. Their class has engaged in video conferences with students from India as part of a Tony Blair sponsored educational initiative. As an evangelical, I am very grateful that he is able to have this experience. I agree with your statements that our children are generally aware enough to question whatever they hear outside of our community, and will become shaper in their own thinking as a result of these types of experiences.

  • Tim

    I would be interested to see how this would play out. I assume most teachers at the K-12 level wouldn’t have a strong exposure to Biblical Scolarship. But I would have to imagine you would have a few familiar with the, say, mythic nature of Genesis, ANE motifs that have worked their way into the OT, the polytheistic origins of Yahweh worship, pseudo-prophecy / resistance literature, theological diversity, conflicts with science and archeology, etc. Is this something parents would feel comfortable with?

  • Beth Ernest

    Thanks, Scot. I too read Merritt’s article and am grateful for the additional thoughts. We need to trust that the Holy Spirit is capable of breathing life into scripture whether believers are there to interpret it or not. It is, after all, the Word of God, not our word. The comments on some evangelical kids’ need to defend the bible are also what made Sunday School hard for my (evangelical) kids. Honest questioners can too easily be portrayed as scoffers, non-believers, or uneducated about biblical truths.
    I remember singing a song from “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in middle school chorus in the late 60′s. One of the lines went,”What we think is chic/ Unique/ And quite adorable/ They think is odd and “Sodom and Gomorrah”-ble” The young teacher stopped the rehearsal and asked if anyone knew what that meant. Nobody did. The girl sitting next to me, the daughter of a Church of God pastor, and I turned and stared at each other in disbelief. The moment passed. It seemed to me that my world shifted a tiny bit that day.

  • Blake

    John Stackhouse has written a couple of good blogs on religious education in public school contexts in the last year that may be worth the read for those interested.

    Scot, as to your comment about students not accepting anything a teacher teaches about a subject, my concern would be that this might not be true the more we move into post-Christendom. I would suspect that the more of society that lives as if it is a post-Christendom society the more readily they’ll blindly accept harsh critiques of religion by authority figures. We already see this among the more ardently secularized (e.g. militant atheists). In that context the “obnoxious evangelical” students (of which I used to belong, still evangelical but hopefully no longer obnoxious) are going to get destroyed in the debate by teachers, which will further prove the teacher’s points. I agree with Stackhouse that courses in world religions and religious histories ought to be invaluable in public school contexts in preparing people to understand the world around them. I think the real challenge is preparing the church for post-Christendom and teaching them that obnoxiousness is going to hurt them more than ever in that environment.

  • Andrew

    Again the presumption here is that the kids in this school are Christian. Many public schools have large non-Christian populations, and in some places majority non-Christian. So why just the Bible? What is stopping other religious-historical texts to be studied?
    And to argue the Bible should be taught because “our judeo-christian civilization was built on it” is a crumbling argument in a globalized world.
    If the argument is that there should be a general religions class in which the Bible would be read along with Confucius (Lord knows we need a better understanding of the framework of the Eastern mindset), I think that is fine. But I suspect that is not what’s being advocated here.

  • Karen in AZ

    As a substitute teacher I had a couple of interesting experiences. One came during the discussion of a read-a-loud from The House in the Big Woods (3rd grade). The chapter was called Sundays (or something close to that). It started a barrage of questions: Why Sunday? Why do Christians worship on Sundays? Why didn’t they go to a church?

    The other was more obvious – during a discussoin of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (5th grade).

    A teacher cannot indoctrinate or ask questions about doctrine, but if the students ask the questions, a teacher may answer. I had to take some time on a few of them to think carefully so I was giving an answer that gave information they had asked and was not teaching doctrine.

    The shocking thing for me was that most of the students did not know some basic things like that Christians worship on Sundays. (I also mentioned Muslims on Fridays and Jews on Saturday.) The questions kept gonig on and on. It was obvious that they had not been allowed to even ask these questions.

    On another note, I also took a Bible as Literature class in high school. Our teacher was a Christian.

  • phil_style

    There is a difference between being taught the bible, and being taught about the bible.
    Of course there is a place for being taught about the bible in school.

    In History class students learn how the bible (and those who have used it) has impacted history.
    In science class the bible might be discussed in any lessons on archaeology, and specifially when talking about how text are preserved and recovered by archaologists
    In classics class the bible couple be introduced as a comparative text from the ANE world when reading the Greek works
    In English class the bible would be used to show it’s literary history and features
    In Religion class the bible would be used as an example of one of the holy literary works revered by religions.

    At no point however, need any teacher expound on religious doctrine, unless that is relevant to the material at hand – i.e. How did use of the bible and religious doctrine influence the abolition of slavery debates in the US and the UK?

  • Doug Allen

    During my first two or three years of high school teaching after completing college, I taught the Bible as literature. My main preparation, besides a BA in English and graduate work in American Studies and in biology, was a year long college course, Old Testament followed by New Testament. The professor was a Baptist, probably from the American Baptist tradition, I’d guess. I didn’t think of myself then as a Christian nor do I now, but a follower of Jesus. Though I have little recollection of the class, I’m pretty sure we read many of the well known psalms, songs, stories, etc. and discussed passages and Biblical ideas that are part of our literary heritage or important to our historical traditions. Students probably brought up hot button issues, but I don’t remember that. I also suspect I used Socratic method to help students understand different points of view. Tomorrow, almost 50 years later, I’m teaching a regular class at church – “Living the Questions” which is a 31 part “Introduction to Progressive Christianity” that is “an open-minded alternative to studies that attempt to give participants all the answers.” Well presented and recommended for those from any religious tradition or none. However, I don’t believe it would be appropriate in high school, but the bible as literature and classes in comparative religion are very appropriate my opinion.


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