Monday, June 06, 2005

Bible Literacy

Suzanne Fields has an alligator tears column in which she cries about the fact that American kids don't know the Bible as a literary work. Her article can't quite decide whether it's a pro religion tract or a critique of our failing schools. But fortunately she has a a solution.
No one proposes teaching the Bible as a sacred text or to promote religious faith in public schools. With three kinds of Jews, a dozen varieties of Methodists and countless flavors of Baptists, just for starters, we could never agree on what, exactly, should be taught as doctrine even if that's what we set out to do. But in a less-than-perfect world there can be no harm, and a lot of good, in well-informed surveys of the Bible as literature, showing how the Bible has shaped history, philosophy, the law, art and other subjects, inspiring our earliest settlers, Founding Fathers and presidents unto the modern day.
My school did have an optional Bible as literature class if memory serves. But I'm not sure this is intended as a solution or as a foot in the door. Once the Bible is being taught as literature, are Christian communities going to be satisfied or frustrated? Do they really want the Bible to be treated in the same way as, say, the Sonnets of Shakespeare? Do they want the words treated as having come from a human mind or a divine intelligence? Who should teach the course? That young bright atheist or that equally young, equally bright believer?

One can certainly assume that Christian communities do not want to see the bible taught in such a way as it would hurt their young peoples faith. Which presents the school and particularly the teacher with a bit of a challenge. Because, as Ms. Fields says, the teacher also can't promote a specific faith (or set of faiths) in her teaching either. I don't think negotiating this particular mine field can be done in a lower lever or a required class. On the other hand, I think Ms. Fields thinks that her more traditional values would eventually emerge victorious in this particular debate. Or, to return to the crocodile tears metaphor above, she's less worried about teaching kids from a specific point of view than she claims.

On the other hand, exposing our young scholars to the Bible certainly seems like a good idea. So how does one do it? In an upper level optional class where all the students choose to be there. Even that's not perfect (as there are well-intentioned atheist and Christian parents who will put kids in that class in order to pick a fight).

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