America is, quite famous, a nation based on the principle of freedom of religion. This makes it easy to understand why many people would feel uncomfortable with certain types of religious practices (usually prayer in particular) and education in public schools. A little more than a week ago President Trump tweeted his support for the introduction of Biblical literacy lessons in schools, drawing attention to the efforts of various Christian groups to put the Bible back on the high school agenda.
After Trump's statement, there was a lot of media attention on the issue. Fox News reported that "at least six states, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia have introduced legislation that urges public schools to offer Bible literacy courses this year," noting that these classes would be elective courses. (The Indiana account is not a Bible course at all, but requires that the previously existing class of world-religious electives should have a conversation about the Bible).
There is a strategy here: Project Blitz, an initiative sponsored by the Congressional Pudding Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation and the WallBuilders ProFamily Legislative Network, orchestrates the pressure to create these accounts.
As Mark Chancey, a prominent professor in SMU religions, has written, it is actually legal to teach the Bible in schools, so in a way these accounts are not necessary. Courses like the Trump tweets have been around for a century. Chancey told The Daily Beast that "it is important to recognize that Bible verses and their sponsors have different motivations … sometimes a bill is clearly more than just biblical literacy, and that is certainly the case with Project Blitz accounts." Other measures that Project Blitz has called for the promotion of the motto "In God We Trust", the introduction of a "Year of the Bible" and the restriction of the rights of same-sex couples and transgenders. Chancey told me: "Project Blitz arms Bible literacy for the cultural wars."
As a professor of religion, I think that religious literacy is a commendable goal. Regardless of our religious beliefs, if we want to understand our history, traditions, literature, music and art, we must understand the religious texts and practices that have contributed to it. The problems with Bible literacy courses are twofold. First, the focus on Jewish-Christian traditions to the exclusion of other religious traditions promotes the idea that Christianity is a privileged religion in the United States and lacks an opportunity to educate children in the wide range of religious beliefs of Americans. Secondly, it is difficult to teach the Bible in a way that does not harm any denomination of Christianity.
To give just one clear example, Jews, Catholics and Protestants do not use the same Bible. Catholics and Protestants do not agree on what books the Bible should contain, let alone how we should understand the contents of those books. Add to this the fact that some denominations read certain passages metaphorically while others are more invested in literal interpretations, and it is very difficult to teach a Biblical literacy class in a non-sectarian way. A single version will be used, and the selection of that text and the prioritization of certain stories and perspectives on others will always lean towards a certain kind of Christianity. Christians must also worry about confessional indoctrination as members of other religious groups and atheists.
A special point is the way in which denomination-supported educational institutions represent the material they teach. In an interview with The Washington Times In the way they present material, Ken McKenzie, CEO of the recently opened Hobby Lobby History Museum in DC, discussed the non-sectarian Bible curriculum of the museum. While Hobby Lobby previously sponsored efforts to place a Bible curriculum in public schools, they now focus on private schools and homeschoolers. McKenzie offered the following example of what a non-sectarian training looks like:
"We will read the story, and then we will study the material around it Archeological excavations have found the stone that was used from 1.5 to 2 pounds, and we will look at some old texts about life at that time and watch a video that shows how a pendulum can be accurate, "McKenzie said. "This is not [an assignment that says], & # 39; This is what we believe. & # 39; "
The statement created an immediate wave of interest from academics who, understandably, wondered if McKenzie suggested that the Museum of the Bible itself claims to have the "1.5 to 2 pound" murder weapon that, according to the story, killed Goliath. In a commentary on The Daily Beast, McKenzie explained that he had been taken out of context; that what he meant was that "archaeological research in the area where the event is said to have occurred stones have been excavated from that time with a weight of 1.5 to 2.5 pounds." He also added that this is not a real example from the curriculum of the institution.
It is frustrating that McKenzie is incorrectly quoted, but the method he describes raises another problem: the way in which Christian organizations protect archeology in the presentation of biblical texts. The presence of small rocks in the region where David fought against Goliath is not proof of the biblical story any more than the existence of the Sea of Galilee proves that Jesus walked on water. And even if the study books do not explicitly offer this as evidence or evidence of faith, it selectively uses archeology as a support system for the accuracy of the biblical message. An example like this obscures the bigger problem: that the Bible tells us two different things about how David murders Goliath. In the first version, David Goliath kills with a slingshot and specifically without a sword (1 Samuel 17:50); in the second version he knocks Goliath down with the catapult, pulls out his sword, kills Goliath and decapologizes him (1 Samuel 17:51). The reason for the difference, according to Yale professor of Hebrew Bible Joel Baden's The historic David, they combine two different, contradictory versions of the story of David and Goliath. By presenting descriptions of the geology of the region, everything – and in particular the biblical text – seems to be simpler than it is.
The thing to worry about with Biblical literacy lessons is not that they exist, but that politicians are introducing bills that support them in an attempt to return to a fictional point in time when everyone & # 39; Bible literate & # 39; used to be. that is not only the distorted presentation of American history, or even the fact that these are attempts to privilege Christianity, but rather that it is impossible to present the Bible in an impartial manner. By claiming that this is so, the interpretative tradition of a particular group is presented as the collective beliefs of all Christians.