Monday, September 28, 2009

You MUST Eat the Bible: Texas Biblical Literacy Mandate Goes into Effect

Leave it to the Texas state legislature to screw up a good thing. In 2007, the Lone Star State passed a law--Texas HB 1287--mandating that public schools teach Biblical literacy when a minimum of 15 students request it. The law just went into effect this fall, but the AP reports that schools are struggling to interpret and implement it.

Why? Because legislators left the mandate unfunded--and provided no clear guidelines for how it should be put in place. Apparently, schools needn't offer full-scale Biblical literacy electives (thankfully); they may instead incorporate relevant material into existing curricula. In which classes? The law doesn't say, though we hope that "biology class" isn't an option. As 30 Rock's Kenneth says, "Science was my favorite subject. Especially the Old Testament." And just for fun, here's Kenneth on Jesus.

Of course, these are just the first of a slew of problems with publicly funded Bible literacy projects. Church-state and first-amendment issues are also at play, at least in part because bill author Warren Chisum argues that only Biblical literacy--and not, for instance, Quranic literacy--is necessary and constitutional: “The bill applies to the Bible as a text that has historical and literary value. It can’t go off into other religious philosophies because then it would be teaching religion, when the course is meant to teach literature. Koran is a religious philosophy, not of historical or literary value, which is what the Bible is being taught for.”

Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Chisum: Bible=literature. Qur'an=religious philosophy. (Notice the mild critique implied by the word "philosophy.") I'd also bet a prairie lasso that for Mr. Chisum, "Christian"="law-abiding, heterosexual child of God." But I'm just speculating. And no, I don't know what a "prairie lasso" is.

Nonetheless, it's a shame that such efforts are being bungled, because Biblical literacy is a worthwhile project. Perhaps even as a part of American adolescents' secondary education.

Now, realize that I support no state or federal legislative efforts to require--or chide or encourage or champion or privilege--Biblical literacy. We're too close to violations of the establishment clause. But I do believe that teens should know the Bible better, because it remains one of the most important religious, historical, cultural, and literary documents ever produced.

Here, I defer to Stephen Prothero, a former professor of mine who argues for the importance of Biblical literacy both in his excellent book Religious Literacy and in a 2007 LA Times op-ed.

From the latter: "In a religious literacy quiz I have administered to undergraduates for the last two years, students tell me that Moses was blinded on the road to Damascus and that Paul led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. Surveys that are more scientific have found that only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. No wonder pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is 'a nation of biblical illiterates.'"

True that. Now, I don't want to argue--with Texas Congressman Chisum--that knowing the Bible should happen in a vacuum. Indeed, if students know frighteningly little about the Bible, they know nothing about the Qur'an, they've never heard of the Vedas, and they think that "sutra" is just half of the name of a sex manual. And that's a bad thing.

However, I would argue that Biblical literacy is more important to young Americans than basic knowledge of some of these other texts--not because it's such an intrinsically greater book, but because the United States is an overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian nation. As a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey reports, over three-quarters of us self-identify as Christian, and a handful more are self-described Jews. Said differently, nearly four of five Americans identify with a religious tradition that thinks of the Bible as sacred text.

So perhaps it would be good if we all knew this text better, and from a younger age. Not because some legislative crazies from Texas say so. But because the Bible is a crucial part of the American religious landscape. Yee haw.


  1. Michael Johnson (Shady)September 28, 2009 at 7:40 PM

    I think you have a very good point. I believe the Bible is a very important piece of literature, especially in the US since so much of our culture, politics, and society are based on it. But I must say, I think that 10% of US citizens thinking that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife brings to light the fact that there is a major lack of historical education as well as religious.

    The major problem that I see with trying to teach students about the Bible is the teacher. With the multitude of interpretations, even within each Christian sect, you would have no consistancy and likely have the class misused as a pulpit for the teacher to preach their bully ideas. It is too powerful a subject and it seems like a slippery slope. Don't get me wrong, although I am not religious in pretty much any sense, I do see the value in learning about the bible and religion as it is a foundation of most societies, but it should be at an optional level of schooling such as college, university, or a private school. The public schools are a ward of the state and there is a separation that should be kept for a reason.

    Moreover, I would argue that now is a time for the Qur'an to make a larger appearance in US schools. With current tensions between the US and Islam, perhaps giving the youth a larger purview would help to ameliorate this relationship. Even though not taught in public schools, the Christian religion is all around us and there are many people willing to teach it. How about diversifying things a bit?

  2. Touche, Michael ... you're absolutely right on all points. I suppose that my argument is not so much that I want to see the Bible taught in public schools, but that I ironically agree with the Texas legislators' (ultimately misguided) intent--it would be good if we were more Biblically literate ... at least in part because American artists, politicians, writers, movie makers, and, yes, religious leaders refer to the
    Bible much more frequently than they do any other scriptural text. And of course the teacher matters--but I hope more than anything that people would just READ the Bible more frequently, and at greater length.

    You're also probably correct to note that Quranic literacy is crucial too ... I'll just leave the making of that argument for the author of "" :)

  3. Hmmm, but what translation of the Bible are you going to have people "eat"? Sounds like a dicey question to me--maybe you should consult ;) It's a crazy world we live in!

  4. Holy crap, Rachel ... that's both absolutely frightening and absolutely awesome. :) Thank you! I plan on peppering my language with more "powerful conservative terms" going forward.


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