Sunday, January 29, 2006

Hurrah for The Bible and Its Influence

I am strongly in favor of teaching about the Bible in all schools, including the public schools. In fact, especially the public schools, where all my children attend. The Bible is unquestionably the most important book in the history of Europe, Australia, South America, and North America. It will soon have that status in Africa, if it does not already. I think the 21st century will ultimately be one of the great Christian centuries of Asia, where it all began. Not teaching about the Bible in American schools would be an absurd folly.

On the other hand, the public schools cannot teach the Bible as true. This is the deal we have made in order to have state-supported common schools.

The same is true, in miniature, of the Ten Commandments. Of course you may post the Ten Commandments on the public school wall – just teach about them and their influence in your class. Of course you may not post the Ten Commandments on the public school wall as the school's rules for conduct – not the first four commandments, anyway.

For years there has been a movement to teach the Bible itself in school. Over and over again, the courts have rejected with as an impermissible endorsement of a particular religion. In principle this is not a partisan issue, though most of the politicians who still make such proposals are Republicans. Democrats have learned the lesson, and are now trying a new and different approach. A book, The Bible and Its Influence, has been written specifically for use in public schools to teach about what the Bible says and why that has been so determinative for Western history and culture. Legislators in Georgia and Alabama have proposed legislation to authorize school districts to have such a course.

Republicans should support teaching about the Bible and its influence. Instead, they have been fussing that Democrats are Pharisees and hypocrites for stealing "their" issue. Yet teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible are quite different, pedagogically and constitutionally. Religious politicians of all parties should support teaching about the Bible in the public schools in the only way possible. If not, they should give up on the public schools altogether – and stop being politicians.


Charlotte said...

I share your love of the book, and also consider it required reading for cultural literacy. The King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare are the bedrock of English literature.
I think young people should read as widely as possible both about the great religions and about their texts as they have influenced western thinking and history. And also that they should read the texts themselves.
I'm just inclined to think that this should wait until high school with teachers who are trained in specific disciplines, and that there should be some kind of parental review of the books and materials used. We have that here with sex education.

Anonymous said...

The issue I see is that too few democrats are concerned enough to actually see that this is done and done properly. Instead, those of the likes of the Mass. Senators are trying to muster enough support to filibuster Samuel Alito. They don't care whether American school children understand this compendium of what has amounted to the bedrock of Western Civilization, instead they are interested in rallying their far leftist and opposing Alito who was rated "highly qualified" by the American Bar Association.

Until the leaders of the democratic party wise up, or there is a mass exodus of moderates to a third party, sensible average Americans still won't be able to read Shakespeare and understand all of his masterful subtleties.

Anonymous said...

Granted, the Bible is an important book. However, there are many other extremely important books that aren't read that should be given focus as well. Consider Nicolas Copernicus' "On The Rotation of Heavenly Bodies," or Darwin's "The Origin of Species" perhaps two of the most revolutionary books of the last century. How about Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto." These are all important texts.

There simply isn't the opportunity to work these things into a basic curriculum. We're trying to teach the children of America to be educationally proficient in any number of areas, and there's already a strain on teachers to get it all accomplished. Adding Bible studies to an already crowded curriculum would greatly detract from time that could be well spent in a more basic foundation.

Also, how can you be assured that this subject would be taught in a dispassionate manner? I feel like the opportunity to ignore the constraints of a historical/literary look at the Bible would deteriorate into attempts to evangelize.

Also, which version of the Bible would be used? The King James version, where God speaks in 17th century English? The NRSV? Would you teach the apocrypha? The gnostic gospels? Are these just as important biblically?

Would you also teach the Qu'ran as Islam is the fastest growing religion world-wide, and the most dominant in much of Asia and the pacific rim? In an age fraught with religious tensions wouldn't it be wise to teach an understanding of Islamic viewpoints?

Yes, the Bible plays an important part over the course of history for the past 2,000 years. That is undeniable. However, this can, and is taught in different ways. We can learn more about the Bible's importance by studying about how religion influenced/justified/parallels different social/political/economic movements. This can be done, and often is more effectively done by looking at the movement and an occasionally overview of the text, but not an intensive study. getting that bogged down in the details is being too absorbed by minutia,and the bigger picture is lost.

These are all questions/critiques I have of this proposal, not to mention my questions about the rights of the minority religions to exist in an atmosphere where they are not required to read the doctrine of another faith. While I very much agree about the power of Biblical influence, I feel that teaching it in American public schools is wholly unneccessary.

Charlotte said...

Hey, Anonymous -
I'm a Democrat. How did Alito get into this discussion?

Gruntled said...

I agree entirely with no spring chicken, though I don't think we need to wait to high school. Our history and literature presuppose the Bible -- even the elementary versions.

One of my prime aims politically is to encourage the religious torso (bigger than a wing) of the Democratic Party to act on the broad religious common ground of America. One viable action is to enable schools to teach about the Bible. I think most Democratic elected officials, especially at the local level, are religious and would have no real problem with this, if they did not catch grief from the secular minority of the party.

Copernicus, Darwin, and Marx are excellent examples of why we need to teach about the Bible as basic cultural literacy. All of them not only knew the biblical narrative, their work -- the very texts you name -- are responses to the Bible and its interpretation. And I would hope that a course about the Bible and its influence would be taught passionately, just as every other subject should be.

Charlotte said...

The example of Islam, brought up by Anonymous, is a particularly telling one, because in every faith there are different angles (or selective readings) of holy texts, and often they are influenced by everything from the economy to fear of modernity to a wish to control others.
In some cases -- most notably regarding public prayer -- many Christians completely ignore what their scripture tells them. Also, 2,000 years or not, most people haven't caught up with Jesus YET, and there might be some objections to reading radical statements such as those taught on the Mount.
On the other hand, we willingly let our children see all kinds of made-up mythologies and simplifications of ancient human conflicts on the small and large screens, and plenty of kids are working out good vs. evil and light vs. darkness with computer games.
I still think studies of world religions and holy texts should take place in high school, after kids have more mature minds, can accept ambiguities and sort some things out on their own. This is not because they're going to be converted by reading any kind of scripture. It's because they need to have on their full armor before dealing with the nitwit teachers who truly would be mixed in with the good ones.

Anonymous said...

Since my Christianity trumps my political affiliation, I'm hopeful that we will NOT see the day that the Bible is even "taught about" in school.

Let me explain.

I am the stepparent of a child who spent his elementary school years in England.

In England, there is a required unit of "religious education" in schools, one which gives students highlights and tenants of all of the world's major religions.

While on the surface, that may seem to be a great compromise, I have come to find that it is not so great.

Instead -- and this is according to his biological mom -- placing the Bible beside other religions' primary texts has served to promote a sort of "equality" of relgions to him. That is to say, now that he is in high school and has begun the spiritual "meaning-making" process that is characteristic of most all of us, it has become a rhetorical challenge to him -- "Isn't the Bible only as legitimate as the Koran?"

Now at a later age, perhaps he'll have the intellectual vigor and capacity to pursue those questions.

As a high school student who doesn't even know the answers to elementary questions like "When is cold water as appropriate as warm or hot water for the laundry?"... it only retards his initiative to grow spiritually.

That's my observation, fwiw.

Michael Reynolds said...

Republicans don't want the bible taught, they want their version of the bible taught. A bible with the divinely-decreed murder of helpless children glossed over or left out; a bible minus all the bizarre dietary obsessions nthey have no intention of adhering to; a bible that doesn't endorse slavery or preach the inherent uncleanness of women or demand the death penalty for the wrong kind of sex or for cursing one's parents.

They want a bowdlerized bible. Put together a curriculum that addresses the bible objectively and I'm willing to bet 90% of advocates (yourself excepted) would switch sides.

Gruntled said...

To Gruntling in Lex: The Bible and Its Influence is not a comparative religion course, but, on the contrary, is meant to show the unique historical importance of the Bible. I agree, though, that political pressures are likely to try to make it into the kind of relativistic exercise you rightly fear.

To Michael: I believe in the large middle. I take the sponsors of the legislation, and the producers of the book and curriculum, at their word when they say that they want to promote cultural literacy about the indispensible book. Yes, some other people, primarily Republican, have been trying to teach (their version of) the Bible as true, but they have been stymied by the courts, and get nothing more than lip service from the president and their party leaders.

Anonymous said...

Michael, if you want a point-by-point debate on the levitical rules of the Jews, then maybe we could arrange to do that sometime... you wouldn't be the first to be surprised by just how much common sense, culturally-speaking, lies beneath what you consider to be silliness...

But instead of a rhetorical jousting, let me offer this simple, human response to your stated perspective...

Michael, for some LARGE number of people in this world, the Bible is the key document that has inspired us to do many good things, sometimes as public as participating in recovery efforts from hurricanes and tsunamis, sometimes as private as anonymous gifts to the disadvantaged.

Hopefully, you would never "gloss over" that since you are on record with concern that people see the book in its entirety, nor "gloss over" those lengthy parts of the Bible which cry out for people to "love their neighbor," and to even "love their enemy."

I get the impression you would disagree, but my friend, there is a strong argument when you look at the anthropological evolution of the world that the basis of "right is might" -- and thus, human equality (read: women's rights and the end of slavery) -- was most clearly propagated and advanced by what the Bible's authors wrote.

In 2006, it is a little harder to see that without being able to conceive the state of human equality in the time of Paul, and harder to see that without the benefit of experiencing life in 1865, or 1910, or for some even 1960 here in America.

Now, I wouldn't presume to ask you to accept the Bible as center for your spiritual life; but rather, I'd just ask you to pause and appreciate and take a positivist approach to all of the good work and civilized society that has been accomplished as a result of even just those parts of it that have been propagated that are consistent with those things you yourself know to be morally right -- things like honesty, kindness, patience, love, hope, faith, etc.

Gruntled: Inescapably, and to my mind rightfully, there will be a clamoring for teaching that reveals the influence of all other religions' holy books. As a result, the implicit message to our public school students is one that serves to secularize and homogenize the Bible, asserting what is intended to be a spiritual book into one that is only as spiritual as any other religious book.

Michael Reynolds said...

I am of course well aware of the many good things said in the bible, and the many great works of art inspirede by the bible, and the many good people whose deeds were inspired by the bible. The lists are too long to think of reproducing here.

But the bible has always been a bit of a whore: anyone can use it for whatever they like. For every great deed inspired by the bible there's been a great crime similarly inspired or justified.

I never have a problem with the truth being taught. I have a problem with propaganda.

I don't think you could get away with teaching the bible objectively in a public school in this country, I think Christians would be outraged. I don't think they are capable for the most part of reading the bible objectively. Certainly the people who argue for inerrancy are not prepared to have its historical or scientific facts questioned.

Anonymous said...


Fair enough. I don't agree with everything, but certainly I respect your thoughts.

(I do feel compelled to take issue just with the lack of respect conveyed by terming the Bible a "whore." I get what you mean by that, and even agree with the general sentiment -- no one can deny that people have performed great evils in the name of Judaism and Christianity, increduously ignoring all that the fundamental statements that the Bible contains to the contrary of those kinds of actions -- but if you'll allow me, I think your assertion could be termed in a more tasteful, less sensational way, easier on the eyes/ears to those of us who do consider it an important spiritual book and who do believe its central mantra that we love God and love each other.)

And in case you couldn't have guessed (*wink*), I am one of those individuals to whom you refer -- I do believe the Bible to be inerrant, even as I can't explain every difficulty the text presents.

(For example, I'm still scratching my head about that Tower of Babel scene, and why God would be so worried that these people might build a tower that high... I'm open to anyone's thoughts on that one.)

But I'm not discouraged that there are a few places where I'm befuddled -- in part, because no one has a time machine from which to go back and examine the complete context that may serve to make it all more plain... in part because of the magnitude of the rest of the book that is just plain amazing and wonderful and wise... in part because I've personally found tremendous spiritual guidance from the rest of the book... and in part, because even as I can't explain all of the difficulties, non-believers on the other hand cannot explain all of the difficulties with, say, evolutionary theory for instance... either way on either side, you have people forced to admit that they think that someday they'll know it all, but they don't just yet... either way, "faith" is involved.

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, sociologists dispute whether Christanity or Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide. Africa presents an interesting data collection challenge. Maybe Gruntled could shed some light on this.

Anonymous said...

I do see the possibility of secularizing the Bible if taught in public school, primarily because of well intentioned teachers who don't want to be too pushy and end up relegating it to a lists of all religious texts. Of course there would be some who would vigorously teach and "evangelize" and others who would teach and advocate the evil of the Bible, but my primary concern comes from those well intentioned teachers, who would be ill prepared and probably not up to the task intellectually, to teach the course as it should be. So in a moment of defeating my emotions, I would have to say that overall it would not be a good idea to teach the Bible in public schools. Also, I think the fact that the Church can and does teach the Bible as Truth is what keeps the Church so vibrant in the US.

Charlotte said...

You guys have very rapidly persuaded me that it's probably not at all a good idea to have a public school course on the Bible.

Anonymous said...

First a quick one about “Hurrah for the Bible.” This posting surprised me Gruntled (can I just say Beau? I feel so silly calling you Gruntled and then having my real name at the bottom). I agree whole heartedly with you that religion and the Bible are very important to society and to me personally, in fact you helped me to see that, but you can’t teach the bible as a historical document before college. Heck, I’ve been in college course at Centre were it was difficult to talk about the Bible in a historical context, how on earth would that play out at PRP? While I do understand your point; the whole thing smacks of the majority throwing their weight around. Although I don’t think that was your original intent, I can’t see the end result being anything other than that.

Anonymous said...

"no one can deny that people have performed great evils in the name of Judaism and Christianity..."

I, for one, would be interested to read more about those "great evils" performed in the name of Judaism, which Gruntled in Lexington has mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, certainly I had Christianity moreso in mind as I wrote that, but I'm not sure that that diminishes the point of the sentence. Suffice it to say that, while I personally don't see it, there are people like my ex-father-in-law who consider Judaism to have propagated "white collar evils" for centuries -- ie, under the premise that they continue to be God's chosen people. But again, that's really ancillary to the point -- human beings have invoked the name of God and their religion to justify behaviors that are obviously unjust, and even evil.

Gruntled said...

I agree that it is difficult to teach anything hard well in high school. Still, I don't want the students who come to me in college ignorant of the Bible and its critical role in Western history, and I certainly don't want that half of Americans who don't go to college to never study the Bible and its influence at all. SO, perhaps the way to deal with hard things to teach well is to hire better teachers and better train the ones we have.

Gruntled said...

As to which faith is growing faster, I think it is impossible to tell. Christianity is evangelizing faster, Islam is growing faster by natural increase (probably). Christian societies let people choose not to be Christians, whereas Muslim societies don't let people choose not to be Muslims. Both numbers are inflated, (800 million Christians? A billion Christians? 1.2 billion Christians?) I think the Muslim numbers are, on the whole, more inflated, because the cultures in which Islam predominates just assume that everyone but foreigners among them are Muslims, whether they are really observant or not.

I am confident that there are more Christians than Muslims, and that the Muslim baby boom is cooling off.

Anonymous said... has some interesting info. Esp. the FAQ page.

Anonymous said...

Interesting news, to be sure! I agree that even though there is a fundamental difference between teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible, we should take this oportunity and run with it.

On the issue of Republicans vs. Democrats I'm SO GLAD to have found another Christian centrist. People like us are hard to find. I'm gonna add you to my blogroll. Good stuff here.

Gruntled said...

Thanks, Ben. I will take a look at Open Switch.

TheEtruscan said...

The Case AGAINST Teaching The Hebrew Bible:

1) Why worship a Jewish God at a Jewish altar?

2) Why elevate this book, the Hebrew Bible, above all others? What happened to the Iliad, the Odysseys and the Aeneid, the classics of old?

3) 2/3 of the 6.5 billion people on planet Earth DO NOT share the "The Hebrew Bible so pervades Western culture" reasoning line. Why be exclusionists?

4) Why would the conquest of Canaan (or any other victory by the Jews) so violently described in the Hebrew Bible (Gexx:xx) be something to root for? I am a pacifist Etruscan and as such I have as much love for the Canaanites as I would for the Jewish people. Shouldn't a real universal god feel and act likewise? During World War I, the Germans went to war with "Gott mit uns" (God is with us) on their belt buckles and on the other side, the French and British clergy were also blessing their troops. Besides what kind of god is YWHW that cannot give a "virgin" Promised Land of Milk and Honey to his people thereby avoiding all the troubles? This is the selfsame god that in Genesis 4:3-5 "And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering..." Wouldn't a real god like both offerings equally? Why like Abel's fat, blood and animal sacrifices more than Cain's fruits and vegetables of the earth and why engender animosity between brothers? Not to mention collective punishment Genesis xxxyy. Are we to believe that the Jewish peope are more important than Egyptian innocent children? Given the above and the intensity by which YWHW cheers on his people to kill (Gexx:xx), why should I adopt YWHW as my god? In the endless game of tit for tat that humanity seems to like to play, would it make the killing of Jews justifiable then? Even the Holocaust?

5) The roots of Western civilization are Greco-Roman NOT Judeo-Christian. Democracy was invented at the Areopagus in Athens, Greece and rule of law and civil engineering by the Roman Empire. Watch the current travails of the European Constitution in trying to define its roots.

6) The Hebrew Bible is not that original. Actually plagiarism is quite the norm:
a) The creation of earth (Ge1:1-56)? Among many, both the Babylonian and the ancient Egyptian creation myths begin with swirling, chaotic waters.
a) Noah's tale (Ge1:1-56)? In the epic of Gilgamesh.
b) Moses abandoned in the river (Ge1:1-56)? King Sargon of Sumaria (and Romulus and Remus)
c) Moses receiving the Ten Commandments (Ge1:1-56)? Hammurabi receiving the laws from his god Shamash (in 1750 BCE) and before that we have the Sumerian Ur-Nammu's code (ca. 2100-2050 BCE)!
d) The Ten Commandments (Ge1:1-56)? In the declarations to Rekhti-merti-f-ent-Ma'at and the 42 negative affirmations listed in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead as the Papyrus of Ani.
e) Monotheism? The 18th dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten worshipped only one god, the Aten.

Those are the easy examples of things that came to light only in last hundred years. The stele of Hammurabi's code is in the Louvre, Paris, France and the Papyrus of Ani at the British Museum in London, England for all to see. Moses' tables exist only in the fantasy of the chroniclers of the Hebrew Bible on par with the Mormons' Gold tablets. Who knows how many other "borrowings" (antecedents) from more ancient and preceding civilizations there are in the "divine revelation" of the Hebrew Bible.

7) As sacred texts go, is there any difference between the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Hebrew Bible as far as style is concerned?

8) Denying divine revelation status to the Hebrew Bible is NOT denying faith or god! The fact is all civilizations preceding, contemporary and following the 500-300 BC time frame the Hebrew Bible was composed had organized religions with their myths, high priests and devoted followers. Rome had a Pontifex Maximum long before the Hebrew Bible and Christianity were established.

9) If Jesus of Nazareth as a sacrificial lamb is required by some believers for the salvation of mankind, wouldn't Osiris and/or Dionysus also do? Myth for myth, would His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI now write a book on Dionysus of Naxos instead of Jesus of Nazareth? Instead of the fabulist rants of Jewish hicks the melodies of sophisticated Greeks?

10) Instead of teaching the parochial, sectarian and distorted point of view of the Hebrew Bible, why not teach UNIVERSAL morality and ethics? I am sure lots of other texts would qualify. Convene a new Septuagint? Commission our best inspirational, motivational and spiritual writers to inscribe text and they will be DIVINELY inspired.

Parallels with Christianity
It is possible that Dionysian mythology would later find its way into Christianity. There are many parallels between Dionysus and Jesus; both were said to have been born from a virgin mother, a mortal woman, but fathered by the king of heaven, to have returned from the dead, to have transformed water into wine, and to have been liberator of mankind. The Christian notions of eating and drinking "the flesh" and "blood" of Jesus were influenced by the cult of Dionysus. Dionysus was also distinct among Greek gods, as a deity commonly felt within individual followers. In a less benign example of influence on Christianity, Dionysus' followers, as well as another god, Pan, are said to have had the most influence on the modern view of Satan as animal-like and horned. It is also possible these similarities between Christianity and Dionysiac religion are all only representations of the same common religious archetypes. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the story of Jesus turning water into wine is only found in the Gospel of John, which differs on many points from the other Synoptic Gospels. That very passage, it has been suggested, was incorporated into the Gospel from an earlier source focusing on Jesus' miracles.
By the Hellenic era, Greek awareness of Osiris had grown, and attempts had been made to merge Greek philosophy, such as Platonism, and the cult of Osiris (especially the myth of his resurrection), resulting in a new mystery religion. Gradually, this became more popular, and was exported to other parts of the Greek sphere of influence. However, these mystery religions valued the change in wisdom, personality, and knowledge of fundamental truth, rather than the exact details of the acknowledged myths on which their teachings were superimposed. Thus in each region that it was exported to, the myth was changed to be about a similar local god, resulting in a series of gods, who had originally been quite distinct, but who were now syncretisms with Osiris. These gods became known as Osiris-Dionysus.

The term Osiris-Dionysus is used by some historians of religion to refer to a group of deities worshipped around the Mediterranean in the centuries prior to the birth of Jesus. It has been argued that these deities were closely related and shared many characteristics, most notably being male, partly-human, born of virgins, life-death-rebirth deities and other similar characteristics.