"There is a great need to have an awareness of the Bible" and teach biblical literacy in U.S. public schools, says Meera Viswanathan of Brown University, who believes that other sacred traditions should be taught as well.
Viswanathan, who is Hindu, not Jewish or Christian, made the remark at a significant symposium at the Freedom Forum's nonpartisan First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., on "Teaching About Religion in Public Schools: Where Do We Go from Here?"
When the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed ritual Bible readings in public schools in 1963, it specifically allowed coursework about the Bible and religion, "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." The court said the Bible is "certainly" worth studying "for its literary and historic qualities."
But few schools follow the court's advice. Not until 1999 did the First Amendment Center broker "The Bible and Public Schools," an agreed statement endorsed by church-state separationists and many educational, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Jewish and Muslim groups (but no Roman Catholic officials). Among topics treated is teaching today's pluralistic student bodies about the Bible.
One practical handicap with elective Bible courses is the lack of suitable textbooks and curriculums, as opposed to sectarian Sunday School-type courses that have provoked some court challenges.
The New York-based, interfaith Bible Literacy Project, working with the First Amendment Center, is preparing such curriculum materials that presumably will seek to overcome hurdles identified at Arlington.
The participants thought there should be minimal fuss about which Bible to use. (Jews don't recognize the New Testament. Catholics and the Orthodox have extra Old Testament books that Jews and Protestants don't include.)
The proposed solution: Objectively explain these differences early on, and let students choose their own Bibles or else provide an interfaith anthology drawn from various translations.
A more delicate danger is treating the Bible so objectively that it's merely a literary artifact, ignoring its importance to believers throughout history and currently.
Judith Schaeffer, a lawyer with the liberal People for the American Way, said "you can't teach the Bible as true in a public school."
But Barrett Duke from the conservative Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said it's a distortion to present a book that is foundational for the faith of millions "as an academic exercise." He asked, why bring the book into classrooms without admitting why it's so important to so many?
The 1999 accord says the trick is to "neither inculcate nor inhibit religion" and handle religious convictions "with fairness and respect."
The Arlington meeting indicated the toughest challenge is how and whether to present the Bible as a historical document. Secular colleges and religiously liberal seminaries commonly interpret the Scriptures as somewhat to heavily mythological, while religious traditions insist the Bible depicts actual events and real people.
This dispute has bedeviled churches and synagogues for a century and scholars' opinions flow back and forth, so this won't be a simple matter for public schools.
David Levenson of Florida State University said courses should sidestep the "historicity of individual events" and talk instead about "the historical context in which this literature was produced" and "what the Bible has meant over history."
But James Fraser, dean of education at Northeastern University, said academically correct "higher criticism" of the Bible "is a particular approach," just like religious interpretations are, and it's "oppressive" to simply impose that one ideology upon conservative students.
Duke said fellow Southern Baptists are dubious about Bible courses because they figure the content inevitably will be "determined by people whose faith perspective is significantly different" -- so it's probably better to avoid the whole business.
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