Yes, public schools should teach Bible as literature

An op-ed in the WSJ today made the case for putting the Bible into the public school curriculum, as a foundational work (or rather, body of works) of Western civilization. The authors were educated in Europe and were taught the Bible as a matter of course. But that reckons without the reflexive horror the suggestion of doing so engenders in this country:

Teaching the Bible is of course a touchy subject. One can’t broach it without someone barking “separation of church and state” and “forcing religion down my throat.”

Yet the Supreme Court has said it’s perfectly OK for schools to do so, ruling in 1963 (Abington School District v. Schempp) that “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

The Supreme Court understood that we’re not talking about religion here, and certainly not about politics. We’re talking about knowledge. The foundations of knowledge of the ancient world—which informs the understanding of the modern world—are biblical in origin. Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president known more as a cigar-chomping Rough Rider than a hymn-signing Bible-thumper, once said: “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”

I agree entirely, totally apart from all the phrases with which scripture has enriched the language, or the fact that Shakespeare makes 1,200 biblical references.

I think there are other things we should have to read as well. I’ve always felt sort of ignorant that I’ve never read the Iliad, preferably in the original Greek. But that’s peripheral, compared to having a thorough understanding of such allusions as Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Jonah and Judas Iscariot. Those are basic.

And it’s not just the stories or the language. As an overview of different forms of ancient literature (poetry, allegory, history, etc.) it’s a treasure trove.

Before someone misunderstands me — nothing that I’ve said gives anyone any reason to, but Kulturkampf in this society being emotional rather than rational, someone will — I’m not an advocate of mandatory prayer in public schools. Although people should be (and are) free to pray there as well as anywhere else.

The authors of this piece, if anything, underestimate the objections such a suggestion will meet. For instance, they neglect to anticipate the objection that other religions’ texts, say the Bhagavad Gita, should be given the same status in the K-12 curriculum. But of course, that work is not foundational to western culture. It’s a great subject for upper-division college electives, but there’s no more reason to make it part of everyone’s education than, say, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums as opposed to Huck Finn. One is enrichment; the other is basic.

Anyway, since these folks brought up the subject, I say yeah: Put Genesis and the rest in there with Shakespeare. They are still reading Shakespeare in the schools, aren’t they? If not, I give up…

9 thoughts on “Yes, public schools should teach Bible as literature

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    It is certainly very difficult to appreciate a most pre-Enlightenment western visual and musical art without a foundation of the Bible, but as literature, which version would you choose? The King James is the most literary.

    Religious history would be another good subject. Without a grasp of the Reformation, understanding much of modern history and politics, as well as post-Reformation visual art is limited.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’d go with the King James. That’s not what we read at my church, but of course that’s not what this is about. As you say, KJ is way literary. It’s also the most beautiful.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    As for religious history… two of my favorite courses in college were U.S. Social and Intellectual History, before and after 1865.

    The one that was before 1865 was largely about religious ideas and movements. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, starting a new religion for you is just Americans’ way of saying “hello.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, the Adams quote goes like this:

      Starting a new religion for you is just their way of saying “hi”.

      He was speaking of people in California.

  4. Karen McLeod

    KJ literary? I’m not sure what you mean by that. It would certainly put an addiitional barrier in the way of those just being introduced to the Bible. If you want to understand Shakespeare’s allusions to the Bible, you’d want to use the Geneva Bible, since that’s the translation he used. The Bible is an interesting introduction into different cultures and concepts, as well as being foundational literature. It doesn’t have to be treated as absolute objective truth to be of great use.

  5. Mrs. Stephen Fenner

    If you are studying the Bible as a cultural artifact, sure, go with a modern translation. The King James Version is very literary. They made translation choices loosely and chose to use more poetic language over more precise, for example.

  6. Maura O'Neill

    What is so interesting is the differences in translations, why they are there and how they change or nuance the meaning of the text. The study of the Bible as literature could launch the more private discussions of why so many interpretations.
    I taught religious studies in a state college for many years and the rewards of watching people of all opinions grow were most gratifying.

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