[Note: “Debatable” is a occasional feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community.]
The Issue: Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, the producers of the History channel’s hit mini-series The Bible, recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that it’s “time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”
Position #1: Faith and culture writer Jonathan Merritt says that too much of the debate has centered around the question of if teaching the Bible is appropriate in a public school setting, but few recognize that the question of how is far more contentious:
Those who teach these courses will most likely be non-literalists trained at secular state universities, not homeschooled conservative evangelicals or Bible college graduates. They may believe that the many “seeming contradictions” of the Bible are actual ones. If asked, they may teach students that the stories of “Jonah and the Whale” or “Noah’s Ark” are mythic allegories, rather than historical accounts of miraculous events.
Do the Christians crying for a reintroduction of Bible courses want their children taught, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is little more than pretty poetry? It’s safe to assume they do not. But most haven’t thought this deeply about the issue.
Position #2: Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, believes Merritt’s concern about the character and intent of those who will be teaching the Bible in public schools are overstated and finds other reasons to support such classes:
I see the Bible in a public conversation to be a good thing since it will enhance the reading of the Bible; students are mostly sharp enough not simply to believe whatever a teacher in a public school might teach; this will generate more conversations between parents and their children about the Bible; this will encourage pastors and churches to be more aware of alternative views and it will necessarily sharpen their own readings; one needs to be exposed to alternative views about the Bible; Paul was happy someone was talking about the gospel even if he didn’t like all they were saying; . . .
Scoring the Debate: While Merritt expresses valid concerns about how the Bible will be taught in schools, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. From a pedagogical perspective, teaching the Bible is essential to developing a broad-based education. The Bible is a foundational document of Western culture and any student unfamiliar with the text will fail to understand the thousands of references, allusions, and metaphors used in art, literature, and history. As literary critic E.D. Hirsch, Jr. once claimed, “No one in the English speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible.”
Unfortunately, this form of illiteracy is pervasive in America—even among Christians. Many young evangelicals will heartily proclaim that the Bible is true without knowing much about the actual contents of the book. When confronted by critics of the Bible, they are often incapable of even understanding the arguments being made, much less aware of how to respond effectively. Merritt, however, believes this is a primary reason not to teach the Bible is school:
Conservative Christians should know better than to advocate for such courses. After all, they have long decried the well-documented “liberalizing effect” of public college and universities who offer similar courses. Many conservative Christians leave home for college, take an introduction to religion course, and return with an entirely different worldview than their parents hold. Do they want the same experience with their seventh graders?
In my experience, seventh graders tend to be less academically gullible than college freshman. Young Christians in college tend to be overawed by their teachers (a trait not often shared by their siblings in junior high) and unaware that the criticisms made about the Bible by their professors have been effectively addressed or rebutted by prominent Christian scholars thousands of times before. If exposed to alternate views of the Bible at an early age—and their parents and church leaders intelligently address their questions and concerns—students are more likely to learn how to think for themselves and less less likely to fall for substandard secular perspectives of God’s Word.
What do you think, should the Bible be taught in public schools?