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A Proposal for Bible Study as Part of K-12 Curriculum

This works for a college course too; but it’s less controversial there than in K-12.

So here is the historical context of my proposal which, when I first noted it, was a joke: Christian Nationalists bemoan that we kicked the Bibles out of American public schools and then it all went to Hell. We need to get them back in as part of “reclaiming” America’s public institutions.

If I am not mistaken, teaching the Bible as “literature” is not enough. It should be taught as truth, revealed truth.

My proposal was yes, bring them back and as a lesson plan have students do a Jefferson Bible where they get to cut up that from which the Bible they reject and give their reasons for so doing. Of course, I had at least one atheist commenter say s/he would chop the whole thing up and leave nothing. I thought my proposal would act as a reductio ad absurdum for why it’s not a good idea for secular pluralistic schools to endorse the Christian Bible as curriculum that teaches revealed truth.

Along the way, I started to seriously study the concept of “canon” and how the different world religions approach sacred scripture. I discovered the idea of “a” Bible is a fiction. It’s not just about interpretation or translation (the obvious issues). It’s about different books. Different verses and chapters. It’s more accurate to say there are different “canons” held to by different religious traditions. There is no one “Christian” Bible. There are different canons among the different Christian traditions. The same is true for most if not all other religious traditions.

Yes, there are agreements; there are lowest common denominators. But also dickering over the details. Among the three large traditions in Christian orthodoxy, there are three different canons. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox each have bibles that endorse a slightly different set of books in their canon.

I was reminded of this when a social media friend took exception to the invocation at Donald Trump’s inaugural given by Timothy Cardinal Dolan; the invocation was taken from a book Roman Catholics regard as inspired but Protestants do not.

The arguments, among believers, for why the books should or should not be considered canonical are compelling and nuanced. To one who has no dog in the fight, it’s complicated. To hear Protestants tell the tale, Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent added 7 books that didn’t belong to the Bible. To hear Roman Catholics, Martin Luther was the first Thomas Jefferson and used his razor to cut those 7. (The Catholics are probably more right; but Luther wasn’t acting completely arbitrarily; many of his reasons had a distinguished lineage among theologians who critically studied the sacred texts). And the Eastern Orthodox canon has all of Catholic books plus a few more.

Likewise, a very learned Jewish friend told me there were and are multiple traditions that differ on the finer details of which writings constitute sacred scripture in their canon.

So we know that when Thomas Jefferson took his razor to the Bible, most of it didn’t survive. Jefferson thought of the pieces he cut from the canon like Protestants think of the Apocrypha (what Roman Catholics consider Deuterocanonical). But arguably, the material which did make Jefferson’s cut, he believed to be sacred scripture in a God directly speaking to man sense.

(There is debate among scholars on this; my learned opinion is that, yes, arguably a case can be made that Jefferson believed what made it into his bible was sacred scripture, inspired, in a God directly speaking to man sense.)

Much of the Old Testament, everything St. Paul said, the Book of Revelation and more were, according to Jefferson, not divinely inspired. Jefferson could be very harsh, terming those words “dung.” Jesus’ words, on the other hand, were “diamonds.”

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Roman Catholics’ book of 73 is correct and Martin Luther’s canon of 66 which became the basis for the Protestant bible was bowdlerized. How does what Luther did meaningfully differ from what Jefferson would later do on a larger scale? Indeed, Luther’s writings show he doubted books and texts in the New Testament, like for instance the entire Book of Revelation, which almost made his chopping block until other forces in Protestantism prevented them from being disregarded as non-canonical.

One could argue that Jefferson and the other Christian-Deists — many of them English, like Bolingbroke who preceded and influenced him — just went further, way further. Instead of going from 73 to 66, it just went to a smaller number. Likewise, the numbers can be enlarged just as they can be reduced. As noted above, the Eastern Orthodox have a few more books than the Roman Catholics.

And Mormons take the Protestant canon (minus one book) and add an entire additional set of books they call The Book of Mormon. And Muslims take parts of the Jewish and Christian scriptures (“people of the book“) that they regard as inspired and add the Koran.

So the idea is to study the sacred texts and have the students as an end term project construct their own canon of that which they believe is revealed and give their reasons for so doing. If they want to endorse a canon that is identical to a particular religious creed, they can do so. On the other hand, students will be free to cut everything from the sacred texts with which they disagree. They just have to offer their reasons for so doing.

This proposal gets the Bibles back into the public schools, and goes beyond teaching the Bible as simply literature, while respecting the aims of a pluralistic society.Image by DrGBB


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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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125 thoughts on “A Proposal for Bible Study as Part of K-12 Curriculum

  1. A couple random thoughts. (Disclaimer: I am a practicing Protestant Christian, so YMMV):

    1. I attended a (private) high school where we did read selected sections of the Bible in English. But the focus was more as “this is part of our culture, you need to understand things like Job if you are going to understand the Western canon” It wasn’t treated lightly or flippantly or as “I think this is bunk but I’m asked to teach it” but neither was it treated as something we were expected to accept totally. (I had Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu classmates). I don’t remember a whole lot of resistance to it but then again we were there voluntarily (the other choice being the public schools in our respective towns and as most of us were weird, nerdy kids, we knew we were better off at the prep school)

    We were asked to purchase a version in the New English translation (which is an okay translation but somewhat stilted in places, and is more Anglo-centric than many) with the Apocrypha. I think that was the first time I was really aware there were books that “didn’t make the cut” into the Protestant Bible.

    2. Translations matter, too. There are enormous differences between translations and I think people would do well to consider more than one. (And the KJV, much beloved by some of a more Fundamentalist persuasion, does contain some translation inaccuracies, or so I’ve been told).

    3. I actually kind of LIKE Paul’s letters, in the sense of “Huh, so humanity hasn’t gotten vastly worse in the past 2000 years.” Though it also frustrates me to realize that we haven’t really gotten any better, either. Also I get some sense of the frustration of someone trying to teach and lead people who are still mired in stuff like following human leaders. I can imagine Paul rubbing his forehead at times and going, “No, wait, that’s NOT what I meant….”

    I suspect, though, there would be enough people offended by the proposal of either “You’re going to make my kid read THE BIBLE?!?!?!!” (or “The CHRISTIAN BIBLE?!?!!?!”) or “You’re asking my kid to CUT UP the Bible and determine what is and is not sacred?” that it wouldn’t fly. At least not in public schools.

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    • I went to a King James Only church for a while and one of the things that we regularly got into was the wickedness of new and different translations. (Revised Standard Version == Devised Satanic Perversion, for example.)

      I remember being downright floored when I found out that the Catholic Bible had books that I had never read… and then being shocked and appalled when I found out that there was more than merely the “Apocrypha” but also a, get this, “Pseudepigrapha”.

      Finding out how the sausage was originally made was jarring for me.

      Of course, I devoured the new books.

      I think that a lot of KJV-only Christians would find themselves shaken by an appropriate way to teach the Bible, with a focus on its role in Western Civilization and its role on the pH of the ocean we find ourselves swimming in.

      To the point where they’d argue that we need separation of Church and State.

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      • we regularly got into was the wickedness of new and different translations. (Revised Standard Version == Devised Satanic Perversion, for example.)

        Wow. Was that terminology (the Satanic thing) actually used? I thought that kind of snark only existed in political discussion. Or at least, I hoped it did. I dunno; my estimation of an arguer’s point goes down approximately 75% when he or she pulls out the snarky pun-based-on-the-original-term.

        (Some days, becoming a hermit like the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers looks distinctly appealing)

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      • To the point where they’d argue that we need separation of Church and State.

        In the case of the Baptists, separation of church and state is very traditional, even foundational, to the church. Recall that the expression itself comes from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a Baptist church. Early Baptists were enthusiastic about the idea because they had been run out of Massachusetts in colonial times. Modern attitudes derive partly from Baptists in some parts of the country achieving, or thinking they have achieved, critical mass to impose their will upon the state. (This is naive: established churches don’t impose their will on the state. The imposition runs the other direction.) Also, Baptists don’t place a lot of emphasis on a clear-headed understanding of history, including their own. Modern Baptists, particularly of the southern sort (of which the Southern Baptist Convention is a subset) have drifted far from the days when Roger Williams was pissing off the Boston Puritans. The notion of separation of church and state as a Baptist principle seems just bizarre today.

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        • When you’re not in power, it’s all about “Freedom of Speech!” and “Freedom of Conscience!” and when you’re in power, it’s all about “Well, you have to understand… of course there are reasonable things that need to be excluded, the concept of Freedom is not a suicide pact.”

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        • Also, Baptists don’t place a lot of emphasis on a clear-headed understanding of history, including their own.

          Yes. But to be fair, almost no denomination has a clear-headed understanding of history. But it’s exceptionally absurd when *Baptists* forget.

          Modern Baptists, particularly of the southern sort (of which the Southern Baptist Convention is a subset) have drifted far from the days when Roger Williams was pissing off the Boston Puritans. The notion of separation of church and state as a Baptist principle seems just bizarre today.

          Which is because of…

          This is naive: established churches don’t impose their will on the state. The imposition runs the other direction

          The state (Note I am using the ‘state’ wrong. Here I mean ‘a set of establishment political forces’) needed a political justification for slavery. It looked around, and found…the southern Baptists. I am not exactly sure why southern Baptists went along with that at the time, but, then again, I’m not sure why the vast majority of the confederacy went along with a war to save the property of a tiny fraction of it.

          Years later, the state needed a way to somehow keep segregation alive. It managed to, basically, bribe the southern Baptists (And some other denominations.) with the thought of them operating private schools…as long as black children were kept out.

          The provided so useful that, years later, when the state needed a political force, it just sorta spun the roulette wheel and picked abortion, and the Baptists just leapt right into it, without even getting anything in exchange.

          This is because Baptists have no structural resistance to this. They get no leadership from the top, and if outsiders can convince the church’s membership of something, the pastor basically has no ability to fix this, because the pastor operates solely at the will of the church, and they can and will fire him if they believe X and he starts talking about how X is not Biblical. (This is why the Southern Baptist Convention is also no help…because the convention is just people sent by the churches.)

          Churches structured like baptist churches, where everything is sola scriptura and individuals make up their own mind, and there is no authority to force beliefs on the church or church members, *seem like* some logical idea. In practice, just it results in people taking whatever they hear on TV or their neighbor says, and deciding that *that* is the word of God, and if the guy who went through years of training to learn and understand the bible says otherwise, then he needs to go.

          As I’ve said before…sola scriptura isn’t. Sola scriptura is just an excuse for a church to *not write their beliefs down*, so the church can have very stupid ones, or obviously immoral ones, and change beliefs on a whim.

          And of course, the main origin of these beliefs and people changing theirs on a whim? Politics, and people blithely repeating whatever ‘their team’ says.

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          • I don’t disagree with your analysis of how sola scriptura played out in this instance, but it doesn’t always go that way. The lesson, coming out of the Reformation, was that Christian conscience required that the individual Christian actually go and learn about Christianity. This had been to varying degrees de-emphasized or actively discouraged previously. The ideal of universal literacy came out of the Reformation, as a prerequisite to the aforesaid learning. What we see in the current sorry state of sola scriptura American Evangelical Protestantism is the requirement for knowing anything removed from the discussion. No one will admit this, of course. Evangelicals are encouraged to “study” the Bible, and those scare quotes are there to indicate that this “study” is carefully managed so that the individuals will skim over the hippy-dippy parts of the Bible, which turn out to take up considerably more text that those parts read and re-read like the dirty bits in a vaguely pornographic novel. So with the laity both in charge and collectively ignorant of Christianity, they are swept up in the tide of cultural influences. So if you are an antebellum Southerner, you and everyone around you talks about how slavery is a Christian doctrine. Jump forward a century and it is segregation. And so on.

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            • I don’t disagree with your analysis of how sola scriptura played out in this instance, but it doesn’t always go that way.

              …in that there are really not examples of it ever going any other way, in that sola scriptura has always worked out to be ‘One guy says a lot of stuff, a denomination is made, and then everyone just sorta goes along with the culture of the church and general religious thought’.

              But we can all just…sorta hope it happened, at least once.

              What we see in the current sorry state of sola scriptura American Evangelical Protestantism is the requirement for knowing anything removed from the discussion.

              By ‘current’, you, of course, mean ‘all of American history’, because that slavery justification started almost as soon as abolitionists started.

              America, of course, is compared to all those other sola scriptura locations, which had long, knowledgeable discussions about the scripture in between deciding that witches flew around on brooms and called up demons and Satan and could kill goats…none of which, I must point out, is even vaguely in the Bible, but *mysteriously* also happened to be what the Catholic church believed.

              Good job weeding out Catholic nonsense, Team Reformation! Be sure to also pick up the Catholic doctrine of Satan and also eternal suffering in hell on the way out the door, neither well supported in the Bible, and leave room for making up stuff about contraceptives and abortion later!

              Sola scriptura FTW!!!

              Before anyone thinks I’m attacking sola scriptura too much, they should probably realize that I am, in fact, a Baptist, and I also disagree just as much with the doctrine of most *non* sola scriptura churches.

              I’ve just come to the realization all churches have mostly fixed sets of beliefs, and all sola scriptura means is that you don’t write them down, and a lot of stupid ones sneak in that don’t have any basis in anything. And sola scriptura churches have *less* people talking and justifying their actual beliefs based on biblical text, because the doctrine of the church is this vague thing that no one can really define anyway, and no one is in a position to change it, so why talk about anything unless it directly impacts the church? (Whereas, at minimum, the doctrine of a church with formal doctrine is a public-facing document that members know about and have to explain to others.)

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        • For a good long while, the kings of Europe did fear excommunication by the Pope. Or else, they would not have tried so hard to influence who would be the next pope. Excommunication really did threaten the legitimacy of the throne.

          Moreover, in current societies where there is little separation like Malaysia, Pakistan, and many countries in the middle east, temporal authority does seem subordinate to ecclesiastical authority.

          By contrast, the influence of the state on religion seems less obvious.

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          • One of the conversations that swims in my head is Varys’s riddle to Tyrion:

            “Oh, I think not,” Varys said, swirling the wine in his cup. “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”
            “It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”
            “And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.”
            “That piece of steel is the power of life and death.”
            “Just so… yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, who do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”
            “Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”
            “Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?”
            Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
            Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

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          • By contrast, the influence of the state on religion seems less obvious.

            You are not thinking today as hard as you normally do.

            – In Orthodox Christianity, both the Bizantine Empire as well as Tsarist Russia, the emperors had enormous influence on what was orthodox and proper Christian beliefs. Not just the original councils, but the Icnoclastic controversies, the naming and removing of Patriarchs, the Petrine Reforms and the creation of the Holy Ynod, all the way to Nicholas II ramroding the canonization of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

            – Protestant countries where the head of state was the head of the Church, and he/she meant it, like Henry VIII, Eduard VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

            – The Kingly power to name bishops and abbots in Spain and France, among other places.

            – The Chinese emperors embrace or neglect of Buddhism, as they saw fit

            Etc.

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          • Don’t forget the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States. The Guelphs in Italy thought that the pope should be king, and the Ghibellines thought that the king should be pope. Also, there was the Great Schism and before that the Avignon papacy.

            But no one’s mentioned the state’s biggest influence on religion – its prohibition. Try being a Jew in Nazi Germany, a Roman Catholic in modern China, or a Hindu or Muslim in the wrong part of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

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          • Also – making nuns pay for contraception, forcing private businesses to bake cakes for gay weddings, preventing bigamy and animal sacrifice, restricting peyote ceremonies, blocking the endorsement of candidates from the pulpit…

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  2. Among the three large traditions in Christian orthodoxy, there are three different canons. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox

    You are thinking small. Those three are just within the Chalcedonian camp. The Council of Chalcedon was an attempt by the Emperor to impose a compromise between the Miaphysites and the Diophysites, because he had enough on his plate without theologically inspired rioting in the streets. Most of the church went along with the compromise because they weren’t thrilled about the rioting either, and hey, he was the Emperor. But not everybody did.

    Alexandria was a stronghold of Miaphysitism, and largely refused to get with the program. This inspired a Miaphysite faction within the Empire for many years, which never reconciled with the official state church. The Coptic Orthodox Church is the best known Miaphysite church today, though the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is much larger (and has a totally whacked out history).

    The Diophysites tended to congregate at the other end of the Fertile Crescent, straddling the border between the Roman and Persian empires. For those on the far side in particular, there was no political imperative to go along with Chalcedon. If anything, quite the opposite. Breaking with the official Roman Imperial church could only help them with their Persian overlords. They proselytized eastward. When the Portuguese reached India they were initially enchanted to find an existing Christian church there, then quick disenchanted when it turned out to be the wrong kind. Even more intriguing is the heavy proselytization of the Mongols. It didn’t quite stick, but it came pretty close.

    So the upshot is that if you are going to be completist about this, there actually are three great branches of modern Christianity. The Protestant/Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox are sub-branches of the great Chalcedonian branch.

    Next topic: filioque: TRVTH or heresy most foul?

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      • In the study do we include the Gnostic documents found in Egypt in the 20th century such as the Gospels of Thomas and Mary?

        No, because we are talking culture. Neither document has been part of or influenced our general culture.

        I don’t care about the Bible as a purveyor of metaphysical “Truth”. I care about how the Beatitudes might have influenced the change from a militaristic, honor obsessed, egolatría, culture like the Roman one, to one that recognized a general duty towards the Commonwealth, and specific duties towards the “least of us” (even if honored mostly in the breach).

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        • We’d probably want to spend a session on The First Council of Nicea.

          Make mention of those documents and include some humorous notes about how The New Testament, as a canonical collection, is older than The Old Testament, as a canonical collection.

          If you’re teaching The Bible, part of that is the whole “it didn’t always exist and, so, where did it come from?” thing.

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          • Actually include the other councils such as Ephesus and Chalcedon, and how the proceedings of the council split the church into 3 pieces 2 of which have withered over the 15 centuries since (See the book Lost Christianities for more detail)

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  3. The Catholic tradition has always been that the Church supports the Bible and the Bible supports the Church. The Bible contains many passages directing Jesus’s followers to preach, and giving them authority to do so – within a structure that Jesus established. Protestants talk about the Church as invisible, and there’s an element of truth to that, but there also is a visible Church founded on Peter and passed down person to person up to today. The Catholic Church has always claimed the guidance of the Holy Spirit in its teaching, and even in the compilation of the texts to be treated as Scripture. So for us, the question of the canon isn’t a zinger.

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    • Actually, most of those claims didn’t arise until several centuries in. There was an early tradition of Peter as the first Bishop of Rome. This was later cited as a zinger in church disputes, as why the Bishop of Rome got more of a say than lesser bishops. This was yet later elaborated with the “on this rock” bit. They didn’t stop there. The Donation of Constantine was an additional layer, though even the most fervent Catholics today discreetly pass over it.

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      • Several centuries? The Council of Jerusalem was in 50AD, and is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul went to challenge Peter on an issue in dispute, and when Peter spoke the issue was settled. It’s gray because Peter was wrong initially, but his authority is clearly depicted. The “on this rock” “bit” was not later elaborated; it was Simon’s new name, and changing someone’s name is a big deal. You don’t name someone “Rock” and then say that you’re founding a church on the rock unless you want to convey something weighty. I know of no manuscripts which predate Simon being referred to as Peter.

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        • It is the leap from Peter being the rock to the succeeding Bishops of Rome in perpetuity having Petrine authority. This is taken as given in the modern Roman Catholic church, but the development of the claim has a much later history. The Eastern church certainly didn’t accept the claim in any consistent way.

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          • As I said, the Catholic Church sees itself as being animated by the Holy Spirit in its teaching authority. That means that teachings can develop over time, but those teachings should have a root in the Bible or tradition.

            In Acts 1 we see the apostles drawing straws to pick a successor to Judas, under Peter’s direction. That’s a pretty bold statement about structure, succession, and authority. I realize that not everyone agrees with the Catholic teaching about the papacy, but it does fit Scripture and tradition.

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            • Most of the Christians living closer in time to the issue would have considered the modern claims of supremacy of the Papacy over church outlandish. Its not until long after the fall of the Western Empire that the popes actually start being considered something like a pope rather than a prestigious bishopry/patriachry.

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              • That’s just not factually true. It took me 5 minutes to find this quote from St. Cyrpian of Carthage from the 250’s:

                “There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord.”

                You can find older ones.

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                • Notions that the Bishopric of Rome was first amoung equals based on Peterine succession were kicking around, sure. As were the theological basis for later papal claims.

                  The idea that the Bishop of Rome’s primacy meant they were the administrative head of a heirarchial church that they have now was a much latter development.

                  Roman-era didn’t treat the Bishop of Rome as what we would consider to be a Pope. It was fairly common for members of the church to disregard his opinion on a matter if they disagreed with it.

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                  • Which, ironically, the Church has adopted as the: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” defense.

                    We are nimble, if nothing else. Well, Nimble and unexpected.

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            • I’m not suggesting that the Church of Rome is internally inconsistent. I am pushing back against the idea that anything like this existed in the first century: that you could jump in your time machine and go take Peter and Paul out for coffee and theology, and hear pretty much what you would hear chatting up some cardinals in the Vatican today. I don’t mean just obvious later developments like the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but even basic stuff like who has authority for what.

              Or, to put it another way, yes, there is Tradition. In fact there are lots of Traditions. Filioque, anyone?

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              • Both of them but especially Peter would still see themselves as Jews in good standing. The early Christians were Jews or gentiles already sympathetic to Jewish teaching. Before the destruction of the Second Temple and for a good time after that, the main focus was on battling with the Pharisees for the leadership of the Jewish community. The big push for gentile converts came after the Pharisees won the battle for Post-Temple Judaism decisively.

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          • Richard, I believe you are overextending your position vis-a-vis the Eastern Orthodox churches.

            If we bracket the exact meaning of primacy, the Orthodox cannons are clear and unchanged since 318… prior to the Creed and prior to the adopted canons of scripture; further it was reaffirmed in numerous subsequent Ecumenical Councils. *That* the Bishop of Rome has primacy is canonically adopted and still affirmed by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. *What* constitutes primacy is the matter of dispute.

            As an ex-Orthodox who changed rites, I had the memorable moment of solemnly affirming two things: 1) the Filioque (most banal); and 2) I had to throw every living (and future) bishop under the bus with regards the Pope’s primacy of jurisdiction… which I did, sorry Bishop Michael. If the two churches were to, say, affirm the ex Filio (as was done at the Council of Florence), and to adopt a more Orthodox view on conciliar Primacy; I would affirm that too (congratulations Bishop Michael).

            Regarding your note on the Donation of Constantine, it is not a meaningful element in matters of Primacy; so it is not glossed in any way. Rather it is taught within the context of the abrogation of temporal power during the Carolingian usurpation. We (not you, I expect) tend to forget that Byzantium maintained extensive military campaigns in Italy from the 6th to 8th centuries. The Donation (c.750) was a justification for the Pope to appropriate the Temporal powers of the Exarch of Ravenna, and cast its fate with the Carolingians, culminating in the crowning of Charles the Great as Emperor in 803. If you squint, you can also see how it forms the basis of the investiture controversy wherein the Papacy maintains its temporal and spiritual privileges as Primary over the Emperor (sorry, Henry IV).

            The mischief caused by the forged Donation is not related to Primacy, but to the worldly choices that the Popes exercised with regards their temporal duties and when those choices might conflict with spiritual duties. That it began to undermine Papal claims of spiritual authority among emerging reformers (and many [eventual] Protestants) is, I think, why among the reformed tradition it stands in high aposition to primacy, but it is causally backwards. The Donation did not extend Primacy, it undermined Primacy. Among the Orthodox, the Donation is a non-issue.

            Such are my thoughts on the matter, I’ll leave the meaning of Primacy bracketed, as I think that, like the Filioque can only be reasonably argued over beer, perhaps only over brandy or other more potent spirits… but certainly not in com boxes.

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      • Because it’s a good idea to be able to catch references and know when someone’s using a bit of allegory.

        Otherwise, the bastard twits from Harvard are going to see how often they can convince you of things that are just blatantly wrong.

        (National Lampoon had a friend of mine convinced that Mammon was a greek god.)

        Or you wind up answering Quiz Bowl questions like: “Who is the son of G-d?” with “Umm… Satan?”

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        • Or you wind up answering Quiz Bowl questions like: “Who is the son of G-d?” with “Umm… Satan?”

          Satan (Pretending he really existed Biblically and wasn’t just mostly religious fanon pieced together from unrelated things), as someone directly *created by* God, has just as much right to be called ‘son of God’ as Jesus.

          When Christians call Jesus ‘the son of God’, that’s *not* what they are trying to distinguish. (Well, it’s not what they, historically, are trying to distinguish. Christians, now, are often operating off a random collection of superstitions and vague knowledge, and have no history or firm knowledge of their own beliefs.)

          The phrase ‘son of God’ isn’t to distinguish him from *everyone else* God created, all of who can logically be called the son (or daughter) of God. The phrase ‘son of God’ is used to distinguish Jesus from *other parts of God*, who are not children of God. (What the holy spirit is, exactly, is an interesting debate, but not relevant here.)

          It’s basically calling something ‘The blue car’ when talking about three, otherwise identical cars…which is a perfectly fine way to tell them apart, but sorta stupid when someone start talking about The Blue Car in all caps and asking ‘Of all the cars in the world, which is The Blue Car?’ and some guy says ‘Uh, that car, over there, is blue’ and the asker is like ‘What an idiot! That’s not The Blue Car’.

          There’s one person there who didn’t understand the question, but it’s not the guy *answering* it.

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            • I don’t know why I sometimes have to translate for Jaybird. Kazzy, you said, “why bibles?”. Jaybird asked (either rhetorically or as an argumentum ad absurdum), “well, why study Western culture at all?” You replied that you didn’t see the point to the question. Jaybird replied, well, that’s because you have a public school education and never learned to think well (or something to that effect).

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              • There is an alternate understanding of the final stanza.

                Some attribute it to the general decline of our *understanding* of public schools, not to Kazzy’s experience of public schools. In this telling, JB is pointing out the the current logic of public schooling is not the previous logic of public schooling… so the question then becomes incoherent.

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                • This is a lot closer.

                  I also know that Kazzy is swimming in the ocean of public schooling and so stuff that I see as a bug, he sees as a feature.

                  And vice-versa.

                  (There’s an insightful double-entendre that escapes my grasp that plays heavily on the use of the word “school” in the context of the ocean analogy. If only it weren’t Monday…)

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                      • The Composite Jaybird Theory has a strong following in these quarters, true. Most cite the prolific comments and note that the quill could only traverse the papers so fast, thus proving multiple quills; leading some, however, to the Ambidextrous Jaybird Theory wherein his prolific comments exhibit the inevitable right/left brain crossover symptoms that bolster their preferred theory.

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                      • For what it’s worth I’ve met Jaybird. He’s definitely a single really nice person. Maribou is also real and is, if anything, even nicer. They like a really nice BBQ place in CO and one of my goals in life is to hang out, play games and cuddle their cats.
                        I can neither confirm, nor deny, whether Jay is ambidextrous or not.

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                  • I swim in what ocean? I’ve never taught public.

                    Also, asking, “Why limit to…” is a fundamentally different question to “Why include…”

                    If Jay thinks that the Bible is uniquely valuable and should be the only religious text included in such a proposal, he can make that case. His counter question did no such thing.

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                    • Oh! I thought you taught public school!

                      You swim in the ocean of Western Civilization. Indeed, as a teacher (perhaps even *ESPECIALLY* as a teacher in private school), your job is to help induct young minds into this civilization and to help them be educated and productive young citizens. Heck, you get them when they’re at their most malleable. (Social Norms One, Two, and Three were awesome essays, I recall.)

                      If Jay thinks that the Bible is uniquely valuable and should be the only religious text included in such a proposal, he can make that case. His counter question did no such thing.

                      My counter-question didn’t make that case.

                      My counter-question was not a response to the first of your two questions, but to the second of them.

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                      • As I state below, I don’t object in whole to the idea of using the Bibles as a teaching tool. I object to giving them a unique prominence over all other texts that attempt to answer similar questions.

                        In part because this exercise seems as much prescriptive as descriptive.

                        If the assignment was, “Write a paper on the influence of the Bible on Western Civilization and how that impacts your life today and be sure to consider different versions or interpretations of the Bible,” I would have very little, if any, objection.

                        But the assignment, as I understand it is, “Which of these should have an impact on your life:
                        A. Bible #1
                        B. Bible #2
                        C. Bible #3
                        D. Some combination of all of the above.
                        E. None of the above”

                        That I find problematic because of the questions it begs.

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                        • The Bible does seem to have a unique prominence within Western Civ, though. I mean… look.

                          It seems to me that it’d be easier to understand Western Civ with an understanding of the Bible than to understand it without it.

                          I mean, I can come up with a way that I think that the Bible ought to be taught. I’m pretty sure that, for example, both the KJV-Only people and the JWs would both be offended by how I’d want the Bible to be taught (as I said, I’d show them John 1:1 in the original Greek and we’d all translate it together).

                          Is the fact that this would offend all kinds of Christians evidence that this is the best way to do it?

                          At some point in the course, it would be *VERY* important to also hit some of the wackier parts of Leviticus. We can hammer out the whole issue of pigs vs. cows vs. camels when it comes to Kosher or Not Kosher? (Make it into a game show to make it fun!) Then, if the kids are old enough, we can get into the stuff about men lying down with men or the whole women being visited by the muse thing.

                          I mean, it’d be important to touch on those things too.

                          And if you’d like to say “hey, we should *ALSO* spend time in the Koran!”, I’d be down… and would wonder to the extent at which we should look at 4:34, 65:4, and 9:29.

                          And the differences between where our gut instinct is to say “this is evidence of these people being insufficiently moral” and where our gut instinct is to say “you’re taking that out of context, if you understood the context, I can’t believe you’re bringing that verse up!”

                          And that’s without even touching 53:19-20. (Which is, I’ll grant, a college level set of verses.)

                          If the argument is that it’s better to not teach the Bible (or any Holy Text) because teaching it properly is not possible even in theory, I suppose I can dig that.

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                          • This is, again, where my understanding of children’s development comes into play… and also where I need to recognize my limitations since high school sure as heck ain’t my bag.

                            So, if we’re talking high school… I would think that a thoughtful disclaimer at the start explaining why the Bible was being used exclusively or primarily and letting students know the manner, place, and time in which other texts could be incorporated might suffice. That might work. I’d defer to those who understand adolescent brain development better than I do (I took one course but that was in undergrad a long time ago).

                            If we’re talking younger children, they will likely draw real conclusions from the inclusion of the Bible and exclusion of all other religious texts which will not be undone by any sort of reminder that, no, really, these are all valuable and we’re not teaching you religion.

                            Given that the piece discusses inclusion in K-12 curriculum, my reservations are largely based around the idea of younger kids attempting this or some similar sort of exercise.

                            Where my underwear starts to get bunchy is if we approach a situation wherein the Bible is being taught to 11th graders and a student perks up and says, “I’m really struggling to see any of this as legitimate because I recognize a set of holy teachings that are divergent so as far as this assignment goes, I reject the Bible entirely and would rather substitute selections from other religious texts,” and the teacher says, “Tough nuts, kid… you have to use parts of the Bible.”

                            If we take steps to avoid that and rectify it should it happen, my underwear feels a bit more comfy.

                            And here I’ll circle back to my original comment… which was not, “HECK NO, WE SHOULDN’T DO THIS!” It was, “Why are you making the specific choices you are making around doing this?”

                            When it comes to answering questions about curriculum or teaching practice or pedagogy, I think the answer is “It depends” far more than it is either “yes” or “no”.

                            “Should I teach using the Bible?”
                            “It depends… what are you trying to accomplish? Are those goals worthwhile? Will your plan get you towards those goals? What drawbacks can be anticipated and how best can we avoid or minimize them?”

                            And I ask those same questions whether the question is the Bible or whether or not to let 3-year-olds pour their own water.

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    • I agree with what (I think) is implying with “Why limit to Bibles”.

      I grew up in what, at best, was a very agnostic household (*).

      However, I was taught all the Major Bible Histories (OT and NT) in age appropriate versions, versions that were superseded as I grew up, until I got access to a real Bible (Revelations scared me a lot, and I had to be reassured that it was all allegorical, and anyhow, it will only happen in the very distant future, when I would be safely dead).

      But at the same time, I was also given age appropriate versions of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, as well as all the major Greek myths, I was given age appropriate versions of Buddha’s, Confucius, Zoroaster’s and Muhammad’s lives, and was taught that they also founded religions, and that those religions had millions of adherents. I was introduced to Shakespeare (age appropriate versions) by age 10, and the full plays (translated into Spanish) by age 14. I was introduced to Dante’s Comedy (age appropriate version) by age 12 and given the complete book by age 14. French and Spanish Baroque play writers by age 16….

      You get the gist. I was raised a nerd. But that was not the point

      The point is that we should introduce children to the full plethora of (mostly, but not solely) Western Civilization. There are plenty of versions that can give children (ten and under) something of the feel, beauty, and concepts behind Mankind’s Great Ideas (including Religious Ideas), emphasizing that we are “like midgets on the shoulders of giants”, and that we have the right, and the obligation, to use all of Mankind’s culture, and not just a little piece.

      The problem is not whether we should add the Bible or not to the school curriculum. Of course we should. The Bible is one of the most influential documents in the world, and particularly relevant to us Westerners.

      The problem is wanting to exclude things,, when we want not only to exclude, but, even better, to eradicate the concept. If you want to add the Bible, but want to ban any teaching about the Qumran, and refuse to treat both with the same reverence, you are a big part of the problem. Bear in mind that “same reverence” is not the same as “same emphasis”. As Westerners that live in countries that have spun out of what used to be called Christendom, it makes sense we should know more details about the Bible than about the Qumran. But both should be treated as documents that “are sacred to a part of mankind, even if they are not sacred to yourself, personally”.

      (*) My grandmother was furiously atheist, though, even though she was the one that came with the idea to have me baptized, so as to spare me the humiliation of a potential adult baptism, should I decide to go that way. In the same vein my dad had me go to the Jesuit school, because I would get very useful business and professional connections there, for later in life (I was pulled out of it as soon as my dad died)

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      • This is pretty close.

        I am curious about this proposal. I see value in it. But if the idea as I understand it is, “Don’t give kids a single Bible as canon, offer multiple canons and allow them to develop their own,” you are still limiting them to the Bibles. Even rejecting the entirety of all Bibles gets them know closer to a canon that may include elements of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or whathaveyou.

        This plan works well if we want students to arrive at a Christian canon. If that is John’s goal, then I point to my second question.

        We also need to think about how children, especially young children, learn. Many… not all, but most… will accept that the constrained choices is indicative of those which ought be considered valid. Which may or may not be the goal, but if it is I again point to question #2.

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        • If by canon we are talking about a “canon of religious books, particularly True (TM) Religious Books” then I am not talking about that.

          I am talking about a “canon of human ideas, including religious ideas, but including so much more”.

          Because we live in a Western culture, that is the historical continuation of “Christendom”, then it makes sense that knowledge about the Bible, its histories, and its moral message, should occupy a larger portion of that canon than would the Qumran, or the Tao te King. A Turk, or a Chinese, student’s course would emphasize books that are more related to their historical culture.

          But let me emphasize that I see the Bible -and would want to teach it- as a moral, literary, and historical document, not as a God inspired book. If schools here teach that the Bible, give or take a couple of pages here or there, isthe word of God, and schools in Ankara teach that the Qumran is, well, at least one school is teaching a falsehood.

          I’d rather it be explained that both books, and many others, have a lot to teach humans, and are worthy of studying, or, at least, to know something about what they say. And that that value exists whether or not the supernatural claims are true or not. So let’s treat all the books with the reverence they would deserve if there was a chance that divinity inspired them.

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  4. The Bible is one of the most important books in Western civilization but the politics of teaching it in school are tricky. For instance what Bible to we teach and what translation do we use? The Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches include books that the Jews and Protestants do not in the bible. Jewish Tanakh and the Protestant OT have the same books but the order is different. After the Torah, Protestants organize the rest of the OT chronologically while Jews organize thematically. Jewish translations are different from Christian ones and Jews don’t believe the NT is part of the Bible? Should Jewish children have to read the Gospels and the Epistles? Should non-Jews and non-Christians have to read the Bible at all?

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  5. On paper, I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a high-level religious studies curriculum. Something that compares and contrasts various religions and shows how religious concepts (monotheism, god made flesh, etc.) evolved and spread. It could show the non-concrete nature of religion how some of the major ones changed over time and incorporated outside ideas and traditions.

    I say “on paper”, because it’s not difficult to imagine educators taking offense to something not sufficiently pro-their religion and intentionally or unintentionally biasing the class.

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    • My wife is a high school social studies teacher. I know she does a lot of comparative religion stuff. I don’t know how much this involves reading scriptures as primary source texts. It may or may not make a difference that she teaches mostly honors and AP classes.

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      • Rich,
        From what I remember about high school social studies, it was a lot of “very very very basic stuff”. AKA: “Which religions are monotheistic, a very basic coverage of Shia versus Sunni, with some snake dancing thrown in”. Hell, we had better coverage on Zoroastrianism in middle school

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    • I say “on paper”, because it’s not difficult to imagine educators taking offense to something not sufficiently pro-their religion and intentionally or unintentionally biasing the class

      Parents too. Your average Joe pushing for religious studies or comparative religion envisions the class as if taught by their own church. Which religions and sects are emphasized, how it’s taught, how the other religions are taught — they imagine it all through the lens of their own church and religion.

      Teaching it properly — that is, as objectively and comprehensively — does not proceed that way.

      Such classes are quite popular in theory, and virtually never so in practice. Unless taught in your own church, where you learn about the ‘other’ religions and sects of your own, which are of course not as right and correct as yours.

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      • True story: One of my local county commissioners called a meeting to complain that, inter alia, the high school world history curriculum puts too much emphasis on those parts of the world that are not the United States. Indeed, he wanted it to put more emphasis on the local county.

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        • We had one complain that they spent too much time on “Babylonians” and not enough time on the important stuff, which turned out to be anything that occurred after the US formed.

          His idea of a world history class was a year that covered, basically, WWI, WWII, and the Cold War.

          You know, the “important bits” of world history.

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  6. Generally of the opinion that religion, like politics, should not be a part of any public schooling. If someone thinks that their kid needs this, then private schools are the perfect option. If it enters the public sphere, there would be way to much “You’re going to make my kid read THE BIBLE?!?!?!!” (or “The CHRISTIAN BIBLE?!?!!?!”) or “You’re asking my kid to CUT UP the Bible and determine what is and is not sacred?” as says above.

    As i was raised very secularly, I have zero Bible or Torah knowledge (or Quran for that matter) outside of picking up bits through literature. These are important works, that influence much of society and world culture and I would have liked to be given a greater understanding of them, but I simply feel that the public arena is not the place for that, as they are too contentious to be taught or looked at well. Especially in a culture that has a supposedly strict no state religion aspect.

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    • If you’re teaching history and civics, you have to discuss politics, even though you should avoid taking sides. Ditto with religion. You just can’t talk about American history without it.

      I do think that one of the reasons that history seems “dry” to kids is that we teach them the safe stuff, the names and dates with no connections to the thoughts and passions of the times. Some of it’s unavoidable – you have to learn 1492 if you want to know when America was discovered – but some of it is playing it safe.

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      • I’m with in that I don’t know how to exclude politics. What exactly do you mean by this?

        It is pretty much impossible not to include politics in some form or another. How do you discuss WWII without discussing Nazism? And if you discuss Nazism, should you identify it is a deeply flawed and hate-filled ideology and political philosophy? If so, how is that not political? Does it only feel non-political because the vast majority of us recognize and therefore it is a fairly non-divisive issue?

        I discussed similar themes at length in my little “Teaching Cultural Norms” series from a few years back, specifically around the idea that schools shouldn’t ‘indoctrinate’: indoctrination is one of the primary purposes of schools. The question is what, exactly, do we want to indoctrinate. We tend to agree on a lot of the stuff and therefore don’t consider it indoctrination. Instead, “indoctrination” becomes a cudgel for, “I don’t agree with that and don’t want my kid taught that!” Is teaching kids not to punch indoctrination?

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        • “What do you mean by this”

          That is a good question, and one I thought I alluded too with my quote. Basically teaching politics from a point of view, and not from an idea of many people have many different and valid points of view, doesn’t allow for dissent in many cases. As says “You’re going to make my kid read THE BIBLE?!?!?!!” (or “The CHRISTIAN BIBLE?!?!!?!”) or “You’re asking my kid to CUT UP the Bible and determine what is and is not sacred?” except with political texts.

          You make an interesting point about indoctrination, but it is one that I disagree with in practice. The things that most agree on, “teaching kids not to punch” etc. aren’t so much indoctrination, but cultural norms, and indeed, might not be shared by all in all circumstances (see Mike Schillings post on Richard Spencer.) To me at least, indoctrination comes when trying to bring someone into a separate belief system, or trying to advance an aspect of a subject that is personal belief and not actual fact. The problem is when some belief is accepted as fact by one group and not another, equal group. In the same way I don’t want a teacher in a public school saying that Islam is inferior to Christianity, I don’t want someone to say that X politics is inferior to Y politics.

          Now, my idea of cultural norms vs. indoctrination might be a distinction without a difference in many eyes, but is very important to me. And to avoid much unnecessary controversy in areas such as public education (or the arts, see Immersion and the controversy surrounding it) it is, in my view, too serious a mine field.

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          • Dewey once observed that it is no accident that most Russian kids grow up to embrace communism and most Americans capitalism.

            I still call it indoctrination but do not do so with the intent of giving schools carte blanche. Some things are cultural norms either universal enough or core enough that they ought be taught. Other things should be left for other places. And much exists in the sticky middle where debates tend to happen. The difficulty is some topics it is hard to be neutral on.

            Take the gender binary. You might say you take no stance but do you have single-sex bathrooms? You took a stance. And maybe that stance is perfectly legitimate but it is a stance nonetheless.

            What chafes me is appeals to neutrality or objectiveness that are false. Schools indoctrinate. That’s a fact. (Even if we call it something else.). Schools are also immensely powerful which is why we should be really careful and intentional about what we empower them to teach.

            When I’m on my computer, I can try to dig up the old posts. Regardless of where you stand on the specific norms I discuss, there is some robust discussion of the more general topic.

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            • I remember your posts on that they were quite interesting. Part of what informs me, along with the reaction from Immersion which I mentioned above, was something that happened in my sons AP English class when he was a junior in HS. Now, my son is very liberal, as are his friends. His school, public, was in one of the most liberal parts of the city, and was the catchment HS for the children of much of CA’s State senators, Reps and so on. The teacher of that class simply wanted to bag on Republicans in class. So much so that my son mentioned to me in passing and finished his tale of that experience with how he and his friends informed the teacher of their politics and proceeded to tell her that she was there to teach Literature not politics. Which they all shared with her, but not why they were in the class.

              Students should never be put in that position.

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              • Agree. That was wrong. In those situations, I lean on teaching how to think not want to think.

                You still end up with the mushiness as Pinky mentions below. Lines need to be drawn but I don’t know who should draw them. And ALWAYS leave room for respectful dissent.

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          • Aaron, I think that the longer you look at that distinction, the less it’ll hold up. I’m very nervous about Kazzy’s approach, as well – I think that objectivity is a virtue that can’t be easily attained, but can be aimed for, and is found in the middle.

            You want to look at each of the statements a teacher makes and pick out the assumptions behind them. Is “no hitting” ok? Is “no slavery”? Is “no modifications to the 1965 Voting Rights Act”? Where’s the line, and is it consistent across topics? It’ll drive you nuts if you think about it too hard, but it does merit some consideration. Thousands of school boards ponder this stuff regularly.

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            • To be clear, I don’t think teachers should be making such decisions individually. We often do because too often the choices made by those above us are “Punt!” or we look to vaguely worded mission statements which are rosarch tests.

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  7. One course that would have benefited the heck out of me would have been a discussion of translations and what and why and here’s some Greek and here’s some Hebrew and here’s the difficulty in translating Holy Books between languages. (You don’t have to include the word “Holy”, of course.)

    Just give the kids John 1:1 in original Greek and then explain why the KJV came to the conclusion that the KJV did, why the NIV did what the NIV did, why the RSV did what the RSV did, and, if you really want to start throwing down, why The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures did what it did.

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  8. By the way, it’s Catholic Schools Week. I only spent two years in a Catholic school, but I’m grateful for them. I have friends with kids in Catholic, Protestant, and public schools, and I’m friends with homeschoolers as well. One size doesn’t fit all (unless it’s baggy and more of an encumbrance than a garment).

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    • “One size doesn’t fit all (unless it’s baggy and more of an encumbrance than a garment).”

      In the biz, we sometimes call this the “One size fits none” approach. Which isn’t wholly accurate as many kids can get along fine in the “baggy” structure, but it is unlikely to fit anyone well so you sort of end up short changing everyone (some more than others though).

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  9. American public education had non-denominational Bible study for most of its history, it continued into mid-20th century in many places including ones we see as liberal and diverse even back than. The first voucher debate in American history arouse because of this non-denominational Bible teaching. American Catholics basically decided that the non-denominational part was bull because the Bible read was the KJV rather than the Vulgate or the approved Vatican English translation of the Vulgate. This meant that American public schools were Protestant schools in all but name. Catholics that that if tax dollars were supporting Protestant schools than they might as well support Catholic schools. There were political fights and riots about this during the 19th century. Cincinnati decided to drop the Bible from the public school curriculum because of this. They were the sole pioneer for decades but eventually other big cities followed suit. Theodore Roosevelt also believed that meaningful separation of religion and state meant that you can’t really teach the Bible or other religious texts in school even as literature.

    In a much more religious and racially diverse America, things are going to be more divisive. The Evangelical Protestants are going to argue for teaching their Bible their way. Religious minorities will argue that their books be taught as well and why should they have to read the Bible. There will be lawsuits in the courts over Establishment Clause violations. Do we really need a repeat?

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  10. I agree this would be fascinating. I don’t think the final project would work out very well though.

    If you do this it seems you’d have to give full credit to atheist students who simply handed in an empty binder as the “divinely inspired” container, and untouched copies of all the source religious texts as the “inspired by human effort” container.

    Giving less than full marks for this seems like it would be declaring atheism a less valid religious view.

    Giving full marks for it would enrage lots of people who probably already don’t like or trust atheism, and see their atheist classmates “getting away with” no work.

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  11. We should do it with the Constitution and Amendments as well.

    Then we can marvel at the wisdom of our young Gnostic Totalitarians. Enlightenment indeed.

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  12. As a legal matter, despite what many people either actually think or pretend to think to wind up the bubbas, there is no reason public schools can’t teach about religion. In a sane world, they would and should. But we do not live in a sane world, and any academically honest teaching about any religion, especially the dominant religion in the country, would raise holy Hell. (I think it was John Dos Passos, arguing with a copy editor, who insisted that “Hell” be capitalized because “it’s a real place, like Scarsdale.”) This particular proposal, calling upon youngsters to declare and defend beliefs and disbeliefs and argue them, rather than merely give an account of what others have believed and disbelieved and why, would bring out the pitchforks and torches.

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    • If anything, I think they’d encourage teaching about the historical context of religious texts, aka “why Paul was actually channeling future Social Justice writing when he got so lit up about homosexuality” and “why Leviticus has all that stuff about ‘how to poop’ “.

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  13. While this seems like it could turn out to be a productive exercise, there are two failure points I see.

    First, the Bible (even the 66-book version) is a rather long document. Your typical high school student has a great deal of difficulty sustaining concentration to study a short document like the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. They can memorize X number of sentences, but beyond regurgitating those sentences verbatim, they generally lack any significant comprehension of their meaning. For all but the most gifted of students, getting them to understand what they’ve read in such a document such that they can restate its meaning in their own words is a well-nigh impossible struggle.

    Second, teenagers are generally not particularly articulate. The assignment here is, (just as a for instance; as this would be a passage I’d definitely expurgate) “Explain why you cut out the Sacrifice of Isaac” Now, if you asked 46-year-old me why I’d cut that story out, I’d answer you with “Because it’s absolutely horrible. To make a man treat his young son, who he loves, by literally holding a knife to his throat until God tells him, no, you can go kill that sheep instead, makes God look sadistic and cruel, makes Abraham look like a schizophrenic lunatic, and is a violent form of child abuse on poor innocent Isaac.” But ask a teenager that and you’re like to get an answer along the lines of, “I think that whole sacrifice thing kind of sucks. That made me think of my friend whose dad hits him all the time.” What grade are you going to give such explanation?

    You could also get the student who is coming from a heavily religious background who turns in an assignment that says, “Dear Jefferson Bible Exercise Instructor, I would remove nothing from the Bible because I am taught by my preacher that every word of the Bible is God’s Revealed Truth and I believe my preacher because I am a God-fearing Christian. The End.” What’s the grade then?

    Then, there’s the fact that you need a special kind of attitude on the part of the teacher — one that is intelligent and critical enough to discern whether the student has actually read and thoughtfully considered the text and maybe even challenge the student intellectually a bit, but also one that is not personally so eager to discuss his or her own religion so as to not correct the student’s differences in theological opinion from himself or herself. I’ve no doubt that many teachers would attempt to straddle those imperatives in good faith, but many would fail and a significant fraction of others would not have as good faith an attitude as we would all hope for.

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  14. I love this idea as stated, and would be happy to champion it were it on the table in our school district here.

    But I think it bears noting that it wouldn’t go down like you think it would. I think you’ll find that a big portion (possibly a large majority?) of the very same people who are arguing that we need to put the Bible back in school would find this idea offensive. Perhaps ever more offensive than not studying the Bible in public schools at all.

    Also, it will end up being taught the way evolution is taught. Which is to say that a few will teach as intended, most will briefly gloss over it in a prepared statement, and more than a few will, with support of their local school board, throw out the syllabus and teach why X is the True word of God and everything else blasphemy.

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    • I agree with Burt and rtodkelly that, in practice, both students and teachers would make a hash of this, the students because they wouldn’t know how to do anything else, and the teachers for more complicated reasons..

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      • Thirded. The likelihood of the few teachers who could handle the topic in all its breadth with the appropriate delicacy would ever meet the few classes capable of responding to it as intended – might be nil.

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    • I hadn’t taken the proposal as seriously as you did. The author described it as the result of a joke, after all. And it would never be implemented, anywhere.

      But you got me thinking. What would be the results of this exercise? A little creative writing. Or, less than that: sampling. The students would have no motivation or direction to address the question “what is truth?”. They’d instead be thinking about “what do I want to be true?”. And that, not even in an idealized or aspirational sense, but as “hey, this’d be cool”. I doubt that the course, as proposed, would offer much guidance on theology. So, what’s the benefit? I think it’d be negative. It would make the kids think they’d learned about religion, when they actually hadn’t. In fact, they’d been schooled in the opposite of Western theology and tradition.

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      • The first thing I’d teach them is that they don’t get to make up these things. People fought and died over them, and not because they were idiots compared to you, but because these things have meaning and consequences that maybe you haven’t thought about. Five hundred years ago, we saw that pulling on one thread can drastically alter the tapestry. Does anyone think that this exercise would encourage humility in the face of profound subject matter? I see it encouraging the opposite: casual assertion.

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        • The first thing I’d teach them is that they don’t get to make up these things.

          As opposed to how all religious thought was founded previously?

          I guess you could require that someone in each project group must develop a hallucination disorder, and only then the others can use their visions as a basis to make up the set of rules that preserves their position of social privilege.

          Project groups that do a convincing job of faking a hallucination disorder get full marks too.

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          • The Gospels were an aggregation of teachings of the Apostles. Which of them were hallucinating? How do you account for their common hallucinations? And, do they seem the sort? What in their lives before or after makes you distrust their lucidity?

            If you think the Gospels weren’t, as I described them, an aggregation of teachings of the Apostles, how do you account for them? What evidence do you have for your version?

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            • There is very little in the synoptic gospels that could not be taught by an ethics thinker, without any reference to God (or to modern’s Christianity very personal God that cares about your sex life), or that could not be cut and paste into Budhist or Confucian canon without anyone being the wiser. If you had three similar “gospels” of Pythagoras, that collected his thoughts, you would end with very similar teachings.

              There is, though, a big disconnect between the (synoptic) Gospel teachings and the Pauline Epistles teachings, and and even bigger between Paul and the Church teachings as set up by the times of Theodosium. Most of what we call Church teachings have no base on the Gospels, and was added by Paul, and built upon thin air by the “inspired” Church fathers, who incorporated many of those teachings, like the Trinity, without the support of a single Bible passage. Hell, It’s not even clear from the Gospels (definitely not from the synoptic ones) that Jesus ever claimed to be God incarnate, as opposed to a teacher or messenger like Moses or Ezequiel.

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              • There’s a lot to reply to here, and I’m going to be lazy and reply to just the first section.

                The ethical teachings in the synoptic Gospels could find a place in a contemporary ethicist’s text. Partly that’s due to the influence that the gospels have had on Western ethics. You put a chicken carcass in water and boil it, then remove the bones, and the water tastes like chicken – does that mean that the chicken bones had no effect? Buddhist and Confucian ethics have very different orientations than Western ethics or the Gospels, while you can exchange certain lines, you’d run into problem trying to reconcile them broadly. And there are plenty of established ethical codes that conflict drastically with those of the Gospels.

                But further, a whole lot of the Gospels isn’t ethical teaching. It’s geneologies, and references to Old Testament prophecies about the messiah, and accounts of miracles, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Even the synoptics.

                Now, the synoptics Gospels were written for a broader audience. John wrote to record the way Jesus talked to those closest to him – more intimate, less parables. Paul wrote theology and advice to young churches in Greek cities. Different priorities and different writers, but a lot of similarities in what they described. You can find differences if that’s what you’re looking for, but nothing like Rashomon.

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  15. I think the issue is that in 12th grade “english” which is really a brief survey of world literature (non english based) you might squeeze 1 to 2 weeks on world religious books such as the Bible the Koran, Buddist and Hindu scripture etc. Given say then 10 hours of class time what parts of which do you assign? Consider that in the 12th grade class you have to cover greek and roman writings such as Plato and Aristotle, Cicero, some writings of Julius Ceasar, Dante, Cervantes, the Russian novels such as War and Peace, and today some non western writings. plus 20th century works not written in english.
    In the 11th grade sequence which is primarily about books written in english, you need something on Chaucer, Shakespeare, the KJV (as a major definer of the english language, and many more recent authors, again a lot to cover in 180 hours of class.
    In fact this is the main problem with western canon classes what do you exclude to get down to the 180 hours of class time you have. Consider that study of the Western Great Books at St Johns Annapolis/Santa Fe takes 4 years of full time study.
    Of course this is the same problem that hits a lot of classes where there is vastly more material than time, and the continual demand to add things to study makes the problem worse and worse.

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  16. One other thing that I haven’t seen noted – the religuous beliefs of individual students who don’t conform to the dominant structure in their community is a major flashpoint for bullying.
    One of the best hopes for survival is staying under the radar – even if it is “known” that your family are Arian heretics, if you keep your head down, there’s nothing in a typical boring civics class to remind everyone.
    There’s a reason why the error bars on the actual number of atheists is so high – because so many aren’t out.

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