Biblical Literacy: “I Thought I Would Go With That”
Posted by Larry Wallberg on 02/09/2010
Yet again, somewhere in the United States, a band of ignorant theocrats are trying to pull a fast one on slow children. This time, they’re in — where else? — Kentucky.
I didn’t even have to open my daily rag today to find the following headline, because it was on the goddamned front page, above the fold:
Bill would let schools teach Bible literacy.
The three Democrats who are proposing this momentous educational reform do, of course, go through the motions to appease the few Kentuckians who have actually read the First Amendment. The sponsors claim that their class would
teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.
Contemporary? Usually, these kinds of god-pushers make a vague, passing reference to the totality of Western Civilization, and how it’s impossible to understand history and literature without having some familiarity with the bible. That argument probably holds some water, because our culture is swimming in Christian references.
But here in Kentucky, even that lie isn’t necessary. When asked about — as the Lexington Herald-Leader so tendenciously put it — potential “criticism from those who would favor the teaching of other religious texts, such as the Quran,” the bill’s primary sponsor, state senator David Boswell, said:
Since the Bible has played such a big role in our literature, I thought I would go with that.
His response makes it sound as if Boswell, with the innocent aim of expanding our students’ vistas, sat down and made a fair-minded list of literary pros and cons, with columns headed “the Bible,” “the Quran,” and maybe even “the Vedas,” and “The Mahayana Canon.” Eventually, to his complete surprise, he exclaimed, “Well, would you look at this? Christianity wins!” But, of course, that’s wholly shit.
So is it even remotely possible to have a religion-neutral class on bible literacy? O me of little faith; I doubt it. Not here in Kentucky, anyway, where the bible-thumping is loud enough to drown out all other thought.
But at a bare minimum, public schools should be forced to adhere to the following rules for such courses:
- God must always be referred to as “the god character in this section.”
- No events in the bible may be taught as fact or truth.
- A teacher of the course must not, either explicitly or implicitly, endorse the content of any biblical passage.
- Morally abhorrent sections of the bible must be liberally included in the course.
- For every passage of the bible covered, the teacher must relate it to either an important historical event or literary work to which the verses act as a reference.
- The teacher must point out parallels to biblical stories in other works of mythological literature, as well as in folklore and fairy tales.
- The teacher must refer to the “unknown author” (small “a”) of each book or passage studied, and analyze the writing critically in the same way that other texts would be treated.
- For all quotes, incidents, and story fragments discussed or assigned, the teacher must use a textbook or other reference work, not his or her own personal copy of the bible. The volume used must not have been issued by a publisher specializing in religious materials nor by the theological arm of an allegedly religion-neutral publisher.
- For comparative literary purposes, the teacher must point out obvious discrepancies between biblical accounts (i.e., the two conflicting versions of the creation of humans, the differing lists of Jesus’s genealogy).
- No teacher of the course may wear any religious item of clothing or jewelry, or emblazon any public or personal object (including his or her car) with a phrase in praise of any deity.
- No teacher of the course may attend any outside religious services at which a student in the class might make an appearance.
- No teacher of the course may refer to his or her own religious beliefs, either directly or indirectly. Nor may the teacher allow classroom discussion in which students talk about their own religious beliefs.
While I’m on the subject, I’d also like to address the age-old mantra that the bible should be taught as great literature. Yes, there are some beautiful passages and interesting turns of phrase in various books, and any cultured person should recognize them. But students should be reminded repeatedly that the bible is a centuries-spanning anthology of books, each of which has been translated, perhaps inaccurately or misleadingly, from ancient languages.
And a lot of the bible is just inartistic crap. Could anyone read the dry-as-the-desert rulebooks Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and not be bored out of his or her mind? The first book of Chronicles is loaded with yawn-inducing lists. Dull minor prophets like Obadiah and Haggai? Who would even look at them today if they were collected in any other volume? The Gospel of Mark is mediocre writing at best. And some of those epistles, like Titus and Philemon, are on a par with junk-mail solicitations.
I’d normally be the last person to criticize school systems for trying to teach ineducable louts about important cultural achievements. I recognize that the bible is certainly one of those. Clearly, though, it’s by no means the only one. Nor is it the most important, unless you already come to the table with a predigested notion that every word was inspired by you-know-who. Lots of the bible is tiresome and/or repugnant — badly written, morally reprehensible, logically muddled, unhistorical hogwash. If our goal is to civilize our kids, we need to expose them to Greek philosophers, Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s symphonies, Rembrandt’s paintings, and the actual texts of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. They may be shocked to learn that the latter contains a little something forbidding the government from establishing religion.
If the bill-sponsoring god-pushers from Kentucky were completely honest — which they’re not — they’d also be making a fuss that public school students are taught next to nothing about Greek/Roman mythology, world drama, classical music, fine art, and the history of science. Shouldn’t those subjects be mandated in the public schools as well?
So why are they worried specifically about biblical literacy? Anyone who spends even a small amount of time reading the drivel in newspapers and magazines, in best-selling novels and current biographies, and — yeah — on most blogs, anyone who cares at all about the written word, knows that many Americans are inept at communicating or understanding ideas in any form longer than a twit’s tweet. What we really need to teach students in this country is just plain old unadorned literacy.