The Big Problem With ‘Biblical Literacy’
The thing to worry about with Biblical literacy classes is not that they exist, but rather what politicians supporting them are trying to get back to.
America is, quite famously, a nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion. As a result it is easy to understand why many people would be uncomfortable with certain kinds of religious practices (mostly notably prayer) and education in public schools. A little over a week ago President Trump tweeted his support for the introduction of Biblical literacy classes in schools, drawing attention to efforts by a variety of Christian groups to put the Bible back on the high school agenda.
Following Trump’s statement there was a flurry of media coverage of the issue. Fox News reported that “at least six states, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia have introduced legislation this year pushing for public schools to offer Bible literacy classes,” noting that these classes would be electives. (The Indiana bill is not actually a Bible course bill at all. It demands that the previously existing world religions electives class has to include a conversation about the Bible).
There is a strategy here: Project Blitz, an initiative sponsored by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation and the WallBuilders ProFamily Legislative Network, has been orchestrating the push to create these bills.
As prominent SMU religious studies professor Mark Chancey has written, it’s actually already legal to teach the Bible in schools, so in some sense these bills are unnecessary. Courses like the one Trump is tweeting have been around for a century. Chancey told The Daily Beast that “it is important to recognize that Bible course bills and their sponsors may have different motivations…sometimes a bill is clearly about more than just biblical literacy, and that's definitely the case with Project Blitz bills.” Other measures that Project Blitz has called for includes the promotion of the motto “In God We Trust,” the introduction of a “year of the Bible” and the limiting of the rights of same-sex couples and transgender people. Chancey told me, “Project Blitz is weaponizing Biblical Literacy for the cultural wars.”
As a religion professor, I think that religious literacy is commendable goal. Regardless of our religious beliefs, if we want to understand our history, traditions, literature, music and art, we need to understand the religious texts and practices that helped shape them. The problems with Biblical literacy courses are twofold. First, the focus on Judeo-Christian traditions to the exclusion of other religious traditions promotes the idea that Christianity is a privileged religion in the United States and misses an opportunity to educate children in the wide range of religious beliefs held by Americans. Second, it’s difficult to teach the Bible in a way that does not prejudice one particular denomination of Christianity.
To give just one truly obvious example, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants do not use the same Bible. Catholics and Protestants don’t even agree on which books the Bible should contain, much less how we should understand the content of those books. Add to this the fact that some denominations read certain passages metaphorically while others are more invested in literalist interpretations, and it’s very difficult to teach a Biblical literacy class in a non-sectarian manner. A single version will be used, and the selection of that text and the prioritizing of certain stories and perspectives over others will always lean in the direction of a particular kind of Christianity. Christians should worry as much about denominational indoctrination as much as members of other religious groups and atheists should.
One particular issue is the way that denominationally-backed educational institutions represent the material they are teaching. In an interview with The Washington Times on the way that they present material, Ken McKenzie, CEO of the recently opened Hobby-Lobby backed Museum of the Bible in DC discussed the museum’s non-sectarian Bible curriculum. While Hobby Lobby previously sponsored efforts to place a Bible literacy curriculum in public schools, they now target private schools and homeschoolers. McKenzie offered the following example of what non-sectarian education looks like:
“We’ll read the story, and then we’ll study the material around it. Archaeological excavations have found the stone that was used of 1.5 to 2 pounds, and we’ll review some ancient texts about life at that time and watch a video that shows how a sling could be accurate,” Mr. McKenzie said. “This is not [an assignment that says], ‘This is what we believe.’”
The statement created an immediate flurry of interest from academics who, understandably, wondered if McKenzie was suggesting that Museum of the Bible itself is claiming to possess the “1.5 to 2 pound” murder weapon that, according to the story, killed Goliath. In a comment to The Daily Beast, McKenzie clarified that he had been taken out of context; that what he meant was that “archaeologists’ research in the area where the event reportedly occurred have unearthed stones from that era weighing in at 1.5-2 pounds.” He also added that this is not an actual example from the institution’s curriculum.
It is frustrating for McKenzie to be misquoted, but the method he describes raises another problem: the way that Christian organizations weaponize archaeology in the presentation of Biblical texts. The presence of smallish rocks in the region where David fought Goliath isn’t proof of the Biblical story any more than the existence of the Sea of Galilee proves that Jesus walked on water. And even if the textbooks don’t explicitly offer this as proof or evidence of belief, it selectively employs archaeology as a support system for the accuracy of the Bible’s message. An example like this glosses over the bigger problem: that the Bible tells us two diverging things about how David kills Goliath. In the first version David kills Goliath with a slingshot and specifically without a sword (1 Samuel 17:50); in the second version he knocks Goliath down with the slingshot, pulls his sword out, kills Goliath and beheads him (1 Samuel 17:51). The reason for the discrepancy, according to Yale professor of Hebrew Bible Joel Baden’s The Historical David, is that two different, conflicting versions of the David and Goliath story were combined. Presenting descriptions of the geology of the region makes everything – and especially the Biblical text itself – seem more straightforward than it is.
The thing to worry about with Biblical literacy classes is not that they exist, but rather that politicians are introducing bills supporting them in an attempt to “get back” to a fictive point in time in which everyone was ‘Biblically literate.’ The problem with that is not just the distortive presentation of American history, or even the fact that these are efforts to privilege Christianity, but rather that it is impossible to present the Bible in an impartial way. Claiming to do so presents the interpretive tradition of a particular group as the collective beliefs of all Christians.