Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bible, Bible, who's got the Bible?

Last night, the New Braunfels ISD board of trustees approved a new elective Bible class for the 2006-07 school year:
New Braunfels Independent School District trustees voted 6-1 in favor of adopting an elective course based on the textbook "The Bible and Its Influence" during Monday's board meeting. Trustee Paul Fisher voted against the decision.

"I respect every opinion that has been presented tonight," Fisher said. "I view this as a subject that, if we address it in public schools, should be in the form of comparative religion."

People packed the board room at the NBISD Education Center on Monday, waiting to have their say on the controversial class, which was proposed last month. When asked for a show of hands, about one-third of those in attendance showed support for the Bible class.

Although we live within New Braunfels city limits, our kids go to Comal ISD schools, so this won't affect us. But the proximity, obviously, has captured my attention. I initially got a skin-crawling sensation, since New Braunfels is overwhelmingly conservative. And news reports in the paper and on television hyped the "controversy" and ignored anything of substance. So I did some digging and was surprised to find out that the textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, published by the Bible Literacy Project, isn't that bad. In fact, it might be pretty good. I don't know if it could reasonably be characterized as secular or non-sectarian, but that seems to be the intent of the Bible scholars who put the work together.

Personally, I don't have a problem with a Bible studies class in high school (although I agree with Fisher, above, that a comparative religion course would be of much greater benefit to students). The problem comes when conservative Christian interests try to use said courses as a Trojan horse with which to insert their own particular brand of faith into schools. I took "Study of the New Testament" in college (mainly because "Study of the Old Testament" kept filling up too fast) and while my prof, Richard Stadleman, was quite conservative in his views (he belonged to Disciples of Christ) he kept the course on a very even keel. So, the Bible can be taught in public schools, and taught effectively, as long as the literary and historical contexts are respected, as opposed to associated dogma. I really, really enjoyed that class--particularly when Stadleman shot down some of the vocal Biblical literalists in the class as he effectively pointed out how different books often had multiple authors whose works were compiled and edited into the forms we know today, not to mention the various known translation errors and ambiguities. Great class.

One other thing gives me heart. While Googling the book, I came across this critique of The Bible and Its Influence:
Does the celebrated new textbook -- produced by the Bible Literacy Project -- really teach Biblical literacy? Or does it immunize children against the actual message of the Bible? Does it help children to understand God's written message to His people? Or does it train students to view that message from the world's perspective? Does it help students to know God? Or does it suggest that our sovereign God is merely one among many gods?

The fact that the book is already viewed by fundamentalists as a threat boosted it immediately in my view. After a good chuckle, I continued searching and found this more substantive review from the Society of Biblical Literature:
It goes without saying that the task set for itself by the BLP is a formidable one — to produce a textbook that satisfies the legal requirement of not advocating a particular religious viewpoint while still passing muster with different faith communities. It should also be observed that this text is a significant improvement over similar efforts, such as the one in Texas by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which Mark Chancey has campaigned to change (http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Chancey_Bible_Curr_Revised.htm). The way in which BII accomplishes this task is by adopting an "attribution" approach, which is, in nuce, study about the Bible rather than study of the Bible. Such an approach may, for instance, attribute an interpretation to a particular religious perspective or faith community without endorsing it.

Not surprisingly, then, the best parts of this book are those that discuss the Bible's influence and importance for modern culture. Its pages are richly adorned with images of persons, documents, works of art, and the like. Most chapters have one or more boxes devoted to cultural connections — references or allusions to biblical texts in art, music, theater, and other, especially American, cultural expressions. There are also frequent boxes reserved for "The Bible in Literature," typically with quotations from well-known literary works that make use in some way of the Bible's content or themes. Another prominent feature of the book is a series of small boxes in the margins of the pages with the heading, "into everyday language." These trace the origins of familiar English phrases to the Bible or correlate them with their use in biblical texts.

But fundamentalist concerns aside, no work is perfect, and The Bible in Literature appears to ignore some of the aspects of Biblical study that I found most fascinating in my college course:
The "down side" of the attribution approach is that this textbook does not engage in what most SBL members would consider academic study of the Bible. There is no real critical analysis concerning such matters as authorship, date, and historicity of biblical books. The treatment of the biblical material is essentially a superficial summary of content. Statements in the text are, for the most part, accepted at face value without the recognition that such acceptance is in itself an interpretation. Thus, Gen 2:4b-25 is referred to as the second part of the Genesis creation account (p. 31). Similarly, there is no reference to source division of the flood story or to Mesopotamian parallels.

Be that as it may, on the surface, at least, this does sound like a text appropriate for public high school study. It at least tries to avoid dogma, even if it fails on occasion. And it's intrigued me enough so that I'm likely to add it to my Amazon wish list...

Now Playing: Brian Wilson Smile

No comments:

Post a Comment