Teaching Bible in public schools: Not a good idea

How is it possible not to treat the Bible as a holy book?

By Chuck Queen

In April the Mustang, Okla., school board voted to adopt the Museum of the Bible curriculum developed by writers and researchers associated with Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, a family-owned crafts store chain whose suit against the Affordable Care Act is before the Supreme Court.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation have sent letters to the Mustang Public School Board expressing their concerns. No doubt if the school board continues with its plans to implement the course they can expect costly lawsuits to come.

There is good reason for concern. Some who have previewed the textbook have noted that it contains leading questions assuming that biblical narratives, which many scholars identify as “religious myths” or “metaphorical narratives,” are historically true. FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel said, “The materials show a clear Christian bias, treat the Bible as historically accurate and true in all respects, and make theological claims, to name a few problems.”

It may be surprising for some readers to learn that there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching the Bible in public schools. The same Supreme Court that ruled in 1963 that school-sanctioned prayer violated the Constitution also declared, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible … when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

Many defenders of church/state separation on both the left and right support that decision. For example, Hemant Mehta, who blogs for Patheos as the “Friendly Atheist,” recently posted a piece titled “The (First) 7 Problems with the Hobby Lobby Bible Curriculum.” He begins his article, however, with the assumption that there is nothing wrong with teaching the Bible from a purely academic viewpoint. He says, “There are already such courses in public schools around the country and they’re legal because they don’t treat the Bible as a Holy Book.”

Here’s the problem: How is it possible not to treat the Bible as a holy book? The Bible is a collection of religious documents written from particular theological viewpoints. Interpreters debate exactly what the theological viewpoints of the authors/redactors/faith communities were, because they’re not so obvious, even from a historical-critical reading. All the biblical writers and communities responsible for these texts wrote with distinct theological and spiritual biases. Every reader of these documents interprets them from a distinct viewpoint and out of a set of biases he or she brings to the interpretive process.

Take, for example, the two Genesis creation stories. Any historical-critical (academic) reading of the Bible will identify these stories as religious myths, not reliable historical accounts. But does that alone constitute an unbiased reading. Of course not. A religious myth, while not historically factual is pervasively theological — designed to teach truth about God and God’s relationship to the world from a particular theological viewpoint.

No part of the Bible is “secular” or “objective” — the two key words in the Supreme Court’s decision to allow classes about the Bible to be taught in public schools. It is impossible not to teach the Bible as a “holy” book.

As a Christian I read the Bible through a Christian lens. The sacred tradition of Jesus is the filter through which I read, interpret, understand and appropriate all the biblical texts. I bring that bias with me to the Bible.

Even when I consciously try to set aside that bias and read the text from a “neutral” position I find it impossible, simply because the writers were not in any way neutral. They had an agenda, a theological framework out of which they wrote. I make judgments about the text based on what I believe their theological assumptions/beliefs/biases were and I judge the text’s value for today through the grid of my own Christological perspective. I cannot not do that.

We all bring biases with us to the reading of the biblical texts. I have contended for some time now that the reader who wants to pursue a constructive, holistic and transformative reading of these texts will be intentional about the biases he or she adopts.

I can see value in permitting classes where practicing members and participants of different religious traditions engage in mutual dialogue and respectful honest discussion about their different religious beliefs and perspectives. But it is impossible to teach a book that is a collection of pervasively spiritual and theological documents from a neutral, secular, objective and unbiased position.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.