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Published in Print: May 16, 2007, as The Bible Makes A Comeback

The Bible Makes A Comeback

Many public school officials feared teaching about the text after a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Now, scholars are trying to find ways to teach about it from an academic standpoint.

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Some favorite rock songs have taken on new meaning for Meghan Anderson since she discovered the biblical roots of the allusions and wordplay that have inspired her. Some of the required readings in English class are more evocative as well for the sophomore at First Coast High School here as a result of what she learned this year in a class on the Bible.

“There are a lot of different references to the Bible in books and movies and music that I never realized,” she said. “It’s all over the place.”

Pervasive it is. That’s why Harriet Kisilinsky, a veteran English teacher at the 2,300-student school on Florida’s northeast coast, lobbied school officials to offer an introductory course on the Bible and its influence on literature, history, and popular culture. After nearly three decades at First Coast, Ms. Kisilinsky noticed that students’ knowledge of the influential text was in decline at a time when academic expectations were rising. Such a course, she believed, would help prepare teenagers better for the growing academic demands facing them and give them a deeper understanding of content across the humanities curriculum.

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“When they started the countywide push for getting more kids into AP, it struck me that these kids don’t have the background they need to succeed,” said Ms. Kisilinsky of the effort to make the rigorous Advanced Placement courses accessible and achievable for a greater proportion of students in the 125,000-student Duval County public school district. “How can you expect them to read Dante’s Inferno and write about it if they don’t understand his nine circles of hell” and other religious themes the text draws on, she wondered.

Bible in the Schoolhouse

Colonial era to 19th century: The primary purpose of schooling, in addition to learning the three R’s, is to teach the lessons of the Bible. By the latter decades of the 1800s, Bible “wars” erupt between Protestants and Catholics over which version of the Scriptures will be used for the recitations that mark the school day. State supreme courts in Ohio (1872) and Wisconsin (1890) strike down mandatory Bible reading

1963: On the heels of several court cases on religion in schools, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Abington Township School District v. Schempp that a Pennsylvania law requiring daily recitations of Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer in public school classrooms is unconstitutional. In an 8-1 decision, the court says the Bible may be studied for its literary and historical merits, but may not be used for daily religious exercises in public schools.

1989: A coalition of religious and educational organizations issues guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools, recommending an approach that is academic, not devotional; emphasizes the study of religion, not its practice; exposes students to a diversity of religious views, but does not impose or encourage particular beliefs; and intends to inform students about different beliefs, not have them conform.

1999: The Bible Literacy Project and the First Amendment Center issue a guide to teaching about the Bible in public schools. The guide is endorsed by prominent religious and educational organizations, as well as free-speech groups. Supporters recommend finding middle ground between a traditional “sacred text” approach still evident in some school lessons and a view of public schools as “religion-free zones.”

Last fall, she taught the class for the first time as an English elective for some 60 sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Another group of students pored through lessons this spring on the Old and New Testaments, biblical archaeology and geography, and an array of classic and contemporary literary references based on the tome, its themes, symbols, and people.

Ms. Kisilinsky is one of a growing number of educators who are restoring the study of the ancient text in public schools, where it enjoyed a revered place in the curriculum starting in Colonial times and was still widely used through the first half of the 20th century.

The legal challenges to religious content and ritual in public schools began with prohibitions in the late 19th century on daily Bible recitations in some places and continued through to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that essentially struck down school-led prayer and devotional reading. They had made it risky to use the Bible in public school classrooms. But its absence, many educators and academic experts say, has contributed to a steady disintegration of students’ basic awareness of biblical stories and characters—essential knowledge for studying the works of Shakespeare, the paintings of Michelangelo, and the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

A series of reports and books in recent years have contended that it is essential for students to understand biblical content, particularly as it relates to historical documents and events, literature and the arts, and even current events, if they are to be fully educated.

In 1999, the First Amendment Center convened a group of education, religious, and free-speech groups to draft guidelines for teaching about religion in schools. The report by the Arlington, Va.-based think tank tried to dispel the misconception that court decisions of the 1960s—which banned the promotion of religion and religious rituals—prohibited teaching about religion in public schools.

A 2005 survey conducted by the Bible Literacy Project found that while educators reported that students with knowledge of the Bible had a “distinct educational advantage” over their other peers, fewer than one in 10 had access to such courses.

The Front Royal, Va.-based advocacy group contends that most public schools should offer students electives that provide an academic study of the Bible.

Stephen Prothero goes even further in his recent best-seller, Religious Literacy: What EveryAmerican Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. Mr. Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, argues that public schools should require students to take courses on the Bible and world religions.

“Only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels, and one out of 10 think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife,” Mr. Prothero wrote in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment, or the environment without knowing something about the Bible?”


Policymakers are starting to take note as well at a time when religious devotion gives candidates political standing among many voters.

The Georgia legislature recently passed laws endorsing state-supported Bible classes in high schools throughout the Peach State, but stopped short of making the offerings mandatory.

Supporters of Bible Study

Advocacy groups have been promoting the importance of Bible literacy for all students as a foundation for understanding the roots of American democracy and the themes and symbolism in classic and modern literature.

First Amendment Center: Operated by the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., the center promotes the study of issues related to freedom of speech, religion, and the press. It oversaw the development of guidelines for teaching about the Bible in public schools, in conjunction with the Bible Literacy Project.

Bible Literacy Project: The Front Royal, Va.-based group promotes academic study of the Bible. It published the textbook The Bible and Its Influence last year for use in classes highlighting the prevalence of the text’s themes and symbols in literature and throughout history. The text has been endorsed by a number of educational, free-speech, and religious organizations.

National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools: The Greensboro, N.C.-based council publishes lesson plans and curriculum materials, and recommends the use of the Bible as the primary textbook for elective courses about the text. The curriculum has been challenged by groups that champion separation of church and state. The council is affiliated with the American Family Association and Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.

In Texas, lawmakers are debating a similar measure, although Republicans there are fighting proposed changes to a GOP bill introduced in February that would require a statewide curriculum, uniform requirements for teachers of the course, and state oversight of the content. The original bill would have exempted Bible courses from complying with state academic standards, allowed textbooks to bypass the state-adoption process, and mandated that all districts offer courses on the Old and New Testaments. It did not establish minimum teacher requirements.

Recent proposals in Alabama, Missouri, and other states to institute such courses have not been successful.

Even though there is widespread agreement on the need for knowledge of the Bible, little agreement exists about how to teach material that is inherently religious in ways that will pass legal and academic muster.

“At the same time the subject is being raised for greater consideration, … [how to teach it] is a difficult and sensitive issue that’s not settled,” said Melissa Rogers, a constitutional lawyer and a visiting scholar at Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. “There’s one camp that fears that the instruction will be equivalent to Sunday school instruction,” she said. “In other camps, there are devout believers who think it’s really not sound to teach the ‘holy book’ in a neutral way.”

Too often, Ms. Rogers and other experts say, the classes disregard legal prohibitions against the promotion of religious beliefs in public schools. Critics of the original Texas bill, for example, said the push for offering a class that did not have to follow the same requirements as all other academic courses suggested it was a cloaked attempt to allow church teachings by local ministers and parishioners.

“We do believe that a well-planned course about the Bible can be an enriching part of any student’s studies,” said Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based organization that promotes “religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right,” according to its Web site. The network conducted an intensive study of Bible curricula in public schools throughout the state.

“But we discovered that the vast majority of courses about the Bible are devotional in nature and more about the religious beliefs and practices of the teacher than about the influence of the Bible in history and literature,” Ms. Miller said.

Those kinds of programs are destined to be challenged, according to Ms. Miller.

That was the case a decade ago across the Florida peninsula from Jacksonville. Efforts by the Lee County school district, in Fort Myers, ran into legal trouble when several parents, supported by groups advocating separation of church and state, challenged two Bible-history courses that they deemed religiously based.

The 80,000-student district was teaching a course with the Bible as the main text and structured around a framework crafted by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. The Greensboro, N.C.-based group recommends Bible courses to “deal with the moral crises in our society,” President Elizabeth Ridenour writes in a letter on the group’s Web site. But the council has drawn criticism from some scholars who say it is promoting a Protestant worldview.


Usage Guidelines

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning daily Bible recitations fueled a decline in religionbased content in public schools throughout the latter part of the 20th century. Some educational, religious, and free-speech organizations have come up with recommendations for making courses legally and academically sound.

Texts: The Bible may be used as the primary text, but should be combined with other materials. Use of one particular version of the Bible—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish—may suggest one is better than another. Students should understand and be exposed to the different translations.

Teachers: Religious groups may not teach religious courses on school grounds during the school day. Teachers of the academic-themed courses on the Bible should be selected based on their scholastic qualifications, not their beliefs. They should be hired according to the same standards as other teachers. Teachers should receive training on teaching about the Bible, or have taken collegelevel courses.

Approach: The Bible should be taught from an academic, not devotional, standpoint. “Supernatural occurrences” and divine acts described in the Bible should not be presented as historical fact. In literature courses about the Bible, students should learn about the themes, symbols, narratives, and characters in the text. The biblical references in classic and contemporary literature can also be explored. History courses can cover the origins of Judaism and Christianity, the differences between religions, the biblical basis of the nation’s founding ideals and documents, and the historical arguments of both secular and sacred scholars.

Control: Schools may accept funding from private groups to support Bible electives as long as they can guide the content and instruction. Local school officials should maintain control over the content and materials used in such classes.

In Florida, a review of Bible-related classes in districts throughout the state at the time of the lawsuit concluded that most were not legally sound. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools’ curriculum was among those studied by the Florida branch of the People for the American Way, a group that supports separation of church and state.

The state rewrote course descriptions to ensure that such programs follow state academic standards and constitutional principles.

The council, however, reports that it has been successful in other parts of the country. The council recruits parent groups to make the case with local school boards and administrators for adding its curriculum, a strategy that it says has led to its adoption in nearly 400 school districts.

Reflecting what some observers say is a growing rift in the field, the council is pitting its curriculum against a new textbook published by the Bible Literacy Project. The newer book, The Bible and Its Influence, has won the endorsement of scholars who favor distinctly secular biblical courses, treating the Bible as a work of literature.

“The national council thought they could have it both ways, that you can have a constitutionally acceptable Bible elective and something that evangelicals would find Bible-friendly,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center who tracks issues related to religion in public schools. He says the council’s curriculum is essentially an outline of the Bible and does not adequately guide teachers in how to present the material.

“Their efforts were a trigger for interest in Bible electives around the country, … but unless the teacher takes the material and transforms it into something else, it is open to so much misuse,” Mr. Haynes said.

The teachers’ guide treats the Bible as a history book in some places, he said.

The council, whose advisory committee includes a number of Republican lawmakers and representatives of conservative Christian groups, has rejected Mr. Haynes’ assessment. In a rebuttal to criticism last fall, the council contended that its curriculum has been reviewed by constitutional scholars and approved by school board members, public officials, and clergy members of diverse backgrounds.

The national council sought to discredit the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook as “anti-biblical” and a “masterful work of deception, distortion, and outright falsehoods” for the way it portrays some biblical and historical material.


At First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Ms. Kisilinsky’s course follows the required state guidelines, and meets a number of state standards in English. She draws content from a variety of sources, including Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish versions of the Bible, scholarly articles, and The Bible and Its Influence, the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook.

Ms. Kisilinsky, herself a passionate student of religious texts, history, and literature, said the text helps her push her students beyond the biblical presentation many have experienced at home and in church to a more comprehensive analysis of the sections of the Bible that are most prevalent in literature.

It is that approach, she said, that will best serve students, especially those who are likely to struggle in the higher-level English classes administrators are promoting. In Duval County over the past two years, the number of students enrolled in AP classes in general grew nearly 1½ times, to more than 10,000, including 23 percent of high school freshmen. In those classes, students are expected to read and study a number of complex novels, poems, short stories, and literary passages.

This class, however, was a sort of wild-card choice for some of Ms. Kisilinsky’s students who needed to take another elective or were looking for an option they thought would be interesting and easy. It has not necessarily fit the bill for some of the students, who said they found the content hefty or boring, at least at times.

But for others, the 14-week class was eye-opening, even fun. Dwayne Roach was one of them. The senior said he has never set foot in a church, but appreciated learning about Jesus without feeling uncomfortable or pressured to accept the information.

Mr. Roach led a team of his classmates in a recent assignment creating their own version of a gospel, in the tradition of those in the New Testament attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. His group chose a modern take, portraying Jesus as a 21st-century rap star, using cadence and banter to preach his message to throngs of enthralled followers.

The text, titled “Spreadin’ the Word, Yo,” describes a segment of the Maury Povich talk show in which Mary announces to Joseph that she is pregnant with the baby Jesus. The piece captures Joseph’s shock and disbelief, as well as that of the audience, at Mary’s account of her visit from an angel and the virginal conception of her child.

The tale was a bit irreverent for Ms. Kisilinsky, but showed that students were gaining an awareness of the compelling nature of the Bible’s timeless stories, she said.

“When you talk about in Andrew Marvell’s poem [‘To His Coy Mistress’] where he says, ‘I would love you ten years before the Flood,’ I’ve had a kid ask, ‘What flood?’ ” Ms. Kisilinsky recalled. “They don’t have to have knowledge of the Bible like a minister does,” she said, “But they have to know the basics.”

PHOTO: Images depict Adam and Eve, a map of Abraham's journey and Moses and the Ten Commandments from The Bible and Its Influence.
—Photographed by Christopher Powers

Vol. 26, Issue 37, Pages 25-27

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