The Bible in Public Schools (Part 2)

The story of a new Bible curriculum for public schools moved forward in the past few days.  Months ago the school board of a district in the suburbs of Oklahoma City approved the curriculum, sponsored by Steve Green, CEO of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, but those involved had kept it private.  My last post reviewed the story of a similar effort about a decade ago, and pointed to some early parallels in the promotion of the new curriculum, particularly the secrecy surrounding it and vague claims about the scholarly expertise involved.

Copies of the curriculum leaked out in recent days.  The Associated Press acquired a copy and asked Dr. Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University to review it.  Dr. Chancey’s initial comments are now public, but not his thorough evaluation.  One comment from his evaluation reveals that the curriculum approaches the Bible from an evangelical Protestant perspective, which contradicts claims supporters of the curriculum have made.  Steve Green has said publicly “This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it’s about a book.  We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.”  The superintendent of the school board said, “We’re not asking kids to believe the stories,” McDaniel said. “This is a purely academic endeavor. If it turns into something beyond that, either we will correct it or we will get rid of it.”  The few images of the curriculum that have become public do not come close to fitting this description.

The situation presents two possibilities.   Either the producers and supporters of the curriculum are deliberately deceptive, or they have no idea what an objective, academic approach to the Bible would look like.  I want to try to be charitable and assume the latter as much as possible.  Let me begin with one hypothetical example not in the few examples I have seen, because it should be the first question the curriculum confronts.  An academic course about the Bible should ask first “What is the Bible?”  Many who do not have practice asking and answering such a question in an academic setting may assume this is a simple, factual question with a simple, factual answer, but a simple answer always assumes the perspective of a particular religious tradition, because the academic, historical answer is long and complicated.  If one begins by saying the Bible is an ancient collection of literature with two sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and a total of 66 books, the answer may sound factual and objective but is really biased and sectarian.  It describes the Bible only for a minority of Christians, those within Protestant denominations.  The answer is different for Jews, Catholic Christians, and Orthodox Christians.  Who are the writers of the curriculum and will they assume that their Bible, or Steve Green’s Bible, is the same as everyone else’s?

One example that has become public is an image of a page listing the attributes of God under the heading “What is God like?”  Under the heading descriptions such as compassionate, loving, faithful, orderly, disciplined, gracious, and good appear, each with a reference to a verse from the Bible illustrating the divine trait.  It is fine for someone to believe God is like this and the selected biblical statements support such belief, but this is a selective reading of the Bible that does not come close to the academic standard touted by the supporters of the curriculum.  For example, there is not a reference to Exodus 19 where God is erratic, out of control, and dangerous or Numbers 11 where God is vengeful, deceptive, and murderous.  The biblical characterization of God is complex, and most people filter out what they don’t like to construct their own image of the God in whom they believe.  Recognizing when we are doing this requires rigorous critical-thinking and academic discipline.  So far, the new curriculum does not demonstre those qualities.

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