uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Five Major Problems With Arizona's Bible-Teaching Bill

I was excited and supportive when I first heard that Arizona, like several other states, had passed a law adding a Bible elective to its high schools' curriculum. The Bible has, indeed, been enormously influential on Western culture, most especially in matters of aesthetics: western art, literature, culture, and even language have been infused in ways that are unintelligible to someone without Biblical knowledge.

Unfortunately, after reading the text of the bill, it appears to have numerous problems. The motivations behind the bill, sponsored and supported by a host of right-wing folks, are laid bare in the language of the bill, which while including much of what I just enumerated above, also includes not-so-subtle hints of religious-right narrative about the Bible's role in "law and government," popularized most effectively by the pseudo-historian David Barton.

Chief among my concerns are that, once this bill goes into effect, further bills will follow when conservative legislators realize the can of worms they've opened. While the bill ensures that the classes are taught from a religiously neutral point of view, one wonders just how comfortable legislators will be with that when the time comes. In university classes, we teach the Bible from a critical standpoint, just as we do any other text from antiquity. This means probing their ambiguities, investigating their historical inaccuracies, and analyzing the motivations of their authors. In history courses, the historical-critical model is still largely used, teasing out what we can about what most probably occurred, even if that is not consistent with what the text says (or wants to say). From a literary standpoint, we might examine what sorts of genres are at work in a given passage: myth, folklore, biography, encomium (praise), polemic (attack), etc.


Almost always, this sort of analysis conflicts at some point with the way in which any given denomination reads the Bible. The mere notion of approaching the Bible as literature at all, like any other work from antiquity, offends many people greatly, and yet that is precisely what will be required in a public school setting in order to avoid the First Amendment concerns which, to the legislature's credit, are acknowledged in the bill. As one who studies the Bible academically at a secular institution (i.e., in the way the bill is supposedly outlining), my top five concerns with this bill are as follows:

1. The first and most obvious concern is that the "Old Testament," as it is recurringly called in the bill, is just "the Bible" for Jews, and its interpretation and even structure (the order of the books) has differed from that of Christians for millennia. Merely the designation "Old Testament" is somewhat anti-Jewish. From there, the complications only multiply. Will the classes cover the Deuterocanonical works in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles? If not, why not? Not doing so introduces a Protestant bias to what "the Bible" is (and as already noted, there's a Christian bias inherent in designating an "Old Testament" to begin with). Is this class on the Christian Bible and its influences and literature? If so, perhaps this can be avoided. But specification is needed to keep students on the same page (literally), which brings me to the next problem.

2. Curiously, the bill stipulates that "a pupil shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text of the Old Testament or the New Testament and may use as the basic textbook a different translation of the Old Testament or the New Testament from that chosen by the school district governing board, the charter school governing body or the pupil's teacher."

Huh? Seriously? The teacher has to allow all students to use whatever text the students please? In what other course, with what other texts, would the legislature dictate that the students are allowed to use whichever translation they want? None. This is a nightmare for teachers, who generally like to be able to cite page numbers, for example, during class discussions or for assignments. The problems above also resurface. What if a teacher wants the students to read the Book of Tobit, but the student brings in a Protestant Bible? What then is the student going to read? And again, if Tobit is not considered in "the Bible," the legislature has run afoul of religious neutrality.

Of course, the real motivation behind this is that many (specifically evangelical) Christians have very specific ideas about what translations are appropriate or orthodox, and so legislators want to avoid angering parents who do not want their children to read, say, a version of Isaiah 7:14 that does not, in fact, say that "a virgin will conceive." But does that not lay bare the problems inherent in offering such a course to begin with? It is to be offered as an academic course or not. One would think the legislature would require (or at least allow teachers to require) an academic Bible edited by scholars (such as the Oxford Annotated Study Bible) or one even published in conjunction with the academic organization for Biblical studies, the Society of Biblical Literature (like the HarperCollins Study Bible). But again, more conservative Christians (those pushing for this very bill) don't like such publications because they don't always say what they want them to say, so again, we're back to structuring this course in line with sectarian, rather than secular, sensibilities. 

Again, in no other class would the legislature dictate that students can use whatever textbooks they want. This is an absurd concession to confessional concerns.

3. One of the top goals listed for the course in the bill is to teach "the history recorded by the Old Testament and the New Testament." Again, according to whom? That there is history recorded in the Bible no serious scholar would dispute. But it is not without complication, and there are several things in the Bible recorded as history that probably are not history. Is this going to be explored in detail -- as it would in any university classroom? If not, why not? No ancient historian would approach the Bible as a documentary history of past events. It may contain history, but teasing this out requires a lot of work, the subject of my next concern.

4. Who is going to teach these classes? The bill strangely suggests it can be made a part of either history or literature, tacitly acknowledging that it is approached as both by most scholars. Granted, teachers teach literature outside of their general field all the time, but this is going to be a class focused solely on the Bible, not just one part of it in a general survey course, and that requires attention to detail. Is the legislature making available the funding needed to hire qualified individuals to teach these courses, or are they simply mandating new criteria without any regard for that reality (a common problem)? The Gospels alone could present a challenge to any teacher. What genre is this? Is it biographical history? Or is it literature? Or is it something else altogether? It will be difficult for a high school teacher to make that distinction, since there is no overall consensus on it among scholars at all. If John is taught as literature (as many think it should be) and not history, will the legislature be OK with that?

4. The motivations behind this bill are suspect, as we can already see. But this is made painfully clear in the goals for the course, which list the Bible's influence in an order almost opposite to what most scholars in the respective fields would say. And so, it directs that teachers instruct on its influence on "laws, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture." Wow. That's a lot of material. Of course, the Bible (via the policy-making of Christians) has influenced our laws and government, but I doubt many political scientists or legal historians would consider it the "basis for our laws" as disciples of David Barton so often suggest. Right-wing darling Kirk Cameron, clearly a student of Barton, has even gone so far as to suggest America was based on a "Hebrew republic," a historical revision of the first order. But just such narrative can be seen in this provision of the bill, which lists things like law and government and history first before listing things that have genuinely been influenced by the Bible, like literature, art, and music, and then rounding out with some favorites of the Religious Right: "morals, values and culture."

Again, the Bible has been used to illuminate many of our moral and cultural debates, but its myriad uses for myriad purposes make any monolithic "influence" impossible to chart. Will students be taught how the Bible was used by both sides in the debates over slavery, civil rights, women's rights, and so on? The Bible's influence is not unidirectional: one would hope that is borne in mind as it's taught in Arizona's classrooms, though that's perhaps a vain hope.

5. Finally, the bill suggests that understanding the Bible is a "prerequisite" for "understanding society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy." This makes little sense. If the bill specified "Western culture" and "Western literature, art, music," I would probably concur. But the broad, sweeping nature of this statement again betrays the attitudes of the authors. Of course, one can understand "mores" without the Bible (again, which/whose "mores"?), but "public policy" is of course where we get to the heart of the matter.

There is an evangelical supposition among some Christians in this country, its roots in the  Sola Scriptura of the Protestant Reformation (itself a flawed concept), that suggests that if people just read the Bible, its Truth will wash over them and they will understand Jesus, God, Perfect Morality and thus how to vote in elections. This is of course a fantasy. Millions of people read the Bible and are affected by it not at all; still others read it and are affected, but not in the ways these proselytizers think they will be. In fact, when people read the Bible critically, in an academic setting, they are less likely to find The Truth than a series of truth claims that are not always consistent. They are less likely to find True Morality than a reflection of the values and cultures present when the books of the Bible were written. They are indeed less likely to come away thinking they have read a singular book than a library or collection of books, each with its own purposes and point(s) of view.

Which is why any singular, generalized class on the Scriptures, especially when so obviously motivated by problematic political concerns, will always do a great disservice to the Bible.

2 comments:

  1. Berkeley High School, in Berkeley, California, home of People's Park and the Free Speech Movement, has had, in addition to the African-American Studies Department, since at least 1980, Bible as Literature classes, and still do. When I found it in the class list I was quite surprised, we'd stopped pledging allegiance in the first grade because of the god thing, but discussing it with my dad I got why the literature part was essential. My dad taught history at Berkeley High, and also a class in Constitutional Law occasionally, among other interesting things.

    So somewhere there's an English curriculum for teaching it as literature if anyone in Arizona is willing to accept anything from Berkeley :)

    But I agree that this is just an attempt to breach the wall, as it were, between church and state. I read a long and not very informed article in the huffpost on the Arizona law which mentioned that the Georgia law was the first state in the nation to teach the bible in public school which I knew was not true, in fact I think it used to be quite common in good academic schools, which no matter how silly Berkeley High could get it was always a good academic school. But the huffpost did point out that the Georgia classes are being eliminated and dropped because of lack of money and lack of interest by students who have too many requirements to take electives.

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  2. As if to prove my point in the last paragraphs here about the totemic power of the Bible among some conservative Christians, the following photo meme showed up in my Facebook feed today (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=309536422447013&set=a.187587627975227.46246.100001719747921&type=1&theater). It appears to be based on an earlier chain e-mail (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unreasonablefaith/2011/01/giving-satan-a-headache/) which stated the following:
    "When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache….. When you open it, he collapses….. When he sees you reading it, he faints….. When he sees that you are living what you read, he flees…. And when you are about to forward this message…. he will try and discourage you.. I just defeated him!!! Any other takers?"
    So there you go: the Arizona legislature appears to be drafting its curriculum on par with the theological logic of a chain e-mail.

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