Education: Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?

Joe Carter summarized the debate rather nicely, including two opposing viewpoints, over at the Gospel Coalition this past week:

The Issue: Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, the producers of the History channel’s hit mini-series The Bible, recentlyargued in the Wall Street Journal that it’s “time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”

The two sides of the issue presented in the article are simple: either you think that we should avoid teaching the Bible in our public schools because the material will not be taught in accordance with any Christian beliefs, or you think we should teach it, simply because any exposure to the Word of God is good. Joe concludes that:

The Bible is a foundational document of Western culture and any student unfamiliar with the text will fail to understand the thousands of references, allusions, and metaphors used in art, literature, and history.

And, well, he’s spot on.

But let’s step further down this rabbit hole, for a moment. The reason that the Bible is so deeply embedded in Western culture is because of the influence of Christianity. Even authors of great books of the Western canon who were not believers were familiar enough with Scripture to reference or make use of it. My high school reading list certainly had Biblical allusions that most of my classmates missed; I didn’t catch them all, either, simply because it was far too easy to separate my Sunday School classes with my government-mandated ones.

That said, the further I studied the Bible in an academic setting–admittedly a setting characterized by belief rather than doubt–the more I learned when I read just about anything else, particularly from Western history. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Kant, Hume, Descartes: all of these authors become richer the more immersed in the Bible you are. The cultural value of the Bible seems reason enough to include the Bible in our public school curriculum, regardless of how it is taught.

But  maybe we can go a step further.

I suspect that while it would be valuable to teach the Bible in schools, it would be further beneficial to have it taught by someone who had studied it professionally, and preferably from a standpoint of belief. This will likely fall on deaf ears for many, but hear me out. I don’t intend to turn cultural appreciation of the Bible into through-and-through evangelism. But if education is intended to form individuals into thinking members of society, and if a part of that is understanding the texts which form our society, then it makes sense to give the Bible a fair reading. While a believer would not be the only sort of person who could teach the Bible adequately for the purpose of understanding the vast number of allusions present in the Western canon, there’s something to be said for encouraging sympathy to a position many of the authors we already read held. It’d be easy to write off allusions as simple foolishness if the Bible were simply taught as a book of lies; at the very least, let’s just teach it as another story book, with a nod to the fact that many believe it to be true, to some degree or another.

The counter-point to my suggestion is that we have to keep the church and the state separate: religious education, particularly when arguing for an inclusion of only the Bible, ought to take place outside of the public school system. There’s merit here, but I think the stronger point is still in favor of teaching the Bible, as an academic source. If we can better understand the texts we are already reading by studying the Bible–and the fact that we read these texts suggests they are important to understand–then it seems simple foolishness to avoid teaching at least the basic stories of the Bible in our school systems. Why not read Paul alongside Franklin and Lincoln, the Gospels alongside Shakespeare, and Proverbs alongside Machiavelli? There’s little to be lost and much to be gained.

The purpose, after all, wouldn’t to force religious belief onto those who don’t believe, or even onto the public at large; rather, the intention is to educate well, and education includes adequate background research. Surely the Bible is a part of our Western canon: let’s learn it well.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Mackman

    I read that article as well: And IF it would be taught by people with a professional education in the Bible, and IF it was from a standpoint of belief (or, at the very least, a strict neutrality sympathetic to belief), then I could get behind it. But is that really feasible?

    I don’t think it is. I think that if we WERE to get the Bible to be taught in a public school setting, it would almost certainly be taught in almost all cases from a perspective of either outright hostility or, at best, skeptical indifference, and in neither case would they be likely to have been formally and extensively educated in it. When asked about a troublesome theme, or apparent inconsistency, these teachers would either congratulate the student on catching it, or merely shrug their shoulders and move on: In both cases, reinforcing the sense of actual contradiction, of nonsense and mere myth and fiction.

    That means that people who might otherwise be merely neutral to Christianity would grow up under the influence of people who are only too eager to portray it as a book of fables, full of contradictions. It would give students the nation over the impression that they really KNOW the Bible, that they know its secrets, its failures, its flaws, and that understanding will have been given to them by the same people they’re supposed to trust to give them knowledge!

    People who THINK they know the Bible, but really don’t, are much, much more difficult to talk with then people who don’t know it and know that they don’t know it. And I see no hope that a public education of the Bible would produce people who actually know it, instead of just thinking that they do.

  • jamesfarnold

    1. I think you’ve given public school students a lot of credit with a few of your statements (trusting teachers to give them knowledge, for instance, but also believing that they know anything from school very well).

    But that’s beside the point.

    2. The last paragraph is what I take to be your main point, so let me push that for a minute. Ideally, my proposal would include teaching the Bible to teachers. In other words, part of an English teaching degree would include classes on the Bible and its influence. That would solve some of the lack-of-education regarding the Bible from the teacher’s viewpoint. I’m not sure how to get around the issue of sympathy, however. It seems like no matter what you do, a lot of people would teach the Bible rather critically.

    What it feels like you’re ignoring, and you’ll forgive me if I’m just missing it, or underestimating your position, is that the Word of God is powerful, and will stand the test of time (and has, frankly). Of course, false teachers prove daily that the Word can be abused and misused, but there will always be right teaching available. Perhaps exposure to the Word itself (Lord help us if there is a Cliff Notes for the Bible) will prove beneficial for the students, because Jesus’ words, Paul’s testimony, stories of martyrs in Acts; these are all powerful images.

    If the place of the school isn’t to teach the Word, perhaps students could step up to this particular plate. I was in FCA in high school (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), which was just a small Bible study. But we’d invite people, and they’d come, and we’d talk about the Bible, but visitors never knew anything at all, hardly. Imagine if they had questions ready?

    Anyway, just a thought.

  • Susan

    My state, California, mandates teaching about the Bible and Christianity as well as about other religions and holy books. This is right and proper. Religion is a big part of life. However, professing faith in the Bible and Christianity in the role of a public school teacher is illegal. I agree with this. This protects Christians from members of other religions seeking converts in a public school setting.

  • Allen Cooper

    Actually it depends of situation in various countries in terms of finding the way out to know the actual truth about the religion. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that Bible teaching in school shouldn’t be necessarily expedient. Because there are many who don’t like this. I want to do my assignment on this also. Therefore everything should maintain the ratio as well as reciprocal options to all the students.

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