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.