The Bible in public schools, maybe not such a good idea

The Kentucky Senate passed a bill to include the teaching of the Bible as a part of the curriculum in public schools. It still needs to pass in the House in order to become law. This is nothing new, of course. There are already several school districts across the country that allow courses in the Bible, as long as it is taught from an “academic, scientific, historical” standpoint. The curious thing about all this is that evangelical Christians are the ones leading the charge to get these measures passed. These Christians have a rather naive view of the Bible, with its intrinsic power to convert or, at the least, contribute to the moral fabric of society. They would be rather shocked to see the Bible under the microscope, subject to the critical tools as regards to sources and redaction. Their vision of the public school Bible teacher is basically a Sunday school teacher who is not allowed to say “I love Jesus,” but everything else will be the same. They are sadly mistaken. I’m not one to fret about historical-critical quandaries, but I’m not so sure that the average Christian child and youth will be able to process them adequately.

Please note that I’m not dissing critical tools; I’m definitely more liberal than a lot of evangelicals on such matters. But, as a Christian, the Bible is a confessional document of the church, set apart by God for the equipping of the saints. The Bible’s object is God; that is its content, which is not known as neutral observers. This is not to say that the Bible is exempt from rational and scientific tools, which rightly used are complementary, not necessarily hostile. But apart from faith, they become hostile. Fundamentally, there is no neutral ground: that is the depth of our rebellion.



  1. I think the real problem is that Bible, whether naively or critically engaged, will undoubtedly be deployed to buttress the nationalistic ideology of American exceptionalism. See Hauerwas’ essays “Taking the Bible Away from North American Christins” and “The Bible and America” (in Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America [1993]).

  2. OK, I’m not American, so this question doesn’t come with the baggage it inevitably does for those who are, but I read a recent article quoting some secular teaching authorities in the UK saying that school children haven’t got a hope of beginning to grasp much of Western literature unless they have a knowledge of the Bible. Heavens, you can’t even “get” some episodes of ‘Seinfeld’ without a knowledge of Bible stories. So, I think this is an idea whose time has come…or should that be “as come back”? Let the religious impact of the Bible take care of itself, whether critical tools are used or not (and I personally don’t have much time for them). Btw, Kevin, Lutherans also believe the Bible has the power to convert, but that’s not the only reason to support its study in secular schools.

    • I would rather the Bible, if taught in public K-12 schools, to be engaged as literature and in the context of a literature curriculum. I don’t have a problem with that. But, the intention of a decidedly non-confessional, objective, historical, scientific survey will invariably deal with matters of origin, sources, context, parallels, moral evaluations, and the like. Ontological claims about the Bible and the God of the Bible are put to critical scrutiny, which should be a concern for Christian parents.

      Public colleges have long taught courses on the Bible and are expected to deal with such matters, but at that point, the student is an adult with the choice to engage in such coursework and (hopefully) the maturity to handle it with the proper scrutiny. It is different with children and teenagers.

  3. J. Gresham Machen warned against this in the ’20s. His fear was that gospel would be garbled in students’ minds since the public schools would have to maintain a polite indifference towards the bible’s message of redemption.

    • I wonder what Machen thought of prayer in public schools, since that was still the norm at the time.

  4. Yeah, I see this as a problem, Kevin! I agree as Literature, okay; but not a “higher critical” survey for elementary kids. They might as well play the “History Channel” 😉 . . . that will probably be about the “quality” of these surveys too.

    • Yeah, it wouldn’t be too much different from the History Channel. That’s the sort of thing that I had in mind, and that’s what I learned (with a higher level of sophistication) as an undergraduate at UNC Charlotte.

      • The History Channel with sophistication is even worse 😉 . . . then is “sounds” good, except for those with their baloney detectors set on high.

  5. Meanwhile two thirds of the worlds human population are not Christians, nor are any of the countless billions of living-breathing-feeling non-human beings.

    Plus we live in a time and place when all of the Sacred Texts of the entire Great Tradition of humankind are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. And all of the blood-soaked histories of the so called great religions too, especially of Christian-ism and Islam-ism.

    Plus some of the most strident vectors of the now universal insanity are Bible reading “true believers”.

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