I was already out of high school when the Bible curriculum became an issue. Actually, I was a student of David Newman’s at Odessa College when the controversy first took shape, so I was in the front row if not in the ring. While I enjoyed him as a professor, and think the quality of his instruction is an incredible bargain for a community junior college, we disagreed on the Bible curriculum, or at least how to respond to it.
See, we agreed then, and I assume still do, that the Bible is the single most important work of literature to the Occident. Essentially nothing of significance composed during the past two thousand can be fully appreciated, or in some cases understood at all, without a firm grounding in Biblical theology, history, and parable. We differed slightly in that he wanted a general Western literature class that would include stuff like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oedipus Rex, and the Aeneid, while I was satisfied with a course that studied the Bible solely, so long as it was indeed study and not proselytizing (something I wasn’t convinced the original course was).
So our main disagreement was in how to express our disagreement. If he reads this he can correct me, but (in addition to protecting local non-Christians who might be discriminated against), I understand his motivation to be that if someone didn’t stand up and fight it here, it could be common and have a negative effect on our public schools.
Meanwhile I was and am of the opinion that ignoring things often does help them go away. I don’t base that on wishful thinking, but my own observations of West Texas. We aren’t actually religious or devout, we just like appearing to be. It is, after all, considerably easier to convince a Christian to wear a cross as a necklace than to give his shirt to a mugger, much easier to bless food or a sneeze than those who curse him. And as years of Sunday School and Big Church made abundantly clear, Christians want to show up as much as we feel obligated and definitely do not want to read the Bible (for ourselves).
It is my opinion that a “Survey of William Shakespeare” class would be a fantastic class for a public high school. But no more than a dozen already highly interested students would be willing to take it. Everyone else would be looking for blow-off classes, because that’s what electives are in high school. Maybe religious-devotion would make more kids sign up for a King James Bible course than Shakespeare, but not that much more.
By making it a controversial issue and a standard for the overtly religious to rally behind, all that happened was drive up interest. ‘Married… with Children’ syndrome. And even with this, at last count there were still only 38 students enrolled in the class in the whole district, 38 out of what, 3,000?
So maybe I’m being hypocritical for talking about it now without any newsworthy reason, but I really do think it’s a great idea and something high school kids can handle intellectually, although probably not religiously. What I mean is that when you stop confining yourself to Adam and Eve, Joseph, Samson, David and Goliath, and Jesus’ miracles, you get into some pretty tough stuff. I mean, interesting, just from Judges no one can say Ehud, Jephthah, or the Levite and his concubine aren’t interesting (and magnificent works of literature), but they start to bring up theological questions that aren’t in Sunday School, and in terms of content, it’s the sort of thing that gets books banned from school from some of the same people pushing for this course.
Then you get into looking at the whole process of redaction and canonization, and most Christians do not want to know about or objectively examine that. It’s gradual, it’s messy, and it’s considerably less simple than, “God wrote it here it is.” When you get away from Sunday School answers and start being honest, the Bible can be troubling. Some people even lose faith over it.
But, the benefits are worth it. When you look at the Bible objectively, understand it historically, and measure it artistically, it becomes quickly clear that whatever God’s involvement in the composition, the end result is divine. Intellectual dishonesty makes the Bible boring. But Bible study, there’s no end to that or its enjoyment.
You gain things from comparing the Epic of Gilgamesh to Noah’s ark. You gain things from looking at the Old Testament as the Tanakh, complete in itself, and not the prequel of Jesus. You gain things from looking at the development of the character of God in the Bible, and people’s understanding of Him from the “Let us” creator to someone who walks in Eden and fears the sunrise to the tribal deity that best the Egyptians and Canaanites to the still, small voice that follows the people of Judah to Babylon and judges (and forgives) Nineveh.
How nice this would be, to give Jews and Christians an insight into how the other views the verses, to give the otherwise religious and non-religious an understanding of the basis of those theologies, and to give all a better appreciation of a book spanning dozens of books, hundreds of characters, thousands of years, and God knows how many writers.
It would be nice if it was done in such a way, it is possible for it to be done in such a way, but it likely never will be done in such a way. And I will continue to be apathetic and snide about the class, hoping churches will offer Bible studies enough and of such quality that the need for them in schools will cease to exist.