Why public schools should teach the Bible

The headline for this post is the same as the title of a March 1 article in the the Wall Street Journal, by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, producers of the new History Channel miniseries “The Bible“. Roma (who starred in the reverential “Touched By an Angel” series some years back) and her husband Burnett (successful producer of reality shows like “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”) have definitely got a mission, feeling America’s children are getting a raw deal by our present educational establishment: “It’s time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.”

And conveniently enough, they have their offering at hand, complete with study guides and testimonials from consultants like pastor Rick Warren. The media is bubbling with interviews with ebullient pastors seeing the good ratings the series has drawn (some 13 million for the initial episode) as a golden evangelical opportunity to inspire people to open their Bibles and read.

Ah — be careful what you ask for. Generations of atheists embarked on their journey to unbelief by doing exactly that, including Spokane native Julia Sweeney (evocatively expressed in her show “Letting Go of God”).

Now as a secularist infidel I happen to heartily agree with Roma and Burnett that the Bible has played a significant role in Western civilization, and no well-educated person should bob through public school without some familiarity with that tradition. The question is, though, would students be well or ill served by “The Bible” as product?

Viewed just as drama, there’s no obstacle to presenting any religious or mythological subject as a ripping good yard, from biblical epics like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur to other traditions: Islam respectfully reflected in the 1940 Thief of Baghdad, the Olympian gods treated as real in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and the Hindu pantheon on full parade in the striking British Mahabharata miniseries.

In this department, as Eric Blauer has already noted in his March 12 blog here, “The Bible” hasn’t exactly set the drama world on fire. It’s stolid in the way of old Sunday school films, reverential but seldom inspiring. Sixty years from now, will anyone be remembering anything from “The Bible” anywhere near as riveting as the ferocity of Victor Mature’s Christian slave Demetrius in The Robe, justifiably accusing the smug world-ruling Romans of being nothing more than “jungle animals” for having just crucified Jesus? I have my skeptical doubts there too.

If “The Bible” fails to land on target dramatically, its only fallback is to its educational utility, which means assessing how true it is to the spirit as well as the technical details of the text. I was assuming the story would be presented as essentially true (the producers aren’t atheists after all) but knowing how such topics have been handled before I couldn’t help wondering before the show aired just what would make it into the final cut and what juicy bits of testaments old and new would conveniently get overlooked.

The obvious items to include are the big spectacle moments in Genesis (the Creation, Noah’s Flood, the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), but examples primed to overlook would be the many morally creepy episodes of genocide, or demeaning treatment of wives and daughters as so much property to be shuffled about, that litter the Old Testament. The New Testament has a different set of stumbling blocks: the dicey chronology and prophetic angles as to what exactly the Messiah “coming in his kingdom” was supposed to mean regarding overturning Roman rule (and since half of its running time would be devoted to the Gospels, they’d have plenty of room to be thorough).

What I was expecting then was not seeing certain touchy episodes in “The Bible”, and in this respect the show was “successful” beyond even my expectations.

The show began with Noah reciting the Genesis creation story “In the beginning God created…” while aboard the wave tossed ark, as contemporarily familiar animals like elephants, parrots and goats stood docilely in the background. Altogether a very traditional image, which the narrator reinforced by reminding us that the floodwaters “covered all the Earth.”  Ah, but did all (or any) of this actually happen, and when?

Approaching the subject from a secular historical forensics direction, like many mythological tales, Noah’s Flood reflects quite a few grains of buried truth, the earliest of which appears to be a genuinely catastrophic flood as the last ice age waned and the rising Mediterranean spilled over into the Black Sea basin around 7600 years ago. Not a “cover the world” splash, but locally wrenching nonetheless.

Displaced refugees carried the tradition south into Mesopotamia, where the Tigris-Euphrates was prone to city-swamping flooding of its own, which is how local king and city names got into the tales. The Jews likely got wind of all this much later during the Babylonian captivity, along with the Mesopotamian creation myths also incorporated into Genesis (such as that cosmological howler of the sun, moon, and stars being created on day four, after the earth and plant life).

Now the flood story bears a special place in my heart because (like the fictional Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s “Contact”) as a child I was kicked out of Sunday school for asking too many questions about it. And as a diligent follower of the creation/evolution controversy as a science geek adult, I am also aware that about 45 percent of the American population are Young Earth Creationists, folks of the Answers in Genesis stripe who believe the Flood took place exactly as stated in Genesis, a global event only some 4600 years ago (1400 years after Creation) and involving an Ark preserving for posterity all relevant “kinds” of animals.

As creationist doctrines have mutated over the years, the current picture at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky avers that landmasses careened in super frisky continental drift during the flood, with mountain ranges thrust up lickety-split as virtually all the fossil record was smushed into shape. Regular geologists (including devout Christian ones) roll their eyes in despair at this point.

So where are all the dinosaurs in “The Bible” (let alone the far larger bestiary of likewise extinct critters creationists pay way less attention to: dimetrodons, cynodonts, lagosuchids, mastodons, and on and on)? A contentious pseudoscientific controversy is being sidestepped here (the chairman in the recent Texas school textbook hearings, Don McLeroy, is a Young Earth Creationist) and one may fairly ask why.  By depicting the flood story (and creation itself) in such shorthand form, they may be accused of being pathologically coy: doing nothing to explicitly conflict with the sensibilities of the millions of American Christians who take their answers in Genesis very seriously.

As for the Tower of Babel (a quaint attempt to explain where different languages came from, and ludicrously inconsistent with all present understanding of the origin and evolution of human languages) it never even made “The Bible” cut. It may have been because the story involves God’s actions and motivations directly, no intermediate prophets or angels, and it is no easy trick to make dramatic sense of why an omnipotent galaxy-creating deity was so alarmed to learn that people had figured out how to build mud brick pyramids, or that the confusion of tongues intended as a remedy obviously didn’t slow us down much (moving on eventually to rockets, hydrogen bombs, and chemical warfare) and so was plainly ineffective.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah though was clearly too deeply ingrained in the mythos to overlook, though again we got a pretty sanitized version. Like some nervous Kirk Cameron wandering past red light district strip joints, Lot and company glide by vaguely loitering Sodomites hinting that something sleazy might be going on somewhere off camera, but nothing too explicit to threaten any of the show’s targeted sponsors (like the Christian Mingle dating service).

The infamous episode where a male mob demand Lot turn over his angelic house guests so that they may “know” them (Bible-ease for sex), and to throw them off daddy offers his virginal daughters instead, did not make it into the History Channel presentation. Instead our angels show off their ninja swordplay skills (in cliché slow motion) slaying not a few truculent locals—a fascinating illustration of angelic combat expertise that the original Bible text had somehow neglected to mention.

“The Bible” did include the peculiar incident of Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt as they fled the city, after the angel warned her not to look back — though wouldn’t there have been other bystanders, viewing the spectacle from their own vantages, so what about them? Of course, if Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt is only a folk tale embellishment to explain the local salt pillars it would be a more understandable inclusion, except that now its only geological myth making and not miracle.

The tale parallels Orpheus losing Eurydice when he glanced back at her whilst trying to rescue her from the clutches of Hades. One might argue there that the god of the underworld was being rather a stinker for setting Orpheus up for failure that way, so what are we to make of the Lord’s desiccating the poor woman not for doing anything seriously bad but solely on account of her disobedience.  That issue will be cropping up again in a darker context when we get to the prophet Samuel’s interactions with King Saul in another post.

And while we’re on the topic of angel messengers, all those dramatized in The Bible display a curiously minimalist mode of identification: some hooded fellow (and yes, it’s always a man) approaches, and then as reverential chords ensue he gently pulls back the hood to bare his head —aha, it must be an angel!  No wings or glowing back lighting, though, all very low key.  Well, at least now I’ll know what to expect should I encounter some hoodie chap who turns out to be an angel.  Though you will excuse me if I say I am not holding my breath here in anticipation.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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  1. Spokane Faith & Values

    Christopher, on Facebook, said:

    Prolific atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have all, at some point, publicly advocated for mandatory teaching of the Bible as literature for students. Most of them echoed the sentiments of a speaker from a recent journalism conference I went to: “the Bible is the foundation of all of Western literature.”

    Excellent piece.

  2. Bear in mind though that the issue of including the Bible in history or social courses is a potential minefield and I actually have a lot of sympathy for the “tread carefully” position, precisely because a rigorous treatment of the subject will slam into millions of devout believers’ simplified concept of the stories and I actually don’t think it is the proper role of secular education to gratuitously stomp on any religious view. It’s contentious enough that science courses must in good conscience remind students that carnivorous tyrannosaurs died out 65 million years ago (Ken Ham minions notwithstanding) without piling on a century of higher criticism Bible scholarship of the Bart Ehrman stripe that only pulls out more rugs from their feet. The safest course is probably to restrict it to treatment as a literary resource, like Shakespeare (another gold mine of allusions that every cultured person should be familiar with), but I suspect that’s not quite the position that Downey/Burnett have in mind.

  3. Absolutely; I don’t think biblical study is valuable so that the non-religious can crush religious beliefs with scholarly criticism, but because it is–as you described–like Shakespeare in its literary and cultural value. One could say that an educated person isn’t truly literate (and people like Christopher Hitchens have implied this over the years) without having read the Bible, specifically the King James Version, which was compiled and edited at the peak of high English literary history.

  4. Ernesto Tinajero


    Should we also teach Biblical interpretation as well? I mean since the Early church, St Augustine and to many middle age theologians and scholars today read the bible differently than the Ken Hams of the world, does that mean only his way of reading it correct? The fact that Ken Ham reads it from a secular materialistic perspective (Irony alert!) and would not even know what the four fold method was (the most prominent form of Biblical Interpretation for close to two thousand years of Church History and still use in Orthodox Jewish traditions today).

    “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

  5. Ernesto: Biblical interpretation is precisely what a secular coverage of the Bible as literary/cultural influence should steer clear of, except in the most general sense of mentioning its role in a historical context. For instance, if a high school level history course were covering the Roman Empire, and the growth of Christianity in it, an allusion to Augustine would be relevant, but not delving beyond that, lest the school get entangled in doctrinal contentions that it simply has no warrant to deal with.

    I’m also not at all sure that Ken Ham would agree with your take of his approach as a “secular materialist” one (I would characterize his as a traditional inerrantist literalism), any more than ID guru Philip Johnson appreciates being dubbed a “postmodernist relativist” by Philip Kitcher apropos ID attitudes on the interpretation of evidence), which means it is another can of worms I would recommend secular school courses not open up, per the gratuitous stomping issue.

    Given the doctrinal variety in Christianity (not merely Protestant vs Catholic, but the Eastern Orthdox tradition that tends to get overlooked in American church-state squabbles) it is hard to think of any matter involving what comprises “sound” biblical interpretation that wouldn’t step on the toes of somebody, so if only to keep tempers cool better not open up doors that are best left to dedicated religious instruction.

    Interestingly, I understand from Richard Dawkins that his vision of a proper academy doesn’t involve any indoctrination in atheism either. Now outside of the school environment, of course, all parties are free to grapple at full strength.

  6. Ernesto Tinajero


    A couple of things. First, “: Biblical interpretation is precisely what a secular coverage of the Bible as literary/cultural influence should steer clear.” is very funny because it says to use a “Secular coverage” as its hermeneutic for Biblical interpretation and then to steer clear of all Biblical interpretation. Contradiction. A secular coverage that looks at literary/cultural influence is a type of Biblical interpretation in and of itself. The fact that it is one of many hermeneutics to which to view the Bible. Social critical analysis is another that you don’t mention and I find enlightening to the text as are many others are.

    Second “traditional inerrantist literalism” is relatively a new phenomena and very recent hermeneutic to read the Bible. Maybe at the most only a hundred and fifty years old and only influential in the last 80 years. It was a response to higher critical hermeneutic. In the world of Christian theology, very, very small potatoes. Strange, I also find many of the Gnu Atheist like Sam Harris among others seem to agree with the “traditional inerrantist literalism” as the correct way of reading the bible, even though Ham and company are not thought highly in serious theological circles. I learn more about Ken Ham from atheists than I ever did attending Fuller Seminary. (Fuller is arguable the most influential seminary in the American Church and the silliness of Ham and Co was pretty much ignored there as it is in most seminaries.

    Hermeneutics is a very complex subject and one that gets little treatment in any Biblical discussion. Yet, hermeneutics is of paramount importance (not only in Biblical interpretation but in Law and the US constitution, literary criticism and linguistics.

  7. Ernesto, you concluded with: “Hermeneutics is a very complex subject and one that gets little treatment in any Biblical discussion. Yet, hermeneutics is of paramount importance (not only in Biblical interpretation but in Law and the US constitution, literary criticism and linguistics” I would agree with the first sentence but have concerns about the second. Our constitution is a full secular document, by intention, with no reference whatsoever to religious doctrines of any type.

    I would not be surprised that Fuller Seminary pays scant attention to Ham & Co., but that doesn’t mean that millions of people in America follow their lead here, no matter what “serious theological circles” say about the matter. Nor do we have to venture far to illustrate: the big megachurch up on north Division, which hosted an Answers in Genesis creationist presentation a couple years ago (and which I attended) showed total committment to the absolute correctness of the Ham version of the Bible and science, and the young earth creationist Duane Gish (who passed away recently) was deemed the most respectable of scientific thinkers.

    Anyway, if you would like to turn any school course into a political hot potato, by all means put Biblical hermaneutics on the agenda. Think even broader: if you are attending school in, say, Utah, will the LDS option be on the agenda also? What “mainstream” of interpretation one swims in, after all, is often due to where and when you grew up.

  8. Ernesto Tinajero


    I am not sure what you mean by “hermeneutics” but what I mean it process of interpretation what a text means. It is not a religious or non-religious process, only the process of looking what any text means. After the the linguistical turn in philosophy at the start of the 20th century, the subject is complex. Most look at interpretation as a set of filters to which to view the text like US constitution. Right now there is a battle among different forces that look at the US constitution as a living document and others that say only by looking at the original intent of the Founders can we discern how to apply it to today’s context. Nothing religious in this issue. When you say teach the Bible, by what hermeneutic do you propose to teach it? Saying secular really is not a good one it does not really exist as there are several non-religious hermeneutic methods, social critical, speech act, modern linguistics, reader response, Feminist, Marxists, Historical, literary. All have a particular view and lead to different understandings.

  9. Ernesto: I agree heartily that “the subject” is complex, which is why schools should avoid it. As for what a secular approach means, your examples illustrate nicely. It would be valid to mention that there are differering views among constitutional scholars regarding “original intent” without claiming any of those views “correct” or not. Likewise, a history course can acknowledge the role Liberation Theology has played in how some Catholics interact with regimes in Latin America without rendering a judgment on whether they are sound theologically (not a concern of a secular school).

    Anyway, time I think to press on to a further post on the Downey/Burnett Bible show, and how they covered the Samson story, which I will dispatch to Tracy for posting shortly. Jim (not Joe) Downard

  10. Ernesto Tinajero


    My apologies on getting your name wrong. No excuse, a dumb mistake.


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