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The Camel Is Heading for Your Tent

The curious thing about the old Arabic tale of the kind and considerate camel owner is that we never seem to get it. The compassionate owner, who permitted his camel to warm his nose under his tent, was victim of his own tolerance, which eventually cost him his abode. “Oh, it’s so cold and it’s only my nose, and it won’t be any problem to you,” the camel said on the first try. But then it was more and more of the beast’s body until there was no room for the owner, when the half-ton, six-foot-tall, ruminant, “ship-of-the-desert” had finally managed to squeeze him out of the tiny dwelling. For those who may be unfamiliar with this charming tale of dromedary “chutzpah,” its message is the equivalent of “getting your foot in the door,” or “give ’em an inch, and they’ll take a mile,” also known as “down the slippery slope.”

So now it looks as if we have to confront another camel–and it’s all about the “elective study of the Bible in high schools.” “Oh, it’s so important to know about the Bible in Western society, and most of our kids are ignorant about so much of it, and it will enhance their understanding of all of literature, and make them better-informed voters,” says this camel, the “Bible Literacy Project”–another ploy to get the camel’s scriptural nose under the tent. And the camel and the Christians are gaining ground, as evidenced by the April 2, 2007 TIME magazine cover story “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School.”

In it the authors claim there are, “… polls suggesting that over 60% of Americans favor secular teaching about the Bible …” There is a “… new consensus for secular Bible study [that] argues that knowledge of it is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen.” According to whom? There’s also a demand by the public for “In God We Trust on Our Coins,” for “Under God” in the pledge, for “Family Values,” and for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. So what? If the majority of the public had its way we’d still be saying an opening prayer before every class, public meeting, gathering of community councils, boards of directors, congressional votes, etc. This is the whole point of the following article; it’s the “foot in the door.” What is there about the “slippery slope” that the “Camel’s nose” does not address?

In October 2007, the Bible Literacy Project (BLP) reported that their glitzy textbook The Bible and Its Influence had been adopted by the Alabama State Board of Education, which unanimously approved it for statewide use as a comprehensive program. “This is major news in the field of education,” said Bible Literacy Project Chairman Chuck Stetson. “While academic study of the Bible is legal in all 50 states, this decision means that any school in the state of Alabama can purchase our textbook with state-provided funds until 2013.”

BLP is a study that was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that attempts to appear ideologically neutral, but nevertheless appears to be behind many efforts to “Christianize” American politics and education, indeed the country. A typical example of the type of funding The Templeton Foundation provides is one announced recently by the Baylor University News, “the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) has received a $378,862 grant from the John Templeton Foundation to fund ISR’s Initiative on the Economics of Religion … (F)our scholars [will use the funds] to investigate the connection between religion and economic growth and the effects of government intervention in religious markets on the practice of religion.”

According to Media Transparency, an organization that tracks funding for conservative causes, a few of the recent top recipients of Templeton dough (and how much dough), are self-evidently connected to religion. They include “Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences” ($23,122,319); “Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science” ($4,811,892); “Science and Spirit Resources, Inc.” ($4,632,933);  “Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science” ($4,762,514); and the  “Association of Unity Churches” ($3,509,971).

In their report called the “Bible Literacy Report” (BLR) they state, “Our primary goal … was to establish whether the ‘best’ English teachers … think that their students need to know about the Bible in order to master the literature they are already being taught.” With all due respect to English teachers, I wonder why science, math, history, anthropology and geology teachers weren’t asked the same question with regard to their subject areas? Is it reasonable to assume that English teachers are not necessarily representative of all teachers?

The study was conducted as a telephone survey in which the teenage respondents were asked sixteen questions about their “knowledge of the Bible.” The results showed that “Substantial minorities (of high school students) lack even the most basic working knowledge of the Bible.” The solution to this serious problem, “(f)or educators, school districts, teacher’s colleges and educational support groups” is to provide Bible curriculum support to high school English teachers.

We’ve all heard about straw men. Now we have a genuine straw camel. (It would be interesting to ask the same questions of American adults to see if they were more biblically literate than their junior ignoramuses.) One laughable lament of the BLR is that, “Fewer than half of teens (49 percent) knew what happened at the wedding at Cana** I’ve asked this of twenty-seven people so far in a silly, haphazard, nonscientific attempt at substantiating the BLR. As of this writing only three have known the answer.

At least one of these survey questions suggests that the so-called researchers who carried out this investigation obtained something other than genuine information. Question 2 asks, “Can you name any of the five major religions of the world?” Fifteen percent, (that’s about 150 students!) allegedly could not name even one! What is the probability that you could find 150 students (outside of an institution for the mentally challenged) who could not name a single religion, including the religion of their own families? I submit that many of the kids taking this survey were just playing games with it and that they could not have cared less about getting “the right answers” to what many must have deemed to be a bunch of hogwash. Is it time to raise a question about the survey itself?

When asked in Question 16, “Where do you get your knowledge about the Bible?” almost three-quarters (72%) said they get it either from church (51%), parents/home/family (13%), or reading the Bible (8%). Why then is the responsibility for improving these figures laid at the feet of the public schools, when it is clear that the church and family (to say nothing of the Bible itself) are failing? What kind of logic is it that says, if the church and family are failing to teach something that is important and personal, that the public schools are at fault? Why isn’t the BLP working to improve the quality of preaching and preachers?

Upon reading the BLR, it is difficult not to find it to be one-sided, based on egocentric assumptions of the importance of Christianity, statistically indefensible, and logically unsound. Even more questionable is the textbook it has developed and recommends in order to rescue America from biblical illiteracy, the aforementioned, The Bible and Its Influence. This is a book that would be suitable for a Sunday school class where the goal was to present Christianity in the most favorable possible light–not as a seriously taught and examined subject. A casual examination of some relevant topics, such as The Ten Commandments, and The Virgin Birth, make it clear that the text glosses over possible questions about the many critical issues surrounding these subjects and treats them as accepted truths.

It is interesting that many Christian organizations, including the prestigious Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) whose “mission is to foster biblical scholarship,” are themselves extremely critical of the textbook. The SBL points to the fact that “None of the actual authors or ‘content contributors’ is listed in the SBL directory or appears to be a biblical scholar by profession … The absence is astonishing.”

Among other things, the BLP argues that much of the meaning of other literary works is being lost because of biblical illiteracy, and that there are many references to the Bible in other great literature (e.g., Shakespeare). Teaching about the Bible will thus make these references clear and thereby increase students’ general knowledge of literature.

Well, there’s plenty to understand in Shakespeare that doesn’t require ever having heard of the Bible. If it is true (as some Christian scholar is alleged to have maintained) there are “1,300 biblical allusions in Shakespeare,” it is probable that there are at least 1,300,000 allusions to other ideas, concepts and historical events. The story of Romeo and Juliet is just as meaningful and tragic whether or not one knows that when Romeo spends “40 pieces of gold” to buy the poison, that Judas sold out Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver.”  Would we say that a student couldn’t appreciate the dilemma of Oedipus unless he had previously taken a course in Greek literature? Would success in a science class be contingent upon a previous understanding of a “flat earth” view? This is nonsense.

Nobody “gets” everything that could be “gotten” out of any substantial piece of literature, and the argument, as commonsensical as it seems–until one seriously examines it–is little more than a Christian camel’s attempt to get warm. Incidentally, the Bible Shakespeare alluded to was the Geneva Bible and not the King James Version. Is this the version that will be presented in the schools, and if so, will parents who advocate the King James Version of the Bible be entitled to object?

“The First Amendment is no problem,” proponents of the BLP argue, because the Supreme Court has stated that the public schools may teach about the Bible as long as the subject “is presented as part of a secular program of education.”
(See www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html for more)

Aside from the obvious fact (possibly a legal necessity) that the only plausible context for the teaching of the Bible in public schools would have to be in a course on comparative religion, where all religions would be open to examination, parents and teachers might ask themselves the following questions:

  • Would this “literature” be classified as fiction or nonfiction?
  • Would the “objective and neutral” teachers who would be expected to stick to the curriculum ask students to criticize the “literature” as they would any other literary work that was under discussion?
  • Would the students be made aware that this piece of literature is a translation of a translation, of fragmentary documents, that was voted upon and edited, censored and rewritten, and is currently represented by several versions, and the difficulty with authenticity that such a work would have?
  • Which version of the Bible would be the official one for the classroom?
  • Would the nonbelieving students in the classroom be allowed to voice their skepticism about the various stories, such as the description of the creation of the universe in Genesis?
  • Would the students be allowed to discuss the plausibility of the virgin birth? The resurrection? The existence of heaven and hell?
  • Would there be discussion of the pornographic stories, such as the seduction of Lot by his two daughters with particular emphasis on their scheme to get the old man drunk and have him impregnate them?
  • Would there be discussions about the genocidal behaviors, not only of Moses and other “heroes,” but also of God himself?
  • Would the inaccuracies, the inconsistencies and the serious scientific absurdities of the Bible be open to discussion?

Some apologists have maintained, “As long as teachers stick to the curriculum, this is a big step in the right direction.” How in the world would this be assured? Will schools in small towns, (where, in some cases, everyone is a Christian and the teacher of the course is also the local minister) be able to keep the class from becoming an extension of the church? Even in larger communities that are predominantly Judeo-Christian, how will the beliefs of nonbelieving students be protected and expressed?

If the BLP were to become successful, the religious right will then be able to boast “Well we’re a Christian nation, founded by Christians, whose money says, ‘In God We Trust,’ with a Pledge of Allegiance that proclaims we are ‘under God,’ … and we teach the Bible in our public schools.”

In short, it would be a travesty, in my opinion, if this were to become an accepted course of study in the public schools, and it would further encourage the Christian right to expand their influence in this country.

Here, in a nutshell, is the irony of the BLP movement and their logic. They have started from the dubious assumption that a sample of forty-one English teachers knows the best solution to the major educational problems in America. Among these problems are the physical conditions of the schools, too many children in the classroom, segregated schools, poor training of many teachers, students unable or unwilling to sit quietly or focus on the teacher, drugs in the schools, security in the schools, not enough supplies or text books, and teachers’ salaries. The BLP wants to place at the top of this list the preposterous claim that the study of English literature is suffering from the lack of biblical literacy, and addressing this will put us on the road, astride a camel, to curing the major educational problems in America. But the BLP does not stop there.

While it would be difficult to list all of the other implied benefits of Bible literacy, the ones specifically stated are easy to cite. In addition to its incessant emphasis on the importance of knowledge of the Bible for understanding literature, there are also references to its significance for “understanding American and Western history, culture, religion, arts and letters, language and public rhetoric.” (p.27) Not to be forgotten are, “academic success … understanding of their own culture, and just to be well-grounded citizens of the United States–to know where the institutions and ideas come from.” (p.5) In one giant leap of hyperbole, the BLP asks, “Is it possible to help reduce economic disparity through Bible literacy?” (p.27)

Since so many pandering, pious, politicians are revealing and depending upon their holy image in order to get elected these days, another major implication is that if we want to understand the political issues and elect better congressmen and presidents, we have to know more about the disingenuous topic the politicians have decided will earn them votes.

In my opinion, the BLP is less concerned about Shakespeare than it is about who runs the country, and it is very unlikely that poetry has preempted politics. They say their study has revealed that students don’t know a whole lot about literature and (presto!) the solution to the problem is to introduce the Bible into the public schools of America–while ignoring most of the real problems. Where have we encountered that type of legerdemain before?

In any case, the BLP is coming to your town, to your school board and to your students. Their noses are cold and they are very eager to share your tent. It would be a good idea to be ready for them.


** Jesus (allegedly) turned water into wine. Try this on your adult dinner guests the next time around and see how many get the right answer before using this as a guideline about how biblically deprived our kids are.

The Bible and Its Influence; 2005; Published by The Bible Literacy Project; Cullen Schippe (Editor), Chuck Stetson (Editor)

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