Reading, Writing, Arithmetic - and Holy Writ

This fall, some high school students are making time in their schedules for another elective class. It's not chorus or art. It's a class about the Bible.

Since 1995, a Greensboro, N.C.-based group, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, has taught a course titled “The Bible in History and Literature,” reaching approximately 175,000 students in 37 states.

Meanwhile a second group, the Bible Literacy Project, based in Fairfax, Va., released a high-school textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, Sept. 22. (This group also recently co-published The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide with the Arlington, Va.-based First Amendment Center.)

Both groups cite Supreme Court rulings to support their right to offer these courses.

For their part, Catholics are weighing in on the subject — and they're expressing both enthusiasm and caution.

According to the National Council, their curriculum, which uses the Bible as the textbook along with a teacher's guide, is a needed and appropriate addition to a secular curriculum.

The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch says no one can call themselves an educated American unless they have a basic understanding of the Bible,” notes Mike Johnson, an attorney for the National Council. “Study of the Bible helps students to pursue academic excellence and cultural literacy.”

Adds National Council president Elizabeth Ridenour: “It fills in the gap for students to understand other subjects, such as what's happening in the Middle East.”

The Bible Literacy Project also believes that students need this type of course to complete their education. “We anticipate an enormous interest across all 50 states,” says Sheila Weber, the group's vice president of communications. “There has never been a product like this.”

The Bible Literacy Project recently commissioned the Gallup organization to survey 1,002 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18 about their knowledge of the Bible. Only 49% knew that Jesus turned water into wine during the wedding at Cana. And just 1 in 10 thought Moses was one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.

Both groups say their approach is non-sectarian.

On the National Council's website, Ridenour states, “The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education.”

The National Council recently came under fire in Texas. When the Odessa school district voted unanimously to add the course to its curriculum, the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal advocacy group for religious freedom, protested, saying the curriculum provides a narrow perspective and is riddled with errors.

Peer Review

Anticipating similar complaints, the Bible Literacy Project enters the fray prepared.

“We created the student textbook to meet the standards of the First Amendment Guide,” says Weber, “and to create a product that school boards as well as faith groups can feel comfortable with.”

Her group's textbook has been reviewed by 40 academic and religious scholars from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths, including Eric Jenislawski, adjunct instructor of theology at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America. Other reviewers include Auxiliary Bishop Emil Wcela of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and chair of the board of trustees for the Catholic Biblical Association.

According to Jenislawski, the textbook is an important endeavor. “In an era in which many students know little about the Bible, I think Christians should welcome the opportunity to be able to discuss the Bible in the public square in a non-confrontational way,” he says. “The danger Christians should worry about is the opposite — that the Bible will be completely banished from public discourse.”

Jenislawski applauds the methods of the Bible Literacy Project.

“From the time I first learned about [it] in 2002, I was struck by the great care of the project's board of directors in assembling a panel of reviewers with representatives from various faith traditions and academic institutions,” he says. “[That's] unprecedented breadth for this kind of initiative.”

But Jenislawski's approval is not without qualifications.

“These courses are valuable but tertiary means of instruction about the Bible for Catholic children in a public school,” he says. “They should come after religious instruction about the Bible in the home and formation instruction in programs such as CCD. The Catholic Church fervently teaches that Catholic parents have a grave moral obligation to provide for their children's instruction in the Faith.”

Monday School

Other Catholics echo Jenislawski's cautionary tone.

Scott Hahn, president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, has reviewed both curricula.

“Both focus wonderfully well on the Bible, and treat it very seriously in literary and historical ways,” says Hahn. He says the advantage of the National Council's curriculum is that students spend more time reading the actual Bible. He says that the Bible Literacy textbook shows more “ecumenical awareness.”

“I wouldn't recommend either for use in Catholic schools,” he says, “but I would recommend them for public schools.”

He refers to the Catholic view of the Bible to support his opinion.

“To approach God's word in strictly literary or historical terms is valuable and helpful, but is inadequate for Catholic reading,” he says. “It's both human and divine. When push comes to shove, you can't separate the literary, historical and divine.”

Amy Smith writes from Geneva, Illinois.