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The Bible’s Place in the Public School

by Rose Sallberg Kam

Ms. Kam teaches at Encina High School, Sacramento, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 20, 1974, pp. 1093-1094. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


No doubt about it, religion is "in" today. Millions of bumper stickers exhort drivers to read their Bibles or to honk if they know Jesus. Students flaunt Jesus buttons and Jesus T-shirts. Televised specials and magazine photo-articles feature "Jesus freaks" and Pentecostal groups. Young people meet to discuss the Bible in homes, church basements, classrooms, back yards and public parks. Yet at least one student, in every Bible-as-literature course I have taught in a public high school, looks around conspiratorily the first day and asks in a stage whisper, Can we get away with this?"

I

Just where does the public school figure in this "Back to the Bible" boom? Contrary to general opinion, the public school may indeed teach the Bible -- or for that matter, the Koran or the Book of Mormon or the I Ching. A careful reading of relevant court decisions shows that absolutely nothing in them bans the objective study of the Bible and religions. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it plain that certain "religious" activities are not only permissible in the public schools, but desirable. The justices strongly encourage instruction in the Bible as a literary and historical document, use of the Bible as a reference book, and study of the role religions have played in the development of civilization.

What has been banned -- in such cases as Engel v. Vitale, Murray v. Curlett, the landmark Schempp case of 1962 -- worship services mandated by the school authorities. In other words, any school requiring students to listen to daily Bible readings or to recite the Lord’s Prayer or other officially endorsed prayers is in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment. A film, The Schempp Cases Bible Reading in Public Schools (Britannica, 1970: 45 mm., color), clearly brings out these points.

This film was shown in the Bible classes in the school where I teach -- Encina High, Sacramento -- when, in 1973, we introduced a Bible course there as a junior-senior nine-week literature elective. However, many of our students elected the course not out of interest in literature or history, but out of direct or indirect religious motivation. Of the approximately 120 Encina students who took the course in the 1973-74 school year, the vast majority gave as their reason simply to "learn more about the Bible," though some added, "to make me a better Christian." One or two students in each of the four nine-week classes chose the course because they wanted to understand the allusions to the Bible made by their parents or other adults they respected. And several in each group agreed with the boy who wrote, "I liked the idea of reading the Bible without religious prejudice."

II

Whatever the students’ initial reasons for electing the course, the film and the teacher’s introductory remarks made it clear that the main course goals would be to familiarize them with the Bible’s general contents and to give them a broad awareness of its influence on Western art and literature. A pretest asking students to identify various biblical books and the people and places mentioned therein, and to complete a few well-known quotations, showed how very little biblical knowledge most teenagers possess -- even those who have attended church schools for years. Moreover, many had no idea that the Bible consists of an entire library of books written by many authors over many centuries. They were confused too over the number of versions of the Bible, and wanted to know which one was the "real" Bible. Several were not at all sure what those "funny little numbers" along the sides of the pages were for.

So the nine-week courses we offered -- one in the Old Testament, one in the New -- could be only an introduction to biblical study. The Old Testament course began with information on how the Bible developed, on the difficulties of translation and on how the various versions came to be made. Next there were exercises on how to locate particular passages and how to use such standard reference books as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or a concordance to complete a quotation or to find its source. We then read and discussed the great narratives from Genesis the stories of Abraham and Moses and of various judges and kings (Deborah, Gideon, Samson; Saul, David, Solomon). Finally we dealt with the books of poetry, wisdom, and prophecy (Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.). In the New Testament course we read and discussed the Gospels of Luke and John (citing parallel passages it, Mark and Matthew), the Acts of the Apostles, and selections from the epistles and Revelation.

Of necessity, these courses covered only a sampling of what the Bible actually contains. The emphasis was on getting students to read, often for the first time, stories they thought they knew without ever having read them. (It’s a source of constant amazement to students to discover that no apple is mentioned in the Adam and Eve narrative.) Reading, and clarification of what the words literally say, was our main class activity. Since that first year we were not sure how well the class would go, we did not invest in books for the course. The Gideons kindly donated a number of King James Bibles for use in class, and most students had a Bible available at home. But the King James Version proved nearly unreadable for many students, so I often read aloud in class from The New English Bible (Oxford University Press, 1970), stopping frequently for questions. This translation in itself cleared up many of the students’ reading problems. For our second year, we are buying a modern translation of the Bible in paperback -- both the students and I agreed on the need.

III

The showing of supplementary films and slides helped vary classroom procedures and clarify the cultural, geographic and historical background of biblical times. I found in our district audio-visual department (a department that is certainly not geared to teaching the Bible) two films which were especially helpful from the point of view of history and geography: Ancient Palestine (Coronet Films, 1968; 14 min., color) and Israel: The Land and the People (Coronet, 1970; 14 min., color). A third film, The Law and the Prophets (McGraw-Hill Text Films, 1970; 51 min., 2 reels, color), not only offers a good summary of the Old Testament but also demonstrates the influence of the Bible on Western art, for, it shows great works of painting and sculpture inspired by the Bible.

I was fortunate to have in each quarter’s class at least one student who had visited Israel and could show his slides to the class. Our photography teacher made two sets of supplementary slides for me, one from a book on Marc Chagall’s Jerusalem Windows (based on the 12 tribes of Israel), and one from various books on biblical scenes and landscapes. I made use also of records -- Negro spirituals, Bill Cosby’s "Apple" and "Noah" (The Best of Bill Cosby, Warner Brothers Seven Arts Records), Jesus Christ. Superstar (Decca Records), etc., as well as of Peanuts cartoons and political cartoons, newspaper satire, and, occasionally, of short pieces of fiction and poetry on biblical themes. Such devices made the class livelier, evidenced the continuing influence of the Bible on our art and culture, and deepened the students’ understanding of the universality of biblical themes. One happy coincidence was the performance at a nearby university of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., a modern interpretation of the story of Job. Several students saw the play and compared it with the biblical Book of Job for the benefit of the class.

As I said above our greatest need proved to be a modern translation of the Bible for each student. I also feel strongly that either the Old Testament course or teacher approval should he a prerequisite for enrollment in the New Testament course. On the whole our Bible course met with student enthusiasm, though it was by no means a "snap." In addition to extensive reading it required numerous papers and a good deal of old-fashioned memorizing. An adult with years of church attendance behind him cannot begin to fathom how new all those characters’ names are to a teen-ager.

IV

An interesting side effect of the course was that many students talked about it with their parents. No parents complained about the course; indeed many told me or my principal that they would like to see us set up such a course for adults. Nor did the plurality of religious backgrounds -- Jews, Mormons, Catholics, members of numerous Protestant sects -- pose any problems. Both students and parents respected my efforts to maintain objectivity in class, and when I asked the students what qualifications teachers of the course should have, none mentioned church affiliation as necessary, though they did observe that teaching a Bible course would probably be easier for a person with a strong Christian background (I agree). Many said that the teacher should have, a broad acquaintance with the Bible and with literature in general, and with parallel stories from other ancient cultures. And some students thought it would be good (though not essential) for the teacher to have some grounding in the sacred books, myths and legends of such other major religions as Hinduism and Islam.

Whatever the reasons, "The Bible as Literature" is a course which has evidently found its time. For years anthologies of English literature have included in the Elizabethan section several short selections from the King James Bible -- selections often hurried over. And as early as 1964 the English Journal, a national magazine for high school English teachers, was carrying articles on the teaching of Bible in the traditional English class. But the ‘60s were not years of great student interest in religion. The ‘70s have seen a change. Now that religion is "in" once more, it is once more possible to teach the most influential book in all of Western literature -- and to teach it without coercion or apology.


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