Monday, March 26, 2007

The Three R's: Reading Writing, and Revelation?

Should the Bible be included in America's classrooms? At least this is what one professor thinks. Stephen Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University, writes in an interesting piece, originally written for the LA Times. His take on this issue is from a purely practical standpoint, and honestly, a view I have yet to hear, yet one I fear. He claims that because biblical references saturate political speech, Americans need to bone up on their Bibles.
Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.
Prothero's solution to this societal ill is to begin teaching biblical literacy in the classroom. He claims that since the Bible is of foundational importance to Western civilization, that it would serve America well to have it taught from a neutral stance, simply as a cultural document. Because biblical references are commonly used in everyday speech in the public square, with little knowledge of why they are used or their origin, that:
What makes sense is one Bible course for every public high-school student in the U.S. This is not a Christian proposal. It does not serve the political left or the political right. It serves our young people and our public life.
So what do I fear? Fretfully, this: should (or could) the Bible be taught simply as a cultural document, for biblical literacy's sake, in public schools? Is that even possible? One thing Mr. Prothero does get right is this:
Yet U.S. citizens know almost nothing about the Bible. Although most regard it as the word of God, few read it anymore. Even evangelicals from the Bible Belt seem more focused on loving Jesus than on learning what he had to say.


Streak said...

Let me ask you this, Tony. If you were sure that it COULD be taught as a cultural document, would that still bother you?

Tony said...


I fear that may be a non-question. Teaching the Bible as a cultural document may be feasible, but doubtfully plausible.

I know that the Bible is taught in literature classes and is referred to in some history classes as reliable (at least it was when I was in college). But if it could be taught as a cultural document, would it be taught neutrally? I doubt it.

But to answer your question, to be taught simply as a cultural document, if that were possible, no, it would not bother me.

My point is that it WILL be taught with some bent on it.

Elder's Wife said...

I did a blog recently on the State of Georgia mandating elective courses in old testment & new testament for high school students. The State legislature was to have voted on this, but I haven't seen anything to show that they actually did.
Their contention was that the Bible is foundational to an understanding of Western civilization and culture.
I think it would be pretty hard to teach it without a bias.
Have you seen anything about the Georgia vote?


Gordon Cloud said...

I would suggest that teaching it as a cultural document would be more beneficial than not teaching it at all.

The Bible is a cultural document. It is, of course, much more than that alone, but it is the greatest book of history, morality, philosophy, poetry and law ever written. Education is not complete without exposure to it.

Streak said...

but it is the greatest book of history,

Really? How so?

Tony, let me say that I don't doubt your conclusion, but I also don't necessarily think that the way the Bible is taught by Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, etc., is any different than your concerns.

selahV said...

TONY: Great. I'm for getting the Word in the classroom any way we can get it there. His Word will not return void. There will be slant on it...but the Spirit can rightly divide truth. We as Christians have nothing to fear of our Father's instructions being read in public classrooms. That's how I see it. selahV

Streak said...

Unfortunately, Selah, I think that Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson are just a few people who suggest that the Bible can be badly misused.

selahV said...

Streak: and I agree with them. It can be misused. Just as our Constitution is misused. However, the Constitution, unlike the Bible, is not a Living Breathing Spiritual Entity. The Constitution, and other books need man to confuse and interpret. The Bible is distorted every day--but the Lord, Himself, empowers it and fulfills the truth within it.

What I like about this day and age, is the fact that if students question their professors and educators take on the Bible--they will Google it, blog about it and eventually find the Lord in all His fullness. selahV

Tony said...


I left a comment at your blog about the GA vote, but to reiterate some of what I said there, which our posts are fairly similar, I am pessimistic about the Bible essentially being treated as a textbook.


I agree that the Bible was the greatest book ever written. I am skeptical of it being taken seriously as all those things you mention if its relegated to a textbook.


In case you missed it, the post had a negative slant toward the RR. I agree with you that the RR has a monopoly on Scripture and will argue that their interpretation is "the" interpretation. I don't disagree that they abuse the Bible. But, it further proves the point that the Bible cannot and will not be taught objectively.


I do agree that the Word does not return void. I have heard many testimonies of people coming to Christ after having only read the Bible without additional interpretation or explanation.

I am pessimistic because by their very nature, public schools cannot endorse religion (which I do not think Christianity is, to be sure). How long will it be, before the Upanishads, the Book of Mormon, and the Koran have to be taught alongside of the Bible as "one path among many?" I think it sets a dangerous precedent. I could be wrong and will gladly admit it.

And Streak's concern about the RR is a valid one and is mine as well. It seems something like this would give the talking heads more ammunition and further reason to promote their own "doctrine."

Streak said...

Tony, I caught it, and I know where you stand there.

Selah, I don't understand the comparison to our constitution, and while I understand the idea of the word not coming back void, I see far too much abuse of the Bible to believe that it happens magically every time. If it did, then John Hagee's church would be empty, not filled with people giving him millions of dollars.

Perhaps I am simply too dark today.

Gordon Cloud said...

Streak, I consider the Bible to be the greatest book of history because of the span, scope, accuracy and cohesiveness of its historical record.

There is no piece of literature that was written by such a multiplicity of authors over such a span of thousands of years that provides such a clear picture of the events of world history.

Streak said...

Ok. I think that reflects more faith than history, but I also doubt we are going to find common ground here. I am not sure how the Bible reflects "world history" at all, since it is limited to the Middle East. Does it tell us of Asian civilizations?

But again, consider me a liberal academic skeptic. Literal belief in the Bible simply is not convincing to me. Now, if you want to argue that it is an incredibly important artifact of history, then I am on board.

Sorry, Tony. Perhaps it is the cloud cover, but I am in a dark mood today. Apologies.

selahV said...

streak: forget the Constitution comparison. ain't worth going there.
There's nothing magical about God's Word. As much damage has been done without the Word in schools as with it. There's been a downward spiral since prayer was forbidden and ten commandments removed.

Tony: the various religions coming into the schools are just a heartbeat away anyway. Hannakah and Ramadan (sp) are already being taught while Christianity is completely forbidden. America was founded on Christmas trees and Santa. selahV

Tony said...


We're all grown men here, so no worries, even when we disagree. You are always welcome here, even when you're in a bad mood. ;)

Though I agree with Gordon's assessment, I also agree with you, that the Bible is an incredibly important and very valuable artifact of history. That being said, and I do not think that Gordon would disagree, the Bible is authoritative in all it means to say and in the history that it records.


I am sure you are correct. Since we homeschool, I do not keep up with a lot of trends in the public schools too much anymore, unless they are big news items.

I guess my big point to this is how little discipleship is taking place in our churches that government officials are promoting the public school systems to race in to fill the void.

The crux of it is, in the beginning of Mr. Protheros's argument, he states that 90% of federal legislators refer to themselves as Christians. Why, then, are they not taking their opinions about biblical illiteracy back to their churches? And why aren't churches responding to this, as well as Christian parents? My feeling is that these 90% of legislators only go to church to broaden their constituencies.

Streak said...

Tony, we will have to disagree on this one, I am afraid. I don't believe the Bible to be authoritative on all it addresses, nor the history it records. And, for my money, that isn't the point. Or at least it isn't the point for me. The Bible's stance (or non stance) on slavery is a good case in point for me.

Selah, not sure I agree. Taking prayer out of public schools didn't cause anything but further litigation and fundraising on both sides. There might be a downward spiral, I don't know. But connecting it to the school prayer case is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Nothing in that case or any subsequent case has stopped believers from praying. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying--as long as there are math tests, there will be prayers in school.

And that is my problem with this approach, and I think it still is magical thought. The ten commandments on the wall won't stop someone from cheating or lying, nor will some organized--watered down prayer. Those moral issues are established or not established in the early years of childhood. Morals and values are deeper and more complex than some early morning prayer or plaque on the wall. There is a part of me that is willing to simply toss in the towel and say, "if you really want prayer in school, or the ten commandments on every bathroom wall without extending the same privileges to every other faith in America, then fine." Because I don't believe that will change hearts or change actions. I don't think graven images or rote prayers are the answer.

selahV said...

Streak: Okay, what do you think is the answer? selahV

Streak said...

Answer to moral decline? I am not sure I have one simple answer to a complex issue.

For me, faith is important, but it must also be buttressed with reason and pragmatic response. What can we do? We can address social justice to try and alleviate poverty and hopelessness. We can stop following "celebrity Christians" like Jerry Falwell and others who do not model actual morality. We can stop defining morality, btw, in only sexual terms and start addressing economic sins as a people.

I am sorry for my lack of patience these last few days. Perhaps it is fatigue or just the weather, but I am a bit short tempered. When I am in that state, some of the church-ese phrases bother me, and one of them is that the Bible "is the answer." Perhaps it is my upbringing where pastors used the Bible to justify male superiority, or racism, or simply quoted them as magical palliatives when I was asking a legitimate question. We always read the Bible through a lense of culture and experience.

Tony said...


I cannot concede that the Bible does not present accurate history. If it does not, then in my view, it calls other aspects of the bible into question. We then have to question the veracity of other accounts as well as theology itself. This logically follows, at least the way I see it. And I do not think that a literalist view of Scripture is incompatible with history.

I do not think anyone's theology is not going to be affected by culture or experience.

That being said, I COMPLETELY agree with your return comment to selah, even if we arrive at the same conclusion yet through different means.

But let me ask you this, and I hope I'm not treading to close to the line. Can you give specific examples of how history recorded in the Bible is inaccurate? There are some historical accounts we would not have at all if it were not for the Biblical record, such as the reign of King David. Can we not, or should we not, trust those?

Streak said...


Let me first say that, as you know, my expertise is American history, not the Ancient world, but even with that, I don't believe the Bible to be a book of history, because I don't believe that was its intent. As a historian, I do understand sources and these sources are one-sided. Are they still sources? Yes, and beneficial to those studying the ancient world, but that does not make them the last word.

Much of my frustration with a literal Bible comes from what I perceive to be tremendous inconsistencies in the morality of the OT stories. I am in a conversation with a friend from childhood about the Amelekites. He asserts that it happened just as the Bible says--that God told the Israelites to kill them all, and what judgement God invokes on the Israelites is when they refused to kill everyone. I can believe in evil. I can believe that people do unspeakable things. But I can't believe that God chooses to do evil--and killing innocent life is practically a definition.

This is a good example, not of what a history would tell us, but of a one-sided and completely biased account of a conflict between two cultures. I can give you numerous examples just like it in American history--and I am sure you know others. As a source, it might have usefulness, but that doesn't make it a book of history.

I am not sure I answered your question very well. I will keep at it.

Tony said...


I do not think that the Bible is comprehensive history. That was not its intent. Its intent is to engender faith in God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

However, I do believe it is accurate in the history it does record.

I do not know if we will come to a concession on this, but at least we are talking, and I'm glad for that.

Let me say this about your difficulty with OT morality stories. You come to these stories with this presumption: and killing innocent life is practically a definition.

I do not know your view on basic human goodness, but I do not believe people are intrinsically good. We are responsible to God for our actions. The Amalekites were guilty of sin. Sin by its very nature must be punished.

The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death. In Genesis 15:16, God told Abraham that the iniquity of the Amorites (another culture) was not yet complete. In the fourth generation, the children of Israel would inhabit the land, but only after the Amorites and other sinful tribes of people were driven from the land.

Those judgment passages of the OT foreshadow the coming of a Deliverer because not just the ancient tribes of the Middle East were sinful, but also the Israelites themselves. In 586 B.C. the Israelites were driven from the Promised Land because of their sin. After a seventy year captivity, they were providentially returned to the Promised Land.

So, those stories teach us that God does despise evil, in all its forms, even in those whom He loves and chooses. He is not the author of evil nor does He choose to do evil.

The peoples who were exterminated were evil--they were not innocent.

However, we are in a new dispensation now. God's wrath against sin was poured out on His Son, Jesus Christ, at the cross. Jesus stood as a vicarious sacrifice taking the punishment for my sin and yours--death--upon Himself.

That is how I understand those stories. And I do understand how they can be twisted and taken out of context to justify all manner of evil, which through history the Bible has been used to justify evil--wrongly--but justify it nevertheless.

But if a man is punished for his sin, it is not because God maliciously decides that this one will suffer and this one won't, but because he is accountable for his own sin to God. But for the one who trusts in Christ, his punishment has fallen on Jesus Himself, who willingly took it.

Streak, will you do me a favor? Will you read Ezekiel 18:19-32? I hope you don't turn from this conversation. Let me know what you think.

Streak said...

I read it, and understand your point about sin and death. I don't even disagree. And maybe the key here is dispensationalism, but I see a huge problem in this defense:

1 Samuel: 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy [a] everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.' "

If the defining issue is that actions and sins have consequences, I can understand. I don't quite understand how the same God--the same unchanging God--then sends his son and the rules change and we are to love our enemies, but the key issue here is who is targeted in this ethnic cleansing. You say the Amalekites were evil. Yet, according to the story, God tells them to kill all--even the infants, and we assume any unborn children.

You say: But if a man is punished for his sin, it is not because God maliciously decides that this one will suffer and this one won't, but because he is accountable for his own sin to God.

And if the charge was to kill the wicked Amalekites that would make sense--especially in a tribal desert society (though I am still unclear about God's role in that). But it isn't. This includes the punishment of infants and the pre-born. This isn't an argument about human goodness--we can agree that humans are not intrinsically good--but about the relative innocence of infants. How do we go from this passage to the stance that God hates abortion?

So, from my perspective, this is part of the gymnastics that innerancy and literal Bible reading ask of us--to where we claim that the Bible is the source of the pro-life stance, and yet having to justify God's own decision to kill the unborn children of the people he is unahappy with.

But the other part of this is that God, we assume, could kill these people on his own. He could have chosen to drown them--he did that before, right? Or just strike them down. But he makes the Israelites, the same ones he delivered the law to--do his killing for him. He told them to go among them and slaughter. So, in the OT, we get the 10 commandments including the charge to not kill--and are now told that if we hang those magical verses in courtrooms and schoolhouses that our moral compass will be righted--and yet in the same stories, God asks his followers to kill.

Any of that make sense?

Tony said...


Honestly, that passage has bothered me before, too. I can see how going from this passage in 1 Samuel 15 to the stance that God hates abortion would be strained in a literalist interpretation; almost a leap.

Plus, I should not have used the term dispensation. It carries too much (bad) theological baggage with it to be an effective term.

The only way I can explain it, and I know it raises more questions than it answers, is that the extermination of the people was justified in the sense that their iniquity was full or complete (hence my reference to Genesis 15:16 above) and God's anger was kindled against them to the degree that He wanted the entire civilization wiped out so that no vestige of their atrocity remained.

The sources I have on 1 Samuel gloss over this passage and really don't address that issue. Matthew Henry simply says that we should not have pity on them because they were marked for ruin.

J. Vernon McGee says we should not pass judgment on God because we cannot make the decisions He must make. If those Amalekites had been allowed to live, there is no telling what kind of trouble they would have caused for future Israel.

Ralph Klein in the Word Biblical Commentary says that the Amalekite nation was under the "ban" according to Deuteronomy 20. It may then reflect the intense hatred of the Israelites' for the Amalekites and they needed to destroy them to bring the Amalekites' raiding activities to a close.

I have four other commentaries that do not address it at all but gloss over it essentially saying, "God punishes sin."

I do see though, how that troubles you, and it also troubles me. I like more complete answers, but I also believe we must trust God when everything does not mesh the way we think it ought.

So, I'm sorry. I wish I had a more satisfactory answer. I'm not comfortable with my response, but its the best I can do right now.

Streak said...

tony, thanks, as usual, for your thoughtful and generous response. I responded to the word "dispensation" mostly because I really don't understand it. It seems to suggest that God changed the rules at one time--even as I am told that God is unchanging.

My problems with the commentaries on this issue are the same as I have with the passage itself. They sound exactly like every other justification for genocide or ethnic cleansing. Chivington reportedly told his soldiers to kill Cheyenne infants at Sand Creek because, "nits make lice."

This gets to the heart of my issue with seeing the Bible as history. To follow my analogy, this would be taking Chivinton's own take on the Sand Creek massacre as the definitive story.

For me, this seems like a needless question, frankly. I understand the singular and self-reverential bias when viewed through a cultural and historical lens. I understand tribal cultures hating each other for real and imagined atrocities. I can even accept that these people were horribly evil to the Israelites. But that still doesn't get me to the place where God asking his people to kill infants for him makes sense.