(3 of 4)
Haynes also brought in Chuck Stetson, who wanted to take the next step: a secularly acceptable Bible textbook. Stetson's religious credentials alarm church-state separationists. He is a graduate of Colson's Wilberforce Centurion project, a study group pledged to "restore our culture by effectively thinking, teaching and advocating the Christian world view as applied to all of life." Yet he claims his commitment to his textbook's constitutionality determined its secularity. In late 2005 he unveiled The Bible and Its Influence, which was vetted by 40 religious and legal scholars, including Jews, Protestants and a Roman Catholic bishop. Meant to be read alongside a Bible, the book's 373 oversize pages provide a clearly written--if selective--theme-and-style analysis of key passages in most of the biblical books. Its sidebars--"Cultural Connections," "Historical Connections"--do much of the heavy lifting in transforming a Bible commentary into a textbook.
It seems more legally palatable than its competition. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which has offered its curriculum since 1993, claims a bigger market (382 schools in 37 states) than the newcomer (85 school districts in 30 states). But its 1999 edition reportedly recommended materials from something called the Creation Evidence Museum; a "question for reflection" in the 2005 version suggested that the logistics of Noah's Ark would have been more manageable if some of the animals were babies or hibernating. In 2002 a Florida district court ruled unconstitutional a course that critics claim was loosely based on its New Testament portion (the Council denies a connection). Its spokespeople claim it is refining itself as it goes and its most recent edition, which came out last month, eliminates much literalist bias--but still devotes 18 lines to the blatantly unscientific notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
Some secularists are worried about who will teach the literacy classes. Joe Conn and Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have expressed a concern about how teachers willing to give the Bible secular treatment would be found, particularly in states where vast majorities are evangelical. They note that Stetson's history sections are almost exclusively positive. "A textbook should offer objective study about both the positive and negative uses of the Bible," Conn writes. "Where is the analysis of the role of the Bible in the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials?" They specifically question the tone of a final section, "Freedom and Faith in America," which omits the high court's school-secularization rulings and ends on a truly odd note: a Chinese social scientist attributing the "pre-eminence of the West" to the fact that the "heart of your culture is ... your Christianity." Unlike most of the book, this seems written by Stetson the true believer who took Colson's Centurion program.
A modest proposal
A BASIC QUESTION: WHY TEACH THE BIBLE and not comparative religion? It may not be necessary to provide Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism with equal time, but it seems misguided to ignore faiths that millions of Americans practice each day; and a glance at the headlines further argues for an omnibus course. Yet could a school demand that its already overloaded kids take one elective if they take the other? Concerns about whether a Bible Belt Christian teacher could in good conscience teach a religiously neutral Bible course also plagued me. Was high school Bible study one of those great ideas that vaporizes when exposed to air?
I visited New Braunfels high in early February. Jennifer Kendrick is committed to The Bible and Its Influence, but as a starting point rather than a blueprint. "It gives me ways to approach the topic, and then I put together something else," she says. She's unconvinced of its impartiality. "It will bring up Catholicism and mention Gandhi, but you can tell it's written as if I am a Protestant Christian teaching Protestant Christians."
Actually, she is a conservative Protestant. But her students don't know that, and nothing in the class I saw suggested it. Kendrick aces the compulsories--notes John Locke's use of the Beatitudes and Frank Zappa's riffs on "the meek shall inherit the earth," and ponders why various politicians have found it more convenient to attribute the "city on a hill" to Winthrop rather than to Matthew. When a student asks how Jesus could say the meek shall inherit the earth, when Christianity inherited it only after attaining tremendous strength, she suggests, "When he was giving the sermon, people took it not just as a physical award but an emotional or spiritual kind of award. Later on, when they became more powerful, say, in the Crusades or something, they weren't trying to inherit the earth. They were trying to take it over." Explaining why Jesus' famous sermon took place on a mount, she reminds the students that Matthew was writing for Jews, and a mount is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. "So, supposedly," she says, "Jesus is the new covenant, the new law, for the Jewish people."
She gives over much of the class to a Socratic symposium on Jesus' simplest yet most difficult sayings, which reveals a lot about the class's earnest attempts to make sense of rather disparate worlds. "'Turn the other cheek'--Does that mean we're supposed to let them hit you on the other cheek too?" she asks. A boy answers, "You should, you know, just take what's coming. It's not like if someone hits you. If someone doesn't give you the right change back, you shouldn't come back looking for a fight." A girl argues that it is more of an ideal than a mandate. "So it's a guideline," asks Kendrick, "and you apply it to the situation and see what fits?" This, in turn, upsets a girl in the third row, who asks, "Does that mean that the Ten Commandments are exceptions?"
Kendrick: "That they're literal?"
Trying to make sense of both this consensus and his possible future, an ROTC cadet notes, "Some people say, 'Thou shalt not kill' is really 'Thou shalt not murder,' and in Ecclesiastes it says, 'There's a time for war and a time for peace.'"