A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Scripture Refracted, Or Should the Bible Be Taught in Public Schools?

President Donald Trump has weighed in on the attempt in several states to teach Bible literacy classes in public schools. The other day he tweeted, "Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!"

Caitlyn Oprysko of Politico writes,
A handful of states are making pushes to introduce elective courses in schools that lawmakers say would teach the Bible in terms of its historical context, and though none have passed, critics have pointed out that such bills could blur the constitutional line separating church and state.
There are many who think this is a good idea; after all the Bible has guided millions of faithful Christians for centuries. Why not give people, especially our children, more exposure to its message? One would also think that as a pastor with a Ph.D in New Testament theology I support such an idea... but I do not, and it has nothing to do with the separation of church and state (though that is not an unimportant matter). Let me offer my reasons.

First, the Bible is not America's book; it is the church's book and must be taught in the context of the faith community. I have said it before and will say it again: America is not a Christian nation nor has it ever been. There is only one Christian nation in existence and that nation is called "church." 1 Peter 2:9 states to the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."

Yes, America was founded in the context of Christendom, but there is a difference between being Christian and living in Christendom. In my little book, The Politics of Witness, I define Christendom as a context where "the culture of a nation reflects vestiges of Christian values." That word "vestiges" is of critical importance. A vestige is a trace or a small amount of something. One can see traces of Christian values in American culture, but such vestiges are like a vaccine. The body of American culture is exposed to a small amount of the dead virus of Christianity through a vague understanding of Christian values so that the nation does not get the full-blown disease of a living and vital religion. How true it is that our culture is wary of the vitality of faith of any religion that extends beyond personal piety. We like our religion docile, domesticated, and cooperative. Teaching the Bible in the public school setting will only encourage people to conform to a docile, domesticated, and cooperative agenda of the empire. I do not want the public sector co-opting the church's sacred book for its own agenda; and that will happen even though its teachers will be well-intentioned. The purpose of the Bible is to form faithful Christians not compliant citizens; and that brings me to the next point.

Second, when Christians in America read the Bible they fail to see that socially we are more akin to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Romans-- the empires that ruled, coerced, and assimilated those nations who were poorer and less powerful-- than the Israelite slaves in Egypt, the Jewish exiles by the Euphrates River, and the first Christians in Acts who often found themselves on the painful end of the whip. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible critiques, satirizes, and in some place almost laughs at the pretentious delusions of the rich and powerful, those who believe that they somehow turn the wheel of human history in ways that only God can truly accomplish. The words of the Psalmist are instructive for us:

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)

The Bible was written by oppressed people who were themselves judged by God when they became the oppressors. Why would I want this book to be used in the public school setting whose task according to Ben Franklin is to make virtuous citizens, where it can be twisted from the Word that calls the nations to account to affirming that the nation should be obeyed with few if any qualifications?

Third, not only has the Bible been wisely interpreted, it has also suffered from being interpreted in terrible and even dangerous ways. Do I need to demonstrate this point? The Bible has not only encouraged faithful living; it has also been used to justify all sorts of atrocities-- slavery, the subjugation of women, racism, and violence-- and usually by those in power or who have a stake in the status quo. The Bible is a wonderful, complex, and bewildering text in which God's message comes to us, but it should not be assumed that it's message is always obvious to everyone. If so, why have so many committed interpretive malpractice in reading it? The Bible is too important to be left to the public school classroom. It can only be handled by the community of faith who understands that in its pages we not only get history, story, symbol, poetry, etc. but thematically we get the story of God and God's dealings with and in the world he intends to save. Its pages cannot be reduced to an instruction manual-- a how-to book-- that applied like a template in any context can create good children who will simply live decent law-abiding lives. Surely, it cannot be missed that the Bible's greatest figures all too often found themselves on the outs with the powers that existed in their time and that for Christians the greatest and central person in the pages of the biblical text found himself on a cross executed for the crime of treason! How do we go from the pages of the Bible about Jesus killed by the empire as a criminal, his followers arrested, whipped, jailed, and some executed for preaching Jesus as Lord and Savior to reducing the Bible to being taught in the public school setting all for the purpose of making our children nice and law-abiding because after all the American empire is a Christian nation? Surely, I cannot be the only one who sees the irony.

Fourth, and finally (I have more points but this post is already too long) the Bible cannot be properly understood as a book of information alone, though it does give us information. The Bible was given to us for the transformation of those who follow Jesus. Reading the Bible is dangerous business. Those who read through its pages risk not just thinking a little differently, but they risk becoming completely different-- new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is impossible to teach the Bible faithfully in the public school setting without violating the separation of church and state because for Christians who believe that its pages all point to Jesus in some way, the faithful study of the Scriptures must ultimately force the one reading to answer Jesus' question in Matthew 16:15, "Who do you say that I am?" As a teacher of the Bible, I cannot be a faithful instructor without broaching that question.

In other words, the Bible cannot simply be taught "in terms of its historical context." It must be embodied by those who have decided to follow Jesus. And those who follow Jesus do not become Americans; they become Christians and they belong to the nation called "church." If studying the Bible results in anything less, it is not a true lesson in Bible literacy.
Related Posts from Faith Seeking Understanding

Christians As Aliens in Their Homeland: A Letter to Any Twenty-First Century Diognetus

One More Time: An Ecclesial Hermeneutic

The Politics of Witness: The Church as Nation

1 comment:

Ric said...

So much of our Western literature makes allusions to the Bible that some sort of Biblical literacy seems necessary to understand our own literary heritage. I remember a lot of emphasis in high school English being put on Biblical references in "The Scarlet Letter" as we studied it.

Interestingly, my mother, who taught from the late 1920's or early 1930's through the late 1960's or early 1970's was certified, among other subjects, to teach Bible.