Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mark Chancey on How to Teach the Bible in Public Schools

I met Mark Chancey a few years ago in Durham, NC.  I was speaking at a conference he helped organize at Duke University on the Bible in the public square.  Since then I have turned to his work for help in making sense of the thorny issue of religion in public schools.

Over at Religion & Politics, Mark has a helpful essay entitled "How Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?"  Here is a taste:

The issue of how public schools teach about religion is relatively under-studied, but it is clear that confusion abounds on the question of how to meet the Court’s benchmark of objective, secular presentation. For these reasons, I welcomed an invitation to study public school Bible courses for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog group. Using open records requests, TFN obtained course materials from sixty Bible courses taught in Texas high schools in the 2011-2012 school year; they asked me to examine them for academic quality and adherence to the legal guidelines offered by various federal courts. 

The resulting report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-2012 (a follow-up to an earlier study), found that most Texas Bible courses crossed the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion. While many problems appeared to be missteps by well-intentioned and otherwise well-trained teachers, others reflected overt sectarian agendas. 

The syllabus for one course, for example, identified its objective as “to consider the teachings of the New Testament through the lens of faith,” and students read books on Christian apologetics. Many courses depicted the Bible as straightforward, unproblematic history—even the miracle stories. A PowerPoint slide from one district illustrates this approach, instructing students that “Christ’s resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space – that it was, in reality, historical and not mythological (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16)” [sic]. Many courses presented traditional Christian theological interpretations of scripture as normative readings, going so far as to teach students that the Tanakh/Old Testament supernaturally predicted the coming of Jesus. (When a New York Times reporter questioned this approach, pointing out to one teacher that Jews do not believe that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies, the teacher curiously countered, “In New York, they don’t.”) Pseudoscience made its way into some courses, such as those that advocated creationism or the belief that racial origins can be traced to Noah.  

The good news is that other Texas courses succeeded admirably in treating the biblical material in ways that respected constitutional limits and diverse religious sensibilities. How did they do it? 

Read the rest here, including some suggested readings on the topic.