As witnessed by a recent Time magazine cover story on so-called "religious literacy," there is increased interest in teaching the Bible in public schools. In principle, this is Constitutionally permissible. Thus, in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (374 US 203, 225 (1963)) the Supreme Court affirmed that the Bible may be taught in public schools provided it is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."
Among the advocates of public school courses on the Bible, there is a rather hot debate over whether the Bible itself should be the central text in the classroom, or whether the Bible should accompany a textbook designed to ensure that "the Bible class" doesn't turn out to be a devotional exercise that promotes religious beliefs. In 2006 this issue was fought out in the Georgia Legislature, and Georgia passed a law requiring that when the Bible is taught in public schools, the Bible itself must be the central text.
Interestingly, both sides of this debate state their opposition to promoting religion in public schools, and both sides aver their commitment to "teaching the Bible as literature" and to having students "read the Bible as literature." While such phrases are tossed around somewhat glibly, little thought has been given to what it might mean to actually read the Bible as literature, to read it as one might read any book. In Joseph's Bones--Understanding the Struggle between God and Mankind in the Bible, I offer such a reading of the Biblical text. In the discussion below, I will argue that many of those pushing to have the Bible taught in public schools may be in for a surprise--when the Bible is read as literature, we may discover that the Bible significantly parts company from both Judaism and Christianity, and that the Constitutional and pedagogic questions about how to teach the Bible in public schools are far more complex than has been realized.
Reading the Bible as Literature
The phrase "teaching the Bible as literature" is widely used to denote a non-religious way of teaching the Bible. However, the term itself has no stable meaning. "Teaching the Bible as literature" can mean merely teaching about the Bible understood as a work of literature, or alternatively actually reading the Bible as a work of literature. It is on this latter approach that I wish to focus. But what does it mean to "read the Bible as literature"?
One can read the Bible in a variety of ways:
Reading the Bible as Scripture. This is the typical way in which believers have traditionally read the Bible. One comes to the text with certain central religious beliefs about the text, and with purposes which only make sense given those beliefs. These beliefs may include:
God exists and the character in the text referred to as "God" is God.
God never says what is untrue, and God never commands what is wrong.
The Bible itself is true. It accurately reports what God said and did.
The truth of the Bible emerges from the fact that the Bible is in some sense a revealed text. God has inspired its authorship. Through it, God has revealed certain truths to mankind, and has revealed his will.
Because the Bible is God's message to us, the Bible is a source for learning both about the nature of reality and about how we should live.
Because the Bible is a true account of God's words and deeds, everything presented in the text must be understood in ways that are consistent with what is true about God, for instance, that God is just.
Reading the Bible through the lens of religion.
People who read the Bible as Scripture read it through the lens of their religious beliefs. But non-believers also typically read through the lens of religion. This is the way a student of religion might read the text. It does not require that the reader himself bring any religious beliefs to his reading, but rather he brings beliefs about certain religions and about the place of the Bible in relation to those religions. …