Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bible Literacy Project

UPDATE: If you have come to this from another site, I have now demonstrated that the Biblical Literacy Project is a project of the American Religious Right.


I hadn't been planning to blog here this week, but courtesy forces me to....

Sarah Jenislawski, Executive Director of the Bible Literacy Project, left some comments on my blog about my earlier post on the Bible Literacy Project:
"Thank you for posting about the Bible Literacy Report. We don't advocate only knowing the catch phrases of the Bible, but are attempting to illustrate some of the basic concepts with which students should be familiar. For more information on our pedagogical approach, please see The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, a set of guidelines we co-published on how to teach about the Bible legally and fairly in the public schools.

We advocate an elective course on the Bible as literature and in literature for high school students. Regarding your comments about Markan priority, JDEP, chiasms, dating of books, Palestinian history and archaeology, these are all subjects worthy of study, but may be a bit advanced for students who may never have read the text of the Bible before. We are not attempting to provide religious education or a complete scholarly overview of the Bible - which could take a lifetime - but only to familiarize students with the basic concepts and themes of the Bible."
First, I'd like to thank Ms. Jenislawski for her very kind response. I can only say that "familiarizing students with the basic concepts and themes of the Bible" cannot take place without the larger context of history and basic scholarship. It would be like trying to teach To Kill a Mockingbird without ever mentioning racism in the South, or without any discussion of its underlying mythical and literary allusions. Your list does not even contain foundational information, such as "the New Testament was originally written in Greek" although such low level information about original languages would certainly be part of any presentation of Flaubert or Hugo in a high school class.

Consider the famous pericope which you have labeled "CAST THE FIRST STONE". The context on that one is crystal clear: that doesn't even belong in the Bible (so why is it being taught?). Will students be made aware that the presence of the concept of "HELL" in the Bible is debatable? Further, what do I get to teach as a "theme?" Can I teach that one of the themes of the Bible is a movement from early polytheism to later monotheism? If I am a Jewish student, can I object to inclusion of the New Testament in the course ("it's not in MY Bible"). And which translation do you plan to use -- are students going to made aware that the translations vary, and that in many cases the text is difficult or impossible to pin down? It seems like you are opening a huge can of worms, and you are entirely without any worm catching gear.

BTW, ya'll might take note that you have listed the Golden Rule three times there. Not only that, but AFAIK the phrase "THE GOLDEN RULE" is not found in the Bible, and did not even come into use in that context until a few centuries ago. Your scholarship fills me with confidence. Another thing ya'll might ponder is the almost complete lack of females on the list. None of the great Jewish females is there, but Mary is. This smacks of a double bias, first against women, and second, in favor of Christianity. The latter suspicion is strengthened by the fact that all of the selections involving Jesus present him in a favorable light; the allegations of demon possession, the blasting of the fig tree, the rejection by his family -- none of these are there.

Finally, the project is funded by the Templeton Foundation, which is not exactly a religiously nuetral organization, nor is it a scholarly or literary organization, but instead promotes religion and free-market causes. This doesn't look like education to me; instead, it stinks of religion-pushing. Fundamentally, an educator provides context for the information presented to enable students to make informed judgments about the material and their relationship to it. By not demanding that Bible literacy be real literacy about the Bible, you in essence indicate that you have other interests than education.

Once again, I thank you for your time.

UPDATE Friday, May 20

A disturbing comment about their connections. Here is the skinny from their home page:

Our primary task now is to move beyond words, to action: To produce and muster
support for a Bible literacy curriculum for public schools that is fair,
balanced, rigorous and constitutional; a textbook which will harm no child's
faith, while leaving every teen knowledgeable about the Bible. Our Bible course
has been reviewed by leading Bible literature scholars, faith leaders, and
educators to ensure its fairness and accuracy. In addition, lawyers from the
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are reviewing the course to ensure it is legally appropriate for the public schools.
The Becket Fund has also agreed to defend, free of charge, any school district sued for using our Bible curriculum in a manner consistent with The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.
The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty is a "conservative" advocacy group that supports school prayer, vouchers and other right-wing religious causes. The link to this group is quite suggestive.


Anonymous said...

Clyde Said:

Kind of like trying to use Shakespeare in a literature class without context. Imagine that, teaching that the ghost of Hamlet's father is just a ghost, and not a metaphor.

Ay, there's the rub, because each student in a class on Hamlet could assert what they thought, but could any student in a class on the Bible assert what they thought, or in class on the Holy Koran? Wouldn't such assertions offend believers immediately? Bit of a contradiction to have such "instruction" in any type of academic class I'm familiar with. Rather it seems to be more like, "Repeat after me, the Bible says . . ."

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think so too. decontextualizing the material is a classic apologetic strategy. In the so-called "bible study" that's done by right-wing Christian groups, they study the text, but are never given any information about the text. No context is provided. Rather, the vicitms of "Bible Study" learn a body of interpretations handed down as authoritative from whatever sect the poor victim happens to join. Few people who ever do Bible Studies really study the Bible -- read prominent scholars, study the Greek and Hebrew, master the history and culture. Rather, they memorize a body of interpretations. Essentially the purpose of "Bible study" is indoctrination, not education.

Here what we have is a case of "pre-priming". The students are given the text (actually a selected list, Christian in orientation) but without any social, historical, or scholarly, context, just as in a right-wing Bible study. The next step, obviously, is to provide them with "interpretations" that will control their reading of the text. That will happen in the course of things, since there is no community without right wing Bible studies. In the short-term, this looks like a bible study for high schools, but in reality it is a kind of recruitment effort for the religious right in the long term. Very slick.

I think I'm going to put up a more detailed analysis at Kos about this next week. You should read the "questions" of the survey -- I almost fell down laughing when I saw a couple. It may be some kind of Trojan Horse, although the fact that eminent scholar Robert Alter has been hired to do the presentations to the teachers argues that the group itself is not aware of what it is doing.

Sarah Jenislawski said...

Dear Michael,

Thanks again for your engagement with this issue. I won't keep monopolizing your blog, but wanted to respond because your most recent post helped me to understand your objections further.
We do explain that there are many different "Bibles" - Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic - and that there are of course multiple translations of the Bible. Students are asked to bring whatever Bible they prefer to accompany the textbook, and it is assumed that differences in translation will prompt discussion of translation methods. On those occasions when we need to quote from the Bible within the text, we vary the translation from quote to quote. Again, our goal is, possibly, less ambitious than you give us credit for - we are simply trying to ensure students can understand basic references to the Bible in literature, history and culture, rather than to settle religious or scholarly debates about the nature of the Bible. As The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide states, we seek to expose students to a diversity of religious views, but not to impose, discourage, or encourage any particular view.
The Guide states the following on teaching about the Bible as history: "An elective history course that focuses on the Bible is a difficult undertaking for public schools because of the complex scholarly and religious debates about the historicity of the Bible. Such a course would need to include non-biblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives. Students would study archeological findings and other historical evidence in order to understand the history and cultures of the ancient world. Teachers who may be assigned to teach a history course focused on the Bible need a great deal of preparation and sophistication.
Unless schools are prepared to design a course that meets the above requirements, they will face legal and educational challenges. In view of these requirements, most public schools that have offered a Bible elective have found it safer and more age-appropriate to use the Bible
literature approach discussed earlier in this guide."

If it is any comfort to your commenter, Robert Alter likes the textbook, and he has read it in its entirety.

Michael, I hope this is helpful, and thank you for letting me respond twice on your blog.

Michael Turton said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Turton said...

Your great kindness and courtesy, and the information you have provided, obligates me to reconsider some of my views. I applaud, your engagement with Dr. Alter, who is a first-rate scholar. Your presentation has also eased my mind on other issues. I am a strong supporter of a population literate in the Bible and other religious texts.

Thank you very much for taking the time to post. You are welcome to monopolize my blog any time you like.