It is not surprising in our current cultural environment that a textbook designed for public schools essentially ignores historical-critical problems. However, these could easily have been incorporated within the attribution approach with statements such as, "Many biblical scholars believe..." Moreover, it is not just historical criticism that is absent; synchronic methods and conclusions receive no real attention either, despite several references to the work of Robert Alter, who is also listed as a consultant. None of the actual authors or "content contributors" — Joanne McPortland, Marjorie Haney Schafer, Ph.D., Marc Stern, J.D., and Eve Tushnet — is listed in the SBL directory or appears to be a biblical scholar by profession. On one level, the absence is astonishing. The project as a whole might be likened to a high school textbook on, say, government, in which no recognition is given to the fields or methods of political science or history, and treatment of issues proceeds by attribution: "conservative Republicans say," "moderate Democrats hold, etc."
Since that time, I have looked more deeply into this project.
There used to be a running joke in response to Falwell's Moral Majority that ran "The moral majority is neither.' Well, the same could be said of the Bible Literacy Project: it is neither Biblical nor literary, and whatever it is about, it is certainly not Bible Literacy.
According to the website, the Board of Directors consists of the following individuals:
President of the Institute for American Values, New York
Kevin Seamus Hasson
Founder and Chairman of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Washington, DC
Former senior vice president of finance and administration for the Digital Equipment Corporation, Greenwich, Connecticut
Chief Executive Officer, Wicker Gardens’ Children, Inc., New York
Chuck Stetson, Chairman of the Board
Managing Director of Private Equity Investors, Inc., New York
Those of you who are familiar with the American Religious Right will recognize many of these names and organizations. For example, the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, the legal arm of the Bible Literacy Project, has long been an attack dog for Religious Right projects. It supports school prayer, school vouchers, and similar projects. Similarly, the Institute for American Values is a leading right-wing "pro-marriage" group, and provides support for various other right-wing causes, such as proving that our criminal invasion of Iraq was a case of justified war.
Board members Stetson and Kopp are also on the Board of this evangelical project for schools, School Ministries:
School Ministries partners with communities across America in bringing hope and transformed lives to youth through school-based Bible education.
Scurry, Kopp and Stetson are also on the Board of Advisors of the unaccredited New York Divinity school, another conservative religious project. According to this article in Forbes Kopp put his own money into the project. David Blankenhorn is aptly described by Katha Pollitt here at Slate. I think nothing further need be said about him and the Institute for "American" Values.
Googling the names of the "content providers" proves an informative pastime. The name "Joanne McPortland" produced 15 hits. A Joanne McPortland is listed as the author of The Mass-Everybody's Celebration, which does not appear to be a very scholarly title. "Marjorie Haney Schafer, PhD" is described at the bottom of this book review:
".....is a freelance writer and has taught both English and Religious Studies at the college level. She lives with her husband, Jim, in the northern Illinois city of Rockford."
By now the reader will understand that the "free-lance" writer produced less than a page of hits in Google, none with any academic connection.
The General Counsel for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern, turned out to have several writings available on the web. Stern writes from a conservative perspective about current issues, and is clearly not a Bible scholar in any way, shape, or form. An interview with him is here. He is far more cagey than the others about revealing his own beliefs, but read the sidebar to get a glimpse from the description there.
Eve Tushnet has her very own blog, in which she describes herself as blogging from a conservative perspective. Here she lays out her own views:
These reproductive strategies should in no way be further normalized in culture or in law. This is one reason to oppose same-sex"marriage"; as liberal philosophy professor J. David Velleman put it,"Marital rights generally go hand-in-hand with parental rights. … Equality between homosexual and heterosexual marriages may therefore require us to deny that donor-conceived children have both a mother and a father, thereby expunging the children's connection to half of their biological past. … My worry is that a purely affectional conception of marriage will tend to favor a purely affectional conception of parenthood. And I think that denying the importance of biological parenthood leads us to violate fundamental rights of children."
Family ties will always be messy — hence the old proverb,"It's a wise child who knows his own father" — but we shouldn't capitulate to harmful trends. Children need to be able to answer the deceptively simple, profound question,"Who's your daddy?"
Note that Tushnet recommends that Institute for American Values in that piece. She's described at the bottom of that piece as a "policy analyst" at the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, another anti-gay marriage project. The President of that Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Maggie Gallagher, is also an "affiliated scholar" with the Institute for American Values. Her blog is here.
In other words, the "content providers" for the project are all committed religious conservatives. None is a recognized Bible scholar. None appear to have published seriously or been cited seriously. It goes without saying that none of these people should be involved in a Bible Literacy Project, let alone one intended for schools across the United States.
Funding for the "research" that supported the Bible Literacy project was provided by the John Templeton Foundation.
The review of the new textbook at the SBL has already alluded to the lack of scholarly context, but I thought I'd comment as well. Decontextualizing the material is a classic conservative conversion strategy. In the so-called "Bible study" as it is performed by conservative Christian groups, believers "study" the text, but are given little or any information about the text. No context is provided. Rather, the hapless Christians of "Bible Study" learn a body of interpretations handed down as authoritative from whatever sect the poor believer 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 of the period. Rather, they memorize a body of interpretations. Essentially the purpose of "Bible study" is indoctrination, not education.
In my view what we have here 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 conservative 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 conservative Bible studies. One can easily see what will inevitably happen -- students will be steered by sympathetic teachers to conservative "Bible Studies" where they can be properly indoctrinated. This sounds conspiratorial, but it is not; it is merely the inevitable workings of the vast political movement that is the American Religious Right. After all, students can hardly be steered to competent scholarship, as most laymen lack any awareness of where to go to find it.
This is not Bible Literacy. It is not educational. This "Bible Literacy Project" is nothing more than a bold attempt to indoctrinate American youth with a decontextualized and essentially false view of what the Bible is, as part of a long-term effort by the Religious Right to effect cultural change in the United States.
As for the Society of Biblical Literature: I do not ask. I do not request. I do not even beg. I implore. The SBL needs to speak. It needs to come together as a body and present, directly to the public, the scholarly and pedagogical reasons why the Bible Literacy Project should not be purchased by even a single secular school. Remember SBL members, that in the world the American Religious Right seeks to create, there is no place for the kind of probing, insightful, contentious, tentative, methodologically and historically informed scholarship that breathes life into our understanding of the Bible and its world.
UPDATE: Americans United on the BLP.
[Christianity] [Bible Literacy Project]
[Society of Biblical Literature] [SBL] [Religious Right]