Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What is the Bible Literacy Project Really?

Recently the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) forum published a review of "The Bible and Its Influence," the new textbook which the Biblical Literacy Project is promoting for use in secondary schools across the United States. A paragraph in the review caught my attention, for it repeated criticisms of the project that I had made several months ago on this blog:

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:

David Blankenhorn
President of the Institute for American Values, New York

Kevin Seamus Hasson
Founder and Chairman of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Washington, DC

Brewster Kopp
Former senior vice president of finance and administration for the Digital Equipment Corporation, Greenwich, Connecticut

Pamela Scurry
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:

Our Mission
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:

" 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.


ollie said...

Nice Blog! I surfed in from the Daily Kos. I've had a layman's interest in Bible stuff for some time and have read some popular works.

There was a time when I subscribed to Westar's magazine.

Zimri said...

Well done in researching this. But enlisting the SBL bears its own set of problems.

The SBL is itself corrupted by politics, as witness this resolution: it made the claim that the nature of marriage and the status of unborn children were not and would not have been the concern of the priests and prophets who wrote the Bible. That claim is false. Those who signed it - the voting majority of the SBC - are frauds.

Look, I'm an atheist myself, and I bow to no-one in my disdain for theocratic ethics. My quarrel with the SBC is that they practice such ethics themselves.

The SBC needs either to clear its ranks of quacks (good luck!) or to split into factions. Until then, I'm not going to accept its authority, and nor will many other non-Leftist secularists.

Zimri said...

Ooh, Freudian slip. For SBC, read SBL. Or not. Heh.

sas said...

hey-- i popped over here from the SBL site. you expose the BLP's glaring omission of scholarly input, which is cause for grave concern. i share your sentiments in this regard. my nagging reservation about your opposition, however, is your constant barrage of RW this-or-that and their causes. rather than offending or pushing aside people that might share some of the views of conservatives, you might want to stick to the problematic issues of the BLP itself. for me, your argument holds more merit and wider influence. otherwise, it may appear like a disgruntled left-winger (some may add "nut"--not me of course!; this is the same verbiage slung around political forums. sadly, both sides engage in it.) who opposes some RW, conservative project (propaganda?). whether the premise is right or not, when elementary name-calling gets in the mix, the argument loses power and its' ability to persuade. it only becomes agenda-driven, in a negative sense. i say all that to encourage you to possibly rephrase your argument or reconsider your line of attack. anyway, thanks for taking the time to research all of this and share your findings. it is extremely helpful. blessings!

Michael Turton said...

I realize your point, and I went over the piece several times to remove things. it is difficult to point out that something is driven by right-wing political and social agendas without pointing out that it is, well, driven by right-wing political and social agendas! :)

I didn't want to just confine myself to the scholarship issues, because there is a reason why the scholarship on this book is so bad.

The SBL needs to move. Now.


Rayna Munson said...

It seems there are actually several prominent Biblical literature scholars involved in the project, as well as teachers and lawyers. They are listed on this page.

Michael Turton said...

The only really prominent scholar involved is Robert Alter. The rest appear to to be a variety of people whose knowledge of biblical scholarship is minimal to none. I doubt many of them actually realize what this project is about.

Michael Turton

Michael Turton said...

I see John Collins is listed there as well.


Anonymous said...

"The volume is well done. …I was quite taken with the abundance of supplementary materials included in the text—the artwork (highly variegated and well-chosen), the insets about the Bible in subsequent literature, the Bible in political life, etc. All this, I think is likely to help students see concretely how the Bible is not just a set of ancient documents or something confined to pulpit and Sunday school, but a series of powerful writings that have had, and continue to have, profound effects on a whole range of our cultural institutions and on the way we think about the world."
Robert Alter, Ph.D., professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, University of California at Berkeley

"It is a pleasure to recommend the textbook produced by the Bible Literacy Project. This book splendidly illustrates the importance of the Bible for understanding western culture. It does so in a way that is respectful towards Jewish and Christian tradition and that also appreciates the light shed on the Bible by modern historical study. It takes an ecumenical approach that avoids confessionalism but is appreciative of the positive role that the Bible can play in our society. It is an excellent illustration of the way the Bible can and should be taught in American public schools."
John Collins, Ph.D., Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation, Yale Divinity School

"To be considered fully literate in the arts and letters of Western culture, one needs to know the Hebrew Bible, one of the cornerstones of this culture. This volume provides students with the necessary tools to attain such literacy."
Ellen Frankel, Ph.D., CEO and editor-in-chief of The Jewish Publication Society

Found here. They also have the co-founder of Campus Crusade for Christ and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Have you seen the textbook itself? I'd like to see it, given this "diverse" group of endorsers...

Anonymous said...

By your standards we would have to learn French, German, Italian, etc. in order to study and understand classics of other eras and cultures. I took a classic in Chinese literature in college without taking Chinese -- even read about their culture and religion. Am I now a Buddhist? Nope. Your arguments are petty and make you look like you're afraid of a level playing field, which the schools certainly have not been in quite a long time.

Michael Turton said...

This isn't about a "level playing field" but about a small group of rightists who are attempting to hijack Christianity and the American Public Schools.

And speaking of pathetic fear, why are you posting as anonymous?


Rebeca said...

The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) has received a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant to develop an interactive website that would improve public understanding of the Bible and its contexts. This website, “The World of the Bible: Exploring People, Places, and Passages” will feed the large public interest in matters biblical and will draw on the work of SBL members.

DH said...

Doesn't sound like you've read the book. It's a great resource for Biblical studies.