I’m not against the Bible. I’m an ordained Baptist minister, professor of biblical studies, academic dean of a theological seminary and a lifelong student of the Bible.
I’m also enough of a skeptic to worry that religious fervor and political opportunism have played an inordinate role in the passage of a bill in the Kentucky Senate that would lead to the establishment of Bible courses in our public schools.
My fear is that the expectations stirred up in many proponents of this bill do not match the actual content of the bill, which has been carefully worded to pass constitutional muster.
Two harmful consequences seem likely: If the constitutional safeguards provided by the language of the bill are taken seriously in its implementation, many Christians will be deeply disappointed, even offended, when they find out what the academic study of the Bible entails.
On the other hand, absent the constant vigilance of constitutional watchdogs in every corner of the state, it is even more likely that this bill will become a license for majorities of conservative Christians in some communities, even well-intentioned ones, to impose sectarian interpretations of the Bible on courses in their schools.
Court rulings have established that any Bible class in public schools must be taught in an objective, academic manner.
But academic scholarship on the Bible exposes it to scrutiny that many Christians will find objectionable, such as subjecting its narratives to questions about their historicity.
The stories of the patriarchs, the fall of Jericho, and the resurrection of Jesus are just a few of the stories that many scholars consider not to correspond to actual historical events on the basis of a variety of critical methodologies, from archeology to anthropology to the analysis of the rhetorical intentions of the writers.
On the other hand, most Kentuckians hold understandings of the biblical characters and narratives that are shaped by and passed along within their communities of faith, in contexts of religious belief and practice.
When reading of an anointed leader foretold by the prophet Isaiah, many Christians associate that character immediately with Jesus. Within a Jewish faith community, however, the same reference calls up vastly different associations.
While some mainline churches accept scholarly study of the Bible and adapt their faith understandings to its insights, many Christian traditions explicitly reject this approach to understanding the Bible. Many more are blissfully unaware of the scholarly challenges to their ways of interpreting the Bible.
Thus, well-meaning teachers who have read the Bible all their lives might seem qualified to teach Bible courses but, without intentional training in the academic study of the Bible, they would simply pass along the understandings of the biblical characters and narratives shaped by their faith traditions.
School administrators and members of school-based decision-making councils are likely to have similar blind spots as they shape courses and choose teachers.
Studies of Bible courses in Texas and Florida show that most courses end up promoting particular religious views over others. Even when teachers mean well, many suffer from a lack of training.
The better part of wisdom might be not to pass this bill at all, but its speedy approval in the Senate with little opposition makes that seem unlikely.
Assuming its passage in the House, the Kentucky Department of Education must be vigilant in the development of course standards and the specification of teacher qualifications and required professional development.
Standards must be detailed and written with the input of the academic biblical studies community.
This might include university religious-studies faculty and the professional guild of biblical scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature.
Teachers should be required to have training in the academic study of religion, either as undergraduate credit or through in-service workshops and summer institutes offered by school districts and universities.
Adequate funding must be committed for this teacher preparation.
Done well, Bible courses in our schools can enrich cultural dialogue.
Done poorly, they will be a Trojan horse for sectarian proselytism and a source of rancorous lawsuits and community conflict.