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Bible Literacy

with Sheila Weber | November 5, 2007

Should a well-rounded education include a basic understanding of the Bible? Today on the broadcast, Sheila Weber, Vice President of Communications for the Bible Literacy Project, tells Dennis Rainey how students across the United States are learning about the Bible through "The Bible as Literature" classes.

Should a well-rounded education include a basic understanding of the Bible? Today on the broadcast, Sheila Weber, Vice President of Communications for the Bible Literacy Project, tells Dennis Rainey how students across the United States are learning about the Bible through "The Bible as Literature" classes.

Bible Literacy

With Sheila Weber
|
November 05, 2007
| Download Transcript PDF

Sheila: We're finding that most of the teachers that are now teaching this have a great affection for the subject matter.  Just like you wouldn't find a biology teacher that really hated the subject matter and, in some cases, this is really a safer venue than a college curriculum because the student is still at home with the family to answer the questions where college is a different situation.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, November 5th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll hear today about how some high schools are beginning to teach the Bible to students, and we'll talk about the pros and cons of the Bible in the public schools.  Stay with us.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  When I was in high school, I remember taking a class called "The Bible as Literature."  It was a one-semester English class, and we looked at literary forms from the Bible.  It wasn't anything theological, it wasn't anything spiritual, but it did acquaint me with the writing of the Bible.  And I remember, years later, coming back and things coming to mind that I'd read in the Psalms as a high school student, or things that I'd read in Genesis as a high school student, or even in the New Testament.  They were seeds that had been planted that later came back and were part of the spiritual harvest of my life.

 You know, you look at students today – I don't know that students today are getting any opportunity to hear much of anything about the Bible, and yet it's so foundational to all of Western civilization, it seems like there is just a missing gap from the education of students.

Dennis: There is, and it seems interesting that at a time of a true battle around moral issues in our culture that we wouldn't be revisiting the pages of the bestseller of all times, especially in our educational institutions.  And we have a guest on our broadcast today, Sheila Weber, who agrees with us.  Sheila, welcome to our broadcast.

Sheila: Thank you for having me.

Dennis: Sheila is the vice president of communication for the Bible Literacy Project, and, Sheila, I have to tell you, as I was flying in to do the interview with you, a flight attendant happened to oversee me and looked over my shoulder at "The Bible and its Influence," a more than life-size book.  It's a textbook, and it has lots of full color pictures all the way through the Bible. 

 It was really extremely well done, and she said, "What is that?" and I said, "Well, I'm going to interview a guest on our broadcast who is talking about getting the Bible into our school systems."  Do you know what her response was?

Sheila: What?

Dennis: Good luck.  She goes, you know, kind of like the chance of that happening is slim and none and, Sheila, as the flight attendant interacted with me, ti was clear she thought it was illegal for the Bible to be used as a textbook in classrooms across the country.  Is it illegal?

Sheila: No, that's a misconception.  It is legal to have an academic, non-devotional course of the Bible in public schools.  Back in 1963, when the Supreme Court removed prayer and the devotional reading of the Bible, they did not intend that the academic study of the Bible be removed, but the courts have said that you can teach the content but not promote nor disparage belief. 

 So we have presented the narrative, the characters, the content of what the Bible says, keeping to what the text says so students know the text in a great deal of respect acknowledging that for millions of people it is sacred text.  We really avoid getting into areas of belief and want to make sure that students know the content and leave that matter of faith to their home and their place of worship.

Bob: Yeah, you're talking about history, culture, sociology – I mean, the Bible is rich with academic themes and, frankly, if you don't have some exposure to these themes, you are not a well-educated person.  In fact, I've been fascinated to read the debate – isn't it a Princeton professor who has been arguing for this to happen at the college level, and Harvard, this year, said "No, we're not going to include it."

 People are starting to recognize we have become so polarized over the teaching of Scripture that we've lost a part of our cultural heritage.

Sheila: Exactly, there's a strong educational agreement for putting this into our public schools and our curriculum.  We've produced two national reports funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  The first report, 98 percent of the leading high school English teachers we surveyed said Bible knowledge gives a distinct academic advantage.  Ninety percent of them said it was critical to a good education; that basically students are clueless, stumped, and confused.  They don't understand the English and American literature they are reading.  There is so much biblical allusion that the great authors put into their writings.

 You think of Dickens and Bronte and Hemingway –

Dennis: Shakespeare.

Sheila: Thirteen hundred biblical references in all the works of Shakespeare.

Dennis: Right.

Sheila: The advanced placement literature exam – we found a prep course – 110 allusions you need to know and more than 65 percent were biblical phrases like "walking on water," "road to Damascus," all these phrases that kids are supposed to know, and they don't understand where they come from and their biblical reference and meaning.

 So the next report was 100 percent of university professors we surveyed, and these were heads of English departments at leading universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale – 100 percent of those professors said students need to know the Bible in order to be well educated. 

 A professor from Brown said it was like having a dictionary with one-third of the words removed if you don't have a basic working knowledge of the Bible.

Bob: In the book you've created, "The Bible and its Influence," is a textbook that passes muster in all kinds of constitutional and legal ways.  This can go into any public school classroom at the high school level, and you could teach a semester-long course – isn't that what it's designed for – a semester-long course?

Sheila: It's designed to be a year course.  There are people who do squeeze it into one semester, but we've got it built as one semester for the Old Testament and one semester for the New Testament.  There is a huge teacher's edition, and online university-based teacher training.  The textbook is used alongside the Bible, and so there are two books used in the course, and the Bible can be a translation that the family prefers.  There is a great loyalty there.

 The value of having that student textbook alongside the Bible is it lets everyone – the school board, the administrators, the teachers – see how that subject matter is being presented.  And so both – you know, the faithful and believers as well as skeptics can all join in and come together to learn this content.  We're very pleased that we've had a broad base of support, which is what you need to be in the public schools. 

 We've had the endorsement of the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, as well as the General Counsel of the American Jewish Congress and the chair of the Catholic Biblical Association.

 We had 40 scholars review the book from evangelical – mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish backgrounds, and, again, this was important for this to be used in public schools, and we're very, very pleased that the media has given us great praise and wonderful headlines.

 When we came out, Associated Press cited three books that were the top books on religion, and ours was one of those three in 2005.  And there's been a cover story on Time magazine a few months ago, in April 2007.  It said why we should teach the Bible in public schools.  And what's remarkable is that it didn't say "should we?" but it says "why we should" on the cover.

 So it's very exciting that people are starting to learn about this.  It's quite a big job to get the word out; that, first of all, it's legal and that, from an education perspective, it's incredibly necessary, it's been a huge void, a missing gap in American education, and we should be concerned because it's part of our cultural literacy as a country.  And we see what's happening now in post-modern Europe when the culture loses its Bible literacy, the work of the church does become irrelevant.

 So in your perspective, with your listeners, this is why the church should be concerned with Bible literacy.

Dennis: One thing I wanted you to explain to our listeners – just the Bible Literacy Project – who is behind it, when did it start, how long is it going to be, what's the game plan for this project?

Sheila: Sure.  It was founded by a businessman in New York City named Chuck Stetson, who runs a private equity business and, basically, a few years ago, he took a notice of a Gallup poll, which showed that only 8 percent of the nation's public schools offer a course and yet another Gallup poll said nearly 70 percent of the American public believe that this is needed.

 And he saw this great, big differential as a private equity businessman.  He said, "Gee, there's a big need.  Something is not being filled that there's a market for this."

Dennis: Right.

Sheila: And so, you know, that was part of his motivation.  In 1999, there was a booklet published called "The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide," and 21 groups signed off on that, including the National School Boards Association, and a lot of the educational groups as well as the National Bible Association, the National Association for Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress – a very wide spectrum of groups that included curriculum groups.

 So we set the standard.  And then we realized we've shown how it's legal, you've shown how it can be presented in the public school classroom, so we felt that a student textbook would help schools feel more confident, and the textbook came out about a year and a half ago, and last year we were in 80 school districts in 30 states, and that was the very first year that anybody could use us, but this year we are going to multiply.  All the book orders are coming in. 

 We're going to see a lot of growth, but we're going to see even more growth the next year because we have just newly formed a training program on how to train community volunteers, and in the first few months that we've developed this program, we have 400 trained volunteers.  It was a little bit late to get the books into this fall, although …

Dennis: And so the volunteers actually get the textbook into schools, is that it?

Sheila: We train them how to take it to their school board, and the school board makes a decision to offer a Bible elective.  It can be in the English or Social Studies department or a free elective.  So people can go to our website and sign on as a volunteer.  We'll give them materials and supplies and a Power Point and explain to them how they present this appropriately.

Dennis: In those 30 states and all those districts that you mentioned – any lawsuits?

Sheila: Oh, no.  We're doing just fine.  We have been lauded.  We've been lauded by a very broad range of types of concerned citizens and groups.  So we're doing just fine, and, you know, in Southern California, we had one school start the course, and it became so popular that – they were a pilot program in Southern California, and one year later they tripled the classes they were offering.  So they started with one section, tripled it, now with three sections 50 percent of the seniors in that high school are taking this course because it's become so popular.

 I love hearing the reaction.  We got a feedback from a student in Portland, Oregon, who said, "I am an admitted avowed atheist, but I love taking this course, because I know I need to know it, and I didn't have a way to learn it."  His parents weren't going to teach it to him, he doesn't go to church.

 At the same time, we've got some church kids in Texas who absolutely love it, and they said, "I feel very supported because my church teaches me how the Bible relates to my life; how to live my life, but I don't have time, as a busy high school student, to learn Genesis to Revelation during my high school years at church."  You typically go, and you get sections of the Scripture that you learn, but they felt very supportive to learn the breadth of Genesis to Revelation.

Dennis: So as you go through this textbook, I know one of the questions our listeners are asking right now – are the stories presented here just stories of history or are they stories that represent God invading civilization and doing work among humanity?

Sheila: Well, first of all, we don't use the word "stories," because it brings the connotation of a myth, and that is not how we present the text of the Bible.  We used the word "narrative."  So we basically want students to know that this is what the text says, period.  The text says this.  So we don't use the word "story."

Bob: And I would be a little concerned about who the teacher is, you know what I mean?  I mean, I've looked at the textbook.  The textbook looks great …

Sheila: Yeah.

Bob: … and I think it does a great job of preserving the accuracy, treating, as you said, respectfully, these subjects so that any faith tradition can look at it and say, "This is a fair representation of orthodox Christianity, orthodox Judaism in the Old Testament, but in the wrong hands, the wrong teacher could take this and really use it to disparage the faith.

Sheila: Well, first of all, we're finding that most of the teachers that are now teaching this have a great affection for the subject matter.  Just like you wouldn't find a biology teacher that really hated the subject matter.  Secondly, it's against the law to disparage the faith.

Dennis: Yeah, I found that interesting earlier.  You made that clear – you can't promote it, but you can't undermine it, either.

Sheila: No, and in some cases this is really a safer venue than a college curriculum because the college professor can go in a different direction.

Bob: He has broader latitude.

Sheila: And you've go the student still at home with the family to answer the questions where college is a different situation.  So we're really finding that you're not going to have a teacher that's going to want to dismantle the subject.

Bob: So if a parent who is listening says, "I wish they had something like this in my child's high school, they don't, but I'd sure love to think they would," you'd suggest that parent go online and get more information about what they can do to help introduce this?

Sheila: They can sign up as a volunteer, and we will give them a lot of personal attention as a volunteer.

Bob: We've got a link on our website at FamilyLife.com to your website, so if parents want to do that, we can direct them in the right location.  But I know some of them are going, "Okay, volunteer, what does that mean?  How many hours?  I don't know that I've got a lot of time to invest in this project, but I'd love to see it happen?"

Sheila: Well, we would send them a packet of materials and the textbook, and basically they would read a few things and make sure they could meet with school administration or school board members and make the appropriate kind of presentation.

 So I don't think it's a huge time commitment.  It's certainly manageable.

Bob: Are you concerned that teaching the Bible as an academic subject may somehow lessen the reverence that a Christian or a Jew ought to have?  You know, if it's right there alongside Biology and Social Studies, are we going to treat it with less importance than we ought to give it?

Sheila: That certainly is not the intention of our project.  We treat the Bible with utmost respect, and I think that you're going to have more engagement for the next generation, if they are actually opening up the text and reading those accounts – those narratives – know the characters, understand the broad, sweeping themes.

 When you look at English in American Literature, it's not enough just to see a footnote, and the teacher will tell you, "Oh, that refers to the story of Cain and Abel."  It's not enough to know that one story.  You actually have to understand the broad, sweeping narrative of Genesis to Revelation.

Dennis: Right.

Sheila: So that means themes, biblical themes of redemption and forgiveness and, you know, all of that.

Dennis: I mean, it's right there.

Sheila: And, you know, you're basically saying we can present in the textbook, there's a section on the IM statements of Jesus because it's in the text, and we say "Christians believe thus."  And, you know, sometimes there's a need to say "the Jewish perspective is 'x,' the Christian perspective is 'y,'" but that's just instructional in the way that a journalist would report.

Dennis: What about to other world religions?  We live in a pluralistic age, especially our educational system; over 40 million students in education today.  Has there been any attempt to address other religions in here as you seek to educate these millions of students?

Sheila: Well, we make no apologies that this is a course on the Bible text.  There are other people who kind of bring up that question of world religions and other religious text.  This certainly doesn't preclude that they could offer them, but it doesn't necessitate that they be offered, either, because the Bible is unique to the development of Western civilization.

 You don't find the Koran having an influence on English and American literature, British and American literature.

Bob: Do you think it could become problematic if students started going through this course and, in addition to interacting with this educationally, started interacting with the material spiritually, and it started having an impact on their lives, and kids were converting to Christianity as a result of going through and reading the text.  Do you think parents, at that point, or school administrators would go, "Uh-oh, we've got a problem."  You know what I'm saying?

Sheila: Well, I think that the teacher is so well trained to direct those kinds of questions to the home and the place of worship and their church and pastor that basically you're just always going to be directing that student to those sources for those issues, and I don't think that that will develop into a problem.

Bob: You know, I think, Dennis, about Hebrews 4 where it says that "the Word of God is living, it's active" …

Dennis: … sharp …

Bob: … "sharper than a two-edged sword," and it's able to do what God intends for it to do, and I'd love to think that students would have the cultural literacy around the Bible that they would understand the literary allusions; that they would understand the history of Western civilization, but I'd also love to think that a few of them in reading the Bible would go, "This is about Jesus, and He makes some claims, and I better deal with those."

Dennis: Yeah, and, Sheila, I want to thank you for your work on the Bible Literacy Project.  As Bob and I were talking about bringing you onto FamilyLife Today and interviewing you, we thought, you know, what better topic than to promote Bible literacy among the next generation of young people?

 And, you know, Bob, bottom line is all of us, as adults, are protectors of the next generation, and we ought to be finding ways to get this book in our public school system so that it's read, it's referred to, it's understood and known, and we'll let God take care of what He does with His Word but, you know, I have it on very good authority that it won't return void.

Bob: Yeah, that's right.  We've got a link on our website at FamilyLife.com to the Bible Literacy Website.  If you're interesting in taking a proposal to your public school district and talking to them about introducing this as an elective class in your local public school, all of the information you need is available on the Internet.

 You come to our website at FamilyLife.com, and if you click the red button that says "Go," that will take you to the area of our website where there's a link to the Bible Literacy website, all of the information you need on how you can get this class introduced in your public school is available there.

 There is also information on our website, FamilyLife.com, about the book in question, which is called "The Bible and its Influence."  It's a textbook, and it's something that homeschooling parents may want to consider using either with junior high or high school students.  A family could go through a book like this together, and while it's designed to be fair and accurate in presenting the truth about Christianity, it obviously has to remain somewhat neutral in regard to the Christian faith.  But it's still, I think, a very valuable resource for families to have.

 The information about the book is on our website, FamilyLife.com.  Click the red button that says "Go," in the center of the page when you get to our home page.  You can also call us for more information about this book.  1-800-FLTODAY is the number, 1-800-358-6329.  That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and someone on our team can let you know how you can have a copy of the book sent out to you.

 This week FamilyLife Today will be celebrating its 15th anniversary of broadcasting, and I hear from folks from time to time who listen to the program who say, "I stared listening back when you guys were just getting started back in 1992."  The program first went on the air November 9, 1992, and some of you have been listening for a long time, some of you have just been listening for a short period of time.  Our program is now heard in almost 1,000 cities all across the country, in cities around the world and, of course, on the Internet 24 hours a day and seven days a week.  Some of you download the program as a podcast.  Nobody was doing that back in 1992.

 But we want to say a special thank you to those of you who are regular listeners and especially to those of you who have helped with the financial needs of this ministry.  Since the beginning, we have been listener-supported, and if it weren't for folks like you who have made contributions from time to time along the way, FamilyLife Today could not have continued to expand and grow to the place where we are today.

 So thank you for your financial support, and for those of you who are able to help us continue with a donation of any amount this week, we have a thank you gift we'd like to send you.  It's a book called "While They Were Sleeping."  A book designed to help us, as parents, pray more specifically and more intelligently for our own children, pray for specific character qualities to be cultivated in their lives.

 We're happy to send this book out to you as our way of saying thank you for your financial support of this ministry when you make a donation of any amount this week.  If you're donating online, when you come to the keycode box on the donation form, just type the world "sleep" in the keycode box, and we'll know to send you a copy of the book, "While They Were Sleeping," or if you're calling 1-800-FLTODAY and making a donation over the phone, mention that you'd like the book, "While They Were Sleeping," or the book for parents on praying for their children and, again, we're happy to send it out to you, and we appreciate your financial support of this ministry.

 Well, tomorrow we want to talk about how we can teach theology to our children by teaching them some of the great hymns of the faith.  Joni Eareckson Tada is going to be with us tomorrow along with Bobbie Wolgemuth.  We hope you'll be back with us as well.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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