My friend and colleague, Linda, handed me an article from her Current Events magazine before she left the building today. It's been rolling around in my head ever since. The state of Texas has passed a law in which all public high schools have to offer a Bible-as-literature course if 15 or more students express interest. My initial reaction was WTF??? We have this little thing in the Constitution known as the First Amendment, and it mentions something about church and state. I was prepared to rant. Then I read the article more closely, and I have to admit the issue isn't as straightforward as I would like it to be.
The Texas lawmakers' reasoning is that the Bible has influenced history, literature, art and culture, and therefore has value as a literary text. Supporters of this law say many students are unfamiliar with references and stories from the Bible and are unprepared for college as a result. They use Shakespeare as an example. He uses over 1300 references to the Bible, and college bound students not familiar with the Bible will be at a disadvantage.
I considered my own curriculum. The Bible and religion in general come up more than you would think. We discuss it when we talk about Elizabethan England and Shakespeare, when we read Animal Farm by Orwell (Moses, the raven, as a symbol for the church), and when my advanced class reads Plato. It comes up in poetry, when we write persuasively (abortion is their favorite hot topic), and we had an extensive discussion about the Masons when we read Poe's "Cask of Amontillado."
The Bible does have cultural and literary relevance. I can't argue that point. I even have a couple of biblical allusions in my own work. (My childhood spent in Sunday School wasn't totally wasted.) If a teacher truly approaches the course as literature, history, and culture, then I have no problem with it, especially given that it's an elective course. However...and it's a big however...there is a fine line between teaching and preaching. Has the state provided a structured, consistent, mandated curriculum? If not, then do individual teachers decide what to teach and how to teach it? Are the teachers being given professional development? I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.
The whole thing is worrisome to me, especially when it's put in context with the tightrope my friends in the science department are walking. I suspect the majority of kids who elect to take this course will be the kids who are already familiar with the Bible. Will the kids who aren't religious feel comfortable in a class like this? My guess is they would be at the same end of the ten foot pole as me.
The argument that nonreligious kids will be at a disadvantage doesn't really hold water either. When I teach literature with biblical allusions, I explain the allusion as if the kids won't get it on their own, just like I explain mythological allusions, political allusions, and any other kind of allusion necessary to understand the literature. I know my friends in the art and history departments do the same. Do we really need a separate, mandated course?
A state-mandated course in Bible literature is scary to me. The law takes effect this fall. I wonder how long it will be before we see a lawsuit? I'm really glad I don't live in Texas.
I'm going to spend the rest of my evening with the vampires in my WIP. They aren't nearly as scary as state-mandated Bible literature.