Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (II Timothy 2:15, The Inclusive Bible)
In relating my spiritual journey, I am always careful to include the origins of my deep love of scripture as having lasting effects on me. I find the study of and meditation upon scripture as one of the many conduits through which I discern the Presence and Transforming Power of God. So, you might think I would be pleased to hear that there is a bill in the Iowa Legislature that would put education funding behind an elective class to be made available to school districts to teach the Bible as one of the sources of our democracy, in either Social Studies or History curricula. In fact, I think it is a really bad idea, and I want to tell you why.
As a substitute teacher, I was often asked (by students who knew my vocation) about religious ideas or about matters of the Bible. I would always steer them toward the traditions of their own families, or tell them that they could approach me when I was not in my role as a teacher. Sometimes they would press me to answer anyway and it put me in a very awkward position. We already expect a lot of those who teach, and expecting them to come up with answers that won’t offend parents, school boards, or churches is really not fair to the teachers we hire. There are hundreds of not-for-profits that see it as their mission to make sure that there are Bibles available and teaching aids for sale. Let them do their work and let the teachers to theirs.
Secondly, I am not at all confident that the teaching done by a school would come anywhere near uncovering the depth and beauty to be found in scripture. In order to pass constitutional muster, the Bible would have to be stripped of all religious application to the present day. It would cease to be the vast spiritual well I have come to know and would simply be a history book. If we have to render the Word lifeless in order to teach it, then we should probably not teach it.
Finally, I suspect that those who advocate this approach are confident that the outcome of exposing teenagers to the Bible is that they will welcome it with open arms, find it a wealth of information and find God, Jesus, and salvation in its pages. I can tell you from over 30 years of teaching confirmation and other classes, that teenagers have very mixed reactions to what is in our sacred texts. How will students react when a classmate tells them that their understanding of the Bible is stupid? What is a teacher to do when a student uses scripture to bully an LGBTQ student, or a Jewish student, or a Muslim? Can you image the outraged parents who will descend upon a school board meeting the first time a teacher uses the word “myth” to characterize a story from the Bible?
I think the world would be a better, more tolerant place if we all knew more about the sacred texts and beliefs of our fellow citizens. I wish that everyone could find edification and renewal in the words of the traditions of which they are a part. I am of the opinion that students in our public schools would benefit from understanding the philosophical and religious foundations of our democracy. But introducing the Bible as a textbook for these things is problematic in the extreme and cannot be done in a way that fulfills constitutional requirements and respects the faith of those for whom these texts are sacred.
Teaching the Bible is best done in the context of a faith community, not in a public school that cannot do it justice. Amen!