Ask any literary scholar to name the most important and influential books of all time and one title will likely make the list. This book has been read in its current form for more than 1,500 years. The newest accounts within its pages date back 2,000 years, the oldest predate time.
This book was the first to be printed using modern methods, and is the undisputed best-seller of all time, with more volumes distributed than any other written work. It has informed, inspired and fascinated readers for centuries. People have sacrificed their lives in defense of this book. Others have traveled into the most inhospitable conditions to spread its message. Governments have imprisoned their subjects for possessing mere pages.
Despite all this, the book is absent from most American school curriculums.
What we call “the Bible” is actually a compilation of many writings, the oldest dating to at least 600 B.C., six centuries before the birth of Christ. Divided into two sections, the Old and New Testaments, the Bible recounts the history of man’s relationship to his creator from the Garden of Eden through the years following the crucifixion of Christ.
Obviously, the Bible is essential reading for those who believe in the God of Judaism and Christianity – or as Islam calls them, “the people of the book.” But the Bible is so much more than that. No other book has influenced law, morals and culture like the Bible – especially in America. Its influence extends far beyond people who worship at churches and synagogues.
The writings contained in the Bible influenced early civil lawmakers and inspired English Common Law. Monarchies throughout the world were modeled on stories of biblical rulers. Our own Founding Fathers relied on the lessons of scripture as they brought forth revolutionary ideas about government and man.
The greatest authors, artists and musicians of old were steeped in the Bible and included references to it throughout their works. William Shakespeare is said to have alluded to the Bible more than 1,200 times in his 36 plays. Visit any museum of classical art and you will see masterpieces depicting biblical events in nearly every gallery.
Even our common expressions are often based on the Bible. “Cast the first stone.” “A drop in the bucket.” “A twinkling of the eye.” “A sign of the times.” “Go the extra mile.” “Wolves in sheep’s clothing.” “The writing on the wall.” “Put words in one’s mouth.” These and many other pithy sayings that we repeat every day have their “genesis” in the Bible. Clearly, “there is nothing new under the sun” (another biblical idiom).
How is it possible that a book so influential is not part of our school curriculum? How are students expected to grasp history, law and culture if they don’t know the conceptual origins?
The short explanation for how the most important piece of literature and history ever compiled by man came to be excluded from our schools is that American educators over-reacted to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s, when the court opined that compulsory prayer and scripture reading was unconstitutional. Schools panicked or were threatened and removed the Bible completely.
For education, it hasn’t proved to be a good decision. Student performance began to fall sharply at almost the very moment schools stopped exposing children to the Bible. We’re told correlation does not equate to causation, but numerous studies suggest that student behavior and academic performance suffer when “character instruction” is absent. Given declining student proficiency and an increasingly troubled youth population, perhaps it’s time to consider going back to the old practice of exposing students to the Bible.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 13 encourages Missouri high schools to offer an elective course in Bible content, character, and narratives. The goal is not to teach the Bible to students, but rather to teach students about the Bible. There is a clear and noteworthy difference. If students are to truly appreciate art, literature, language, history and culture they need to be exposed to the Bible, which has had such a profound impact on Western civilization.
It’s important to understand, this resolution does not require schools to offer Bible classes. It merely encourages them to do so. It also spells out the ground rules. Such classes may not endorse, favor or promote belief in any particular religion or religious perspective – nor may the lessons disfavor belief. No effort can be made to encourage students to adopt a particular belief or engage in the practice of religion in any way. Teachers must be selected without inquiry into their own religious beliefs.
Presenting the Bible as a literary and historical document, from an academic rather than evangelical perspective, is not a new idea. A number of states have adopted similar resolutions, among them Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kentucky. These measures have largely come about in recent years, as schools have realized the folly of teaching a curriculum devoid of morality and the wisdom contained in sacred texts.
The argument about whether the Bible should be part of the classroom is much older, however. This column is prefaced with a quote from Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent early-Americanphysician, politician, social reformer and educator. He wrote those words in 1791 as part of an essay defending Bible instruction in schools. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
“I know there is an objection among many people to teaching children doctrines of any kind, because they are liable to be controverted,” Rush wrote. “But let us not be wiser than our Maker . . . By withholding the knowledge of this doctrine from children, we deprive ourselves of the best means of awakening moral sensibility in their minds.”