Recently the press has noted that Steve Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby, announced that he was asking an Oklahoma high school to add a course on the Bible to their curriculum. Such courses in public schools are not uncommon. In fact, they currently exist in hundreds of public schools around the United States. So why is this news?
In part it is because Steve Green has become the darling of the evangelical Christian movement over his opposition to Obamacare requirements that he feels infringe on religious liberty. But it also stems from nervousness about what he is really trying to do, and what the content of his proposed course would be.
The nervousness is understandable. Supreme Court has authorized secular teaching of the Bible in public schools: “that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.” A look at the geographical distribution of those courses, almost all in the Bible Belt, suggests that the motivation is not entirely secular. The most commonly used text, while generally written from a somewhat rose-colored perspective, deals with some subjects uncomfortable to Christians and successfully keeps civil libertarians at bay.
But despite the existence of that text and others, Steve Green wants to produce his own texts. That takes time and money. It’s understandable that those concerned about separation of church and state might be worried about what will be in the text, given Green’s history. It’s hard to imagine he is driven by a compulsion to give students purely secular instruction in the Bible.
While in principle what he is proposing is fine, the devil is in the details. Green says his new curriculum would “cover three parts of the book: the history, the impact and its story.”
OK, still fair enough. But what does that mean?
Green goes on: “With the history, we want to show the archeological evidences of the Bible and then we want to show the impact of the Bible.”
Green says, “We have a list of universities that we are working with today all over the world," he said. "We want to find the leading scholars to help us and we will be pulling from this group to help write this curriculum.” So, first detail: who are these leading scholars who contribute to the archaeology portion of the curriculum? Will they be scholars like William Dever, Phillip R. Davies, Israel Finkelstein or others whose consensus position is that archeology does not support the Book of Exodus at all, and that the people of Israel did not exist as such for much of the time the Bible speaks of them? Or will they be “scholars” of the type who get published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, which claims to be nondenominational, but is a branch of Christian apologetics masquerading as science?
It is possible, if you aren’t too picky about things like peer review, to find an archaeologist to agree with almost any opinion. William Dever describes the state of even mainstream scholarship:
"We all construct our own ancient and biblical 'Israelis' to suit the demands of our modern situation. That is because there is no such thing as 'objectivity' in archaeological, historical or biblical studies. History is a 'tale told for a specific purpose.' Thus we construct the past that we need, partly out of what I have called ‘a nostalgia for a biblical world that never was.’”
We know what Steve Green wants the answer to be. The question is, will he insist on consulting only archeologists who give it to him?
Green goes on about his curriculum: “we want to show the impact of the Bible. The Bible has had an impact on just about every area of life, whether you like it or not, it has. It has impacted government, education, art, science, literature, you name it.”
Of course he is correct about that. There are countless books and articles by Christian apologists who remind us of contributions in each of those fields. But those reminders uniformly paint the Bible in a favorable light, and often suggest influence beyond what it really had. Will his “leading scholars” tell students about impact on health like deaths due to faith healing and relying on God to heal illness? Or of Biblical exhortations against vaccinations? Will it mention how the Bible was used both to defend slavery and its abolition? What about use of the Bible to suppress women’s rights and voting? Or perhaps how the Bible has been used to foment anti-Semitism and lead to mass murders of Jews? For all its undeniable positive contributions, these things should also be told to students if they are to have a true understanding of the impact of the Bible. It may not be fair to say the Bible itself is the cause of all these undesirable things, but if you are discussing impact, it is undeniable that it has been used in these ways.
A common Christian claim is that the Bible is the foundation of law in the United States. Something of a case can be made for its influence, but that case generally is both overstated and leaves out the parts the apologists do not want to mention. In addition to the Ten Commandments, which are so proudly displayed as “historical reminders” of the influence of the Bible, will it mention the much more extensive laws of the Code of Hammurabi or earlier Code of Ur Nammu, which influenced Judaic law? How about other sources which influenced the development of the American constitution? Will it compare the contributions from the Quran, or from the Cherokee constitution and laws, or make it sound exclusively a Christian-derived document as “historians” like David Barton like to do? Again, it matters who these “leading scholars” are, and if people like Barton are on the list, the prospects for a balanced, or even true rendition of history are dismal.
Will the curriculum go beyond the Ten Commandments to the details of law in Deuteronomy? Laws like disrespectful children must be stoned to death, or rapists must marry their victims? Or in Leviticus, a lengthy list of harsh punishments for sin? Or perhaps the stoning of people for blasphemy, which is directly opposed to the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution? Those things tend to get left out when Christian apologists tell us that the Bible is the foundation of American law. In fact, a good case can be made that much of American law has been created to overcome the influence of biblical law. One has to wonder if any of them will make their way into Green’s curriculum.
The Bible has had a strong impact on science, as well. Christian monks, if not the Bible itself, were the repositories of what was known of science in the Western world until well after the Dark Ages. Christian schools generally were the only source of scientific research and knowledge, as well as literacy. But the Bible has been used to suppress or attempt to refute science, from biology to cosmology, meteorology, geology and others. The Bible is being used to subvert science education in America, and any discussion of the impact of the Bible should show that. It’s unlikely that is Green’s intent.
Green goes on to discuss the contents of his curriculum: “Thirdly, is the story, meaning what does the book say." This is in danger of going beyond what the Supreme Court has authorized, since so much of the story is explicitly religious. It can be done in a secular manner. Jack Miles’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, God, a Biography, which is a wonderful explication of the development of the character of God. But beyond such efforts, it would seem that secular a discussion of “the story” is likely no more than an attempt to teach Sunday School lessons, which is not authorized by the Supreme Court.
It is possible, just barely possible, that Green’s curriculum will be more than a white-wash of the Bible, singing its praises and covering over the ways in which it has been used to bad purpose. But his history suggests that those kinds of details are not what he wants to teach the youth of America, which accounts for the skepticism with which his proposal is being received.