Recently a bill was introduced in the Iowa legislature that would require the state’s Department of Education to prepare materials and teacher training for optional Bible literacy classes in Iowa public schools.
In case you were curious, I am a product of the Iowa public school system and an honors graduate from the English department at the University of Iowa. Having been raised in a conservative Christian home, I have also written in the past about the much bemoaned “brainwashing” that occurs at liberal arts universities and my own experience growing from a committed brother in Christ to a skeptical agnostic.
So, Let’s take a look at the arguments for this bill and what it would mean for Iowa schools to adopt a Bible literacy program.
Here is the rational argument made by bill supporters: The Bible has tremendous historical and cultural value.
There is no way to argue around this one. This is one hundred and fifty percent, hand-on-the Bible, true. I owe the pursuit of my undergraduate studies in English to a high school English teacher who I greatly admire, Mr. Burnett. Before our last AP literature class my senior year, Mr. Burnett told us that there were three books you should know inside and out that will make your time as an English major much easier. They were The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Bible.
Looking back on my career as an undergraduate English Major, I can say with absolute confidence that he was right. In terms of references and influences in other works in the literary cannon, The Bible is one of the most important books to Western literature. Many major works contain a “Christ figure” or character who can be argued as a metaphor or stand-in for Jesus. I also once had an English professor who claimed that any protagonist in a work of Western literature could have the events of his or her story presented in a way that would make them line up with the life of Jesus.
So academically, yes, there is a huge academic benefit to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the Bible, at least the New Testament at any rate. I was lucky enough to have been taught the ins and outs of the Bible at home and at church and found that knowledge to be an incredibly useful tool during my time as an English major. Because of this I can absolutely see the benefits of teaching it for the sake of academics.
There is a problem here though.
The Iowa Biblical literacy class that the new bill pushes for wants to teach Bible literacy as a Social Studies class with an emphasis on the cultural influence of the holy book.
While I am certain that any students or teachers of American history can effectively demonstrate the Bible’s role in shaping the United States as we know it today, I am only qualified to speak about the Bible’s influence in literature.
To be totally honest with you, I might support this program if it were being offered as an English elective. You step on far fewer toes when you can demonstrate the importance of the Bible in a literary canon. For instance, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Virgil picks up where the Iliad ends and writes the Aeneid about how a Trojan displaced by the war helps found Rome. Roman Poet, Dante Alighieri, uses Virgil as his guide through the Christian Hell in The Divine Comedy. Boom! Super old stories become infused with Christian traditions and form the bedrock of Western literature. When we’re talking literary influences, no one can argue against the significance of the Bible. But when arguing for cultural context and a cultural study of the Bible, champions of this bill are clearly courting a can of worms.
Here’s where it gets complicated.
The biggest problem in this bill is how the Bible will be presented in the classroom. It is entirely possible to study the book through a secular lens which is arguably more valuable to academic pursuits than to study it as sacred scripture. However, I have a feeling that the champions of this bill would balk at the idea of studying the Bible in a secular context as a collection of stories and writings that have helped shape the modern world.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register Drew Zahn, spokesman for the Christian conservative organization, The Family Leader (which is endorsing the Bible literacy bill) offered these thoughts about the bill:
“Beyond its literary and cultural significance, which is significant, the Bible is also an essential thread of the American consciousness, and without it, American unity is unraveling.”
It is statements like this that throw up red flags for me. In the above quote, Mr. Zahn acknowledges the literary and cultural significance of the Bible, but seems to dismiss these qualities as an added bonus to what will surely, in his mind, unite the American public once again.
And here is where that gets dangerous.
Champions of the bill like Mr. Zahn seem to be of the opinion that this bill is the first step in bringing the American people together under the banner of the Christian faith. Certainly the same argument for cultural and literary significance can be made for other holy books such as the Quran, but it is almost funny to imagine the loud and thunderous roar from Christian leaders if a state dared propose a Quran literacy class.
Of course, it can be very easily argued that the Bible had a much larger role in shaping modern America than the Quran. As far as I can tell, this is true. But that does not diminish the Quran’s cultural significance and influence in other cultures and non-Western literary traditions. And as Hamlet once said: Aye, there’s the rub!
This bill is not about assisting students in their intellectual pursuits so that graduates are better prepared to contribute to the international academic community. It is about reinforcing a mentality of American Christian exceptionalism. A proposed course on the Quran would no doubt be seen by many champions of this bill as an attack on their faith, a violation of their rights, and an attempt to impose Sharia law.
I don’t know if the Bible literacy bill will pass in Iowa. But I for one am opposed to it. As far as I can see, the argument for the cultural and literary significance of the Bible is the sheep’s clothing that hides a nationalist push to promote a perspective of American Exceptionalism in public schools.