Back to the Bible

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 4, 2005

By any measure, America is suffering from widespread biblical illiteracy. People still know the names of Noah, Moses, and Abraham, but how well do they really know the stories of the Bible? How many people can still identify the original source for common expressions like “the powers that be,” or “the handwriting is on the wall,” or “the salt of the earth”? And if Americans don't know such things, how can we know our own history and literature, which in so many ways were shaped by the Bible?

A new high school curriculum promises to help alleviate this problem. Called The Bible and Its Influence, the new textbook is published by the Bible Literacy Project and is offered for the academic study of the Bible in public high schools. Its internal reviewers include literary critic Robert Alter of the University of California, Berkeley; Yale humanities professor Harold Bloom; Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon; Wheaton College English professor Leland Ryken; and nearly forty other Jewish, Protestant, Mormon, and Catholic scholars, teachers, and theologians.

The new textbook is brilliantly conceived and beautifully produced. It covers the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Each unit seeks to teach the basic content of the Scriptures—its history, characters, stories, and poems—but it also does a number of other things. It uses lavish, full-color illustrations to show how the Bible has been portrayed in Western art, including music. It uses excerpts from world literature to show the influence the Bible has had on other writings. It draws connections between biblical teaching and cultural trends in human language and history. And it respectfully shows how different traditions have received the Bible as a religious text, without promoting any particular faith. In other words, the textbook introduces students to the Bible itself and to the difference it has made in the world.

The publishers have taken special care to make sure that the new curriculum does not run afoul of any constitutional concerns about the separation of church and state, but fulfills accepted First Amendment standards for public education. The broad support the new book is receiving from religious leaders is one sign that they have achieved this goal. So is the book's endorsement by secular groups such as the National Education Association.

There are important secular reasons to believe that The Bible and Its Influence has a legitimate place in America's public schools. In fact, the same 1963 United States Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory Bible reading in the public school (Abington Township School District v. Schempp) also said that “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities” as long as it is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

The Supreme Court was right to recognize that the Bible is a vital part of any good education. There are more than a thousand biblical references in the works of Shakespeare alone, and more than sixty percent of the literary allusions in Advanced Placement English come from the Bible. The King James Version of the Bible is still the most important text to master in understanding the cultural context for English literature. A school that fails to teach the Bible is failing its students.

Yet despite the fact that 98% of high school English teachers say biblical literacy gives students a distinct academic advantage, less than 8% of high school students in public schools say they have access to an elective course on the literature of the Bible. Simply put, many American students are growing up with little or no exposure to one of the basic building blocks of a decent education. This is partly because many school districts have concluded that teaching the Bible will be more legal trouble than its worth. But it is also due to the absence of a superior curriculum—until now, that is.

There are also good spiritual reasons for supporting the new curriculum and for encouraging public schools to adopt it. One is the inherent value of reading the Bible, which we believe to be the very Word of God. The Bible and Its Influence was not written to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the chapters on the gospels seem to give somewhat less attention to the crucifixion narratives than the texts themselves would seem to merit (although, to be fair, the resurrection gets full attention, and the material on the epistles does explain what Christians believe about justification by faith and the substitutionary atonement). In any case, by the inward work of the Holy Spirit, the Bible has the power to transform people's lives. What could make a greater spiritual difference in the lives of America's high school students than simply reading the Bible, as the new curriculum requires?

The Bible and Its Influence may also make a significant difference in personal evangelism. One of the greatest hindrances we face in giving people the gospel today is their biblical ignorance. In an earlier era, people who didn't go to church had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Scriptures. Even people who weren't Christians at least knew what Christianity was—what the Bible said about Christ. This gave Christians something to work with in their personal evangelism. There was a common frame of reference. Today, however, the first step in sharing the gospel often requires giving people very basic information about biblical content.

Someone who has studied the new curriculum will be much better prepared to understand the gospel. They will know the stories of the Old Testament and the basic plot of the gospels. They will have been introduced to important theological concepts like sin and salvation, covenant and atonement. Lord willing, some day you will start talking with someone about spiritual things, and they will say, “You know, I've heard some of this before, in a class I took in high school… ”

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org