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The Bible in Wilson County

Terry Redmon is an activist trying to persuade the school board Wilson County, Tennessee, to implement a “Bible elective” course to help students understand the Book’s impact on world history.

At face value this would seem to be remarkably important, especially from the point of view of a devout Christian like Redmon, who insists he isn’t out to convert students but only to educate them.

Look closer, however, and one finds problems associated with the phenomenon of public-school Bible courses.

First, are those who are slated to teach such courses qualified to do so? If a teacher in secondary or elementary school teaches math, they are required to possess a certificate in that subject. History is the same, and so is science.

In other words, teachers have to be qualified to teach their subject matter. What qualification requirements will be in place for the courses Redmon is suggesting? Will those teaching the Bible elective have sufficient background in the subject to do it justice, or will they be out of their element and misinform their students?

Another problem is akin to the first. Are Catholics competent to teach Baptists about the Bible? Will Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews be asked to teach the children of Methodists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians?

Where the Bible is concerned, sectarian viewpoints are inextricably involved. What are mother and father devout Southern Baptist going to think when little Billy comes home from school and tells them his Bible teacher at school is a Muslim?

Problems will erupt over who is chosen to teach the course. Who will make that choice? What will the qualifications be? Is the school board equipped to evaluate whether a choice is proper?

A third problem centers on what source materials will the teachers be using. Redmon appears to be insisting on one created by North Carolina-based National Council on the Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Favored by the Religious Right, this material has been shown to be utterly inadequate and quite skewed in the direction of very conservative thinkers. Other curricula are available, of course, but no matter what curriculum is chosen, it will have its detractors.

This means that problems will naturally arise between those desirous of adopting one curriculum and those desirous of another, simply adding logs to the fire of an already contentious issue.

Further, is the Wilson County school board (or any other for that matter) comprised of trained biblical scholars, theologians, and exegetes who know the issues at hand and are therefore capable of evaluating suggested materials?

Another problem may not occur to many who live in the Bible Belt, but in other parts of the country it will add still more discomfort. And that is everyone is not Christian.

Put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine your Christian son or daughter is attending a school in a large city where the dominant religion is Islam. In school each day the teacher reads from the Quran and students are expected to read it, study it, familiarize themselves with it and master its contents.

As a devoted Christian, will this seem more like “education” or “indoctrination?” For this reason alone, using any religious text as teaching material in publicly funded educational institutions is not proper.

There are a number of problems with “Bible elective” courses: Will the teachers teaching them be qualified? Will they allow their own religious perspective to inform their handling of the biblical text? Will the base materials be high quality or sectarian, biased and skewed? ¬†And what of all those of other faith traditions who will rightly, and should rightly, request that their own sacred texts be also taught as elective subjects? Will they be allowed the same respect, the same dignity and the same equality?

Or is the “Bible elective” movement simply a thinly disguised attempt to foist upon society a particular and particularistic theocratic vision where the Bible eventually replaces scientific and literary texts and historical sourcebooks to become the only material taught and learned?

Are our uncertain times, societal fears and dread of terror subconsciously driving us back to the 19th century, to splendid isolationism, to one room school houses where the Bible is the only textbook and knowing it is seen as equivalent to knowing all things important? It’s hard to tell.

Jim West is pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Petros, Tenn.