The project has received praise and assistance from prominent evangelical voices. For instance, Franklin Graham called the series "compelling", claiming that it will "likely cause a viewer to want to open the pages of Scripture to see the realities of Almighty God’s plan for the human race." (Hat tip to the Christian Post). Huffington Post reports that creators Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have partnered with major churches leaders of conservative Christian groups to promote The Bible, including Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and Sam Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church also served in an advisory role to the project.
The series has attracted my attention not because its Satan bears an uncanny resemblance to President Obama, nor because of its hamminess. (Although honestly, lines such as "Rahab my little whooooooore" couldn't be hammier if you threw in a moustache twirl and a sinister bwahahahaha.) My concern lies with the political views of the series' creators, who have advocated for teaching the Bible in public schools.
In a March 1st commentary piece at the Wall Street Journal, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett encourage public schools to teach the Bible "as a primary document of Western civilization". Downey and Burnett argue that the Bible has impacted Western government, philosophy, art, literature, and social justice movements, baffled that schools do not educate American students about such an influencial collection of literature. The cite the 1963 Abington School District v. Shempp case, insisting that it is appropriate for schools to teach scripture for its literary merit (Abington School District v. Shempp ruled that a Pennsylvania law compelling public schools to perform Bible readings was unconstitutional.)
Downey and Burnett frame the Bible as a must-read part of any student's education.
"Can you imagine students not reading the Constitution in a U.S. government class? School administrators not sharing the periodic table of the elements with their science classes? A driver's ed course that expected young men and women to pass written and road tests without having access to a booklet enumerating the rules of the road?"In a recent edition of Fox News' Huckabee, former governor Mike Huckabee interviewed Roma Downey and Mark Burnett on the series. Huckabee referred to their Wall Street Journal piece on teaching the Bible in school, to which Burnett gave this reply.
"The original intent of separation of church and state was to protect the church, not the state, but the real reason we wrote that, governor--we have discovered on this journey for four years, there's quite an enormous Biblical illiteracy. We are contributing to that, I think, in this series. But I think it's a little embarrassing if you imagine being a young American who hasn't learned any of these stories because it's not in school and you go overseas on business and someone mentions David and Goliath, or Samson, or Abraham, and you have absolutely no idea what's being talked about. It's as ridiculous as not knowing the characters of Shakespeare. As literature, I think it's literary malpractice, almost, to not know these stories."Even though Burnett insists that he does not advocate teaching religion in schools, his comments on Huckabee contain tired rhetoric about the Bible as the supposed foundation of western culture.
"We're not suggesting, governor, that this should be taught in school as religion. We understand completely why that doesn't happen in public schools. But what we do really feel is that it should be taught as literature. These stories are the foundation of western civilization, certainly this country. Our money, governor, says 'In God We Trust', and our president always at his inauguration has his hand on a Bible, this time two Bibles. These stories should be taught."First, Burnett's claim that the Bible is the supposed foundation of western civilization is common among conservative Christians, but nevertheless problematic. While Judaism and Christianity certainly played large roles in western history, so did Greek and Roman religion, Manichaeism, Mithraism, Mazdakism, Neoplatonism, Enlightenment ideas, and a host of other schools of thought. Let's take it even further. If schools teach the Bible as literature, shouldn't they also include Mesopotamian mythology as literature? After all, the panbabylonist school of thought makes a compelling argument for the influence of Mesopotamian mythology on several key Biblical stories. Islam was and still is a powerful religious force in the Middle East and Africa. It even played a role in European history and culture -- Spain was under the control of Muslim rulers until 1492, while the Ottoman empire at one time stretched to what is now Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia. Why not study the Quran as literature, seeing as Islam has had a significant influence on the world? Also, since the Iroquois Epic of Deganawidah had an impact on the Constitution, and Iroquois culture influenced several first-wave feminists, shouldn't we teach Iroquois stories as literature too?
In all seriousness, Downey and Burnett are not the first evangelical Christians to call for the Bible to be taught as literature in public schools. Groups such as Bible as Literature and the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools support Bible courses as part of public school curriculum. Several states have either proposed or allowed Bible-as-literature courses in their public school systems.
However, common reasons given for these courses are revealing and pernicious. First, they incorrectly give the Bible credit for achievements that it had little or nothing to do with, such as American democracy and the Constitution. Their call to teach the Bible in public schools may be an attempt to get public schools to embrace the Christian nationalist myth that America is a "Christian nation".
Second, the approach is reductionist, crediting the Bible for much of western civilization's development while ignoring the many other influences on western cultures. Furthermore, it ignores the complex role that global religions are playing in the 21st century world. In a diverse and shrinking world, wouldn't courses on world religions make more sense in theory than Bible-as-literature classes for future citizens?
Third, even if teaching the Bible as literature in public schools was a good idea in theory, problems would (and do) erupt in practice. Which Bible would be taught as literature? The New International Version? The Catholic Bible? The Tewahedo Bible? The King James Bible? The Queen James Bible? Christians disagree on which version of the Bible is authoritative. Moreover, what safeguards would be in place to prevent overzealous Christian teachers from using the class to proselytize? Texas Freedom Network has already documented problems with Bible-as-literature courses in Texas, citing instructor religious bias, anti-Semitism, academically unsound content, and pseudo-scholarship such as young earth creationism and dubious race theories. Problems with Bible-as-literature courses are nothing new, with cases of mishandled courses and controversies going back years.
The issue is not whether or not the Bible has merit as ancient literature, nor the degree of its impact on history. The issue here is misuse of Bible-as-literature courses as proselytization tools in public school environments. When Religious Right voices call for innocuous-sounded Bible-as-literature classes, we need to recognize the real agenda at work.