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Before Enacting Biblical Literacy Classes, We Need Biblical Integrity

“Biblical literacy” bills are being proposed and enacted in several U.S. states.

Such legislation allows for courses in the history and literature of the Bible to be part of a regular public-school curriculum.

These measures have drawn the expected praise from religiously conservative groups and warnings from those who caution against encroachments on the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment.

At issue in the discussion is an extensive “playbook” produced by a coalition of well-established religious groups aimed at offering guidance to legislators willing to cooperate in advancing their agenda of promoting a particular kind of Christian perspective in the public sphere.

One section of the playbook provides a rationale – a very carefully articulated one – for the inclusion of a study of the Bible as part of the regular curriculum in the form of an elective course.

It goes to some length to emphasize that the intent is not to proselytize or suggest the superiority of the Bible over other sacred literature, but to “teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.”

The proposal for the Biblical Literacy Act goes on to suggest that the government entity may not “identify the essential knowledge and skills or adopt textbooks” other than the Bible itself “for a course in the history and literature of the Old or New Testament era.”

This may sound innocent enough, but 43 national religious organizations have issued a statement in opposition to “Project Blitz,” as the playbook is titled, describing it as a “new and coordinated effort to enshrine Christian nationalism in state laws across the country.”

It is hard to argue against the value of “biblical literacy” in any educational context concerned with a broad and deep understanding of Western culture.

Religiously affiliated academic institutions, as well as secular ones, have made this argument for generations to justify inclusion of religious studies, including the Bible, as part of their curricula.

Having spent 50 years teaching introductory courses in Old and New Testament, I am certainly aware of the need and sympathetic with the purpose of understanding this part of our heritage and culture.

The opposition to “Project Blitz” is a bit deeper than the rather innocent proposal to offer an elective course in biblical literature and history.

Its critics see it as a “camel’s nose in the tent” proposal that is a first step toward easing access to other elements of an agenda seeking to insert a particular religious perspective into publicly sanctioned services, educational and otherwise.

This caution is responsibly and effectively expressed by those with a long history of defending the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause.

My experience from working in the “biblical literacy” field has led me to believe that there is a deeper and more foundational need in our culture for what we might call “biblical integrity” or “biblical honesty.”

By this, I mean an understanding of not only what the Bible says, but more basically “what the Bible is.”

We know that the default affirmations that the Bible is “Holy Scripture” or the “Word of God” point well-intentionally to its sacred place in the long tradition of covenant faith.

We also know that this sacredness has often been an obstacle to careful analysis of its history and development.

Critical questions related to its context and deeper meaning have been met with the response, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

A century and a half of modern biblical study has clarified not only that our Bible came to be over a long process of compilation and refinement, but also that it is a varied collection of testimonies from many covenant pilgrims.

This “great cloud of witnesses” sought to point in various ways to what their experience with God had meant, and to offer, also in various ways, how that experience shaped their understanding of themselves and their world.

If we understand the Bible not as an “inspired text to be obeyed” but as a “text produced and preserved by an inspired people” who invite us to join their pilgrimage, we are led to a different kind of faith response.

Seeking to understand it for the testimony that it is, rather than defending it as the “holy writ” that it is not, can help avoid the problem of taking isolated verses from Leviticus and using them to override the prophets and the teaching of Jesus.

Biblical literacy is certainly a worthy goal. Biblical integrity seems an important prerequisite to a faithful stewardship of that literacy.

The latter helps avoid weaponizing the Bible or any of its parts in support of causes that are contrary to its overall testimony that life is created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:26-27), that ultimate truth is disclosed in Jesus (John 1:14), and that God’s comprehensive inclusiveness is affirmed in the last pages as the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 22:13).

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.