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The Bible without religion

Educators learn to keep faith out of the mix as they prepare to teach the centuries-old books.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 5, 2001

Educators learn to keep faith out of the mix as they prepare to teach the centuries-old books.

TALLAHASSEE -- In a small conference center, a group of teachers and administrators are deep into stacks of handouts about early Christian persecution, timelines on Jewish history, and legal briefs about breaches of the First Amendment.

For four days, these teachers will be the students, here to learn how to teach Bible courses in Florida's public high schools without breaking federal laws separating church and state. Officially, it's called the Summer Institute for Educators: Teaching the Bible in Public Schools. But it could have been titled: How To Teach the Bible Without Being Religious About It.

Dale Millender, a physics and trigonometry teacher from the small North Florida town of Carrabelle, raises her hand. After hours of listening, her mathematician's brain has come up with a way to make the task at hand make sense. She wants to share it with the class.

We can't present the Bible as moral lessons, she says. Merely as information.

"I don't know if that helps or anything," Millender says, glancing around the room, "but that's how I'm looking at it."

Instructor David Levenson approves. The Bible equals data, he says. Good analogy.

Even better, it's legal.

Religion in public schools

Florida high school teachers are at the center of one of the most controversial education issues in America -- religion in public schools. The problem: How do you teach religion without seeming to endorse any particular practice of it?

In Florida's Lee County, the issue mounted to a federal court fight. Lawyers for People for the American Way Foundation, a non-profit watchdog group in Washington, D.C., argued that the district's Bible courses were being taught as fact, and from a Protestant Christian perspective.

And that's unconstitutional, the group charged.

The foundation later conducted an investigation of Bible history courses taught in 14 other Florida school districts, including Hillsborough, and released a critical report in January 2000.

They likened the classes to Sunday School sessions.

Three months later, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher released new state guidelines for the elective Bible courses. The Bible would no longer be taught in history departments. Instead, they should be humanities classes. Students would now read the Bible as a collection of literary works, rather like studying The Canterbury Tales.

In "Introduction to the Bible I and II," students are supposed to learn about the culture and the history of the ways Jews and Christians interpreted the Bible in ancient times. They are supposed to talk about themes and main characters. They are not supposed to discuss whether these Bible stories are factual.

Because few public school teachers have backgrounds in theology, the state also promised training. That's what brought 11 Florida teachers and administrators, plus two more from Alabama and two graduate students, to Tallahassee in mid-June for the second annual Summer Institute.

Their instructors: two theologians and a lawyer, whose primary job would be to make clear the distinction between teaching and preaching.

The literary approach

In the conference room turned classroom, all eyes are on professor Corrine Patton, associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and an authority on the Old Testament.

She rocks on her heels and twiddles a pen between her fingers, talking about the Book of Genesis, Abraham in particular. She is dissecting the story like an English teacher.

Abraham was prepared to kill his own son at God's request, she says. Notice how the writer tells the reader what Abraham plans to do.

His son Isaac thinks he's going on a father-son trip to sacrifice a lamb, Patton says. But when he realizes there's no sacrificial animal around, he asks his father, "Where is the lamb?"

"Isn't this great?" Patton asks the class. "The tension is mounting. The reader knows, but Isaac's clueless."

Then Abraham binds Isaac, she says, the climax to the thriller.

But the story lacks the detail of a modern novel, Patton notes. It doesn't tell us what Isaac is doing at this point. Is he looking around, saying, "Why are you tying me up, Dad?" she tells the class. Or did Abraham maybe "bonk him over the head first?"

The class listens intently.

Later, LaVerne Broussard, a world history and Bible course teacher from Clay County, asks if the story of Abraham and Isaac could be used as an example of the literary device of foreshadowing God sacrificing Jesus.

Patton shakes her head. No.

That gives the impression of a "divine author," she says. "You can't do that in your public schools."

Her counterpart, David Levenson, chimes in. "You can say that Christians understand this story to be a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus," says Levenson, an associate professor of religion at Florida State University.

Levenson enjoys teaching this class. He lectures while cradling a glass of water in one hand, as if chatting with friends at a party.

When it's his turn to take the podium, Levenson, an expert on the New Testament, talks about the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

High school students could compare how disciples are presented differently in the three books, Levenson tells his audience. But be careful.

"The question is not, "Why did the historical disciples act this way?' " he says. The question is, "Why are the historical disciples depicted this way?"

Steve Davey, an English teacher at Springstead High School in Hernando, asks if the disciple stories might jump-start discussion in his classroom about why people follow certain leaders today.

Levenson warns against it.

"Notice in talking about this, I'm not telling people "This is what you should believe today,' " Levenson says. "We're looking at what this meant for first century Christians. . . . Our emphasis is always going to be on the first century context. How they would view it."

Interest is down

In fact, the number of students taking the elective Bible courses in Florida has decreased in the past few years. Last fall, 258 students took Bible I and II courses, mostly in the Panhandle and North Florida. A year earlier, 572 students took the classes during the fall semester.

Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director for the People for the American Way Foundation, the First Amendment group that has challenged Bible courses in the past, thinks some parents and community leaders are not pleased with the state's push toward secularism in those classes.

"The main impetus for teaching these kinds of courses has been in religiously homogenous communities," she said.

Case in point: a former Hernando County School Board member who proposed teaching a Bible course in schools last year let the issue die, at least temporarily, saying that the state's guidelines were too critical of the Bible's authority for high school students.

But Davey, the English teacher from Hernando, said he thinks a course within the state's guidelines might be good for the district. He plans to make a presentation to the school board.

In Pinellas, school board members took no action in February regarding a proposal from the North-Carolina based group National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. The school board's attorney said the organization's proposed curriculum was likely unconstitutional.

Some public schools in the Tampa Bay area offer world religions courses. But come fall, Chamberlain High School in Hillsborough will be the only local school teaching the Bible I and II.

Plant City High also offered Bible courses, but not enough students signed up for them in the past two years.

Every word counts

Levenson and Patton tell the class to pay close attention to the way they phrase things and to make sure they attribute.

"You want to be careful to say things like "They believed that,' instead of "We believed that,' " Levenson tells the class.

Phrases like "original sin" and "fall of man," often used to describe the story of Adam and Eve, are off limits. Though popular in Christian culture, they don't appear in the Bible.

The key is getting students to set aside interpretations learned at home or in church.

"One of the advantages of these courses is to really get the students to read carefully, to look at every word," Levenson says.

Even the phrase "Old Testament" is problematic, Patton says, because it implies there must be a New Testament -- which Jews don't recognize. Teachers should say "Hebrew Scriptures" or "Hebrew Bible," she says.

And the Bible? Well, which Bible? The Protestant version has 66 books, but Catholics use a longer version with additional books, including Tobit and Judith. Patton encourages teachers to include the Catholic books in class exercises.

Teachers listen while passing around stacks of handouts and charts. Lynne Camp, a biology teacher from St. Cloud, has a question.

"I know that we can't promote a faith in a specific thing," she says. "But is it wrong to promote a faith in something?"

"Yes, it is," Patton says. Even the word "faith" is a problem. What if atheists are in the class? Some students might believe in something, but not call it "faith," she says.

"Allegiance might be a better word," offers Scott Morone, an English teacher from Delray Beach.

"Belief," Patton says.

Tiptoeing the line

In the years that followed the battles over school prayer in the 1960s, educators feared the mere mention of religion could be illegal. For instance, some American history books described the Pilgrims as "wandering people," completely ignoring the important issues of religious liberty integral to their story.

Even People for the American Way believes that was going too far.

"We think it's perfectly permissible to teach students about the Bible," said Schaeffer, the organization's attorney. That is, as long as the instruction falls within the realms of the Constitution, which forbids government from furthering or inhibiting religion.

Nowadays, some textbooks do include religious influence in history and literature. In California, students studying U.S. history are expected to learn about the role religion played in shaping the nation.

In Florida, the People for the American Way Foundation is again investigating Bible courses. The group is looking at teachers' 2000-2001 lesson plans and exams to find out if anything changed in classrooms after the guidelines went into effect last spring.

* * *

At the close of the Tallahassee class, Levenson gives teachers his e-mail address and encourages them to contact him for advice. The way he taught this seminar is much the same as he teaches his college students, who come from varied religious backgrounds.

"People can come together on the fact that this is important literature that educated people should know about," he says. "I think that can be done in a way that is not offensive to people in various communities."

- Information from St. Petersburg Times files was used in this report.

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