Sunday, July 02, 2006

Teaching The King James Bible

I actually wrote this a couple of years ago and submitted it to the Lassen County Times, although it was never published (I'm not necessarily suggesting anything nefarious on the part of LCT - it is a bit long - just noting a historical fact). I know efforts to teach bible classes in public schools are still prevalent, so here is my advice to those seeking to do so (references to my being active in Catholicism are all honesty I'm tending more toward PZ on the subject, but that's another post for a later date):

I understand a petition is circulating around California in support of an initiative to teach the Bible (King James Version) in our public school system. I support this endeavor and would encourage all to sign. Unlike my more liberal friends, I firmly believe this country needs an open discussion of religion: there is far too much whining over one’s right to parade their religious perspective in the pubic square. Our Founding Fathers encouraged freedom of religion and we should take them at their word. Of course they also believed that public display requires public debate and it is important for students to gain the critical thinking necessary to distinguish fact from perspective. Presumably, the class would encourage questioning and debate, both of which are easily prompted by even the most superficial reading of the bible. I assume the class would start by reflecting on bible origins: its multiple authors, problems associated with translations from different languages, the variety of writing styles used (historic, poetic, metaphorical, etc.), who decided which books make up the bible, and similar points of discussion. Regarding the latter, I assume some discussion of the lost Christianities, such as the Gnostic Gospels, would be in order, as well as the historical contexts that prompted Irenaeus to envision and Constantine ultimately to endorse, the Nicene Creed in the fourth century AD. This is an important issue and should prompt students to appropriately question why the church hierarchy selected, as reflecting true Christianity, the Gospels that endorse a church hierarchy over those (Gnostic and other) that endorse the primacy of the individual in seeking God.

Similarly, I would think that historical, cultural and natural contexts are crucial to understanding the goals of the bible authors, and I know signers of the petition would want students to appreciate these nuances of biblical interpretation. Nothing is ever written in a vacuum. For example, while Sodom and Gomorrah were certainly destroyed, presumably at the hand of God, it would also be worth asking how else a population with infantile knowledge of geology might explain earthquakes and other natural phenomena 7000 years ago (the hand of God?). No doubt teachers will want their students to consider whether Genesis refers to an actual six-day creation or is best read as a metaphor not intended to contradict current science. I would certainly hope that the class would once and for all trash the popular myth that Christianity and evolution don’t mix. The fact is that not all Christians agree on how the Creation came about and the only justifiable course of action would be to offer all alternatives as an example of the wonderful diversity of Christian belief. For example, students might be asked to reconcile a literal interpretation of Genesis with the fact that 99% of all species on this planet are currently extinct. Or whether “random” selection as defined by Darwin is really much of an issue for a God of infinite time and space. Personally, I would also like to hear an explanation of who, exactly, Cain “knew” in Genesis 4:17 if Adam and Eve were indeed the first humans and Cain and Abel their direct (and only) prodigy. Regardless of the nature of a Genesis discussion, I would expect those teaching the class to encourage their Native American students to enlighten Christian students by presenting their own Creation stories. This will emphasize the fact that 1) creations stories are a vital part of almost all human cultures; 2) almost none of them are alike; and 3) there is no way to distinguish the historical “correctness” of any of them.

Given the many Christian sects in Susanville as elsewhere, teachers will have no choice but to emphasize the fact that not all Christianities look upon the Bible the same way. Some prefer a literal interpretation over one that’s more metaphorical. More “fundamental” sects of Christianity prefer the former. Catholics like myself are not as tied to biblical literalism as a cornerstone for faith in God. In fact, a recent Pontifical Commission referred to biblical literalism as “intellectual suicide” and of course, everyone knows that the Pontiff settled once and for all the fact that evolution has no adverse theological implications. It will be important for teachers to point this out to their Protestant students lest they be accused of religious bigotry. Of course Catholic students will need to understand that our Protestant brethren do not always hold with our own cherished beliefs. Catholics tend to deny that Jesus had any brothers or sisters, whereas Protestants generally accept that He did (even as a Catholic, I personally have to side with my Protestant friends on this one – although whether or not Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is another question). And of course morbid fascination with the dark side of the Passion has historically been more a Catholic “thing” than a Protestant one, so I’ve been a bit surprised at the non-Catholic obsession with Mel Gibson’s film. Regardless, the film might be a useful tool for launching discussions about the search for the historic Jesus in our forthcoming public school bible classes. Mr. Gibson is convinced that the film accurately portrays events as they are described in the Gospels. While that might be the case, the real question is whether the Gospels themselves are historically accurate. I would hope that the students of our Bible course discuss the fact that the Gospels were written as late as a century after the events depicted in the Passion and no Gospel author was actually present at Jesus’ trial. This observation, combined with the cultural context of a heightened Jewish-Christian antagonism during the First Century AD, should lead our students to discuss whether the Gospel authors didn’t actually contrive some events in order to spurn separation between the two religious communities. Similarly, a brave teacher might raise the question as to whether the seemingly prophetic passages are nothing more than “post-hoc accommodating arguments” developed by Gospel authors who already knew what Isaiah and the other Old Testament authors prophesized and were simply writing the passages to meet the expectations. A really brave teacher might raise Shelby Spong’s thesis (and he’s not alone) that the virgin birth is a superfluous myth not intended to be taken literally by the Gospel writers.

Archeological evidence is often cited in biblical interpretation and a bible class would be a good place to address archaeology’s role. Being an archaeologist myself, I would encourage this (and volunteer my own expertise to the classroom) particularly since most Christians have this annoying habit of confusing theology and history. No doubt, archaeology has identified a number of places named in the Bible, and some events are corroborated with physical evidence. But others are not. Demonstrating that the walls of Jericho fell (they did, but no less than 17 times through several millennia) is one thing, but to follow that with the conclusion that Israelites accomplished the task through divine intervention is a matter of faith, not archaeology. After all, Schliemann found Troy, but that doesn’t make Cyclops and Medusas real creatures by default. Interestingly, archaeology has been unable to find evidence of an Exodus out of Egypt despite claims to the contrary, but has recently identified evidence of Noah’s flood event. Demonstrably catastrophic in nature, the flood was actually confined to the Mediterranean Basin, although it certainly appeared to be “worldwide” from the limited perspective of those it affected. And just to get this off my chest: the Shroud of Turin is not old enough to be from the time of Christ, despite the methodological gymnastics engaged in by the critics of carbon dating.

Finally, I would hope that students, particular those who have faith in whatever God they personally choose to accept, would ask the question: if I have faith in God, does it matter whether the earth is six thousand years old or several billion? Certainly to some it will. There will be those who find logic in the assumption that Christ’s resurrection cannot be true if God’s creation wasn’t also limited to a literal six days. And that’s fine. There should be a place at the public table for those beliefs. Just as there should be a place at the public table for those of us who have found God without the crutch of biblical literalism. Or those who have alternative beliefs. Or those who profess no belief at all. I would assume that the signers of the petition have the intention of fostering such a diversity of opinions and ideas as they relate to the Christian bible…or am I wrong?

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