Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Public Bible Schools

A troubling development in my booksignings lately at Colonial Williamsburg is the growing frequency that visitors ask me if my Sparrowhawk novels reflect the alleged religious origins of the United States. I usually answer that the novels focus on the secular political ideas that were responsible for the founding.

If visitors press for a more concrete answer, I will answer that most of the Founders were professed deists who nevertheless were adamant in their conviction that God and Government should be separate, that religious beliefs were a private matter not to be suppressed, prescribed or regulated by the state, as they were in Britain, and that one of the things they feared both Parliament and king longed to import to the colonies was a state, tax-supported church.

I will then expand on one aspect of British-American tension, that two British organizations, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded 1698) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (founded 1701), both with Crown approval and encouragement, lobbied continuously both in London and in the colonies for the establishment of an Anglican episcopate or bishopric in the American colonies. This would have meant that all colonists, regardless of their particular faith, would have been taxed to support the Crown church. This idea was abhorrent to all but colonial Anglicans, and contributed to the swelling dissatisfaction with British rule.

I will offer them a historical tidbit: that the American Episcopal Church (root term, episcopate) is the direct descendent of the Anglican Church, which was disestablished in the United States in 1789.

If necessary, and if my visitors still look doubtful after this free lecture on the political origins of America, I will dwell on the fact that religious freedom, for the Founders, was subsumed under the broader concept of political freedom. Then I refer them to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which on this point is unambiguous in wording and meaning.

If my visitors persist and ask whether men of the cloth have any role at all in Sparrowhawk, I will say that the role is entirely incidental and subsidiary. There is only one benign minister in the whole epic; the other clerics do not appear in a very flattering light, since they all wish to impose tyranny over the minds of my heroes. I freely paraphrase Thomas Jefferson in such instances; if my auditors cannot abide the sentiment, it is not my problem.

That usually convinces many such visitors that Sparrowhawk is not for them. I do not volunteer the information without a query, and if no one asks about the role of religion or priests in the series, my policy is one of caveat lector; readers will discover my overall regard for religion and clerics as they progress through the series. Facts do not matter to them, nor the record. Their minds are impervious to reason, proof against rational persuasion. They are of the same mentality as Muslims. As far as they are concerned, God dictated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to apostles sporting frock coats and wigs.

Often such visitors are parents who are home schooling their children. Some of these people are home schooling with a general, secularized course of instruction. Others are home schooling because, they say, public schools are “Godless.” Religious parents make up most of the people who want assurances from me that Sparrowhawk credits religion with the founding of the country. I give them no such assurances. In these instances, it means a loss of sales.

So, it was with great interest and with not a little surprise that I opened the Sunday, August 12th Newport News, Virginia Daily Press and on page 3 found an article reprinted from the Los Angeles Times under this headline: “How do you teach the Bible without preaching?”

My snap mental answer was: Well, you don’t – unless you are Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and then you are not so much teaching the Bible as exposing it as pure balderdash and bunkum.

It was a long article about the controversy of Bible studies in public schools.

In public schools?? Bible studies? Apparently, public schools are not as "Godless" as many parents assume.

“Exact numbers are unavailable, but experts agree that the number of Bible classes in public schools is growing because of new state mandates, increased attention to religion in public life, and the growing prominence of two national Bible curricula.”

Earlier, the article states:

“There’s broad agreement across the social, political and religious spectrum – and most important, the Supreme Court – that the Bible can be taught in public schools and that knowledge of the Bible is vital to students’ understanding of literature and art, including Moby Dick, Michelangelo, and The Matrix.

“But battles are raging in statehouses, schools and courtrooms over how to teach – but not to preach.”

Several questions occurred to me as I read further into the article. How many politically correct, multiculturally skewed, diversity-laden public schools are still introducing their students to Shakespeare, or even to Herman Melville? And, given the appalling level of semi-literacy which public schools are notorious for imbuing in their law-mandated charges, is it too cynical to assume that most of these students are too intellectually stunted or undeveloped to apprehend and appreciate the subtleties of textual distinctions?

Isn’t “Bible studies” more appropriate for an accomplished graduate student planning a career in literary studies that would, for example, require him to conceive of a purpose or theme to tackle the 1,300 biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays or study the Old Testament in conjunction with Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes?

The Los Angeles Times article states:

“In 1963, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared school-led Bible readings and prayer unconstitutional. But Justice Tom Clark emphasized in the ruling that the court didn’t intend to discourage academic study of religion.”

Justice Clark wrote in his opinion:

“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

On the premise that public school Bible studies truly do not try or intend to “preach” religion, I maintain there is no justification in intellectually arrested or otherwise lobotomized students studying the texts of the Great Grumpy Gremlin as related by a group of ancient true believers and whose words and tales and morality the living are expected to take on faith. They may as well study the magical world of Harry Potter novels or the electronic intricacies of The Matrix or the blathering language of a James Joyce novel.

But I do not think these courses are merely “academic” or that the motive behind them is so innocent or blameless. And I had to laugh when I read this sentence in the article:

“High school English teachers and university professors say this lack of exposure to Bible tales has led to an education gap.”

It is an education gap evident in the Western canon being discarded in favor of Third World literature and the scribblings of “minority” writers, in students who think that George Washington helped found the United Nations, or that the Triple Entente is either an ice cream flavor or a video game, and in math and science test scores that are among the lowest in the world. These teachers and professors imply that such a “gap” can be compensated or corrected by a study of the Bible (or the Koran, or Buddhism, or American Indian mythology). Which is as absurd a notion as claiming that one can master calculus by a close study of numerology.

The “gap” in American education can be ascribed to the complete absence of the advocacy of reason in public school philosophy – except when reason is being attacked by nihilists or sabotaged by multicultural subjectivists.

Biblical allusions and references doubtless occur in much Western literature; they even appear in Ayn Rand’s novels. Some day, if the world does not descend into another Dark Age, the Bible and its companion texts from other faiths will exert as little influence on men’s minds and on the culture as Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Nostradamus’s Centuries do today. For the time being, however, children and adolescents should not be made to study the Bible. They are already assaulted in their education by criminally irrational pedagogical policies; Bible studies simply underscore the arbitrary eclecticism. No individual should attempt to study the Bible unless he is a full-grown, mature, rational adult. Then he will have a chance to grasp its utter irrationality.

And, taxpayers who are forced to pay for public schools, whether or not they have children in them, should oppose Bible studies, regardless of their “objective, nonsectarian” intent. Promoters of Bible studies can claim that since God and religion are ubiquitous values in our society, they deserve serious academic examination. Not refutation or rebuttal, mind you. That is “preaching.”

The question remains: Why is the Bible appearing in public schools? Why not teach Shakespeare or Melville or Victor Hugo without making Scripture the primary literary referent? Is there an organization behind it, or is it a general cultural phenomenon? I do not think there is an overall, conscious conspiracy to bypass the First Amendment, although I would not discount the influence of the religious right, which is pushing for the acceptance of “intelligent design” as a legitimate course of study, as well.

As a cultural phenomenon, the growing number of Bible studies in public schools can be likened to water leaching out of cracks in an asphalt parking lot. If the lot were properly paved, no leaching would occur at all.

I suppose that with diligence and enough time, one could ferret out the culprits ultimately responsible for the growth of Bible studies in public schools (not to mention the growth of teen Bible study groups, and of Bible camps for teens). The places to start would be the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and the Bible Literacy Project, competing organizations cited in the Los Angeles Times report.

But philosophically, and historically, the ultimate culprit is Immanuel Kant. At this year’s OCON conference at Telluride, Leonard Peikoff warned that, thanks to Kant’s influence, Western culture is headed for total disintegration, and that if trends are not corrected and reversed soon, the United States could indeed become a theocracy inside of forty years. The growth of Bible studies in public schools is simply one premonitory manifestation of the trend that substantiates his prediction.

Objectivists, Peikoff said, are in the same historical circumstance as the Spartans at Thermopylæ. We are the only ones who advocate reason. Or perhaps we could see ourselves as Athenians and aim for a Marathon. Either way one looks at our dilemma, however, we should not let the enemy pass without a fight.

12 comments:

Dan G. said...

Mr. Cline,

This is off topic, somewhat, but have you or your publisher/agent made any attempt to integrate your "Sparrowhawk" series into an american history curiculum? I ask because I recall that my 5th grade american history curiculum included a book titled "Johnny Tremain" and I believe that your series would be a superior substitution. I wouldn't know what grade level, nor which books (if not all) would suffice, but I'm curious if you've even considered it and what your opinion on the undertaking would be.

Mel McGuire said...

What? The religious right is in an uproar because kids can't understand Shakespeare? I don't think so.

I've concluded that neither of the two Bible literacy organizaions are driven basically by a concern for literacy. From the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools website: "The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children." This is right up front in the President's statement: digging is not required.

The Bible Literacy Project requires a little work. Sheila Weber, who is Vice President of Communications for BLP, states in an audio(11/16/2006) found on the site that "It [the Bible] is the foundational document for the development of Western civilization." If this is the basis of the book The Bible and Its Influence being promoted for use in Bible classes, the book seems sure to be absurd. A textbook reviewer returned an email inquiry and said: "We are on the case. The Bible and Its Influence, an outrageous fraud, will be the subject of two reviews in our publication, The
Textbook Letter
. One of the reviews has already been written." (Hopefully, these reviews will tip off some teachers about what's being proposed.) It must be noted also that the chairman of BLP is Chuck Stetson, about whom Americans United wrote: Chuck Stetson’s Trojan Horse?

These Bible literacy programs are indeed Trojan horses. They appear to have found a hole in the wall of separation and intend to exploint it fully.

Mel McGuire said...

The Bible Literacy Project link mentioned above is:
http://www.bibleliteracy.org/Site/index2.htm

Mel McGuire said...

So far as "Christian American History" is concerned, I'm reading the book "Liars for Jesus" by Chris Rodda. I'm not a historian but Chris sure looks like she's makeing a heroic detailed effort to debunk the rewrite of American history done for the sake of the Dominionist agenda.
The book's web site is: http://www.liarsforjesus.com/

This cult is anti-reason, anti-American, and anti-Western civilization. The rewrite of American history and the Bible literacy scam are two little discussed fronts in this war and I'm glad Mr. Cline has touched on them.

Mike said...

Mr. Cline,

I'm very disappointed to see you giving screen time to Dawkins and Hitchens. Those two are a bunch of vainglorious hacks. The Sparrowhawk series carries a better banner for atheism than any of their flavor-of-the-month product, because Sparrowhawk asserts a factual historic basis for its depiction of theist-atheist tension, while Dawkins and Hitchens are so busy preaching their own agenda that they are blind to having embraced the essence of the thing they condemn.

Bill Bucko the incorrigible said...

I read the Bible from cover to cover several times, starting when I was nine years old.

For those of you who haven't read it, I can summarize its philosophical meaning in 3 short quotes:

"lean not unto thine own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5);

"seek not after your own heart" (Numbers 15:39);

both of which were even more succinctly summarised by Jesus Christ:

"Deny thyself."

Which explains why, every Good Friday, I sing "If I Had a Hammer."

Ed Cline said...

Dear Dan G:

You write: "This is off topic, somewhat, but have you or your publisher/agent made any attempt to integrate your "Sparrowhawk" series into an american history curiculum? I ask because I recall that my 5th grade american history curiculum included a book titled "Johnny Tremain" and I believe that your series would be a superior substitution. I wouldn't know what grade level, nor which books (if not all) would suffice, but I'm curious if you've even considered it and what your opinion on the undertaking would be."

Actually, the series is turning up in college and high school lit courses. Reading age range is between 8 and 80. I'm in correspondence with a 3rd grade fan who'se read the whole series. Book 2 was used in a masterworks seminar at Ashland U. 1.5 years ago. I've lost track of where the series is being used in American lit courses. So, discriminating teachers are way ahead of both of us!

Mel McGuire: What you've posted above simply confirms my suspicions.

Mr. Mike: I think your prejudice against Dawkins and Hitchens is unreasonable. I agree with you that Sparrowhawk is a "better banner" for atheism than their books, but I failed to detect either of their agendas other than revealing the truths about God, the Bible, and the whole mess of religion.

Bill Bucko: Nice asides! Always go to the source if in doubt!



Ed Cline

Mel McGuire said...

I'll follow up.

My last visit to the Bible literacy movement was in May when I was informed by an email from TLL (The Textbook Letter) about the forthcoming two part review of "The Bible And It's Influence" (the book, used by BLP, mentioned in a prior comment of mine.) Checking the TLL website, the review isn't mentioned. So, if it's been published, I'll have to get a newsletter subscription before I can get hold of the review to read. As for the book, I likely won't read it: I based my "Trojan horse" assessment on the BLP premise that the Bible "is the foundational document for the development of Western Civilization." I also looked at the fact that Chuck Stetson is a coeditor.

Some Culprits Found

As to the "...culprits ultimately responsible for the growth of Bible studies in public school...", the book Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum by Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes (Paperback - Aug 25, 1998), might also be a place to look. I hadn't heard of this book but I ran across two scathing reviews yesterday on the TLL website. http://www.textbookleague.org/111nord.htm#apair The first is titled "Stealth Evangelism" by Brant Abrahamson.
"They purport to examine the underlying principles of the New Consensus and to "draw out," from those principles, some "implications for the curriculum." The implications, they say, are "sometimes surprising." I agree. It is truly surprising to see these authors "draw out" the implication that history teachers must present religious myths alongside historical scholarship and must depict these as equivalent paths to knowledge about the past! It is indeed surprising to watch the authors "draw out" the implication that science teachers in public schools must negate their own teaching of science by telling students that prescientific world-views, magical beliefs and miraculous happenings deserve serious consideration as explanations of nature!

What's the plan?

According to a second review "A Pair of Common Tricksters" (on the same web page) by William J. Bennetta: "In Taking Religion Seriously, Nord and Haynes try to provide rationalizations for converting the public schools into religious-indoctrination shops, and they try to convince their readers that this conversion can be accomplished in spite of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment -- the clause that forbids the erection of any official religion by any unit of government or any public agency. What the schools should do, Nord and Haynes suggest, is to set up programs of education "about religion" and to rig these programs in favor of whatever religions are deemed to be the "major" ones or the most "influential" ones. Then the schools can do what Nord and Haynes themselves do in their book: Cast Christianity as the only religion that is sufficiently "major" and sufficiently "influential" to merit sustained consideration, and cast the Christian Bible as the only religious scripture that merits any serious study. Nord and Haynes evidently imagine that this ruse will fool any court in the land. "

Weasel writing made the reviewers job very difficult.

About the way Nord and Haynes have written their book, I found this comment by Abrahamson (and a similar one by Bennetta) to be quite revealing: "Very few things in Taking Religion Seriously are stated clearly and explicitly, and the book is hard to read because it is packed with slippery phrasing, weasel-wording, equivocation, and internal contradictions. To figure out what Nord and Haynes are really proposing, I have had to work hard."

Shocking!

Bennetta also writes: "The only discernible innovation in Taking Religion Seriously is Nord and Haynes's effort to fuse the customary anti-intellectualism of the religious right with the "postmodern" anti-intellectualism of the academic left [note 8]. As we shall see, Nord and Haynes advance the postmodern notion that any invocation of knowledge or experience or judgment is an exercise in prejudice!"
According to the reviewers, the remake of American education is to take place under the banner of "teaching about religion" instead of the illegal "teaching religion." There's lots of shocking material in these reviews; I've only tried to convey a sense of the reviewer's conclusions.

Michael said...

To say that study of the Bible is necessary for a proper grasp of classic literature is utter nonsense. I am a senior undergrad in English and have taken classes in Shakespeare without ever reading the Bible even once. Whenever I tried to read the Bible, I gave up after the first few pages due to sheer boredom. I have no patience for the irrational, so when it comes to knowledge of the Bible I have learned that ignorance is indeed bliss.

Bill Bucko said...

Hardened atheist though I am, I have to disagree. Knowledge of Biblical mythology is just as important as knowledge of Greek mythology, for literature and art.

Adam's rib, Noah's ark, the mess of pottage, the patience of Job, the good shepherd, pearls before swine, the whore of Babylon ...

Just don't try to read the damned thing from cover to cover! Between those "begats" and the "heave offerings" (whatever the heck they were) and the blood on the high priest's big toe, anyone would find it mind-numbing.

Isaac Asimov wrote a good book, "Words from the Myths," covering the Greek legends. Something similar would be good in the case of the Bible.

Bill Bucko said...

I'm just trying to be a good Samaritan, that's all. Am I a voice crying in the wilderness? Or worse yet, a Jonah?

It doesn't take the wisdom of a Solomon to see that trying to get things done with a bunch of ill-educated people would be no better than the tower of Babel.

Do we really want students to think that "my cup runneth over" was something said by a Playboy model?

Bill Bucko

P.S. A Catholic girl I once knew, told me I was a cross she had to bear.

Mel McGuire said...

Turns out that there's another way of getting religion into the schools: fake history!

"Religious preaching makes these books unfit for use in public schools" by William J. Bennetta (of TTL)
http://www.textbookleague.org/sp-nogo.htm

"When we examine the textbooks that major publishers try to sell to public schools, we sometimes find fraudulent passages that function as instruments of religious indoctrination: Religious myths are depicted as accounts of real people and events, religious superstitions are depicted as matters of fact, and the origins of religious writings are obscured or are wrapped in outright lies."