In recent years, the textbooks used by America's school children have become a major source of debate. The disagreement has usually been about religion - whether textbooks should address the subject, and if so, how.
But while educators in states like Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have been publicly arguing about the place of God in the classroom, a group known as the Bible Literacy Project has been quietly working on a book that they say will satisfy both ends of the ideological spectrum. And the initial response from teachers has been enthusiastic.
The textbook, intended for use in high schools, is called The Bible and Its Influence. It was recently unveiled by the Bible Literacy Project, which spent six years and $2 million developing it.
According to a survey conducted by the Project, as many as two-thirds of American public school students are unfamiliar with the basic characters and stories in the Bible. This same survey found that 98% of public school English teachers believe students must be familiar with the Bible in order to fully appreciate western literature.
According to Cullen Shippe, editor of the new textbook, the need for biblical literacy extends beyond that. "Rock musicians, screen writers, television producers, and advertisers use the Bible as a source," Mr. Shippe says. "Politicians use the words, characters, and accounts of the Bible to frame their debates. The development of the textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, is an opportunity to share the contents of the Bible with public high school students in an appropriate, honest, and direct way."
But it was not easy to determine what, exactly, constitutes an "appropriate, honest, and direct way." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment prohibits public school teachers from endorsing any particular religious belief. For the last 40 years or so, that has been interpreted to mean that religious beliefs cannot be discussed at all in any public school.
But according to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, that interpretation has been changing. He says educators have begun to search for a different approach - one that allows them to discuss religion, without actually endorsing it.
"Parents and teachers and students come to us and say, you know, 'We want a Bible elective (course). But how do we do it?'" Mr. Haynes says. "'Are there any instructional materials available for us to consider? How can we do this without starting a fight, or triggering a lawsuit?' That's the question. Well, I didn't really have a good answer until the release of The Bible and Its Influence, because, simply put, there was nothing out there."
Charles Haynes says up until now, textbooks about the Bible have taken a devotional approach to Scripture -- and that is really what makes this new textbook different. The message is not that the stories and ideas in the Bible are true. It is simply that people throughout western history have believed them be true - and that their belief has prompted them to fight wars, construct buildings, write poetry, and put paint and brush to canvas.
"It is really true that students who don't have a foundational understanding of some of
the archetypal stories in the Bible miss out," says Barbara Murray who teaches Literature at West Linn High School, in the northwestern state of Oregon. "When an author places something as an allusion in a story, when they are assuming that you (have) resonant pieces (of understanding) of what a symbol or a reference means, if a student doesn't have that, they don't have what the author intended."
As an example, Barbara Murray points to a novel she recently taught in which a character is described as -- quote -- "washing his hands" of a situation. The expression is a reference to the biblical story of Pontius Pilate, who literally washed his hands after ordering the execution of Jesus. According to the story, the people of Judea had called for Christ's crucifixion, but Pontius Pilate could have stopped it. He did not.
"Now, any time a person 'washes their hands' of something, they're not taking responsibility for something that they could have," Ms. Murray says. "That piece is really powerful, and you don't use that, as an author, unless you really want someone to see that this is a serious flaw in that character - that they're going to bend to the crowd, they're not going to stand up for what's right."
Barbara Murray is one of several high school teachers who tested the new textbook in her classroom before it was officially unveiled. She says it will undoubtedly be a valuable resource for history and literature teachers across the country.
However, it is not likely The Bible and Its Influence will put an end to the increasingly rancorous debate about the place of God in the classroom, since much of that debate has been about the science classroom. And the textbook does not say much about that.