Naked City

Revelations high

Reading, writing, and Revelations – such is the fare some Texas public high school students are receiving, and the Texas Freedom Network doesn't like it one bit. Not that the group, which describes itself as advancing a "mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties" has anything against the four horsemen, smiting, and other Biblical delights per se. They argue, however, that a prepared curriculum, The Bible in History and Literature, which its publishers claim is in use by 52 Texas school districts and which was approved by an Odessa school board with great hullabaloo this spring, goes beyond the academic study of religion into a sectarian promotion of faith. And a sloppy, error-filled one at that.

"The Bible is too important to be taught with such a problematic curriculum," said Mark Chancey, a professor of biblical studies at Southern Methodist University who wrote a report the TFN released Monday criticizing the curriculum's scholarly flaws and sectarian nature. "Both the Bible and Texas high school students deserve better."

According to the Supreme Court ruling that ended devotional exercises in public schools, the Bible can be studied as an academic topic. For example, most large public universities, including UT, offer Bible studies courses alongside those focusing on Islam, Hinduism, and other religions. However, when a course moves from the level of objective fact (i.e., "Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth walked on water") to statements of faith ("Jesus Christ walked on water"), that's where public schools could run afoul of the law.

The TFN is not legally challenging the curriculum. While Chancey's report does argue that the curriculum presents the Bible through an evangelical Protestant lens, most of it is devoted to issues of academic quality. Vast sections of the curriculum, for example, can be found verbatim in other published sources, such as the Microsoft online encyclopedia Encarta or religious texts by popular religious writers. Ancient scrolls usually refer to such phenomena as "plagiarism," and it is generally not considered a sign of a quality curricular product. Chancey also says some of the facts in the curriculum are wrong or downright bizarre, such as its claim that NASA scientists have discovered a "lost day" that proves the veracity of the story of the sun standing still in the book of Joshua. "When the type of urban legend that would normally circulate by spam e-mail ends up in a curriculum, it's a problem," he said.

Nevertheless, the report caused little weeping and wailing over at the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which publishes the curriculum. The group distributed a sharply worded statement dismissing the TFN's concerns as the ranting of radicals. Attorney Mike Johnson of the Alliance Defense Fund, which frequently represents clients in religious freedom cases (understanding the term to mean the freedom to practice religion in a public institution) said that because the NCBCPS curriculum is the only high school Bible curriculum in existence, the TFN is in effect trying to ban the study of the Bible in public schools. "If this curriculum is eliminated, it eliminates the elective study of the Bible in public schools," Johnson said.

Chancey countered that "tons" of nonsectarian textbooks exist to teach students to know their Acts from their Apocrypha. He cited as an example a new high school text developed by an ecumenical group of scholars at the Bible Literacy Project scheduled to hit the market this fall.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

church and state, Alliance Defense Fund, Mark Chancey, National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, Texas Freedom Network

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