Every semester at Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college in Santa Barbara, Calif., Dr. Tremper Longman, an Old Testament professor, hands out a pre-test on Bible basics to assess where his students are.
“It’s (the test) pretty empty when it comes back,” the professor said. “They are pretty illiterate about it, especially the Old Testament. The church is not doing a particularly good job of it, either.”
Longman recognizes that if Bible literacy among his mostly churched students is low, secular students and schools would likely test even lower.
Longman’s experience doesn’t surprise Chuck Stetson, co-author of “The Bible and its Influence,” a new high school textbook designed to be used in public schools as part of a Bible elective course.
In an era when Christian groups appear to be in endless battles with the American Civil Liberties Union over the intended definition of “church and state,” the new text is making a bold entry, garnering mostly favorable national headlines.
“The Bible is a document that belongs to the world, not just the church,” Professor Longman said. “It’s something that even if you reject its message you should still study it so you can understand the culture.”
The logistics of accomplishing that have been daunting.
Stetson, chairman of the Fairfax, Va.-based Bible Literacy Project, has spent more than years bringing the concept to print. It was funded by the John Templeton Foundation and has earned key endorsements from the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Jewish Congress.
“They’ve been plugging along for five years,” Sheila Weber, vice president of communications, said in a phone interview.
Although the ACLU has yet to weigh in on the textbook, other civil liberties groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and People for the American Way, have not opposed the text and have said the material is an acceptable product for public schools.
“This is the only product that is recommended by the First Amendment Center,” Weber said.
It also appeared to impress the Associated Press news service, which cited “The Bible and Its Influence” as one of the top "notable books on religion for 2005 ... for its distinctiveness and potential importance."
In keeping with its vision to create a text that celebrates the Bible’s content, its influence on language, literature, history, politics and culturebut not beliefStetson and co-author Cullen Schippe tapped 41 national scholars who specialize in religion and the Bible.
Among them was Longman, chairman of the religious studies department at Westmont. He said he was pleased with the approach.
“It was a very fair presentation of the biblical materials,” he said.
“Knowing the Bible is crucial for understanding our culture. This is their attempt to improve Bible literacy among our citizens.
“They are being very careful that it’s not being used as a tool of proselytism.”
Research report released
According to officials at the Bible Literacy Project, research from the highly respected Gallup Poll, helped forge Stetson’s desire to combat Bible illiteracy. The study, compiled into a 55-page report document called “Bible Literacy Report,” was released last year.
The report revealed that 40 to the 41 teachers interviewed agreed that Bible literacy is a significant educational advantage. In addition the majority of high school English teachers estimated that fewer than a fourth of their current students were biblically literate.
The educators also added that they believed the loss of Bible knowledge was harming students’ ability to literature, art, music, history and culture.
Among the numbers that stunned Stetson:
• A spring 2004 survey found that 98 percent of high school English teachers surveyed believe Bible literacy gives distinct academic advantage.
• 90 percent of English teachers said knowing the Bible was “crucial” to a good education.
• 8 percent of public school teens said their campus offered a Bible elective course.
“He (Stetson) saw that was huge differential,” Weber said.
In addition, Stetson said he believed that as a written historical text that is also the most sold work in the world, the Bible deserves its own place in the public classroom.
“‘The Bible and Its Influence’ was written to provide a legal resource that will give more public schools greater confidence in offering Bible electives in English or Social Studies, while treating the faith perspective with respect and preserving the ability of families and congregations to teach their view of the Bible," Stetson said in a news release.
The textbook, Weber said, demonstrates that it is possible to present knowledge about the Bible without instilling belief or disparaging belief.
Pilot schools have reported that students liked the textbook as it meshes out facts and details about poetry, speeches, art, history, and literature of British and American origins.
“This book not only teaches students what they know about the text, but also shows them how the Bible has so richly influenced British and American history,” Weber said.
For instance, according to the Bible Literacy Project, there are more than 1,300 biblical references in the works of Shakespeare, and more than 60 percent of allusions for one AP literature exam prep course are biblical phrases. Even the Gettysburg Address and the U.S. Constitution were heavily influenced by the Bible’s contents.
Even so, Weber admits that teachers tend to be skittish about what’s acceptable when using the Bible in the classroom, but said the text, and its companion teacher’s guide, gives instructors clear guidelines on what’s acceptable.
“It keeps the teachers on task, on track so the teacher can’t venture off,” Weber said.
The text’s makers have also established an online University-based teacher training program have helped to alleviate most concerns.
“It’s a full package that makes all educators comfortable,” she said.
“We really want to convince educators who are a hard lot to convince. We’ve been hailed as a solution to the ever-present problem of the Bible in schools.
“We built the textbook to meet the national court-defined standards.”
So far, more than 800 schools nationwide are reviewing the book and Weber estimates between 15,000 and 20,000 books will be sold before September.
“We’ve made a strong case of why this is an important part of a strong education,” the vice president said.
For more information, log on to bibleliteracy.org.