Friday, January 1, 2010

Jack v. Bible

Atheist Jack's battle with public school officials in Newton, MA, reminded me of my paternal grandfather, the wisest man I ever knew.

Pa -- his given name was Albert but everyone called him "Pa" --  always said that after Shakespeare's entire canon, the King James Bible contained some of the greatest literature in the English language.  Pa knew his Shakespeare: he could quote from memory long passages of favorite works, adjusting the timbre of his voice for each character.  He seldom quoted from the Bible; religion (he professed none) was to him a private matter and best left that way.

In a tenth-grade English class in Newton, the teacher instructed the students to read a passage from the Bible as literature, prepare for a quiz on the material, and write a paper about it -- as literature.  Jack Summers, a professed atheist, refused the assignment, standing on his First Amendment rights.  The flap that ensued made the front page of the local paper, which prompted many letters to the editor, including one from Jack's mother which oddly argued that it would be OK for Jack to read a summary of the contested passage -- a sort of Cliff Note version -- but not the actual text.  Supreme Court decisions were invoked. Clergymen, historians  and scholars were called upon to testify about degrees of separation of church and state. At length the school officials exempted Jack from the assignment.  This of course triggered a whole new round of debate.

I had mixed emotions after reading accounts of Jack's Battle of the Bible in Newton.  On the one hand, I could not question Pa's wisdom in deeming the King James Bible worthy of recognition as great literature, and thus worthy of serious study as such. (I don't know which version of the Bible Jack's class was required to read; perhaps it was one whose literary value would not meet Pa's high standards.) On the other hand, I stand with Jack on the First Amendment when it comes to requiring public school pupils to read religious tracts -- especially religious tracts that are held to be the very Word of God - even if they are presented not as religion but as "literature."  A wiser path for that English teacher would have been to offer a non-religious alternative to this particular assignment.
Critics of the school's "cave-in" to Atheist Jack assert that the Bible's use of language and imagery, rhythm, poetic construction, character description, narrative power – the attributes of literature -- justify the assignment as literary study.  I wonder how Pa would come down on this.  His own deep scholarship into the King James Bible as literature was voluntary, a choice made in relative maturity.

Bear in mind that religionists have already forced the Biblical creation myth into some public school classes as "science."  If you can also require kids to read the Bible as literature, what's wrong with requiring them to read it as , say, history, as well?

What's wrong is requiring them. The Wall of Separation took a terrible battering during the Bush II presidency.  Forcing kids to read the Bible in public schools -- for any reason -- is no way to rebuild it.

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