The other day my publisher here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette appeared at my desk carrying a textbook designed for Bible courses in the public schools. Walter Hussman knew I'd be interested, since one of my many obsessions is the role of religion in American life.
Wait a minute. Is that legal - to teach the Bible in a public school? Didn't the Supreme Court nix that kind of thing? No, it didn't, although that's a common misconception. The court ruled against imposing prayer on students in the public schools, not studying religion. To quote its decision:
"Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment." - Abington v. Schempp, 1963.
But how teach the Bible as just another part of secular culture? It's a little like thinking of the sun as just another star, even though its light can be overwhelming.
Yes, it can be done - by teaching the Bible as literature - but it takes considerable judgment, both legal and literary, to do it right. And the result, like putting anything holy under the microscope, may never be wholly satisfactory. It's like trying to dissect awe.
Well, nobody ever said following the First Amendment would be easy. That first and greatest of the Big Ten, aka the Bill of Rights, bars any law (1) respecting an establishment of religion or (2) prohibiting the free exercise thereof. How thread your way past those two obstacles?
This text - "The Bible and its Influence" by Cullen Schippe and Chuck Stetson - sets out to do just that by taking pains not to teach the Bible but to teach about it, mainly its influence on literature and on American culture in general. Examples of that influence abound, and the finest ones share the Bible's own power to move us:
There is Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which comes as close to the spirit of the Old Testament as any American state paper. And Martin Luther King's speech from the mountaintop on the eve of his assassination. Consider just the biblical allusions in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Or in Negro spirituals. And so indefinitely on.
Not to exclude the freethinkers and Deists and children of the Enlightenment who populate American history, but biblical themes are inseparable not just from the imagery but from the very idea of American freedom.
Then there is the wealth of literary allusions to The Book, from Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," with its reflections of the story of Ruth amid the alien corn.
And consider the wealth of biblical phrases that have made it into not just American politics and literature but common speech - Let there be light, the powers that be, my brother's keeper, and so on and on . . . .
This textbook explains the enduring fascination with the Hebrew Bible by noting the humanity of its characters:
"The heroes in Genesis are not cardboard figures of perfect virtue. Great faithfulness to God is shown side by side with very human feelings and failings; fear, doubt, anger, jealousy, deceit and cruelty."
No wonder this ancient document remains so contemporary. Some things apparently don't change, like human nature.
If the Bible is an inspired book, it is also a very human one. Indeed, its depiction of the Lord God himself is mighty human. This is not the God of the philosophers, the first mover unmoved and all that, but the One who moves through our lives, noticed or unnoticed, acknowledged or unacknowledged. He still comforts people and He still upsets them, so much so that some don't want any mention of Him made in school.
Yes, the Bible, a great object of veneration, can also come blasphemously close to humanizing its Protagonist. But it wouldn't be a great book, let alone the Greatest Book Ever Written, if its Author hadn't taken the greatest risks. (I can almost see the lightning gathering in the background as I type those words.)
The principal purpose of taking a secular approach to the Bible is to avoid crossing the legal line between church and state. But in the process, that approach also avoids engaging the Book at its deepest and most intimate level: the holy.
That's the great obstacle facing all efforts like this textbook. And why in the end they must fall short, and settle for kissing the bride through the veil. Yet that is better than not kissing her at all.