Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Case for Writing More Accurately About Religion in America

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


(Click for a larger image.)

A recent "Holy Crap" installment of Mike's Blog Round-Up links the Time magazine cover story, "The Case for Teaching The Bible," by their senior religion writer, David van Biema. (The cover, as you can see above, says "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School (But very, very carefully).")

To expand on my comments in the post thread, the article was actually better than I expected, but reminded me of why I cancelled my subscription to Time as a teenager (heading to college) after trying it for a year. I remember a piece on religion they did back then that simply assumed that a decline in church attendance was a bad thing, that outward displays of religiosity actually meant those people were spiritual, and that morality could not exist separate from religion. In another piece, it was an unchallenged given that getting a tattoo was scandalous — that was in fact the article's entire point. A film review condescendingly derided the 'cesspool that is the teenage mind' (not a great way of winning over a teenager reader, and surely written by a out-of-touch parent). If van Biema's Bible piece is representative, sadly not that much has changed. Time does occasionally feature some good articles, but as a rule it's shallow and frankly, bourgeois. The perceived social norm and conventional wisdom are the guiding lights, not accuracy. False or misleading assumptions are deep-rooted and rarely examined. The point-of-view is relatively fixed and unreflective, with dismissive, inaccurate and imprecise characterizations the rule rather than the exception. (Hehe. I realize the Time rant belongs in its own post, with more detailed examples.)

Here's what David van Biema does well. He tries to be even-handed, and spends a great deal of time with teacher Jennifer Kendrick and her high school Bible literacy class. While most of the article is anecdotal, the main point of the piece is to show how the Bible can be taught in an educational, non-proselytizing manner. None of this is news to those in the teaching profession, but it may be useful to his readers.

Of course teaching the Bible is fine and legal in a public school, in an elective course or as part of a comparative religion course. (I wouldn't think that would be news, either.) Frankly, if you're an English major in college and don't have some basic knowledge of the Bible, you're going to be at a disadvantage. (I knew an English major in college who was advised to read the Bible by a professor, because her only knowledge of Genesis came from Paradise Lost!) A basic knowledge of mythology, particularly Greek, is also pretty important in most of the arts. However, courses involving the Bible need to be designed for non-Christians and in a way that does not entail proselytizing. Jennifer Kendrick really seems to do a fine job (but then, teachers almost always do a better job than the people so intent on telling them what and how to teach).

Sadly, van Biema also goes seriously off-track. He first quotes Stephen Prothero, "chair of the Boston University religion department" and author of a new book, Religious Literacy. Shortly thereafter, van Biema writes:

HERE IS ONE OF PROTHERO'S FAVORITE stories of Bible ignorance. In 1995 a federal appeals court upheld the overturn of a death sentence in a Colorado kidnap-rape-murder case because jurors had inappropriately brought in extraneous material--Bibles--for an unsanctioned discussion of the Exodus verse "an eye for eye, tooth for tooth ... whoever ... kills a man shall be put to death." The Christian group Focus on the Family complained, "It is a sad day when the Bible is banned from the jury room." Who's most at fault here? The jurors, who perhaps hadn't noticed that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus rejects the eye-for-an-eye rule, word for word, in favor of turning the other cheek? The Focus spokesman, who may well have known of Jesus' repudiation of the old law but chose to ignore it? Or any liberal who didn't know enough to bring it up?

Van Biema then rattles off poll numbers about Americans and their professed love for, yet demonstrated ignorance of, the Bible. All that's fine, but his ability to breeze over this incident and completely miss the central point is astonishing, and frankly, troubling. Whatever its faults or merits, Time has a large readership and this is their cover story (in the United States).

Where to begin? First of all, van Biema should have written "any non-religious person who didn't know enough to bring it up." His use of "liberal" betrays a false assumption that liberals don't know the Bible! It also suggests, falsely, that all atheists are liberals, that atheists don't know the Bible, and that liberals are non-religious while conservative are. Sloppy, prejudicial, and typical of Time. "Know enough" also assumes that there's some moral, cultural or intellectual failing in not knowing the "turn the other cheek" phrase. (I actually agree most people should know Jesus said to "turn the other cheek" as part of their cultural literacy, but van Biema's assumptions are interesting.)

I agree that's it's very sad if a group of self-professed Christians, both the jurors and the Focus for the Family spokesman, aren't familiar with "turn the other cheek," and rather than turning to the Gospels, they're digging into Exodus. I have to wonder if the Focus spokesman is just taking a bloodthirsty stance, or raising a groundless stink about the Court being anti-religious for political effect.

However, the big, blatant issue is staring van Biema right in the face, and he even reports the crucial elements before traipsing right past them. America is not a theocracy. Jurors are supposed to render judgments based on the law, not a favorite religious text. What van Biema bemoans as a lack of knowledge of the Bible is actually a much more troubling lack of knowledge about our legal system, as well as a failure of civic duty. No juror should have to refute a religious argument with another one in any relation to a court of law!

Van Biema also ignores another glaring point. Even if the jurors knew the Bible passage in question, the appeal would still have succeeded. The grounds for appeal were not "They quoted Exodus, not Matthew!" It was that they violated the law, and I would presume, directions from the judge. Even assuming that the death penalty is preferable (and that's an awfully big assumption, and a whole other discussion) this kidnapper-rapist-murderer was spared the death penalty not because of ignorance of the Bible, but because some religious people decided to inject their religion into the legal process. Why is it that van Biema doesn't consider this central, dangerous issue for even a second?

This is precisely why I don't like Time as a general rule. Van Biema is trying to be a peacemaker, and that's fine, but boy, is he stuck in his own bourgeois sensibilities. Religion's role in our society is primarily a social issue or challenge. The legal issues are pretty much settled, and the existing laws are quite sensible. The educational issues are pretty much settled, and sensibly handled. I suspect van Biema is trying to make Christian folks comfortable that not everyone hates the Bible or something, and is trying to make the folks who value our society's laws about the separation of church and state (that includes many Christians) comfortable with the Bible being taught in public schools. That's a worthy cause, but you know what? I really don't care, if he can't be accurate and pertinent first, last and always. This isn't "let's chat about religion with Uncle Fluffy" time, after all. Van Biema is a reporter for one America's major newsweeklies, writing a cover story. America is not a theocracy. Nowhere does van Biema state that, or anything approaching that. To his credit, he does mention the Constitution, and case law, but presents the separation of church and state more as part of an ongoing legal and social dispute than as a defining characteristic of our nation's founding. If van Biema were more responsible, he would write something such as:

America is not a theocracy, was expressly founded not to be one, and the separation of church and state is inviolate. However, America is a predominantly Christian nation by demographics, and recent polls show that for all their professed love of the Bible, the majority of Americans are startlingly ignorant about its contents. Because the Bible has played such an important role in Western Civilization, some organizations have suggested an increased emphasis on teaching the Bible in a non-sectarian way in public schools. This raises pedagogical challenges — and strong emotions.

There. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Van Biema has decent ideas about guidelines for teaching the Bible, but then ends the piece by writing:

And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.

Who, exactly, is preventing "access" to the Bible? Anyone with an access to a library or the internet can read it. Many organizations offer free copies, and most hotels and motels have them. You can find fellows on street corners will give you one.

Digby recently considered the whole "Bible literacy" issue in the post What's Wrong With This Picture?

I agree that it's a little bit odd that the vast majority of people in a country that prides itself as the most religious in the world can't name the writers of the gospel, but really, whose fault is that? The last I heard, there were tens of thousands of churches in this country. Is it too much to ask that they be in charge of religious instruction? Isn't that their specialty?

I know that many of the conservative mega-churches spend most of their time instructing their parishioners on Republican politics and holding Christian rock extravaganzas so they don't have time for actual religious teaching. Understood. But maybe they could send their kids to the mainline and liberal churches once a month so they can get some actual Bible teachings. With all the pressure on public schools to find a way to teach biology that doesn't offend the Christian Right, they just don't have the resources to spend on special classes about Biblical references in pop songs and presidents 'n stuff.

I'm sure there are many churches that would be happy to accommodate those who want their kids (or themselves) to learn about religion.

Really, if the public schools are teaching kids how to read, write, perform mathematical equations and develop critical thinking skills, can't the churches do their part? Especially if religious folk are unhappy with the state of "Bible literacy" or what not.

For what it's worth, I certainly received plenty of Bible study in Sunday School as a kid, and also had an excellent, highly educational unit on comparative religion in the 6th grade (we studied the Five Pillars of Islam and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, and had to demonstrate knowledge of all five major world religions, along with some knowledge of a few smaller ones such as Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Shinto). I haven't seen anyone rail against a comparative religion unit (except perhaps the religious right!) or an elective on the Bible. Even Van Biema can't seem to find any "secularists" who do so (he cites some folks' "concerns," but does not cite a single instance of someone challenging such a curriculum).

Really, who is trying to deny anyone's "access" to the Bible? I suspect van Biema is a well-intentioned Christian trying to play peacemaker, but he completely ignores the glaring theocracy issue of the court incident he cites, and also declines to give any larger context for the American theocracy movement lead by religious authoritarian conservatives, no doubt to avoid "offending" someone. However, the context remains essential. As we explored in The Social Tolerance Charts and The Religion-in-Society Charts, it's important to remember that in American culture, members of the religious right are the aggressors, not the other way around. The religious right is not interested in better cultural literacy. They have the ability to pursue that, easily, if they want. They're interested in social control.

What rankles me is that this article touches on line-in-the-sand issues, but van Biema is either ignorant of the line or happy to ignore it. Why then does he deserve any trust? In this respect, I really can't view him much differently than the reporters who refused to ask the Bush administration tough questions in the run-up to war, or all the chattering idiots in the MSM who prefer gossipy (and often inaccurate) coverage over factual, accountability reporting. These avoidable failings hurt our national discourse.

You know what's even more important in America than knowledge of the Bible? Some basic knowledge of the United States Constitution.

Update 4/14/07: "Some religious people decided to inject their religion into the legal process" is imprecise on my part, although I would hope my meaning was clear in context. There's nothing wrong per se about bringing religion into a jury room. Of course a juror can say, I'm opposed to the death penalty, or I'm in favor of it, and I feel this way because of The Bible or some other holy text, just as someone can favor or oppose the death penalty for non-religious reasons. What's not cool in the jury room is saying, "We must execute this man because the Bible says so," or that he must be allowed to live or even be freed for similar reasons. The Bible may be the ultimate authority in an individual's life, but part of jury instruction is that jurors will render their decisions according to the law. There's a difference between one bringing one's religious beliefs into a jury room and bringing in a theocratic value system that (however well-intended) supplants our civil justice system. There's a frustrating lack of detail in van Biema's piece, but it's an anecdote versus the main focus of his article. I would imagine (or hope) Prothero's book offers more context, since I have many questions after van Biema's account.

1 comment:

jamonation said...

I don't think that van Biema really contextualizes his claims enough, and you do an admirable job of situating his arguments within a broader social context.

I very much like your perspective on the article, I think your analysis of the church's lack of instruction, and of how van Biema perpetuates the dominant hegemony by simply glossing over relevant issues, is/was refreshing and much needed.