Mark Chancey on How to Teach the Bible in Public Schools

I met Mark Chancey a few years ago in Durham, NC.  I was speaking at a conference he helped organize at Duke University on the Bible in the public square.  Since then I have turned to his work for help in making sense of the thorny issue of religion in public schools.

Over at Religion & Politics, Mark has a helpful essay entitled “How Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?”  Here is a taste:

The issue of how public schools teach about religion is relatively under-studied, but it is clear that confusion abounds on the question of how to meet the Court’s benchmark of objective, secular presentation. For these reasons, I welcomed an invitation to study public school Bible courses for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog group. Using open records requests, TFN obtained course materials from sixty Bible courses taught in Texas high schools in the 2011-2012 school year; they asked me to examine them for academic quality and adherence to the legal guidelines offered by various federal courts. 

The resulting report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-2012 (a follow-up to an earlier study), found that most Texas Bible courses crossed the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion. While many problems appeared to be missteps by well-intentioned and otherwise well-trained teachers, others reflected overt sectarian agendas. 

The syllabus for one course, for example, identified its objective as “to consider the teachings of the New Testament through the lens of faith,” and students read books on Christian apologetics. Many courses depicted the Bible as straightforward, unproblematic history—even the miracle stories. A PowerPoint slide from one district illustrates this approach, instructing students that “Christ’s resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space – that it was, in reality, historical and not mythological (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16)” [sic]. Many courses presented traditional Christian theological interpretations of scripture as normative readings, going so far as to teach students that the Tanakh/Old Testament supernaturally predicted the coming of Jesus. (When a New York Times reporter questioned this approach, pointing out to one teacher that Jews do not believe that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies, the teacher curiously countered, “In New York, they don’t.”) Pseudoscience made its way into some courses, such as those that advocated creationism or the belief that racial origins can be traced to Noah.  

The good news is that other Texas courses succeeded admirably in treating the biblical material in ways that respected constitutional limits and diverse religious sensibilities. How did they do it? 

Read the rest here, including some suggested readings on the topic.

3 thoughts on “Mark Chancey on How to Teach the Bible in Public Schools

  1. The claim that “Christ’s resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space – that it was, in reality, historical and not mythological” is an accurate claim. There is significant historical evidence for the resurrection, and it is outlined by Gary Habermas in his book “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.”

    Habermas uses what he calls the minimal facts method of proving the resurrection. Even when limiting himself to just those facts which are strongly evidenced and which are supported by nearly every scholar on the subject, he is still able to prove rather conclusively that Jesus did rise again from the dead.

    You can read Habermas' work online at:


  2. Very difficult question–secularizing the Bible.

    Yes, it does appear that many in TX are crossing the line, sectarianizing the Bible.

    OTOH, my Catholic mom thought it was OK if we attended our evangelical neighbor's backyard Bible school during the summer.

    Yeah, I suppose it chafes agnostic butt that Jesus's resurrection is taught not as a matter of faith but as a matter of historical fact.

    [Although that's the Christian claim! Eyewitnesses!]

    I don't know what to do about it, just like I don't know what to do about illegal immigration. I'm comfortable with gray areas. let the Catlicks and the Prots and the atheists fight it out among themselves, community by community.

    Hey, John–I grew up in Kensington.

    “The immediate cause of the riots of 1844 stemmed from Catholic opposition to the exclusive use of the Protestant Bible in the public schools.”

    Frankly, these days, I'd say most [observant] Catholics and Protestants would rather trust the Bible to each other than the strict separationists, who would rather eradicate it completely.

    [That goes for you, self-proclaimed “Texas Freedom Network.” Not freedom for, but freedom against.

    In the end, not “freedom” atall.]


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