Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

4 thoughts on “Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

  1. I had a World Religions teacher in high school that was spiritually progressive, nonpartisan, and deeply committed to helping students develop critical thinking.

    I also had a Journalism teacher in high school that was conservative, charismatic, and a missionary for Jesus at school, who would regularly walk the halls praying in some kind of spiritual warfare ritual, “claiming the space” for the Holy Spirit.

    Whenever I hear about this kind of push for Bible classes, I know that teachers of both kinds would be responsible for these types of classes in different pockets of the country; the liberal teachers who understand the Bible as a collection of valuable historical literature would upset the conservatives who think the book has magical powers, and the evangelical teachers would upset the parents who don’t want the schools to brainwash their children with religious dogma.

    Best to leave the “Bible” classes to colleges, both secular and religious colleges, so that adults can choose what to study, rather than spending public dollars and forcing children into a controversial curriculum of faith.

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  2. What a description! However, I must admit your engaging account of the ABS’s conception of how the Bible couldn’t help but remind me of the opening scene of the old “Bibleman” videos: https://youtu.be/E1La4PWtBws
    (In summary, a suicidal rich man screams in the rain and throws his suitcase to the ground, only to find–buried in the mud–a gigantic ornate Bible! “The Bible!” he murmurs in wonder. A light shines from heaven. He immediately converts, dons the Armor of God – in the form of a spandex superhero suit – and vows to fight evil in the name of God.)

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  3. What’s peculiar to me is that the people supporting these measures tend to be very sensitive to exactly how the bible is understood and taught, and so it’s entirely very possible that these classes will be teaching a view many evangelicals would find really disagreeable. Aren’t they just setting themselves up for finding out a few years later that schools are teaching radical humanist views like “things you might find in a Methodist seminary?”

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    • That is what I am trying to figure out too. As a Christian I would certainly like society as a whole to be more Bible literate. I view that as a good thing. But the people who push the hardest for Bible classes in schools are not typically people who are likely to be satisfied with a “Bible as literature” approach. They are typically the most particular about not only how the Bible is interpreted, but also what parts are emphasized or deemphasizd. (Typically very very big on the “thou shalt not’s” but not so much on, say, the Sermon on the Mount material.)

      I have a high view on the inspiration of the Bible which is actually why I prefer it to be taught at my church within the context of my faith, rather than by someone in a school whose view of the Bible may not be remotely similar to mine.

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