WASHINGTON—Seeking to defuse a central controversy of the culture wars, a Bible advocacy group will unveil a new textbook Thursday that could open the door to widespread Bible courses in public high schools.
The textbook, titled "The Bible and Its Influence," was written to thread a constitutional and legal needle by teaching, not preaching, about the Bible, its editors told Knight Ridder in an exclusive preview.
The book comes as the country renews its centuries-old debate over the proper role of religion in public life and public schools. Courts are reviewing whether it's constitutional to include the phrase "One nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Others argue over whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public buildings.
Courts and school districts have wrestled for decades over how or whether to teach the Bible.
"This predates the evolution versus creationism debate," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, who's reviewed the book.
"We've had so many conflicts, so many lawsuits, on this issue. ... This is finally something that most of us can recommend as an answer."
Scholars have been looking for a way to teach about the Bible in public schools for years, said Sheila Weber, a vice president of the Bible Literacy Project, a Virginia group that's publishing the 40-chapter book.
Obviously a source of faithful inspiration to many, the Bible is also a cultural touchstone that's crucial to young students, Weber said. For example, she said, the works of Shakespeare include 1,300 biblical references. She also noted that 60 percent of the allusions in one advanced-placement literature course had biblical references such as "walking on water."
The new book includes sections explaining the Bible's influence on literature, art, music and history.
Many previous efforts to introduce the Bible to public schools have focused on a Christian interpretation, Weber said. Or they've been taught by teachers who often strayed too far into religion or too far from it.
The book, being published in time for school districts to consider for next year's curricula, was designed to follow a set of guidelines on how to teach about the Bible in public schools while not endorsing one religion's view and not offending people of faith.
The guidelines were approved by such groups as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council on Islamic Education and the People for the American Way Foundation, as well as the First Amendment Center.
"We think it reflects the standards we agreed to," Haynes said. The other groups haven't yet seen the textbook and couldn't comment on it Wednesday.
Judith Schaeffer, the deputy legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal group that has opposed preaching in public schools, said the book must not endorse any religious perspective. For example, she said, it can't say that the story of Adam and Eve represents mankind's fall from grace. That's a Christian view, she said.
"We are hopeful that it presents a lawful approach to teaching about the Bible," she said.
The book doesn't take sides in its account of Genesis. "Some read Genesis as a literal account of the mechanics of creation. Still others read it as a poem about God's relationship with humans," it says.
"Genesis offers an account of the origins of the world and the human race that both directly and indirectly has influenced world civilization and continues to influence it."
For more on the Bible Literacy Project online, go to www.bibleliteracy.org.
For more on the First Amendment Center, www.firstamendmentcenter.org.
For more on People for the American Way, www.pfaw.org.
For the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, http://etext.virginia.edu/rsv.browse.html
Some excerpts from new textbook, "The Bible and Its Influence":
"While some Christians read Genesis as a literal account of how God created the world, most Christians and Jews read Genesis for a different sort of revelation: for the what and why of creation rather than the how."
_On Moses parting the Red Sea:
"With impassable waters before them and the furious Egyptians at their backs, the Israelites appeared doomed. But once more, according to Exodus, God intervened."
_On the virgin birth of Jesus:
"The original word in Isaiah translated here as virgin can mean young girl or virgin. As it is cited in Matthew, however, it forms the basis for the Christian belief in the virgin birth. The tradition states Mary was a virgin when she conceived and bore Jesus."
_On influencing American history:
"Words from the Bible are inscribed on public buildings. Political campaigns are laced with references to the Bible. ... Little of America's historic public speeches or its great reform movements or the pilgrim wanderings that led to America's founding is completely intelligible without at least a working knowledge of the Bible."
_On influencing language:
"The central ridge of thyroid cartilage at the base of the throat, a structure generally more prominent in males, is popularly known as Adam's apple, based on a legend which says that a bit of forbidden fruit lodged in Adam's throat was a warning of the grief to come."
_On influencing Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea":
"A number of gospel images can be found. ... The image of the fish recalls an ancient Christian symbol. The Old Man's bleeding hands recall the nails in Jesus' hands. The way the Old Man holds the line across his back is reminiscent of Jesus carrying the cross. ... The Old Man lies on his bed with his hat cutting into his head ... suggests the crown of thorns."
_On understanding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech on the eve of his assassination:
"To grasp the full impact of this historic moment, one has to know the biblical references. One needs to know what the `mountaintop' is all about. What does `I may not get there with you' mean? What is this reference to the `promised land?'"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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