How to Teach the Bible in Public Schools

Here is a subject I’m often asked to address. This article of mine was published in Teachers of Vision Vol. XLIX, No. 1 Back to School 2003. p. 6. (A publication of Christian Educators Association International.) I hope you like it.


Christians have all heard it said from pulpit and in print, “They (whoever they are) have taken the Bible out of the public schools and forbidden us to teach it.” Such statements are nonsense, propaganda, designed to create a fear of and resentment toward public education. While it is true the Bible does not occupy the strategic position it once held in education, government, and society, ANY teacher may teach their students much more about the Bible than he or she realizes. After teaching English literature in public schools and universities for nine years, I have learned several strategies that will help teachers raise Biblical and cultural literacy in their students.

While law and government policies and societal mores have been a factor in the Bible’s lost presence in public education, actually, the most significant cause of the loss of the scripture’s presence is ignorance. Today, an appalling ignorance of the Bible exists on the part of teachers and students. There is also an ignorance of the significant role the Bible plays in understanding the literature of Western Civilization.

A teacher today has ample opportunity to teach rich facts and insights found in the scriptures simply by the careful instruction of literature. In fact, I would argue that one can’t fully understand British and American literature without a Biblical background. Our literature is full of allusions to Judo-Christian history, people, and scriptures. To not have a Biblical background is to not fully grasp the significance of the poetry, short stories, and novels that our government requires our students to study. Think about the many allusions filling the works of Milton, John Donne, Shakespeare and even modern writers, such as Hawthorne and Faulkner. Many times each week as we study literature in my classroom, I often say something like, “This line, passage, or word is an allusion to something in the Bible. Who can tell me what this refers to?” If the students don’t know, and they usually don’t, I supply the explanation, complete with Biblical reference. In the teaching of Literature lies a Christian’s opportunity to teach the Bible.
For example, consider Singer’s short story, “Gimpel the Fool.” The Jewish and Christian imagery is rich and complex, and the pathetic story of Gimpel’s cruel and immoral wife is an obvious allusion to the prophet Hosea. A teacher can’t teach Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter without teaching about the Puritans and how their thinking was influenced by their fanatical Calvinistic philosophy and how their efforts to control sin actually made sin more powerful.

Ignorance of the Bible is not difficult to discover in the classroom. I always ask my students, especially the more overtly religious ones, “How many have read the whole Bible?” Tragically, after nine years of teaching, I have had no student affirm that he or she has read the whole Bible. When I share with them how I have read the entire Bible over 200 times and have translated the Greek New Testament into English, they can hardly believe it. This reveals a significant problem that exists in even the most fundamental churches in today’s society. Church and home education have moved away from whole Bible teaching and reading to trendy topics and issues that focus on the same few scriptures time and time again. Many of my students are zealous for their faith and very committed to God, but when I question them regarding the Biblical (both Old and New testaments) allusions in literature, they are at a loss. Unfortunately, many of my students confess that much of scriptural material I present to them is new. As you can see, it is not the government that has taken the Bible out.

Scriptural content is not only found in literature. A study of drama reveals that playwrights through the ages possessed an amazing knowledge of the scriptures. Another interesting issue of the importance of a Biblical education is seen in the typical high school study of Shakespeare. I have noticed that the students who could or had worked through the King James Version had a much easier time with Shakespeare’s language. I love the modern translations, but in my writing and teaching, I still use the Authorized version, for that is the version of British and American literature.

True, legally, and I think ethically, a teacher must not proselytize his or her students in classroom situations. Nor do I allow my religious students to hold an evangelical campaign in my class. My classroom is designed to promote thought and learning skills; my lessons are designed to raise the academic abilities and cultural literacy of the students. When a teacher is heavy-handed in matters of the soul, the pressure backfires and the teacher is resented and not respected. Additionally, one should have confidence in the silent power the scriptures possess. Bible verses can effectively perform their Hebrews 4:12 work on their own in just the sharing. Students already have state-approved organizations in public schools, such as the Christian Fellowship of Athletes, that can help the students as well with their social and evangelical needs.

An effective education requires a balance. Knowledge and use of the Bible will help a student’s education to be well rounded. Yet, though we often have a great zeal to communicate the scriptures, we must be careful to avoid a tendency to dismiss or take lightly the other important elements of education a child needs from history, science, the arts—and yes, even exposure to views contrary to the Christian view. I feel secure enough in my beliefs to examine or look at opposing points of view. If I’m right and my thinking and learning is sound, what is there to fear? Answering challenges and reasoning through problem areas should only strengthen one’s faith, not cause its loss. We should expect such challenges and rise to meet them. Yet, we must be prepared. It is truly sad when the authors of literature or skeptics attack scripture and seem to know more about biblical subjects than Christians do.

Teachers too, need to be well rounded. I know that many fundamentalists might argue that the Bible is all that is needed in education. This Puritan notion is ridiculous, a mindset resembling the Taliban who virtually have banned anything educational, artistic, and cultural from their society except for the Koran. Everything a teacher knows can matter in the classroom, including what they know about the scriptures. Students in this apathetic age need teachers who know literature and the scriptures, and they need teachers who know how to use them both effectively to open, probe, challenge, and broaden the minds of the young disciples they instruct. If the teacher knows and teaches literature well, he or she has ample opportunity to expose students to the scriptures.