School Spirit

“[The Bible] is so human a book that I don’t see how belief in its divine authorship can survive the reading of it.”
–William James, in response to a 1904 survey on religious belief

Published in the May/June 2009 Humanist

In the four years of Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi’s tenure as Iran’s minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance, more than two-thirds of the books previously judged acceptable for that nation’s general population have been banned. Among these books is Dan Brown’s mega-blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, which was condemned for blasphemy against Jesus, who is revered in Islam as a prophet of God. In banning this book Saffar-Harandi found himself in the company of a number of Christian groups around the world, who likewise cursed the book and wanted it barred from store shelves. The Christians, for their part, were incensed at the book’s portrayal of Jesus as a family man. The idea that their savior might have dirtied himself with the human stain of connubialism seemed to these believers to be among the vilest lies imaginable. What’s remarkable about this is that so many of them think nothing of the far more common and more profoundly distorted representation of Jesus as a leader who wished his followers to engage in the dirty businessscripturally, the devilish businessof earthly governance.

They are at peace with this distortion, central to the politicization of Christianity, because they don’t know it’s a distortion, because they have no better idea what the Bible says than most Muslims do. That this would be true of the Catholics among them may come as no surprise, but it is equally true of the Protestants and, generally speaking, true–to the point of being foundational–of modern evangelicalism. In fact, biblical illiteracy, enforced by the clerical establishment prior to Gutenberg’s invention and opted for popularly after it, has been at the heart of the Christian faith throughout most of its history. And that raises the interesting question of what would happen if that illiteracy were ever remedied.

The question is timely because in recent years public school Bible instruction movements have been growing in the United States. Ostensibly aimed not at evangelism but at improving students’ appreciation of scripture’s influence upon art, literature, and politics, Bible literacy courses have now been implemented in hundreds of schools dotted across most of the states. And although their primary mission is not to teach the meaning of the Bible, they all include a significant amount of Bible reading and exposition. What effect can we expect this to have on the young people involved?

Clearly the outcome expected by the Christian partisans of these courses is the expansion of belief. When one peruses the curricula and reads the textbooks there is no mistaking their pro-religion biases, and this is true even when the course in question is written with scrupulous attention to constitutionality. Take as an example the course designed in 2006 by the Bible Literacy Project, one of the most moderate and academically rich of the curricula, and the one most likely to continue to pass First Amendment muster. Built around the Bible itself and an accompanying textbook, The Bible and its Influence, the course has been implemented in 282 schools in forty-one states and four foreign countries, according to the project’s website. The text has won the support of a variety of Jewish and Christian groups, and the project’s companion First Amendment guide has been widely endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, as well as school administration and civil liberties organizations. A great deal of effort was clearly expended to make the text both constitutional and enlightening, and its readers will learn much about the Gospels’ influence on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and the paintings of Michelangelo. They will also have some examples of God’s mercy pointed out to them. But they will not learn that Jesus believed wickedness to be ineradicable, that he expected the world to be run by nonbelievers until the day of its destruction, that he understood this to be the reason for its destruction, or any other fundamentals subversive of the more popular forms of political Christianity.

Subversive is the right word because nothing could more profoundly check the ambitions of the next generation of politicized Christians than a popular absorption of the actual word of scripture. It was only because our Founders never allowed themselves to forget what the Bible actually said, that they were able to maintain a humbling awareness of their own beliefs’ departure from it. And that awareness had much to do with their refusal to set up a government featuring religious tests or assessments: a government hawkish about orthodoxy.

But attitudes towards Christian faith were to change mightily during the first fifty years of our nation’s history. It was during this early federal period that the new American republic experienced what historians of religion often refer to as its Second Great Awakening. Simply put, the majority of American believers began to effectively lay the Bible aside, creating the western world’s freest and most vibrant marketplace for new forms of preached evangelical Christianity. It was in this new and unprecedented setting that church membership and religious enthusiasm began to soar, particularly along our western frontier, empowering American Christianity to take on something approaching its modern populist political vigor. Only when our believers freed themselves from an honest reading of the book, in other words, did we start to morph into the “Christian nation” of popular lore, the nation whose religiosity, by the 1830s, would so impress Alexis de Tocqueville.

The magic of the awakening was worked by a new generation of relatively unlettered, itinerant pastors of Methodism and General Baptism. Their most salient messages were based in John Wesley’s novel and wildly popular notion that human beings are free to choose salvation for themselves, which directly contradicted the Bible’s (and the Anglican and Puritan establishments’) clear teachings on predestination. Delivered using a newly emotional, personal, and improvisational preaching style, this fresh, egalitarian approach to salvation proved irresistible to a great many Americans.

These newly liberated audiences became a breed apart from moderates like William James, pioneering psychologist and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and America’s founders, who, like James, professed belief in God but knew the Bible too well to believe in it. The consumers of the new evangelical faiths didn’t believe in the Bible either, but they believed that they believed in it. By chopping scripture into tiny pieces and reassembling it to order, their pastors had begun to offer them a cafeteria approach to God: an approach that has now become universal enough that modern-day believers can spend a lifetime “studying” the Bible with the “guidance” of clergy, jumping from isolated verse to isolated verse, from tree to tree, without ever glimpsing the New Testament’s terrifying forest of pessimism and predestination.

The abandonment of true scriptural study has been so extensive that predestination has been nearly forgotten, and the ignorance goes far deeper than that: some 50 percent of today’s Americans can’t even name the four Gospels, let alone explain what they say. For nearly ten generations now, American believers have simply felt free to make up doctrine as they go along, and most of them have used that freedom to invent a Jesus who is friendly to both their fortunes and their causes. Prominent among these new saviors of course is the one who wants his flock to get into the business of writing laws and waging wars: linking arms with, or even becoming, Caesar.

This then is reason, in principle, for nonbelievers to encourage Bible literacy as a part of secondary education. One can imagine students in Bible literacy classes running a serious risk, for the first time since the eighteenth century, of consuming contemporary translations of the Bible in big enough bites that they might actually get familiar with the jealous God of the Hebrew scriptures, and grasp the anti-American hopelessness of the New Testament. Were this to happen, the result we would have to expect would be a reversal of the Second Great Awakening: a restoration of the less religiously self-assured America of the mid-to-late colonial period.

Students reading the Bible straight through in modern English, without clerical “guidance,” would be very likely to develop mental outlines of the Old and New Testaments that would more or less preclude any thoughts of political implementation. Even if they merely read Genesis and Exodus, plus one or two of the Gospels (an amount of reading equivalent to a single short novel) the effect could potentially be enormous. No neutral reader can help noticing, after all, that the Bible is not the greatest story ever told, but two conflicting stories. Nor can one miss the fact that the Christian philosophy goes well beyond mere political infeasibility to draw us away from the earth entirely, setting us against every human instinct.

Take a quick tour of the narrative. In the Bible’s beginning there is, naturally, a creation story, followed, somewhat less intuitively, by an expulsion from paradise. Students will note that the expulsion took place because of God’s fear that we would become his rivals were we to sip both the ambrosia of knowledge and that of life. They might also note, perhaps while perspiring over a pop quiz, that life outside paradise, in which we must earn bread by the sweat of our brows, is indeed something we were meant to perceive as punishment.

But then, within the first thirty minutes of reading, the text explodes with a truly stunning event: God murders everybody. Everyone is evil except one man, he reckons, and so everyone but that man and his household–all the other men, women, children, and fetuses on earth–must be drowned. God’s thought is that by killing everyone but a single good seed, he can make the world good. And yet incredibly, though the killing of evildoers is carried out by God himself, and to a far greater degree of completion than any human (even a neo-conservative) could contemplate, it doesn’t work. Sin marches on. Genesis later confronts us with the sin of onanism, the violation of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, the filling of Isaac’s wells with earth by the Philistines, plus of course the rise and fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Torah’s other four books present countless more transgressions, all of them met by horrific punishments, each one seemingly as ineffectual as the Flood. We’re left with a clear sense that there is an intrinsic depravity, or frailty–a stubborn humanness–about us humans that God simply cannot excise.

In The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden described man as a fallen soul with the power “to explain every what in his world but why he is neither God nor good.” But by the time we’ve navigated halfway through Genesis, we’ve gained considerable knowledge on both counts. We have learned, most importantly, that God cannot make the world good, even through the most drastic attempt. Nevertheless we find ourselves, armed with this seemingly climactic nugget of wisdom, only at page forty out of about 1,700, depending on the edition at hand. At this point, and with any luck, a teacher might find herself facing a room full of students at the edges of their seats, wondering where the story can possibly go from here.

A few days’ reading ends the suspense. There is a Jewish answer and a Christian answer. The Jewish answer takes a preferred branch of Noah’s family, the Semites, and puts them in a preferred land, where they are to hope for the best, never expecting perfection. Though they may someday vanquish their enemies, they will remain a “stiff-necked” people, wrestling with God’s laws, at times shining forth like a beacon, and at other times inviting their maker’s unspeakable wrath.

The Christian answer is, shall we say, a less patient one. Because the world is wicked and cannot be made good, Jesus uses the cross to teach his disciples to focus instead on a celestial realm to which a lucky few will escape after death. Their sin will be gone because their humanness will be gone; there will be no marriage, and apparently no desire for it, among the winged occupants of heaven. Jesus explains this to his followers in the twenty-second chapter of Matthew, a book an eager high school student could easily read in a single evening with time to spare for a sitcom or two before bed. In the twenty-fourth chapter of this dire tale, Jesus describes his own vision of the Apocalypse: a vision far clearer and less malleable than John’s psychedelic revelation, and therefore historically less popular with clergy. Here we are told that by the end, the wicked world will have become even more wicked, to the point that the authorities (who are by definition not Christian) will be rounding up Christians and killing them. The end will come, in other words, when Christians have lost all terrestrial powers of self-determination and fallen all the way to the bottom: a station they are told incessantly throughout the Christian scriptures to expect and to relish.

This is the upshot of the New Testament’s most central, most new, most non-Jewish, and most ignored tenet: Christians are not to wield legal or political authority. Each believer is to police his own behavior, but Christians as a group are not to attempt to clean up a world that God himself could not clean up. They are not to write, execute, or judge the laws of society. They are to endure subjugation by non-Christian authorities until kingdom come. That’s why it’s coming.

Our students might be tempted to disbelieve their own eyes as they read, but history provides numerous reminders that these teachings have actually been believed, wholly or in part, by quite a number of earnest souls over the centuries: the Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites (descendents of the German Anabaptists), the Shakers (descendents of the English Quakers), and the Lollards of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These are people who absorbed, to a degree, the terrible word of the New Testament: believers who turned their backs on the things of this world in appreciation of what Erasmus referred to, in Praise of Folly, as Jesus’ “contempt for life” (vitae contemptum). And even the Roman Church that Erasmus hoped to reform had forever honored this very same contempt, by canonizing martyrs for their willingness to surrender to the world’s vile and nonbelieving authorities.

Obviously a no-holds-barred discussion of these true believers–or of anything else having to do with the authentic Gospel message–would make for a powerful, perhaps even transformative, educational experience. It could herald, as I suggested, a reversal of our last great awakening. But in the end, nothing so honest or probing can really be expected to take place in an American public high school. In their treatment of the Anabaptists, for example (all eighty-five words of it), the authors of The Bible and Its Influence never attempt to explain why the Bible influenced these German Protestants the way it did. They cite no scripture, leaving the reader clueless as to why they or any group of people would opt out of conventional society or endure hardship in the name of Christianity.

And realistically, neither parents nor teachers could be expected to fill in these blanks. The blinders and detours preached to them as children having calcified, most believing parents would be powerless to view any clear and open discussion of the Bible as anything but dishonest and perilous.

This brings us to the biggest question of all: given the degree to which abject misreadings of the Bible have become entrenched, can we ever expect to achieve real Bible literacy? Is there any way for our society to learn–ever, anywhere, by any means, in any forum–what the world’s best-selling and most influential book actually says? Whenever the public school teaching of creationism or “intelligent design” is being debated, secularists respond by saying that students should be taught what Darwin said in the biology classroom, and what the Bible says at home or in church. But children aren’t taught what the Bible says in either of those places.

It’s clear that Christians can only become immoderate and politically assertive when they convince themselves that they possess absolute truth, and this is only possible when they are ignorant of the true outline of the New Testament. The moment one reads it with anything resembling an open mind–a good student’s mind–political self-assurance becomes impossible. In the history of the world no collection of books has ever enunciated a religion more unsuitable for political use. If young people could read it and see that they are not in fact absolutists, it would encourage humility and moderation in the political expressions of their faith for the rest of their lives. They would at that point have achieved religious humility in the same “enlightened” manner that our Founders achieved it: through a recognition of their own heterodoxy.

So, if this were a realistic outcome to expect from Bible-literacy education, I would say that secularists should support such programs in the public schools. And yet a meaningful exposure to scripture is so unlikely that no such recommendation is possible. We’re done in by our own history. We simply have too long and too steady a tradition of sound-biting the Bible, holding fast to the tribal name “Christian,” and imagining that the New Testament provides a platform for self-governance.

I therefore suggest that humanists concerned about political Christianity take a different tack. Instead of trying to eliminate Biblical illiteracy, we could simply make use of one key manifestation of that illiteracy: the wildly variable and relativistic nature of Christian belief. Religion’s great strength in the political arena is that it cannot be proven false. But its great vulnerability, remember, is its reliance on bogus claims of absolutism. All believers, in the end, believe something different from one another, and all emphatically believe something different from the religion of Jesus. And the importance of this truth could be magnified if journalists were prodded to ask all demonstratively religious political candidates to clearly enumerate the specific legal and political positions that a believer must hold in order to be considered a true Christian. Fuzzy answers would highlight the absence of real absolutism, while clear ones would be so divisive and off-putting that candidates would quickly learn to curb their enthusiasms.

Implemented properly, this simple line of questioning could humble the religious voice without being outwardly disdainful or dismissive of religion, minimizing the chances of political blowback. Nor would its success require much in the way of universal Bible literacy. It might pique the curiosity of some believers though, and in the end inspire a few to begin learning in earnest what their religion is really supposed to be about. But that would be nothing to fear, and might ultimately do our country and the humanist cause a world of good. After all, it worked for the Founders.


Thomas Mates is an analytical chemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a freelance writer on religious, social, and political issues.