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SMU Professor’s Study Criticizes Teaching of the Bible in Texas Public Schools, Including Duncanville and Prosper ISDs

The video above is a sample of what it’s like to learn about the Bible in Duncanville public schools. It’s from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series,”The Greatest Adventure: Stories From the Bible,” that’s reportedly used by the ISD.

Texas allows electives on the “Bible’s Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament” in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such courses are constitutional, so long as they are taught in a purely academic manner without bias towards a particular sectarian presentation of the material.

But SMU religious studies professor Mark Chancey released a study on Wednesday, in conjunction with the education watchdog Texas Freedom Network, that points to troubling ways in which these courses are being taught. In general, there is a tendency in many of the courses towards a conservative, Protestant interpretation of the material and a literal reading of the scriptures. He is especially critical of 21 of the 57 districts in which Biblical courses are taught, including Duncanville and Prosper ISDs in North Texas.

In Duncanville, Chancey’s study states, the course is taught by a retired minister with a doctorate in theology from Orthodox Baptist Institute. One of the key texts of the course is Halley’s Bible Handbook:

Although Halley’s Bible Handbook was used in six courses in 2005-06, only two used it in 2011-12. Duncanville ISD continues to rely on it as a primary source for lecture material and test content, while Ector County ISD includes it as one of several resources available to students. As the back cover of the edition used in Duncanville summarizes, “Whether you have never read the Bible before or have read it many times, you will find insights here that can give you a firm grasp of God’s World….You will see how its different themes fit together in a remarkable way. And you will see the heart of God and the person of Jesus Christ revealed from Genesis to Revelation.”

Although Halley’s is a much beloved evangelical classic, its distinctive theological focus makes it difficult to utilize appropriately in a nonsectarian class, and Duncanville’s materials in particular reflect a wholesale adoption of its theology.

Prosper ISD isn’t singled out for quite as much attention in the study, but Chancey notes some troubling language in its course and test materials, such as these cited samples:

A Prosper ISD worksheet on Romans poses questions such as “What did Christ make us free from? (8:1)” and “What can separate us from the love of Christ? (8:35).”

The report isn’t entirely critical of schools teaching Bible courses. Chancey mentions Plano, Lovejoy, and Grapevine-Colleyville ISDs among those doing a better job.

Aren’t problems like these unavoidable though? Doesn’t it suggest that we’d be better off keeping public schools out of the religion business entirely?

  • Guest

    “Aren’t problems like these unavoidable though?” Not necessarily. I went to a slightly religiously affiliated university that required each student to take a course on Biblical Literature. The course was taught as a literary course without a theological focus. Terribly dry and boring, but literary. Many of the professors of Biblical Literature were avowed atheists/agnostics.

    That being said, I don’t think the people who set up these classes or teach them in high school really want these classes to be literary. Nor do I think that’s what most of the students want when the sign up. A true biblical literature class is so damn boring most high school kids (especially evangelicals) would drop out in a week (evangelicals would likely be very frustrated that the theology wasn’t being discussed). So it’s probably best they not even attempt to teach it at the high school level.

  • Bud Kennedy

    Is that Duncanville, home of Atty. Gen and Next Governor Greg Abbott?

  • mynameisbill

    I remember those ‘toons about the bible, yo. I think they would’ve been much cooler if they’d went with a more Transformer like recipe, though. The cross could’ve actually been a robot in disguise, and when Jesus said, “It is finished”…..the cross could have transformed into this badazz killing machine, blowing to smithereens the dudes who crucified him. Would’ve been hella tight, fo sho.

  • Eric

    To answer your question, let’s look at the record. What was the performance and graduation rate pre 1964 as compared with performance and graduation rate today?

  • Wick Allison

    The answer to the question depends on what is being taught. There is a secular way to introduce the Bible to students. The King James Version of the Bible is one of the classics of English literature. As with Shakespeare, who wrote in the same era, the scholars who composed the KJV helped to invent the English language and many of the words and phrases they came up with — “scapegoat”, for example — are part of its currency. If that is what is being taught, and if it is taught in English class, I’m all for it.

  • AmyS

    I grew up with Davie and Goliath. It was much better than those cartoons.

  • Chet

    The problems are not unavoidable, they are difficult to avoid. The problem is not in the material it is in the instructors and their superiors. True of false, good or bad, religion has had an almost immeasurable influence on Western society and culture. To be ignorant of basic theological facts of not only Judeo-Christian faiths but of all major belief systems is to be ignorant of the cultures and societies that embrace them. This is not an endorsement of the factuality of the bible or any other text. I wouldn’t try to teach Greek culture without reference to Zeus, Norse culture without Odin, or Anglo culture without Jesus.

  • Chet

    Teaching the bible on a literary level would not only be dry but an insult to good literature (big difference between good and important). As a force that shapes not only beliefs but every aspect of culture and language it is fascinating, though possibly not to high school students.
    Also the problem most evangelicals (especially high school level ones) have with actually studying biblical texts is that you can’t really study something without fully reading all of it, and questioning at least some of it, not just question the possible historical accuracy, but what could be meant and interpreted by the text. Doesn’t fit with the cherry picking designed to fit specific social agendas that they were raised with.

  • Bill Marvel

    Chet,
    I take it NONE of the Bible meets your exacting literary standards.
    You sound like a man who’s thought about this a lot. Perhaps you’d be willing to set forth those standards in some detail — book by book, genre by genre — so we can understand your argument better. Comparisons with contemporary literature, for example. I take it you’ve read the epic of Gilgamesh. Which book of the Bible would you compare it to? It what ways would you argue that Gilgamesh is superior?
    Do you consider Ecclesiastes inferior to the poetry of Hesiod or the Maxims of Ptahhotep?

  • Bill Marvel

    Teaching how the Bible has influenced Western society is important, of course. But so is teaching its literary quality — as poetry, as narrative, as wisdom literature. Few of us can read it in the original language, but throughout the Old and New Testaments its literary excellence shines through. And as someone pointed out, above, the King James Version is one of the treasures of English literature.

  • David Nguyen

    If they going to do that they they should allow Islam, Judaism, Hindusim, etc.

  • David Nguyen

    If they are going to do this then they should allow it for Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.

  • Randall Gorman

    Governor Abbott? O Lord, I hope not.

  • Randall Gorman

    Don’t forget Pastafarianism. Yarrrrh!