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October 6, 2005
Column #1,258
"The Bible and Its Influence" - Part II
      (second of two parts)

      Who asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain, Noah, Abel or King David?

      Only a third of teenagers correctly identify Cain. Only a third know that Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus. American teenagers are biblically illiterate, say educators. Eighty percent of high school English teachers believe it is important to teach Bible as literature yet only 9 percent do so.
     Why? There is a fear of being sued. A new textbook, "The Bible and Its  Influence," may solve the problem.
     "Some of the courses I've encountered around the country for 20 years would not pass muster in a court of law," asserts Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "They are closer to Sunday School than legitimate academic courses."
     However, he endorses the new textbook, "because it's constitutional and educationally sound, and may provide a safe harbor for public schools."
     The new textbook "treats faith with respect and...informs and instructs, but does not promote religion," says Chuck Stetson, the project's founder.
     For example, each gospel is described in terms of its distinctive style. Mark has a
"Journalistic Style... If any one of the gospels has a newspaper 'feel' to it, it is Mark's," which I never noticed as a reporter of 44 years.
     However, Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and describes people in vivid, pithy terms: "John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." The textbook notes Mark "breathlessly connects short passages to form a unified narrative of Jesus' work as a teacher, a healer, and a miracle worker," all three aspects of which are in Chapter 1.
     Although Mark was written first, and the source of much that appears in Matthew and Luke, it is Matthew's gospel which is placed first because it was considered the most important. Matthew contains a great deal of what the textbook calls "Christian typology," showing how Hebrew Scriptures predicted Jesus' life. For example, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son."
     In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hid."
     The textbook relates that vision of a "city on a hill" to American history. Gov. John Winthrop, used the phrase in 1630 aboard his flagship, Arabella. "And President Ronald Reagan used the phrase during his farewell address in 1989."
     Luke's Gospel tells of the birth of Jesus from Mary's point of view. In fact, Luke devotes extraordinary attention to women, who were second-class citizens at the time of Jesus.
     In Chapter 1 Luke tells of a dramatic meeting between Mary and her much older cousin, Elizabeth, then pregnant with John the Baptist. "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb. Elizabeth asked, "Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"
     Mary responded with a long song known as the "Magnificat," the first word of the prayer in Latin: "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." 
       The text notes Luke emphasizes the poor and the lowly, as in the Magnificat's description of God:
     "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
     These words have been set to music by hundreds of composers, readers are told in a sidebar, the most famous of which is Johann Sebastian Bach, whose Magnificat was written for Christmas, 1723.
     John's Gospel is totally unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke. They contain many parables, while none appear in John. Its opening words are reminiscent of Genesis: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
     The textbook asserts "John clearly reveals Jesus' divine nature. First of all, John writes that Jesus was God, present at the creation of the world and all things. Secondly, Jesus was flesh, that is, a human being."
     Will many public school systems use this textbook to create a course on the Bible? I believe so.

       How will Americans United for the Separation of Church and State react?
      "On balance, we support the concept," says spokesman Rob Boston. "There is a need for a book which offers a national course on the Bible, which is not taught as settled history."
     The volume is a remarkable achievement.

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