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October 13, 2006

Review of The Bible and Its Influence

   By Paul Pyle

   Cullen Shippe and Chuck Stetson, editors

   Published by BLP Publishing, New York and Fairfax, Virginia

   Sports writers can speak of a “David and Goliath” contest between two unevenly matched teams. A news story can call a wildlife refuge a new “Noah’s Ark.” A hero who stops to save a life can be called a “Good Samaritan.” Or news pundits can warn ominously of a coming “Armageddon.”

   But these expressions mean nothing without a basic understanding of the Bible and its well-known stories. More and more American public school teachers are finding that their students are clueless about Bible stories that their grandparents knew by heart. And yet the Bible is all but banned from public schools; there is simply no place in the curriculum for the Bible.

   In other words, there is a serious and growing need for biblical literacy in American public education, but the best available source to meet that need – the Bible itself – is banned from the very schools where the need is greatest. Enter The Bible and Its Influence, a new textbook designed to be used in public schools to introduce students to the two components of its title: the Bible (primarily its stories) and its Influence (on Western art and culture, particularly English and American literature).

   Such a project, walking so boldly into a minefield of controversy, is bound to have its detractors. But the creators of The Bible and Its Influence have tried to avoid the deepest and most dangerous pitfalls. To avoid charges of sectarianism, the creators of the textbook experts representing a range of faith traditions: Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, liberal, and conservative. Evangelical Christianity is well represented among them. Readers of the Citizen USA will recognize many of the names and institutions listed among the contributors, reviewers and consultants: George Gallup, Jr., pollster who has published extensively on religion in America; John Perkins, Christian writer and activist well known for his efforts toward racial reconciliation and community development; Os Guiness, senior fellow at the Trinity Forum and author of several Christian books, including Dust of Death and Prophetic Untimeliness.

   Daniel Coleman (English professor) and Dan Russ (director of Center for Christian Studies ) from Gordon College; Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia; Trempor Longman, professor of Biblical studies at Westmont College; Frederica Mathewes-Green, columnist for Christianity Today and Leland Ryken, English professor at Wheaton College and author of several Christian books on literary symbols in the Bible.

   The book itself is lavishly illustrated with great art masterworks inspired by Biblical stories, as well as thoughtful sidebars on the influence of the Bible on Western art and culture: the influence of Genesis on Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, Shakespeare’s use of the story of Jephthah in Hamlet, Isaiah 11:6-9 and the “Peaceable Kingdom” theme that appears in much American art, and many more. An index makes this feature all the more useful for a classroom teacher.

   I found both much to praise as well as some serious concerns in the content of the book. As I consider the possibility of this text being in the hands of public school students, as I contemplate the idea that for some of them this book might be the first and only exposure they might have to the Bible, I am both encouraged and troubled about what I see in The Bible and Its Influence.

   There is much to praise in this book. The chapter on Genesis reiterates many of the themes I teach in my course on Biblical worldviews: “Genesis portrays a single God who exists before the creation of the universe.”

   The first chapter of Genesis “describes a God whose goodness alone is the source of all life and all form.”

   “The first part of Genesis describes one God who is self-sufficient, powerful, and benevolent. The God of Genesis, who needs nothing, chooses to create anyway.”

   Much of this explanatory material is solid stuff, the kind of material I would put in the hands of Christian young people to help them understand the Bible and the Christian worldview.

   But I was very disappointed in the introduction to the New Testament, in which the gospels are treated as orally transmitted stories of Jesus’ life that grew and developed as they were passed on and were finally written down decades later. The gospels are not treated as eye-witness accounts of the life of Christ, reliable historical documents but as “proclamations of the early church” that “describe the life and teachings of Jesus as seen through the eyes of faith – as the life and teachings had come to be understood in the community.

   When you read the gospels, says The Bible and Its Influence, you are not reading “an eyewitness report, or even a memoir.” Rather, “preachers and teachers shared the contents of the gospels, and the events and teachings were told and retold within the Christian community. They were shared from city to city and from person to person long before they were written down. That process of development gives them their own literary character.”

   These are troubling words, especially if they are the only exposure a public high school student might have to the stories of Jesus, which are the historical basis of the Christian faith. On the other hand, I know that if God spoke through Balaam’s donkey (remember that story in the book of Numbers?) and if He caused the corrupt high priest Caiaphas to prophesy (remember that story in John’s gospel?), I know He can speak through this textbook.

   On balance, I would be happy to see this book place in my local public high school. American students need to understand the Bible in order to understand their culture. And I would consider even a dim light, even a refracted ray, better than no light at all. Other Christian leaders may think differently, but my view is that even with its flaws, I think The Bible and Its Influence would be a move forward in public high schools, both for the students and for the Kingdom of God.

© Citizen USA