THE BLOG
11/30/2014 08:16 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 4)

The following topics were some of the biblical theories explored in class: ancient and modern views of how the Old and New Testaments arose; the nature of biblical inspiration; Old and New Testament authorship; literal and figurative interpretations of the Bible; the Creationism/Evolution/Providential Evolution debate; the "Noble Lie" and the origin of religion; anthropomorphism and biblical language; the Bible's changing image of God.

The Ten Commandments from a comparative religionist's perspective; the Hellenization of Early Christianity; Christ's belief about the end of the world and his intention of founding a church; anti-Semitism in the New Testament; Jewish and Christian views of the messianic prophecies; the revisionist view of Pontius Pilate; the demythologization of the Bible; why the Jews could not accept Christ as God.

After listening to six weeks of unresolved questions, students invariably asked: "But what is the right answer?" So ingrained was their assumption that these questions were like mathematical problems with demonstrable answers, that when told that "it all depends on who you ask," they were taken aback with surprise and frustration.

Only gradually did they realize that there are no agreed-upon answers but only opinions, and that scholarship is a battleground of these contested opinions. Not that those who hold them do so as opinions, since they obviously believe they are facts. They are opinions because their truth is disputed by other scholars equally certain that their opinions are facts.

Another form of this same expectation was students' inveterate habit of consulting that modern Delphic Oracle of infallible truth - the Internet. Because of early conditioning, students blithely assume that websites provide objective information on all kinds of questions. When it was pointed out that many sites are little more than recruitment centers for a political or religious creed or a denomination's understanding of theological issues, they were shocked that what they had assumed to be fact was only opinion.

So-called objective accounts of biblical or religious topics would only be objective to members of a particular denomination or faith, but be dismissed as propaganda by another persuasion. Even what is sincerely presented as fact would be, to the opposition, disguised or, more charitably, unconscious bias posing as fact. Truth and error were in the eye of the beholder, so students had to exercise care when evaluating such "objective" accounts.

A theory seems true if it's the only theory one knows or is taught. One's education begins in discovering that there are competing theories, each of which claims that it's true and may very well be if one accepts its implicit assumptions. The problem, however, is that these assumptions are themselves often a battleground of further historical or philosophical opinions, or theological faith statements, which are rejected by opponents, who champion their own theories.

Students also have to be especially wary of websites with unsigned articles, which purport to be disinterested scholarship, but, in reality, may be propaganda mills for left-wing, right-wing, or centrist views. Every organization or institution wants to sell its product or viewpoint to an audience, and such websites may be cleverly camouflaged boot camps for indoctrinating potential converts.

Moreover, anyone with an ax to grind can set up a website that artfully packages discontent or paranoia on any conceivable subject. Such websites have no quality control officers or supervision over content. An article may be written by a reputable scholar, in which case it will be signed, or be anonymous or pseudonymous, in which case the author's credentials could be dubious or non-existent.

Unsigned articles are particularly suspect, if not inherently worthless, because the refusal to sign one's real name to what one has written suggests dubious content and dishonest motives. If one goes public with one's views, one should at least have the courage to stand by them and not hide in the shadows.

But students must confront an additional problem of another sort. When it is drawn to their attention that had they been born in a different time and place, they could very well have been raised in a different religion, and that the answers they were actually raised with are simply a matter of chance. This realization always gives rise to much self-reflection.

Religious convictions are often the result of custom and habit, and what seems the "truth" is more often a matter of what is familiar to a person or culture than of what has been critically examined oneself. Different religions and philosophies provide their adherents with reassuring states of mind, which is why the young should travel outside of their culture to discover that there is more to the world than one point of view.

Class discussions were always conducted in a way that no one theory ever prevailed. The more theories students examined, the broader their understanding of a question became. Which theory was right was never the issue, and students were surprised that every theory seemed "right," given the truth of its implicit assumptions with which one would have been raised.

The discovery that so many theories existed was another revelation when students were introduced to JSTOR, the scholarly online database, which opened up a world of academic scholarship with its vast ocean of articles. Every high school in the nation should have a subscription to this vital research tool that makes scholarship immediate, relevant, and psychologically real, a sine qua non for aspiring college students. My only concern, however, is that it is expensive, but it is also an important investment in student success in high school and college.

These seventeen-year-olds were intrigued that the lifeblood of scholarship was controversy, difference of opinion professionally argued, and addressing a broad spectrum of questions. Their intellectual world became suddenly larger.

Scholarship is not the Temple of Truth, but a Tribunal of Inquiry, where one can find any number of scholarly theories convincingly presented with reasoned arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals in English and other major world languages.

Scholarship, like science, is open-ended, never resting in the delusion of attaining the truth, for if it did, it would no longer be scholarship, but ossified dogma, the enemy of inquiry, and the death of free thought. Like all dogma, it would be the graveyard of the soaring spirit that refuses to be caught in a net of decayed theories that have outlived their time and poison the present by keeping it chained to dead generations.

Scholarship makes students skeptical, cautious, and less provincial in outlook. It schools and seasons their judgment by ushering them into a dimension of discourse that widens their horizons and lifts their vision beyond the diversions of high school to the intellectual challenges that beckon from college.

It makes them aware of the arbitrariness and questionability of officially enshrined doctrine that denies the very existence of other theories that threaten those in authority. Specifically, students become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of classroom instruction because other theories are rarely acknowledged, let alone taught, thereby creating the impression that there is no controversy about what they are learning.

Students begin to wonder whether what they are being taught is even the truth, or the whole truth, but only one theory among many, which are being kept from them. They ask themselves why their teachers are being denied the necessary class time by federal and state education departments to explore these theories because teachers are required to cover so much material that makes it impossible to intelligently deal with questions in depth. Not that these theories are necessarily true, but they exist as alternatives to educational dogma, and yet these theories are seldom acknowledged because those in power have a vested interest in suppressing them.

Only when students are presented with competing theories can they discover their minds and learn what true education is -- being caught up in the colorful drama and clash of ideas. Only then can they understand the complexity of questions as opposing theories engage the mind to arrive at the truth, rather than being left with the presumption that problems have but one simple answer, the one they are taught in their textbook.

It is much easier for government today to simply destroy young minds and their schools with its destructive policy of standardized testing and privatization for fear that students, properly taught, would receive a real education and learn to think for themselves. Instead, students must endure a narrow ideology that promotes the agenda of the corporate state that silences future critics by its present assault upon the mind of the young.

Truth has no allegiance to anyone or anything, but goes its own way, and no ideology, philosophy, creed, or government policy should control, suppress, dictate, or limit its search. But government today serves the rich and the powerful and trashes true education as dangerous to the privileged few by mandating in its stead indoctrination that ill-prepares the young for college or places it beyond their reach by predatory student loans. Schools, colleges, and universities are having their mission as institutions of learning radically compromised, and government aids and abets it.

With searing words and seraphic vision, Bertrand Russell memorialized for all times the sacramental agency of unfettered thought: "Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth -- more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible. Thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid."