The Bible at a Public University?

As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill (who graduated in 2010), I encountered individuals on every side of the complex questions of whether and how the Bible should be taught at a public university. Professors in religious studies departments often attack the Bible’s historical reliability, and Christian students insist that it is not taught fairly. Outside of religious studies, faculty frequently omit it in courses where it has obvious relevance.

In my view, the Bible is a critical component of a liberal arts education. At UNC, a public university, that means that it should be taught in both the Religious Studies Department and other disciplines.

Unfortunately, even teaching Western civilization, of which the Bible is an important part, is in decline as a component of a liberal education. By Western civilization I mean the cultures derived from Europe, including, among other aspects, their ethical values, worldviews, political and economic institutions, and customs.  

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently reported that out of a group of 75 U.S. public universities (the top 62 from U.S. News and World Report in 2009 plus thirteen others, to ensure representation from all fifty states) only one school, the University of South Carolina, retained a Western history survey course requirement. Thirty of the schools surveyed by NAS did not even offer such a survey course. The UNC Department of History offers a two-course sequence of Western civilization survey courses, yet neither is required, even for history majors. Ironically, history majors are in fact required to take at least one course in non-Western history.

Instead, these schools offer courses about specific aspects of the Western experience. UNC, for instance, has undergraduates fulfill topical subject requirements, such as “North Atlantic World,” by taking a narrowly-tailored course that fits within the broad subject. An education of this sort encourages students to pursue haphazardly any number of interests, while retaining nothing of a foundational understanding of the narrative historical processes that led to our present circumstances. Without that understanding, students who vote in elections and participate in public discourse are thus unable to distinguish for themselves successful and unsuccessful historical processes, institutions, and ideas.

Religious thought is among the most significant topics underlying Western history, and the challenge of preserving its inclusion in education is particularly formidable. Yet even our society, though it does not actively seek participation in religion as it used to, draws on the terms and ideas of its ancestor societies, and it will never fully escape the many enduring institutions created by them.

Moreover, history’s greatest thinkers and leaders frequently defined their ideas in terms of their views about God. The Israelites, the Greek Stoics, Paul and Thomas Aquinas, among others, made immense contributions to Western thought while invoking various sorts of theology as a partial basis for their views.

Examples that are nearer to our modern perspectives include Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Founding Fathers, the abolitionist movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and now many current Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. While each of these held or holds varying views about God and invoked religion in different and sometimes conflicting ways, knowledge of religious history remains useful for evaluating their claims and the ideological background within which they think. But in colleges today these discussions often take place without awareness of the historical thought and context and are sometimes completely divorced from what the author himself said.

At Chapel Hill I majored in religious studies and also took the Western history survey course covering up to 1650. The approaches to teaching religion in the religious studies and history departments were notably different, and I do not propose that all liberal arts students take a course in religious studies (though students at UNC who choose to do so benefit from one of the world’s best departments).

Not every student needs to deal with the topics that students grapple with in a religious studies setting—issues of historicity, textual criticism, and the philosophical influences acting on the primary religious authors. For those whose academic interests lie elsewhere, such as political science, biology, etc., it is sufficient to understand the primary authors themselves and the ways in which they influenced the predominant narrative of Western history.

To understand and evaluate our historical narrative and how religion fits into it, students need to encounter the primary texts—including the Bible. They need the ability to draw on foundational texts in the same way that later authors did, many of whom are significant in their own right and are studied in those few remaining Western survey courses.

Most students in a Western history course are only exposed to Paul and Jesus through secondary sources. This is an ironic and unfortunate relegation of two figures who, independent of their status in Christianity as Apostle and Savior, are on every credible list of the ten most influential people in world history.

A quick glance at the course reader for UNC History 151, Western History to 1650, reveals that students will leave the course having read such important religious authors as Josephus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, but not a single page from the Bible. With all due respect to Xenophon, Thucydides, and other less notable Greek historians included in the course, given the constraints of one semester surely students would be better served reading great works of Western religion.

The narrative of the Jewish covenant, temple and legal theology, Messianism, Jesus Christ, and Pauline Christianity has contributed greatly to Western thought at every stage, and continues to do so now. It can be captured, for the purposes of a survey course, in two class periods of readings: chapters in Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus in one, and carefully chosen passages from Daniel, a synoptic Gospel, Romans, and Galatians in the other.

An ancillary benefit of including these primary sources might be greater Biblical literacy in public debates. Many Christians, and even more non-Christians, do not adequately understandto cite but one example—Paul’s argument regarding the Jewish law.

This showed up in the debate about homosexuality ensuing from the decision by Psalm 100, a Christian a cappella group at Chapel Hill, to remove a gay member. Many opponents, such as those posting in the comments section of this Daily Tar Heel letter to the editor, criticized the Christian group for sanctimony in failing to follow as diligently Old Testament laws prohibiting consumption of shellfish and wearing of multi-fabric clothes. Raleigh News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders approvingly quoted the same line of thinking in a different context. Had they possessed a basic knowledge of Paul’s thought, they would have recognized that Paul abandoned Old Testament law, including such restrictions, while still opposing homosexuality on other grounds.

All too often, Christians decline to engage with others about scripture in an academic setting. While empirical historical evidence will never be sufficient for faith, the ideas that merit faith should also survive the tests of academic pursuit. Christians should, therefore, not only themselves pursue academic study of the scriptures, but actively support its inclusion in Western history curricula in a significant way, without fearing that liberal bias will corrupt it.

The primary obstacle to integration of scriptural study with academia is fear of attacks on the Bible’s historical authenticity, as represented at UNC by renowned scholar Bart Ehrman. While I think that Professor Ehrman is wrong about many things, he does give the Bible a fair teaching within his purpose of teaching religion as a historical phenomenon. His courses reflect the consensus of scholars who utilize the basic empirical assumptions that run across all academic disciplines in the West, and he directs students to alternative scholarly viewpoints in his textbook.

Pure objectivity in a university setting is impossible, and attempts at it are not necessarily ideal; students ought to be capable of understanding a professor’s perspective, critically examining that perspective, and locating sources for alternate perspectives. Only student apathy stands in the way of that expectation.

Because a Western history survey course has only the task of introducing students to the texts, and thus to the ideas of its primary thinkers and basic theological precepts, questions about historical truthfulness do not necessarily matter. Christians certainly believe what the Old Testament teaches about the history of the Jewish people, and they believe what the New Testament says about the ministry of Jesus and Paul. But in a survey course, these questions can be left unresolved in order to teach that these texts and the ideas expressed by them, historically accurate or not, affected our civilization in indisputable ways. Details of textual criticism are for religious studies departments.

In a survey course, students need only know the historical man named Jesus and the historical man named Paul, and that their existence and thought changed the world. To present Christianity’s message from our perspective and convey it to the world rests on the Christian Church, and its inclusion in a public university education is a valuable cooperative foundation.