For Marie Wachlin, it's clear that knowing the Bible gives public-school students an edge in class.
Wachlin, a 63-year-old adjunct professor at Concordia University's College of Education, bases her belief on a national study she conducted last year of 41 high-school English teachers and 1,002 high-school students.
Her study concluded that students who understand Bible stories and characters do better when studying and correctly understanding literature. Now, Wachlin is acting on her belief at the Christian university in Northeast Portland by spearheading one of the nation's first online courses in Bible-lit instruction for high-school English and humanities teachers.
Wachlin, a former English teacher at Benson High School, sat down with WW to talk about her Bible Literacy Project, the need for Bible instruction in a public school, and why it should trump the Koran and other holy books in the classroom.
WW: Why is knowing the Bible important in public schools?
Marie Wachlin: The Bible is central in our culture if you want to understand literature, music, art and public discourse—even the newspaper. It's assumed that people understand the Bible, and ... I was surprised when I did my research on how many people were teaching the Bible, and I think that's education's best-kept secret. We know that schools teach math and science and PE, but we don't put a sign on the school that says, "Bible Literature taught here."
But with a shorter school year in Oregon, for example, why devote time to something that could be handled in Sunday school?
You're right, they could learn [it] at Sunday school. For some people, that's important for a child's upbringing. But in Oregon, only 31 percent [of children] are churched. We could say that 69 percent of children are denied 2,000 years of access to culture.
OK. What do those kids need to know about the Bible?
They need to know major stories and characters. Knowing that there's the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the Old Testament. Knowing its place in history. Some students know David and Goliath. But when students hear "when your cup runneth over," does that mean you've made a mess on the table? No! It means you're overrun with blessings.
Should kids simply read the Bible like any other story?
In the public-school classroom, you look at the characters, you look at the plot, you look at the irony. You look at it from an academic point of view, not a devotional standpoint.
Can there truly be an academic study of the Bible?
Absolutely, and I'm not alone in thinking that. That's not to say there isn't a teacher somewhere that closes the door and steps over the line. Teachers are more cautious than courageous. Even nervous.
You and I know, and surely Willamette Week's readers know...that if one precious child or one sensitive parent is offended, God in heaven will come down and zap that teacher with a swift and painful lightning bolt followed by a deafening thunderclap.
What about teaching the Koran or the Book of Mormon? Are those of value?
I'm for knowledge and against ignorance. In a high-school English class, you want to teach works that connect with students' lives. If there's another religious text that's influenced our culture, you'd certainly want to teach that. We don't have another religious text that's influenced Western culture like the Bible. And with the Koran, it's just not a part of our culture as much. You want to teach what's pertinent. That's not to say they're unimportant.
Are you a religious person?
Yes, I'm a Christian.
How do you combat criticisms that this might be influenced by your own agenda?
I guess I'd borrow a biblical allusion and say, "Come and see!" Part of being Christian is respecting and loving other people—I know that's not always a popular perception.... The older the child, then maybe you could discuss various ways to interpret a passage. But that's never come up when I've taught it from anyone.
That's hard to believe with all the debate over prayer in schools.
I've never encountered it.
As a Bible scholar, what do you think about intelligent design being taught with evolution?
The point of my study is literature. All knowledge is good; I wouldn't want to exclude anything.
Read Wachlin's study at www.bibleliteracy.org .
According to Wachlin, the biblical allusion referred to most often is Noah's Ark. Biblical allusions appear in a wide range of literary classics, from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.