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Two-edged swords

It's shaping up to be a lively fall for public-school Bible curricula as publishers and interest groups do battle

Biblical studies professor Mark Chancey had pretty much put the finishing touches on a presentation he planned to give at University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, on Aug 31. But at 5 p.m. on Aug. 29, he sat in his office at Southern Methodist University, busily rewriting the whole thing.

That's because the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS), under fire from Mr. Chancey and a liberal interest group called the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), this month significantly revised the 2005 edition of its public-school Bible curriculum-the same curriculum that Mr. Chancey had been set to blast in his presentation.

It's a busy month for public-school Bible curricula. While an Odessa, Texas, school district weighs offering a Bible elective, NCBCPS has scrambled to answer TFN's claims that its teacher's guide, The Bible in History and Literature-under consideration in Odessa-is really stealth evangelism.

Meanwhile, an ecumenical consortium of religious groups and scholars called the Bible Literacy Project (BLP) is preparing to release the first Bible textbook for public-school students published in 30 years.

Central to all three developments is the issue of cultural literacy. A Gallup survey for the BLP in April showed that 40 of 41 teachers polled agreed that "Bible knowledge confers a distinct educational advantage" in understanding American history and English-language literature, but estimated that less than a quarter of students are "Bible literate."

That and other Gallup findings have heightened anticipation of the release of BLP's textbook, which spokesperson Sheila Weber said was "built to satisfy the First Amendment Guide," a work put together by the BLP and the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "Because of that, we believe this textbook is going to make [educators] feel confident . . . that they can bring the Bible in a way that satisfies the First Amendment, makes faith groups feel comfortable, and does not diminish the Bible for those who deem it to be Holy Scripture."

The First Amendment Guide is touted as a "consensus statement about how the Bible can be taught in public schools." Twenty-one groups, including the National Education Association and the National Association of Evangelicals, have endorsed it.

Christians will have to wait until the Sept. 22 release date to see how the book can manage to satisfy both evangelicals and teachers unions, a task NCBCPS president Elizabeth Ridenour calls "a tall order."

Ms. Ridenour, however, has her own fires to put out. Her group has spent the past four weeks battling claims that its material proselytizes and is partly plagiarized. About 1,100 schools in 312 districts offer its curriculum as an elective, Ms. Ridenour said-and have for 10 years "without a single complaint from users . . . quite the opposite, in fact. We often have schools call to ask if there's a second year."

But the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) is complaining-loudly. The liberal civil-liberties group made headlines last month when it released a 31-page report authored by SMU's Mr. Chancey.

Mr. Chancey volunteered to work with the group after reading its e-mail circulars criticizing NCBCPS. His report concludes that the March 2005 edition of The Bible in History and Literature "attempts to persuade students to adopt views that are held primarily within certain conservative Protestant circles . . . and presents faith claims as history." The curriculum also, he wrote:

•Sometimes referred to the Bible as "the Word of God."

•Included a chart that said heaven is a place "where Jesus himself is our high priest."

•Emphasized the reliability of the biblical text and the historicity of miracles.

•Contained numerous factual errors and reproduced material verbatim from other, uncredited sources.

Mr. Chancey also engaged in some guilt by association, listing NCBCPS's ties with evangelical conservatives such as James Dobson and D. James Kennedy, to try to make a case that the curriculum has a right-wing political agenda. He also piled on with some scholarly nitpicking.

NCBCPS on Aug. 4 issued a statement calling the report an "attack by anti-religion extremists." But by Aug. 12, it had revised the curriculum, eliminating or rewriting most areas of concern cited in Mr. Chancey's report.

NCBCPS board member Mike Johnson said the revision was only partly in response to Mr. Chancey's criticism and that the curriculum had been "under a constant state of revision." He also wondered about the professor's motivations: "If Mr. Chancey had come to us privately and offered his assistance in revising the curriculum, we would have welcomed him with open arms. That he and Texas Freedom Network chose instead to release their report at a press conference makes it seem that their primary motivation is to see the curriculum removed from public schools."

Mr. Chancey conceded that NCBCPS's August revision rectified "the most objectionable parts" of the curriculum, but maintains that it still lacks the input of scholars. Meanwhile, he said he chose to release his report as he did because he wanted "a forum that would generate the most public awareness. I had to consider what I could do as a scholar that would have the most effect. . . . I'm very pleased that I went the route I did."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.