Monday, March 19, 2001

Bible taught as literature

5-year-old course examines text objectively

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Claudia Wehmann's Mount Healthy High School classroom, the names of God and Jesus flow freely. But the only sermon she's preaching is the importance of knowing the Bible as literature.

        Although recent attempts to establish similar classes have met with resistance across the country, Mrs. Wehmann has taught “Bible and Literature” classes for five years without conflict. That's because she doesn't allow herself or the students to cross the line of separation of church and state.

        “I set the ground rules at the very beginning,” Mrs. Wehmann says. “We will not promote or degrade any religion. (Students) are good about sticking with that rule. If one of them starts to stray, a lot of times, students will police each other. They don't want anything to happen to the class.”

        Mrs. Wehmann may be the only public school teacher in Greater Cincinnati to offer a Bible elective to students.

        The U.S. Supreme Court says that using the Bible to teach is constitutional if it is done in an objective way, as part of a secular curriculum.

        The Bible, the best-selling book of all time, is also the most analogized book in literature and culture. But Mrs. Wehmann, a Christian church-goer, finds that students are sorely lacking in Bible basics.

        “Students either don't know or don't make connections between Biblical allusions in literature and other places,” she says.

        Dr. James Uphoff, a Wright State University professor emeritus of education, says Bible illiteracy is a problem at the college level, too.

        “If you say, "That's his own lion's den,' the students say "What?' They have no idea who Daniel is,” he says.

        “How can you understand literature without understanding ref erences and analogies from various scriptural works?” When Mount Healthy High School administrators asked teachers years ago to suggest electives, Mrs. Wehmann, an English and American literature teacher, offered to teach “Bible and Literature” to juniors and seniors.

        The board of education approved her proposal without fanfare. The process isn't always so smooth.

        Earlier this year, in Westcliffe, Colo., public outcry crushed a teacher's plan to teach a high school elective, “Bible in a Historical and Literary Context.”

        A 2000 First Amendment Center poll found 75 percent of Americans believe the Bible should be taught in literature classes in public schools. Yet, few schools offer such electives because they don't want the hassles that Westcliffe encountered.

        Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s concerning prayer and Bible-reading did not eliminate Bibles from the public schools, says Charles Haynes, senior scholar on religious freedom at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

        “They were intending to keep the government from promoting religion. We've had a hard time with this issue because many Americans and many educators misunderstood the court and took the easy way out ... The easy way out is to ignore.”

        At Mount Healthy, Mrs. Wehmann's class, which covers the Old Testament, has been so popular among students that they requested a sequel. Last year, she began teaching “Bible and Literature II,” covering the New Testament.

        Mrs. Wehmann uses the NIV Study Bible as a text but students are allowed to choose any version. She supplements the text with prose and poetry that include biblical references, including works by Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Langston Hughes.

        “She's delving into this not from a religious bent, but from a literature standpoint,” said Mount Healthy High School Principal David Kammerer. “People are not resentful of that. In fact, they encourage it. The course has been extremely popular.”

        Students in last semester's “Bible and Literature I” class consisted of religious and nonreligious kids, and others who needed another half-credit to complete their schedules.

        While Mrs. Wehmann must teach about the Bible objectively, the course's impact on students is beyond her control.

        Ian Kistner, an 18-year-old senior, didn't know much about religion or the Bible before signing up for the class.

        “For me, I get to learn about something I don't know anything about,” he says, “which means every little bit of information is interesting to me.”

        His mother, Vicki Fiehrer, says she was force-fed religion while growing up and didn't want to do that to Ian. She never dreamed the class would make such an impression on her unchurched son.

        “What I saw from Ian was an emerging faith,” she says. “I think that's cool for an 18-year-old to have a religious world opened up to him at a time he can comprehend it.”


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