February 14, 2013

Some schools' Bible classes veer off course

Six years after state law set academic standards for elective high school Bible course, some teachers still preaching more than teaching.

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Amarillo's schools teach how "Oriental races" descended from one of Noah's sons in the Old Testament.

At Eastland High School, a Bible literature class veers into prophecy, apocalypse and rapture.

All over Texas, classes on Bible history and lit instead teach specific theology or doctrine.

Six years after a state law required new academic standards for elective high school Bible courses, more than 20 districts are still teaching nonacademic content, according to a study by Mark Chancey, a Southern Methodist University religious studies professor.

Chancey found more good Bible courses than bad.

"Most teachers are really trying to be conscientious," he said last week.

But some teachers still use sectarian or unscholarly lessons that favor Christianity over Judaism and fundamentalism in particular, he wrote in "Reading, Writing & Religion II," a report for the left-leaning education activist group Texas Freedom Network in Austin.

"Teachers have good intentions, but that's not enough," Chancey said, "and I can show you 100 pages of examples."

At Amarillo High School, Church of Christ minister Gene Shelburne, 74, has taught for 38 years.

His lesson about Genesis includes an old chart teaching that Noah's son Ham fathered "African races," Japheth "Caucasians" and Shem "Oriental races" based solely on vague references.

Shelburne said he does not consider the condescending label Oriental a slur.

"I sure haven't picked that up here at all," he said.

"Why, the valedictorian of our school is Oriental."

Shelburne said that the chart interprets Genesis 10 in "modern racial groupings" and that he specifically disclaims prejudice.

Chancey said Amarillo "made a leap that is scientifically inaccurate" and uses offensive language.

"He's very conscientious, but it's indicative of the problem, which is teaching a specific belief," Chancey said.

In Eastland, 57-year teacher Gay Hart's world literature Bible class includes well-intended Judaic studies lessons.

She teaches rapture doctrine because "it's scriptural truth printed in the Bible," she said.

Chancey said Eastland's course had "unusual" lessons, including handouts on prophecies and miracles that Hart said are taught "tongue-in-cheek."

Hart said: "I teach the truth. I'd hate for students to leave my class ignorant."

Can't argue with that.

Bud Kennedy's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @budkennedy

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