Jonathan Merritt on Bible Literacy Classes

Is religious literacy valuable for society?

A few very brief thoughts on this piece from Jonathan Merritt:

1) Merritt’s point about Christian parents probably not wanting a state-approved presentation of Christianity is valid. To the degree that Christians have to let lawmakers or anyone else comb through and filter the contents of our faith in order to gain a foothold somewhere, I think we’ve already lost a big part of our mission.

2) On the other hand, Merritt’s argument is disingenuous because it basically boils down to an assumption that the kind of evangelicals likely to back a Bible literacy bill are not the kind of evangelicals likely to see value in a comparative religion-style education on Scripture. Merritt pretty much assumes from the get-go that the real reason any evangelical would want a Bible literacy class is to catechize. Aside from being a rather bad faith assumption, is he really sure that evangelicals would be outraged to hear their children were taught the Bible was fully of mythical symbolism? I mean, isn’t that what they’re pretty much taught anyway?

3) I wonder why Merritt doesn’t mention comparing a high school Bible literacy class to a college equivalent, of which there are many examples.  Public universities study the Bible all the time, and the vast majority of those classes are taught from an unbelieving point of view. I don’t recall seeing many organized evangelical protests of those classes, which are also taxpayer funded.

4) Merritt writes, “While evangelicals are generally more politically conservative, teachers in public schools might choose to emphasize the Bible’s many teachings on caring for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and the problems of material wealth.” Ah, my least favorite genre of writing: The I’m-Arguing-From-Your-Terrible-Point-of-View essay.

5) It seems Merritt pretty much ignores the crucial question, which is, “Is religious literacy valuable for American society at large?” Stephen Prothero wrote a well-reviewed book arguing that it is. Near the book’s conclusion, Prothero quotes no less than Charles Colson on why Christians need not fear public courses on the Bible that refuse to proselytize:

“Some critics fear that merely studying the Bible’s role in history, or as literature diminishes it,” writes Colson. But such a course, he argues, does not prevent Christians from taking the “next step” and trying to convert young people to Christianity. As Colson recognizes, however, spurring young people to take this “next step” cannot be the job of public schools. “Can people be good citizens,” Colson asks, “if they don’t know their own history?” The answer, of course, is no.

6) Of course, this entire discussion presupposes that it’s possible to educate about something without prescribing it to the people being educated. Given the rigorous calls for schools to stop teaching everything that requires mature, critical moral evaluation—everything from political history to Mark Twain—I think there’s a deep confusion in Western culture as to whether that is possible at all. Right now we seem awfully comfortable simply banning stuff in the name of justice rather than engaging with our past. Merritt doesn’t find time to ask whether this is a good thing. That’s a shame.

4 Thoughts on Eugene Peterson’s Retraction

Eugene Peterson told Jonathan Merritt in an on-the-record interview that he supported same-sex marriage. I, along with many others, publicly registered my disappointment and reasons I wish Peterson would have held the orthodox line. Today, however, Peterson retracted his comments and issued a statement of support for the biblical definition of marriage.

Through the smoke, here are 4 things I think:

  1. It would be a mistake to be angry with Peterson, either from the left or the right. There are no hotter questions in American culture right now than these questions, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine ourselves giving a poorly thought out, poorly worded answer to them.
  2. It would be a mistake to be angry with Jonathan Merritt here. We don’t know exactly how these questions were phrased, and of course it’s possible they were presented in a misleading way. But Peterson himself has not made that accusation, and in fact has owned his comments by officially retracting them. The questions as they appeared in the piece were direct and clear, and we have no reason (at least yet) to think they were less direct or clear in the moment they were given.
  3. It would be a mistake to chastise writers and bloggers who commented on Peterson’s interview. Words matter because ideas matter. Irresponsible “hot takes” are one thing, but publicly critiquing a public figure’s public comments on a publicly controversial topic is not a hot take. If there’s one response to this whole situation that makes zero sense, it’s blaming those who took Peterson seriously.
  4. It would be a mistake to let this whole episode pass by without reminding ourselves that there really is only two possible answers to the question of what marriage is and what sexuality is for. A “third way” is a fantasy. It’s wishful thinking that evaporates on contact with the pastoral and existential implications of either the orthodox or affirming theology. Not long ago there were some clever evangelicals who insisted that dogmatism on this issue was wrongheaded, and that were was plenty of room in close ministry partnerships for both a traditional and a non-traditional view. Today, many of those clever evangelicals are publicly deploring Eugene Peterson for betraying them. Not all dilemmas are false. This one is real, and if nothing else, Peterson has at least illustrated that.