The Bible and Its Influence (Book Review)

The Bible And Its Influence: Second Edition ComboWhen it comes to teaching the Bible, you can’t please everyone.  And when it comes to teaching the Bible as an academic course in public schools, you really can’t please everyone.  But the Bible Literacy Project did an outstanding job of writing and producing a high school textbook that surveys the Bible, not to promote faith, but to help students appreciate the Bible and its vast impact on history and culture (especially in the Global West).  The goal of The Bible and Its Influence, written by Cullen Schippe and Chuck Stetson, is to introduce the message and content of the Bible.  It is intended for the public school classroom, which would include people of all faith-traditions (including non-Christians), no faith traditions, and students who are familiar to varying degrees with the Bible.

Despite the atheist objections, it is not seeking to indoctrinate.

Despite the higher critical objections, it is not a book on introductory questions (authorship, dating, source and redaction criticism, historicity).

Despite the fundamentalist and paranoid “Christian America” objections, it is an ecumenical book that is not trying to convert the student to your preferred interpretation or tradition.

And this is a good thing, at least from my perspective.  If any of these objections had influenced the writing of the book, then only two shameful results would be possible.  (1) Students would be bored with the Bible, and come away ignorant of its story and message. (2) Reading, studying, and discussing the Bible would not occur in the classroom.  These are the results we want to avoid.  Thus the goal of The Bible and Its Influence is to build familiarity with the Bible on its own terms, and to create a constitutionally-justified environment where open and honest discussion about the Bible can happen.

Its a lofty and controversial goal, one that has been a story from the very beginning:

The book is evenly divided into 2 parts following the main division of the Bible (the Hebrew Scriptures, commonly called the Old Testament; and the New Testament).  In the Old Testament section, 7 units introduce the various biblical books.  Each unit is supplemented with a “Unit Feature” that explore cultural and literary connections in more details.  OT unit features include:

  1. Biblical Allusions
  2. Milton and the Bible
  3. Literary Views of Abraham and Isaac
  4. Exodus and Emancipation
  5. Exile and Return
  6. Thirst for Justice
  7. The Bible and Shakespeare

The OT chapters follow the Jewish organization of the biblical books (the TaNaKh), beginning with the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy), then the Prophets (former “prophets” or history books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; and the latter prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and the shorter prophetic books), and finally the Writings (such as the Psalms, wisdom books, and other writings).  Chapters range from 6-10 pages in length.  Suggested discussion topics or class projects close each chapter.

The NT chapters follow the Christian order of the biblical books.  Seven units divide the material that covers basic NT background, the four Gospels, the book of Acts and the history of the early church, the letters of Paul, the catholic letters, the book of Revelation, and an epilogue to conclude the book.  Unit features in the NT section include:

  1. A Summary of Literary Genres in the Bible
  2. Parables of Mercy
  3. A Death with Meaning
  4. Augustine
  5. The Legacy of the Reformation
  6. Dante’s Purgatorio
  7. Freedom and Faith in America

One of the strengths of the book is its sidebars and glossy illustrations.  Artwork from various historical periods and schools liberally adorn each chapter.  Photographs linking the Bible to history and culture also show students that the Bible is important, relevant, and stirring.  The sidebars suggest further Bible reading, topics for student journaling and reflection, how the language has influenced everyday language, and highlight cultural connections in the literary, visual, and performing arts.

The Bible translations used are the Jewish Bible, the NRSV, and the King James.  Considering the book’s audience and goal, these were probably the best choices of translations.  Jewish contingents will not feel neglected by Christians, mainline Protestants, secular academics, and higher-critical folks should feel respected by the use of the NRSV, and conservative Christians are included in the use of the still widely revered KJV.  Not everyone will agree on the use of these translations, but it is a fair compromise, and I don’t recall a particular translation being quoted to endorse a sectarian interpretation.

A while back a friend asked if I could recommend an introductory Bible text for a family who wanted their children to have a familiarity and appreciation for the Bible, but wanted something neutral enough that the parent/teacher could guide the student/child in their particular beliefs.  I think The Bible and Its Influence would be a great text for this.

Besides the public school classroom, where might this book be useful?  Everyone would benefit from learning how the Bible has shaped, influenced, guided, inspired, and instigated change in the lives of millions across the ages.  Additionally, so many today are ignorant of the Bible’s story and message.  Because of these two great needs, The Bible and Its Influence is a textbook that could easily serve as your next coffee table book, bedside book, or source book supplementing your own reading of the Bible.

Here is a video of teachers discussing the value of using The Bible and Its Influence in the public school classroom.

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