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Teaching the Bible

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David Van Biema’s “The Case for Teaching the Bible” purports itself as an investigative article examining the ongoing debate in the American educational system over whether or not Bible related curriculum should be included in  publically funded schools. Van Biema frames his inquiry as a detailed survey and study of the issue from theoretical to pragmatic levels; however, the investigative tone of the article upon close reading readily gives way to an editorializing posture and tone.

Many of Van Biema’s ultimate conclusions in the article seem unfounded by his extensive arguments, and much of the article is written in an explicitedly opinionated manner which  may be off-putting to those readers who disagree with Van Biema’s basic underlying assumptions. Readers who agree with Van Biema, in the main, will likely find the article more balanced and objective than those who disagree with him.

            An example of Van Biema’s explicit editorializing occurs early in the article under the sub-heading “Why Should I Care?” Van Biema’s rhetorical question is like a lofted softball which he proceeds to smack straight out of the park with his equally rhetorical response which begins “HERE IS ONE OF PROTHERO`S FAVORITE stories of Bible ignorance.”

The ensuing argument conflates a lack of Biblical knowledge on behalf of jurors in a “kidnap-rape-murder case” with the lack of  Bible curriculum in public schools. “The jurors, who perhaps hadn`t noticed that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus rejects the eye-for-an-eye rule, word for word, in favor of turning the other cheek?[…] Or any liberal who didn`t know enough to bring

it up? (Van Biema) From this point on in the article, Van  Biema’s credibility as an objective observer pretty much ceases to exist. Conflating a “kidnap-rape-murder” with lack of Bible study in public schools, and equating those elements with “liberals” is, while indicative of Van Biema’s subjective opinions, which are apt subject for editorializing, a non-sequitor in an article of investigative journalism.

            Later in the article, Van Biema’s use of declarative statements which are either weakly supported or completely unsupported by evidence becomes his primary rhetorical device. “SIMPLY PUT, THE BIBLE IS THE MOST influential book ever written. Not only is the Bible the best-selling book of all time, it is the best-selling book of the year every year.” The claim is then “supported” by Van Biema’s citing of the “top10 required book length works” in high school  English classes. (Van Biema) The rhetorical strategy continues as Van Biema catalogs a string of unsupported and seemingly extraneous “facts:”

            let`s compare the two: Beauty of language: Shakespeare, by a nose. Depth of subject      matter: toss-up. Breadth of subject matter: the Bible. Numbers published, translated etc:         Bible. Number of people martyred for: Bible. Number of wars attributed to: Bible. Solace   and hope provided to billions: you guessed it.

                                               (Van Biema)

            Although setting up William Shakespeare as a straw man for his editorializing on the magnificence of the Bible and its influence is an admirable rhetorical gambit, it is also a futile one. Van Biema boats that the Bible has caused more wars than Shakespeare as thought his is a good thing and does not go against everything the Bible itself teaches. By the same token, one could cite the number of probable wars that Shakespeare may have prevented.

But Van Biema’s use of Shakespeare as a straw-man extends beyond Shakespeare; in fact, to all of literature when he says: “when your seventh-grader reads The Old Man and the Sea, a teacher could tick off the references to Christ`s Passion–the bleeding of the old man`s palms, his stumbles while carrying his mast over his shoulder, his hat cutting his head–but wouldn`t the thrill of recognition have been more satisfying on their/own?” (Van Biema) The implication is that all great literature is somehow derivative of the Bible or allusive to it and yet, despite its debt, still falls short of the Bible’s greatness. This is pure opinion unsupported by the arguments posited in Van Biema’s essay.

            As mentioned earlier, Van Biema’s rhetorical approach will likely be applauded by those who agree with his underlying opinions and robustly criticized by those who disagree with them. Those who agree with Van Biema’s point of view would likely cite the wide-range of his article, the inclusiveness of his considerations and the moderation of his ultimate recommendations. Nowhere does Van Biema overtly call for the centralization of a religious government or a monotheistic society.

In fact he is careful to note: ” BASIC QUESTION: WHY TEACH THE BIBLE and not comparative religion? […]Concerns about whether a Bible Belt Christian teacher could in good conscience teach a religiously neutral Bible course also plagued me. Was high school Bible study one of those great ideas that vaporizes when exposed to air? (Van Biema) However this apparently objective point of view dissolves to another rhetorical device as Van Biema uses an obviously convenient if not outright biased  example from the field to demonstrate the precise opposite of the objectivity implied in the above cited paragraph.

By the time Van Biema closes his article, he is writing an editorial manifesto of sorts: “And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.” (Van Biema)

Such a soaring and conflated conclusion is clearly not indicated by the weight of the foregoing article. Those who sympathize with Van Biema’s obviously certain opinions will read this as a line to stand  up and cheer; those who disagree with Van Biema will see it as the exposing of his weaknesses as a logician and a reliance on purely rhetorical flourish rather than documented evidence.

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