Should the Bible be taught as a secular course in public high schools? Not a bad idea, concludes David Van Biema, Time magazine’s senior religion writer, in a recent essay. But not such a good one either, responds professor Stanley Fish, recently of UIC, in an op-ed in the New York Times. In order to disagree with Van Biema, Fish first quotes one of his witnesses, Stephen Prothero, chair of the department of religion at Boston University. “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space . . .” Prothero says in Time. “It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” And Fish snaps, “But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?) The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity. . . . 

“Of course, the ‘one true God’ stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or ‘brackets,'” Fish asserts. And he wonders, “If you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?”

Fish writes as one who respects religion too much to allow it to be debased in a classroom. A couple of years ago he argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “It is one thing to take religion as an object of study and another to take religion seriously. To take religion seriously would be to regard it not as a phenomenon to be analyzed at arm’s length, but as a candidate for the truth.”

Is he saying religion is too important to be studied? In fact the question of justice is bracketed in law schools, which aren’t called schools of justice. But the idea of justice survives. Brackets aren’t the devil’s tool. Furthermore, Fish is misrepresenting what the “secular project” can accomplish. When he argues that to teach the Bible as a “secular text” is to miss its point, he himself is missing the point that it’s not simply the text but the truth claims made by it and of it that command our attention. Who in his or her right mind would propose studying the Koran in our schools as a secular text? It needs to be studied because it commands the devotion of hundreds of millions of people. 

Van Biema argued in Time that when the Bible is taught in school it’s “harmful as well as helpful uses must be addressed” and it needs to be “twinned mandatorily with a world religions course.” Fish is right if he thinks it’s a stupid idea to let the “camel’s nose” of religious instruction into our classroom simply because the Bible’s the surprising source of a lot of familiar quotations. But that’s not what Van Biema is advocating. He seems to think high school upperclassmen can handle an inquiry into the world’s ultimate expressions of the human need for meaning.