LIFE-BETSY-ROSS-BIBLE-3-PHI

A page with record of deaths inside Betsy Ross's family Bible at the lab of the Conservation Center for Arts and Historic Artifacts in the Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Heather Khalifa/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) ORG XMIT: 1270694

In his recent letter, Professor Charles Isbell means to heap deep irony upon Dan Fagan's suggestion to teach the Bible as literature in public schools. This is clear from his argument that the Bible should never be taught by anyone lacking ability to read and understand the original languages. For Isbell, this means that only someone like John Milton would be competent to teach the Bible. Which means, of course, that virtually no one would be competent.

Yet the story of David and Bathsheba shows the king's great defection from goodness in any English translation, and some of the profundity of the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son is evident in any translation. I have published articles on books of the Bible from a literary standpoint (even though I don't meet all of Isbell's requirements), and I've taught Bible as Literature for decades at UNO.

Letters: Dan Fagan's idea to teach the Bible in public school leaves lots of questions

Regarding another of Isbell's questions, as to which version one should teach (as if no one could ever decide), the King James version is one obvious choice. We still teach Shakespeare in public schools, even though, like the KJV, Shakespeare himself writes in an "antiquated dialect no longer used," another of Isbell's objections. Actually, Shakespeare's language is quite a bit more difficult than that of the King James translators.

Would teaching the Bible as literature in the public schools be challenging? Yes. Yet applying standard literary concepts to biblical books can be illuminating. "Internal conflict," for instance, is a key to understanding Macbeth, Lear, Othello and Hamlet, just to start with, so a key question to ask of the gospel passion narratives is who manifests such a conflict, and with what import.

A standard student answer is that Jesus seems greatly conflicted, when on the cross he says, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" To this argument, one of several possible responses would be that Jesus is beginning to recite a psalm of lament, by the recitation of which a worshipper was meant to work through to faith despite everything. By quoting the opening of Psalm 22 in the midst of his distress, Jesus (it might appear) was keeping the faith.

Overall, the passion narratives manifest an enormous determination in this protagonist, which contrasts markedly with the fractured nature not only of some of Jesus' opponents (Pilate and Judas), but of his own heretofore faithful disciples, including Peter in his famous triple denial.

I suspect that wise principals could find well-educated and prudent literature teachers who could both sensitively and effectively teach biblical literature in public high school English classes. And they certainly wouldn't have to know Hebrew or Greek.

Robert Shenk

professor

Mandeville