The Day My Son Was Taught “Bible” in a Public School

The Day My Son Was Taught “Bible” in a Public School

ClipboardI remember driving to Chili’s with my hands clenched on the steering wheel, knuckles turning white. It wasn’t the Abilene traffic (though I could write a blog post about Abilene drivers . . .) No. It was the story that was slowly, painfully unfolding as my son spoke. I was gently (I think) nudging him to reveal more and more about his day in fifth grade at a public elementary school. I was so angry by the time we reached Chili’s that it’s a wonder we didn’t get kicked out of the restaurant.

We were heading to Chili’s to meet my husband for dinner. My son’s story began with a shrug and a quiet sentence, “Mr. X said that vegetarianism is wrong.”

“What?” I asked–a bit too stridently. My boy at first hesitated to say more.

“No, tell me. What did he say?” I asked, a little more gently.

“Well,” my son said, “We were reading this book for class. And in the book, this boy has to live in the wilderness for a long time just eating what he could find. And at some point the boy says he really misses hamburgers.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Well, then Mr. X got out his Bible and told us that the Bible says vegetarianism is wrong. He started quoting a bunch of verses about meat and how you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating it and how vegetarians are less healthy than other people.”

“What?” I sort of shrieked. This was when my knuckles turned white. You see, my kids and I are vegetarians. We have been for years. And here was a teacher, a person my son looked up to, telling the class that vegetarianism is wrong. That it’s against the Bible. That it’s unhealthy.

I was beyond furious. I explained to my son that Mr. X was using the Bible incorrectly. That those verses he was quoting weren’t about vegetarianism at all, but about meat sacrificed to idols.

But I could tell he was deeply hurt by what his teacher had said.

By that time we were at Chili’s (yes, you can get vegetarian meals at Chili’s, in case you’re worried about hypocrisy). I was boiling. We sat at our booth, and I asked my son to tell Daddy what he had told me, because I was so livid I couldn’t see straight. My son told his story.

Then he added, “Oh. And he also told us we didn’t come from monkeys and he quoted Genesis 1.”

That was it. I was ready to hunt down Mr. X and teach him a thing or two about the Bible. You don’t mess with a Bible professor’s kid, teaching him crap theology in a public school classroom. Mr. X had no business saying what he said. I could barely stay in the booth.

My husband was also furious. But he was able to ask our son more questions in a calm, even-spirited way that didn’t involve throwing Bibles at Mr. X. We reassured Nathaniel that (a) Mr. X was ignorant about what the Bible actually said about vegetarianism and creation and (b) that Mr. X was wrong to use the Bible in a public school classroom. We also told him that we would talk to Mr. X about this, which clearly made our son uncomfortable. But we agreed that Daddy would speak with Mr. X kindly and that Mommy would not be in attendance because Mommy would probably hit Mr. X over the head with her Hebrew Bible (which is very big and very heavy).

As much as I wanted to speak to Mr. X, I realized that this was probably the best course of action. I really am not able to talk civilly to someone who uses the Bible in this way, especially someone who attacks my child while doing it.

Kelly consulted a lawyer who had spoken on issues of church and state in our university chapel. He explained to her what had happened so he could be sure that this teacher had violated the law. After discussing the issue with her, my husband felt confident about approaching the teacher.

The meeting went well in terms of how the teacher responded to hurting our son. He said that he did not know our son was a vegetarian and that he was not targeting him when he did his anti-vegetarian rant. In fact, my husband said, the teacher had tears in his eyes when he learned he had hurt our son.

However, when confronted with the fact that using his Bible in class was a violation of the first amendment, the teacher was defensive. He refused to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong [1].

We decided, for the sake of our son and our daughter, that pursuing the matter further would only bring negative attention to them. So, we let it go.

In the spring of that year, I filled out a form for the school that requested feedback from parents. On the form, I complained about the overt Christianity that I saw in the school, both in the teaching and in the Jesus posters plastered on various classroom walls.

I received a call from the principal. He was concerned about my comments and wondered what had provoked them. I explained that I had seen posters proclaiming things like “Jesus Loves You” in classrooms, and I also told him about the “We didn’t come from monkeys” lecture by my son’s teacher. His reply was, “I’d rather have our teachers teaching the Bible than Darwinism, wouldn’t you?” I was dismayed. The rest of the conversation went downhill from there [2].

Fortunately, our son’s experience in fifth grade was an isolated incident, as far as I know. In fact, we have been very happy with most of our children’s teachers and feel that they are getting an excellent education in the Abilene public schools.

But, recently numerous stories reveal how often creationism is being taught in publicly-funded schools in Texas, Louisiana, and other southern states (see, for example this article mapping where creationism is taught). In fact, in one recent egregious case, a Buddhist student was taunted and belittled publicly by his teacher and had to transfer to another school because he wasn’t a Christian. Fortunately, that case was successfully dealt with by the ACLU (see a summary here).

When I remember our son’s experience, I still get angry. He got over it. I did not. I am still incensed to think that a public school teacher felt he had the right to use his Bible in class to rail against vegetarianism and science. I am angry that neither he nor the principal saw a problem with using the Bible in the classroom in this manner, even though it was against the law.

And I think that this is one reason why, when students get to college they lose their faith. They’re being taught creationism in church and in school, but when they go to college (even Christian colleges), all of the sudden they are confronted with reality. Their biology teachers don’t teach creationism and, if they’re at most Christian universities, neither do their Bible professors [3].

But when I go to work, every semester I am faced with students who have been taught that it’s either the Bible or science—you have to choose. And every semester, I take them through the Genesis cosmology and show them what “literal” really means (see my post on “Reading Genesis 1 ‘Literally'”). And every semester I have students who confess to me that they believe their churches lied to them. They feel betrayed by the literal teachings that fall apart under scrutiny. And I do my best to tell them that it doesn’t have to be either/or—that they can believe the Bible and use their minds, too. That science and faith don’t have to be at odds with one another. That it’s okay to accept scientific evidence and believe in God.

Some of them come through this crisis with renewed faith and a healthy understanding of both the Bible and science. Others (fortunately the minority), are crushed. They either lose their faith entirely or retreat into a completely literalist fundamentalism and leave the university for places that teach what they want to believe.

As a teacher myself, I know how much power I wield. I know that I can build up or tear down. My desire is to help my students become better readers of the Bible. My desire is to help them through these crises of faith that inevitably arise. I have no desire to hurt or to destroy.

But then I think of my son’s fifth grade teacher and his views of the Bible. He expressed those views to impressionable youngsters who often idolize their teachers; and he expressed them as inviolable truth. Whether intentionally or not, he hurt my son that day, wielding his Bible as a weapon.

One reason separation of church and state exists is to insure that the deeply personal subject of religion is taught to our children in church (or synagogue or Muslim community center) where it belongs. When public servants violate that sacred trust, they do real harm, as my son and I learned the hard way.

1. This teacher quit a few years later and is no longer teaching.

2. The principal retired a few years later.

3. Many Christian universities do not teach creationism; however, there are some well-known ones that do, including Liberty University and Bob Jones University.


10 thoughts on “The Day My Son Was Taught “Bible” in a Public School”

  1. When I read/hear about vegetarianism, I almost immediately think of the Popplar episode of Futurama (quote from the character of Smelly Hippie: “We taught this lion to eat tofu!” Lion: *coughs dust*).

    My family and I are being vegetarian for Lent. I don’t mind it so much, but I miss hamburgers.

  2. I sympathize with your frustrations here, but if you taught something that crushed somebody’s faith in their Bible class that they funded (by paying to take it), how would you respond if the person accused you of attacking them using a ‘literal reading of scripture’? (I do note the difference between a 10 year old and a college student, but I’ve also seen what happens when Bible teachers sarcastically tell students majoring in Bible that their reading of Scripture is stupid.) It seems to be a weird standard to simply assume that somebody who makes a boneheaded interpretation of Scripture is personally attacking you. I do not mean weird to be insulting, I mean it in the sense of a practice or idea that is idiosyncratic or abnormal.

    For instance, I teach math, Bible, and New Testament Greek. I’m also going back to college to get an engineering degree. I often find three things to be true: scientists do not understand the Bible or Christianity, Bible teachers do not often understand mathematics or science (not claiming you don’t…if you can learn Biblical languages Calculus is easy in my experience), and non-teachers have awful misunderstandings of teaching/pedagogy. You are a Bible teacher and you are a teacher, so you can sympathize with two of these. Many people just claim things about teachers and about the Bible that simply are not founded in reality. It is so frustrating.

    But, I don’t see any logical reason for me to take any of those misunderstandings as a personal attack on me or the people who get confused. I periodically get mad, but I’ve never accused somebody who teaches one of my students a bad idea, a Biblical misinterpretation, or a scientific idiocy of attacking them. Heck, one of the things I taught them to do last year was identify misunderstanding of the p-value in journal articles. But I just took the articles, though publicly funded research, to be examples of biologists and psychologists who don’t understand math trying to use math tools. I doubt they were attacking the public.

    Could help me to understand why you saw this incident as an attack?
    You noted that the teacher admitted to not targeting your son, but you never noted that you considered your accusation to be false.

    I’m asking this because I am unable to understand the reasoning behind calling it an attack. I have personal reasons for wondering: I work at a private school and was accosted for months on end by a parent who wanted me fired (she went to great lengths, even breaking various policies) because she didn’t really understand mathematics nor did she understand pedagogy. I taught numerous of her children at different levels and all of their standardized test scores soared above previous years in mathematics. But this woman claimed I was attacking her children by providing them with a poor math education. I was vindicated in the end, but I spent a whole year with a seminary degree thinking I might lose my job and instantly be unemployable. Now, clearly this Mr. X. made a serious mistake (albeit an illegal one), but I’m still having trouble determining the malice.

    P.S. My Mdiv is from Logsdon, but I went to the SCS campus. I don’t teach Hebrew, though I did take it from Dr. Maxwell.

    1. I certainly have been accused of “attacking” students’ faith. Students have confronted me verbally. Students have contacted parents, youth ministers, pastors, trustees, and I’ve been called into the Dean’s office more than once to respond to accusations. So, I know how it feels to be accused of attacking when all you’re doing is teaching and trying to help students learn. I know what it’s like to be unfairly accused.

      When I used the word “attacked” in this post, I was using it to describe how I understood the situation at that point. Before Kelly spoke to Mr. X, I thought Mr. X did his vegetarian rant because he knew my son was a vegetarian and he was attacking him. As a mother, when a teacher hurts your child, you become a momma bear and the claws come out. After Kelly spoke with the teacher and he apologized and he seemed legitimately upset that he had hurt Nathaniel, I no longer felt that it was an attack. And, I should clarify, when Kelly spoke to Mr. X, he didn’t go at him with claws out. He explained the situation and told Mr. X how it made our son feel (attacked).

      That’s why I used that word. I think that it was clear in the post that once Kelly spoke to Mr. X that the man didn’t intentionally “attack” our son. But I’ll go back and look at it and see if I need to clarify that.

      Thanks for your comments.

      1. That makes sense. I’ve A) Never been a parent and B) Never been a mother. So, you were describing your feelings at the time, not necessarily how you continue to label the man.

        Thank you for explaining. I suppose there will always be, especially in matters of parents, religious ideology, and pedagogy matters of crisis that are unavoidable. But, hopefully, teachers can at least obey the law.

  3. I am a pastor. I would say that I am a very conservative pastor at that. However, I have never understood fundamentalist who try to make everything in Scripture literal. A parishioner recently brought me a Bible that was some sort of commentary by Jimmy Swaggart and it stated that Genesis 1:1 took place in 4000 b.c. I obviously believe in creation, but to take Genesis literal is to ignore lots of science. I agree that we can believe in Scripture and still acknowledge science where it does not go against Scripture.

    Though I fully believe in freedom of religion, this case has nothing to do with this. A public school teacher should not teach religion. I would not want my children who are Christians to be taught the Koran by a teacher. If I am sending my children to Karate, they should only be taught Karate. If I am sending them to public school, they should only cover academics. For the same reason, I don’t like how the public schools are beginning to teach on social issues and morality. Math, science, English, history, foreign languages, etc are appropriate for public schools. Christianity, Islam, Hindu, sex, etc. should not be taught.

  4. As one of those crushed students (not your fault, it was a collective effort), thank you for writing this. It is refreshing to hear another voice exclaim that Science and Scripture do not butt heads. I was raised in a home where life is ‘black or white’, ‘right or wrong’, ‘growing in grace or backsliding’… at a young age I learned to portray scientific knowledge in purely pragmatic ‘this is why/how’ terms rather than the implications to the family world view. Curiosity drives my life and I hope my children/nieces/nephews never have to hide an inquisitive, bright mind because it conflicts with Sunday school theology.

  5. I was once told something similar to what your son was told by Mr. X, but I was an adult at the time. I simply told the uninformed person to read the book of Daniel, chapter 1. Daniel and his three ‘friends’ were vegetarians, and healthier than those that ate Nebuchadnezzar’s royal food and wine.

  6. Just found this post a year late, and I’m really glad I did. I was raised christian, but never with a literal interpretation of the bible. In spite of that, over the years I’ve grown more and more distrustful of both the bible and, sadly, its adherents, because of people like Mr X. The more I read about biblical and church history, the harder I find it to believe that the church hasn’t been corrupted completely over the years.
    It’s good to remember that there are people who aren’t Mr X and the principal, even though they seem very loud at the moment.

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