The word “lesbian” is not in the textbook!?

Lesbian. We all know what the word means, but do we really have to keep this word out of high school history books? I understand why publishers of textbooks do not want their books to be “controversial.” Publishers need to sell their books. I get it! But at what point do we put all the cards on the table for high school students and let them learn relevant information? Let me explain – stay with me.

In addition to teaching World Religion, I teach one class of World History. Today I started the chapter on ancient Greece. The greatest female Greek poet is Sappho. She is considered by many to be the world’s first female poet. So great was she that her likeness appeared on ancient Greek coins. Plato called her “the tenth muse.” And her style of meter is commonly known today as the “Sapphic” meter. She was born on the Greek island of Lesbos around 610 B.C. And…she is not even mention in the school textbook (World History, Glencoe publishing, 2003). Gee, I wonder why? Read on.

sappho_portrait

In her poetry she celebrates her love of women. She celebrates the inner and outer beauty of women. Because she lived on the island of lesbos, and because of the content of her poetry, we now have the word “lesbian” and its contemporary meaning. Even Playboy magazine has picked up on her legacy(see below). Oh, but heaven forbid if we teach the origin of the word “lesbian” and the historical importance of Sappho to students in high school! Oh, my…I think I feel a rant coming on.

playboy

Here is my question: Are textbook publishers becoming more interested in selling books that “don’t rock the boat” than they are in printing good “thought-provoking” books that challenge kids to truly think? I have my answer, but I would like to hear yours.

When historical evidence contradicts biblical accounts. What is a teacher to do?

I never tell my students the Bible is not true. Never. However, I do tell them historical evidence often contradicts biblical stories. As a public school teacher I feel it is my responsibility to bring students up to speed on historical research, data, current evidence, and scholarly arguments pertaining to religion and social studies. The crucifixion of Jesus is one example, specifically the question “who killed Jesus?” This question has been a cultural hot potato for hundreds of years. It is also a subject that has generated anti-Semitic feelings and attitudes. And I feel it is my duty to help my high school students understand this issue.

Most of my Christian students are fully aware of the Easter story, and they generally place the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews. This is understandable. The Bible clearly paints a picture of Pontius Pilate, the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, as a sympathetic man wanting to spare Jesus’ life. The biblical account has Pilate reluctantly giving in to a hostile Jewish crowd demanding that Jesus be put to death. This biblical image of Pilate is considered pure fiction by most historians. Yet, it is a story that continues to fuel anti-Semitic feeling and rage against Jews, the “Christ killers.”

So why is the Biblical account of Jesus’ trial and execution in direct opposition to historical records and evidence? More importantly, why would one of Jesus’ biographers want to direct the blame away from Rome and onto the Jews? These questions greatly pique the curiosity of all my students.

I make it clear to my students that I am not an expert in Roman, Jewish, or Christian history. I tell them that my job is to expose them to scholarly research, evidence, and arguments made by experts. One expert is Joseph Telushkin. His explanation about the falsehood of the Biblical account of Pontius Pilate is widely accepted among scholars and historians. It is as follows (I read this out loud to my students and project it on my screen for them to see and read):

Concerning Jesus’ executioner, Pontius Pilate, we have a considerable body of data that contradicts the largely sympathetic portrayal of him in the New Testament. Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans. The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions. The gentle, kindhearted Pilate of the New Testament – who in his “heart of hearts” really did not want to harm Jesus – is fictional. Like most fictions, the story was created with a purpose.

When the New Testament was written, Christianity was banned by Roman law. The Romans, well aware that they had executed Christianity’s founder – indeed the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman historian Tacitus is among the earliest allusions to him outside the New Testament – had no reason to rescind their anti-Christian legislation. Christianity’s only hope for gaining legitimacy was to “prove” to Rome that its crucifixion of Jesus had been a terrible error, and had only come about because the Jews forced Pilate to do it. Thus, the New Testament depicts Pilate as wishing to spare Jesus from punishment, only to be stymied by a large Jewish mob yelling, “Crucify him.” The account ignores one simple fact. Pilate’s power in Judea was absolute. Had he wanted to absolve Jesus, he would have done so. He certainly would not have allowed a mob of Jews, whom he detested, to force him into killing someone whom he admired.

This kind of critical examination and discussion of the Bible is offensive to some of my conservative Christian students. To them I am “bashing the Bible” by calling into question the historical accuracy of any biblical story. And, consequently, I have been accused of “disrespecting Christianity” in my classroom, an accusation that led to threats of lawsuits against the school back in 1996.

Here is my question: Is it really disrespectful to a religion to teach about historical perspectives, evidence, and research to high school students that calls into question the literal and historical validity of stories in a holy book such as the Bible?

Pushing kids out of their comfort zone.

My lectures have a tendency to make many kids feel uncomfortable. So much so that many parents will not allow their children to take my world religion class out of fear that their child will “lose their faith.” As a fair warning to my students I show them a cartoon on the first day of class that illustrates the discomfort they might feel if they choose to stay in the class. The cartoon is below (it might help to slightly enlarge your screen to read the fine print).

WoFzw

My religion class is all about introducing kids to widely established ideas and multicultural perspectives. This is what good education is supposed to do, right? I know that my lectures can cause some kids to doubt their beliefs. But doubt – as uncomfortable as it can be at times – is not all bad. Doubting traditional viewpoints can lead to great discoveries, investigations, research, and truth. Without doubt humanity would still be clinging to the idea that the earth is flat and seizures are demon possessions. Thank you doubt!

Or… am I wrong? I would love to hear your opinion, especially if you are a former student!

An inappropriate image for the classroom?

Religion’s traditional approach to bringing about change in the physical world has focused on prayer, incantations, sacrifices, offerings, spells, curses, and appeals to the gods. Compared to the advances brought about through science, religion is no match for the scientific method. To illustrate this – and to generate some discussion – I show my students the below image of children with polio. As we all know, through scientific research polio has been eradicated, and millions of children now have a chance to run and play and enjoy life. Thank you science!

science-vs-religion

Recently, a student responded to the above image by saying “that’s mean.” “Mean to whom?” I asked. “It’s mean to religion,” she replied. What followed was a great discussion about the role of science and religion. I made it very clear to the kids that religion is NOT useless. Religion can inspire hope and courage in situations that science clearly cannot. But if you are looking to cure cancer or build a colony on Mars, ancient holy books and religion will not tell you how; religion and science serve radically different purposes, a point I try to make very clear in both my religion class and Advance Placement United States History class.

So…is this image “mean” or disrespectful to religion? Should I not use it in my classroom? Just wondering.