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The Bible As Literature

It is, from a marketing standpoint, a publishing miracle.

The Bible remains one of the best selling books in the world -- more people have read it than any other text.

It's been printed in every language, in every country, and remains as much a fixture of hotel nightstands as a telephone and alarm clock.
And yet in classrooms all around the country where Homer, Tolstoy, and Twain are studied as a matter of course, chances are, what many consider the single most influential piece of literature in the world, is largely ignored, reports CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan.

Bart Ehrman sees it all the time. He's a University of North Carolina professor and Biblical scholar, who says by the time many students get to his course they're behind already.

"I actually begin my class every term by giving a pop quiz on the Bible, just basic information. And I tell my students that if they can get nine out of 11 of my questions, I'll buy them dinner at the Armadillo Grill. And over my last 15 years, I've only bought four dinners," Ehrman says.

"I think for any educated person, it's absolutely essential to know something about the Bible. Whether a person is a believer or not, the Bible stands at the foundation of our form of civilization," he adds.

The Bible's influence is impossible to ignore. There are more than a thousand biblical references in the works of Shakespeare alone. John Milton, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway all drew on the Bible, too.

Then there's Rembrandt, Chagall and Da Vinci, who all put the Bible on canvas. Even the Declaration of Independence alludes to the Bible.

But it's not just history -- the Bible is in pop culture as well.
The movie "The Matrix" is so full of Biblical references people have written entire books about it.

In the music world Kanye West raps about wanting to "see thee more clearly" in his hit, "Jesus Walks."

It's even in sitcoms like "Desperate Housewives." No matter what you think of the show, Adam and Eve and the Biblical story of temptation comes into the nation's living rooms on the first school night of the week.

So perhaps it's not surprising that a new CBS News Poll out this morning suggests that while 46 percent of Americans say that teaching the Bible in public schools would violate the separation of church and state, 64 percent say it should be allowed if it's taught solely as literature.

Some schools are already trying it.

It's an elective course at one high school in St. Francisville, La., mostly for juniors and seniors and it's almost always packed.

Connie Bunch, who usually teaches English, knows full well there's a fine line between teaching and preaching.

"You have to be very careful," Bunch admits. "In teaching the class here, I'm not trying to proselytize anyone. I don't even know what church the children go to. I never ask them. I don't know their personal beliefs or what stand they take at all, and I don't pronounce mine."

That of course is the issue: not so much whether to teach the Bible in public schools, but how, and by whom. And on that, there are just as many opinions as there are books in the Bible itself.

"I think offering the Bible as an elective course at the high school level may be the single best thing we can do to improve education in America today," says Steve Crampton.

Crampton is an attorney on the board of the National Council on Bible Curriculum, the same group that offers its 300-page course outline to the school in St. Francisville, and, it claims hundreds of other school districts nationwide.

It's Web site touts it as a non-secular way to study the Bible's influence on art and history. But some of the online testimonials seem to hint at something more than that.

Actor Chuck Norris is hardly subtle. "We can change the course of our country. And God knows we need it," Norris says.

Crampton says if Bible courses do serve a higher calling, so be it.

"We've lost some sort of compass in America, both in education and society at large and maybe there's a sense that returning to this, as one elective course, may help some to find that kind of compass and a pole star in their own lives, one by one," Crampton says.

But when a school district in Odessa, Texas started considering his Bible curriculum, the seas parted with conservatives on one side, liberals on the other.

"There's barely a page in the curriculum that didn't clearly indicate a particular religious perspective," says Kathy Miller, who is with the Texas Freedom Network, a religious watchdog group.

It commissioned a study of whether the National Council on Bible Curriculum was indeed a non-secular approach.

Their findings: "The National Council's Bible Curriculum promotes a narrow religious perspective over all others. Their curriculum is not the Bible as literature. It promotes one religious faith over all others," Miller claims.

Not only were there a host of factual errors the report alleges -- errors that have since been corrected -- but it says even the suggested reading list directed students to mostly conservative Christian authors.

Crampton disagrees. "If it did, the courts are always open and we anticipate that anybody that really believed that and had evidence of it would rush into court," Crampton says of the course.

With all the controversy surrounding the teaching of the Bible, why would anyone dare touch it, least of all a venture capitalist with no formal Biblical training?

"We are the first English speaking generation to have lost the biblical narrative. And that's amazing. And that's not right," says Chuck Stetson.

Stetson knows an untapped market when he sees one. With such a demand for the Bible to be taught, but so few textbooks out there, he figured he'd give it a shot.

In Chicago last week, Stetson's new textbook, "The Bible and Its Influence" was hawked to educators.

In his words, it's First Amendment safe, vetted and approved by leaders across the religious spectrum.

And despite some critics who say his book is just a Trojan horse to get the Bible back in the classroom, he thinks he's found a way to please most of the people most of the time.

"There are a few people on the left that aren't happy. There are a few people on the right that aren't happy. But, what we've tried to do is find a really -- a broad space where people can get pretty happy," Stetson says.

Perhaps too broad a space, says Ehrman, his competitor.

"The tendency would be, I think, to water things down to such an extent that you're not doing all that you might could do within the confines of the First Amendment," Ehrman says.

As if all that wasn't enough, professor Ehrman reminds us there is at least one more thing to consider in teaching the Bible.

In his book, "Misquoting Jesus," he points out the Bible has been copied, and translated and interpreted for thousands of years in literally thousands of different ways.

"I look at the Bible as a very human book written by human authors, many of whom were religious geniuses, who had brilliant things to say, but nevertheless were completely human and error prone," Ehrman says.

Not everyone may agree with that, but if you're going to look at the Bible as a piece of literature then fallibility is part of it, too.

Ehrman concludes, "We're not dealing with a text that just kind of descended from heaven one day in April. We're dealing with a text that has a very long history and a lot of complications and there are places where we simply don't know what the text originally said."

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