And That’s Why They’re Going to Hell: Teaching Literature in Bobby Jindal’s Louisana

April 21, 2013

In an interview with NBC’s Hoda Kotb on April 12, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal defended two anti-education elements of Louisiana’s education system: the Louisiana Science Education Act and the Louisiana voucher program. Asked if he thought it was acceptable to teach creationism in public schools, Jindal responded:

We have what’s called the Science Education Act that says that if a teacher wants to supplement those materials, if the school board is okay with that, if the state school board is okay with that, they can supplement those materials. … Let’s teach them — I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that people, some people, have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about “intelligent design”…. What are we scared of?”

The Louisiana Science Education Act allows teachers to bring in supplemental reading materials to critique controversial scientific theories, such as evolution, the origins of life and global warming. In practice, this act allows teachers in public schools to counter approved science textbooks with anti-science and to present creationism as a viable alternative to evolution by natural selection.

The voucher program allows funds set aside for public education to pay for students to attend private, religiously-based schools. In November a state judge ruled the voucher program unconstitutional, but did not end or suspend the program. This issue is now before the state Supreme Court.

Last year, Mother Jones compiled a list of “facts” included in textbooks that are used by some of the schools receiving public funds from the voucher program. Among those facts: dinosaurs and humans co-existed; fire-breathing dragons may have been real; slavery and the KKK weren’t that bad.

I purchased copies of two of the books Mother Jones listed: Life Science 3rd ed. by Brad R. Batdorf and Thomas E. Porch, published by Bob Jones University Press, and the teacher’s edition of Elements of Literature for Christian Schools by Ronald A Horton, Ph.D., Donnalynn Hess, M.A. and Steven N. Skaggs, also published by BJU Press.

The life science textbook is as horrible as you would expect, but I am going to focus on the literature textbook. It is intended for high school freshmen and sophomores, and it isn’t really about literature: it’s about the bible. Oh, other literary works are included, but they’re really only there to shed light on the Bible.

In the “To the Teacher” section, the authors state:

The serious study of imaginative literature opens the door to a vast new realm of reading comprehension and pleasure. All artful writing takes on greater richness and breadth of significance. Improved Bible study will be an inevitable benefit of developing these skills. Students will be sensitive and responsive to meanings in the Scriptures…that were beyond them before. Students will be aware of the beauty and power of Biblical expression and understand how artistry clarifies and reinforces meaning. For sheer variety and magnificence of artistic effects and structural finesse, the Bible is incomparable. It supernaturally excels in artistry of form as well in truth of content.

Every section begins with a selection from the Bible which exemplifies whatever literary device is being discussed. Then other selections are introduced. In this way, say the authors, “the students are learning that they may take the Bible as their standard in every area of their experience–that it should, in fact, be the center of their entire mental and emotional world.”

Of course, in juxtaposing the Bible with other works of literature, there is a danger that students might come to see the Bible as being simply literature: a collections of stories using metaphor, allegory, symbolism and other literary devices, little different from the works of Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe.

No fear. As the authors explain:

[T]his book is careful to maintain the distinction between the Bible and other literature. The Christian teacher of literature cannot afford to leave any doubt about his belief in the uniqueness of the divinely inspired writings of Scripture. The study of Biblical metaphors, allegory, irony, allusions, and themes can otherwise be construed to imply that the Bible is only a work of man and differs from other human writings only in degree. Secular courses in “the Bible as literature” raise doubt about the supernatural nature of Scripture simply by ignoring it. If the artistry of Scripture and its divine origin are disregarded, literary analysis can promote unbelief.  Just as it degrades the character of Christ to speak of Him simply as a great man (although He was that), so it degrades the nature of the scriptures to speak of them as simply great literature (although they are that). For this reason, [this book] continually points out the supportiveness of Biblical artistry to the Biblical message and to its intentions concerning the reader or hearer. It also makes frequent reference to the supernatural origin and character of the Scriptures.

Much of this is repeated verbatim in the introduction to the student edition.

The teacher’s edition includes suggestions for class activities and warnings of “potential problems.” These warnings sometimes involve terms or ideas that students may find confusing, but often they are warnings about moral dangers. For instance, in discussion of a passage from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the authors warn teachers, “You may wish to caution your students about indiscriminate reading of Twain’s works….Several of Twain’s works would be considered inappropriate for recreational reading.” Because, you know, you wouldn’t want to encourage indiscriminate reading in a literature course.

The text itself included biographies of many of the authors whose works appear in the book. These bios always end with a moral and religious assessment of the author. I find it helps to mentally add the words “and that’s why the author is going to hell” to the end of these bios.

John Ruskin:

“Ruskin’s personal religion emphasized a love for beauty and goodness and a thorough knowledge of the English Bible. However, his writings also show that he espoused empiricism, a philosophy which teaches that knowledge stems directly from man’s experience. According to this dangerous doctrine, we can only trust what is felt or seen.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

James Joyce:

“Although a comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal, a general awareness of his literary impact helps us better understand contemporary trends in literature…. [M]ost of [his] works hold little ideological value. Joyce’s use of cryptic allusions and veiled obscenities as well as his inflated sense of self-importance…preview both the style and attitude of many twentieth-century writers.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

John Updike:

[A recurring theme in Updike’s work] “concedes that man must possess the hope of immortality and a cosmic design. Unfortunately, his observations…fail to acknowledge God’s provision of salvation through Christ and man’s individual responsibility to accept what God has graciously provided through His Son.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Walt Whitman:

“Although we can appreciate the literary quality of many Whitman poems, we must, of course, be careful to evaluate their message in light of Scriptural standards. Unlike Whitman, we as Christians recognize that ‘there is a way which seemeth right unto man, but the end thereof are the ways of death’ (Proverbs 14:12).” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Emily Dickinson:

“Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her ‘religious’ views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle ‘the one thing needful.’ A thorough study of Dickinson’s works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.” And that’s why she’s going to hell.

The condemnation of Twain is too lengthy to quote in full, but it concludes:

“Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

To be fair, some authors, such as poet John Greenleaf Whittier, squeak by without condemnation, but all authors and their works must be assessed according to moral and religious worth, and the primary purpose of literature is to better understand the Bible.

The pedagogic material in the book and in the teacher’s section is designed to guide students to a particular interpretation of individual works of literature. It is overtly intended to further inculcate a narrow religious view of the world. This approach is antithetical to what a good literature course should do. There are many valid interpretations of any literary work: students should be encouraged to think for themselves, to provide an interpretation supported by evidence from the text. They should also be encouraged to read great literature as indiscriminately as they wish, not merely those bits that are deemed biblically inoffensive according to a very narrow definition.


The Most Interesting Imam in the World: Rimsha, Khalid Chisti, and Pakistani Blasphemy Laws

September 6, 2012

My fellow panelists on Virtual Skeptics have given me the go-ahead to post the text of my story from last night. We’ll be whipping up a permanent home for the show and its supplemental material in a few days, I think, so stay tuned!

Today we’re going to talk about what happens when a religion gets access to a police force. A Christian girl named Rimsha Masih was arrested in an Islamabad slum on the 16th of August when a neighbor reported that she had burned papers that were alleged to have contained verses from the Koran. Now, the reports of what is alleged to have happened are somewhat varied, but I’ve done my best to disentangle them. The First Information Report was filed by Muhammud Ummad, who claimed that the girl had taken 10 pages of a book called the Noorani Qaida, burned them, and flung them into a garbage can. The Noorani Qaida is a sort of child’s primer for reading the Koran and is considered a holy text, so you don’t get to burn that. The neighbor contacted the local imam, Khalid Chisti, and the imam alerted the authorities and had the girl arrested. Ashes and pages of the Koran were found in her bag.

In the aftermath of the arrest, there was a mass exodus of Christians from the slum, some 2,300 of them, because a mob was poised to attack their homes. The imam who had called the police, Khalid Chisti, used the mosque’s loudspeakers to rile up the crowd and tell the local Christians to leave, saying: “All you chooras [a derogatory term for Christians] must leave here immediately or we will pour petrol on you and burn you alive.” An advisor to the Prime Minister on Minorities Affairs asked clerics to not allow the town to be attacked and raised questions about the legitimacy of the arrest.

There is a lot of dispute about the status of the girl. Human rights workers and her family say that the girl is 11 and has Down Syndrome. The police asserted that she is 16 and is 100% healthy. Eventually, she was determined by a medical examiner to be both a minor and developmentally delayed, though that decision was stayed because of a protest on the part of the accuser’s lawyer, who is demanding a bone scan. This lawyer, Rao Abdur Raheem, has specialized in prosecuting blasphemy cases, and observers saw his involvement as a very bad sign for the girl. He’s not what you would call a moderate, saying: “Those who burn the Koran are burning us,” he said. “This girl has confessed. Even if she is found to be 14 the offence is so serious the law says there cannot be leniency, she cannot have bail.” He also told The Guardian: “If the court is not allowed to do its work, because the state is helping the accused, then the public has no other option except to take the law into their own hands.”

On the 20th, the Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, had ordered an investigation into the arrest. The blasphemy law has been criticized by the West and Human Rights organizations for the way it has been used to settle minor disputes. But opposing this law has gotten two high profile politicians assassinated last year, including the Punjab governor and the minorities minister. Last month, another mentally ill person was seized from a police station in the province, where he was being held on a similar charge, and killed by a mob.

So, there have been problems in the past.

In a twist that caught my attention this week, on Sept 2nd the government arrested imam Khalid Chisti for planting burned pages on the child, charging HIM with blasphemy. 3 worshipers at his mosque, including the prayer caller, came forward and told a judge about the imam, saying that he had added pages of the Koran to the burned pages against their protests. The testified that he had replied: ‘You know this is the only way to expel the Christians from this area’.” This let the government, I think, out of a hell of a bind. It was under immense internal pressure to convict and intense international pressure to acquit. The arrest of the imam for the same charge as the girl faces is about the only contingency that I could think of that might take off some of that internal pressure.

A number of issues strike me as important about this story. After the fact, the imam gave an interview to AFP where he claimed that she burned the pages deliberately as part of a “Christian ‘conspiracy’ to insult Muslims and said action should have been taken sooner to stop what he called their ‘anti-Islam activities’ in Mehrabad.” This is an age old accusation, one that has been recklessly hurled at Jews, whose supposed actions against Bibles and eucharists was often used as a pretext for violence against them. It seems to me that the nature of the crime is one that destroys its own evidence, and it seems consistent that most of these incidents have hinged entirely on accusation. Furthermore, this is dangerous because, clearly, in the eyes of the mob as well as that horrid weasel prosecutor, an accusation is tantamount to conviction. I want to note that I have read literally dozens of reports on this story from all points in its development, and nowhere in the last few days have I seen any mention of taking legal action against the imam or the lawyer for threatening Christians, inciting violence against them, or subverting the justice system.

I do want to mention that even hardline Islamists in the region have said the prosecution of an illiterate minor with a developmental problem is an inappropriate application of the blasphemy law.


Was Risha Mashir framed by Islamist bigots: Pakistan’s anti-human blasphemy laws

Father of Pakistani Christian ‘blasphemer’ girl appeals to President Asif Ali Zardari

Pakistani Blasphemy Case Shifts as Cleric Is Arrested

What Happens in the Convent Stays in the Convent…

February 27, 2012

My first article as “The Conspiracy Guy” is up at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website. It’s called, “Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures: A Classic American Conspiracy Theory.”



Christianity Ends Today!

October 11, 2011

The future of Christianity depends on this guy

And YOU can make it happen!

I don’t mean to sound like a skeptical version of Harold Camping. Indeed, I was quite surprised when I discovered the fatal fragility of Christianity. It must be true though–a creationist says so.

I have been attempting to read Darek Isaacs‘ book Dragons or Dinosaurs? Creation or Evolution?* Woo Hoo, two question marks in one title: you know it’s going to be good. I mean it’s clear that he is keeping an open mind and will consider all the evidence before deciding the answers to these questions. Wait, what’s that in his author bio?

He is the President and Founder of Watchmen 33, an organization that is focused on defending and confirming the authority of the Bible. Darek maintains that the great mysteries of human existence are only answered through the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Oh well.

I’m finding this book difficult to get through because Isaacs employs a bombastic rhetorical style that, if anything, is even more painful than Bodie Hodge’s semi-literate ramblings. An example:

From this summit [“the Mount of Dragons”], I cannot recant the truth of dragons in the Scriptures. I am not ashamed of the Bible, its words, its meanings, and its assertions. So, to the temporary hope of secularists, and to the anxiety-riddled, uninformed Church, I will shine a spotlight for all to see that the Bible speaks of dragons as real.

Yet, there is such a beautiful thing about illumination. Light chases away the darkness. Light reveals all that is visible, and nothing concealed by the dark can remain in such a state. So now, what if, when a tiny flame is sparked, we catch a pair of glimmering reptilian eyes staring back at us? (p. 2)

He flits from metaphor to metaphor and conceit to conceit like a…giant flitting thing. He begins one paragraph by saying, “But let us carry that note and add the orchestra” (p. 3). You might think that he is continuing a musical metaphor from the previous paragraph. Nope, that’s a brand-spanking new metaphor. The previous paragraph asserts that Christianity is built on a foundation of dragons and will collapse if those dragons prove mythical:

Dragons were either real, or they were not. The Bible, on that fact, is either deemed an irresponsible myth in its full breadth, or it contains a vast treasure of human knowledge–knowledge that outpaces the high ivory towers of modern academia to this day. (p. 3)

Yup, those are the only two possibilities. Even more astonishing is this revelation:

These dragons, if unfounded and unreal, shall be most unforgiving. They would inevitably force Christianity, and all of its “baggage” to fade into oblivion before the next dawn. (p. 2)

Holy crap! If we can prove that dragons aren’t and never were real, Christianity will disappear over night. Get on it, people: by the time I get up tomorrow, I expect to find that Christianity is a distant memory. Then on Thursday and Friday, we can take care of Judaism and Islam. It shouldn’t be too difficult: once one of the Abrahamic religions has fallen, the others should follow pretty quickly, especially since the creationist dragon/dino hypothesis depends primarily on the Old Testament rather than the New. Then, just for a change of pace, we can take down Hinduism over the weekend.

MWAHAHAHAHA, foolish Creationist, you should not have revealed to us that Christianity’s Achilles’ Heal was dragons. Who knew it would be so easy to destroy a major world religion?


*Tragically, I have the version without the DVD.