The Christian Science Monitor

Luther’s legacy: How people use the Bible today, 500 years after a monk sparked the Protestant Reformation

Notes are written in the margins of a Bible used during a Bible study session, led by retired professor Herb Burhan, at Trinity Lutheran. Source: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Students at Ooltewah High School in suburban Chattanooga are still yawning at their desks at 7:20 on a recent morning when teacher Daniel Ziegenmier says something designed to awaken their consciences.

“OK,” he announces, “time to put away your phones. Everyone come forward and get a Bible.”

Soon their minds are back in Old Testament times with help from a six-minute video summarizing Genesis. At Mr. Ziegenmier’s nudging, sophomore Jacob O’Daniel joins classmates in listing the good qualities of Abraham (blessed, clever), the bad ones of Lot (selfish, greedy), and reasons why keeping one’s word (such as God’s covenant with Abraham) is important. 

For sophomore Jackson Clark, the material isn’t new. He’s already learned it in church. But he says he appreciates engaging with the Bible in a neutral setting, one with no religious agenda and no expectations about what to believe or how to interpret it. And he’s glad private donors give money ($1.3 million this year) to fund elective courses in Bible history for more than 3,700 of his fellow Hamilton County public school students.

“Even if you don’t have access to a church, it’s good to know about [the Bible] and be able to ... enjoy it,” Jackson says. “By taking this at school, they still get all the basic knowledge that you’d get out of church, all the stories and lessons that you get from reading the book.”

 Bible courses are relatively rare in American public schools, where boards, including Hamilton County’s, try to avoid any whiff of religious endorsement or breach of the church-state divide. But here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, their growth is an example of efforts to foster reading the Bible – a practice that is a central legacy of the Protestant Reformation that was launched 500 years ago this month.

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