By Eric Buehrer
Easter is coming soon (April 16). How can public school educators teach about its religious aspects? Well, as I’ve written about Christmas, you can teach all about the religious nature of a holiday as long as it’s done academically and objectively-not devotionally.
Besides its religious value for Christians, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus has historical and cultural relevance for non-Christians. Teaching students the New Testament story has academic value.
Some states provide educators with detailed standards for what students should learn about the Bible and Christianity. For example, in California, sixth grade students are expected to:
“Note the origins of Christianity in the Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament, and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, resurrection, salvation).”
The new California History-Social Science framework (adopted in July 2016) also adds that students should learn that “Jesus shared the Jewish belief in one God, but he added the promise of eternal salvation to those who believe in him as their savior.” (See page 14, line 272)
In Massachusetts, seventh grade students are expected to:
“Describe the origins of Christianity and its central features. A. Monotheism; B. the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son who redeemed humans from sin; C. the concept of salvation; D. belief in the Old and New Testament; E. the lives and teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul.”
As part of World History, states across the country expect students to learn about the teachings and beliefs of Christianity. Of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the central teaching of Christianity.
The Easter Story and Commonly Used Terms
Several terms we use in literature and conversation come from the Easter story. We talk about somebody being a Judas – that is, a traitor. To suffer under something is referred to as “your cross to bear.” To be criticized unfairly and persistently is sometimes referred to as being “crucified.” An action or relationship that ruins someone is referred to as “the kiss of death.” To disassociate from someone or something can be referred to as “washing my hands of this.” A person who refuses to believe something until shown proof can be referred to as “a doubting Thomas.”
Cultural & Historical Connections
Teachers can help students make cultural connections, whether it’s history, literature, art, or social movements.
Leonardo de Vinci painted his idea of The Last Supper. The legends of King Arthur refer to the quest for the “Holy Grail” — the cup or plate used by Jesus during the Last Supper which supposedly holds magical powers.
William Shakespeare assumed that those who attended his plays knew the stories in the Bible. He made hundreds of references to the Bible. For example, in his play King Richard the Second, the king says: “So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve, found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none. God save the king! Will no man say, amen?”
During the Civil War, a popular song was entitled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It is still well known across the country today. You may recognize its stirring chorus, “Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.” It reflects a spiritually-motivated desire to end slavery and references the sacrifice of Jesus as an example to live by. For example, one verse reads: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.” A later version changed the words to “let us live to make men free.”
In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for his civil rights actions. Some people called him an extremist-being too bold and going too far in his activities. He wrote a response, entitled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He used the Bible to explain the importance of being extreme for goodness. He used the death of Jesus as an example:
“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime-the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
J.R.R. Tolkien was an English author who wrote The Lord of the Rings. He was a Christian and used biblical allusions in his writing. For example, Gandolf’s dramatic fight against the giant demonic figure Balrog of Moria illustrates the battle between good and evil. Gandolf sacrifices himself to save his friends, but later is “resurrected” in robes of white and appears to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas in a forest.
Ben Myers lists twenty-five of his favorite pieces of literature that use Christ imagery. These include Don Quixote, Jim in Huckleberry Finn, Billy Bud, Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath, Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, and Simon in Lord of the Flies.
Terminology It may be helpful to use the term “recognizing Easter” rather than “celebrating Easter.” Using the word “celebrate” may cause some people to feel that you are promoting religious participation in the holiday. There is a difference between “participating” in the holiday in a devotional manner and “recognizing” the holiday in an engaging academic manner. It is also best to teach about Easter using words of attribution such as: “Christians believe…;” “The Bible says…;” “Martin Luther King, Jr., referenced the crucifixion when he wrote…;” and so forth.
Reading the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus to students is permissible to help students gain a basic academic familiarity with a person who has influenced so many people throughout history in government, art, literature, music, and social movements. Presented with an eye toward education, not endorsement or devotion, recognizing the religious aspects of Easter is a legitimate academic activity.
Literary Christ Figures (Power Point used in South Plantation High School – Plantation, FL)
How to Identify a Christ Figure in Literature (from Mill Valley School District – Mill Valley, CA)
Give “Bunny Goes to School” to educators you know. It is an eight-page booklet designed to look like a greeting card. It uses a humorous story to explain what can legally be done at Easter. It includes a model policy, quotes from court cases, and lesson plan ideas.