PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA
Think of any character in the Bible.
Do images of Charlton Heston, Hedy Lamar or Jeffrey Hunter in some Biblical film epic jump out?
Or perhaps Michelangelo's muscular figures from the Sistine Chapel are what come to mind.
Either way, the pictures in your mind are likely to be of white people.
That common but sometimes inaccurate imagery is being challenged at Grace Baptist Church of Germantown here. Sunday school students at the 100-year-old black church are being taught that many biblical characters looked just like them.
The junior high school class of the Sunday school is in the middle of a yearlong curriculum that focuses on the role of blacks in the Bible. Using John L. Johnson's Black Biblical Heritage as a guide, the September to June program is introducing the class of 12- and 13-year-olds to people in the Bible such as Ham, Solomon, Rahab, Bathsheba and Simon of Cyrene -- whom scholars have identified as blacks.
"One of the questions put to black Christians is, 'How can you participate in that white man's religion, this slave religion?' " said Walter J. Howard, general superintendent of the church's 325-student Sunday School. "And it's true a lot of Christianity was distorted to support slavery, but it was never OK. ...
"It's important for us to realize that not all the movers and shakers of the Bible were white. The Bible outlines who came from who and who was black and it's important for blacks to know that."
This approach to the Bible -- which has its origins in the work of black church leaders in 18th-century Philadelphia -- has regained popularity recently as the focus on Afrocentricity and multiculturalism has increased, biblical scholars and educators say.
There is a tendency for black people to adopt more nationalist views and interests when times are difficult, said the Rev. Walter Arthur McCray, author of "The Black Presence in the Bible." "With the Reagan-Bush years and racism, black folks are asking, 'What time is it?' "
Helen E. Scriber, superintendent of church schools for the Philadelphia conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, said she had noticed a similar trend.
"Our black Methodist students want an answer, they want to know more than what has been told," said Ms. Scriber, who supervises the 79 Sunday schools in the conference. "I'm happy we don't have youth who'll accept any old thing you tell them."
The discussion of blacks in the Bible can be traced back to the 1790s and the works of black theologians Richard Allen, founder Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Old City, and Absalom Jones, founder of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia, said the Rev. Charles B. Copher, a biblical scholar and professor at the Interdenominational Theology Institute in Atlanta.
Study of the subject continued as blacks acquired more formal education and seminary training, and interest peaked during the 1960s with the rise of the black awareness movement, Mr. McCray said. But complacency set in during the 1970s and 1980s.
The 1990s, however, have been marked by a resurgence in interest. Scholars continue to write, and more blacks control the publishing and distribution of their works, Mr. Copher said.
But there are still books, articles, art works, movies and even translations of the Bible that continue to perpetuate myths and inaccuracies, Mr. Copher said.
Some publishers have begun printing church school books, pamphlets and workbooks that feature black images and discussions of blacks in the Bible, Mr. Howard said. But the materials are elementary and often of poor quality.
On a recent Sunday, students from the Germantown church displayed pamphlets used for a lesson they had earlier that morning. No blacks anywhere.
"Why can't they mix it up a little?" asked Brian, 14. "One time, I went to another church with my Mom and they had a picture of a black Jesus, and I said. 'Mom, what's wrong with Jesus?,' In my mind when I think of Jesus coming back, I think of a white guy with blond hair and blue eyes."