Bible Literacy Project News
Las Vegas Review Journal
Bible study isn't limited to religion
Christian tome shaped literature, language, social issues
Special to the Review-Journal
Try this quick quiz: What do Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky
and Harriet Beecher Stowe have in common? (Clue: There are no points for
saying they all wrote very long novels in the 19th century.)
The answer should be easy for the average English or comparative
literature major. Others, check below.
If plans now taking shape in the Clark County School District bear
fruit, though, some local high school seniors might be able to figure
out the answer for themselves.
The district's curriculum specialists are gathering curricula and
materials that might be used in a course on Bible literacy -- not just
reading the Bible, but understanding the way it has shaped our language
and history. Courses like this already are being taught in hundreds of
high schools in 41 states. Some of the champions of these courses have
mixed motives -- part religious, part educational. Still, there is a
real role for an academic curriculum in Bible literacy.
Biblical phrases have passed into our language, so it's hard to avoid
some basic knowledge. Phrases such as "Good Samaritan" or "David and
Goliath" are embedded in everyday speech.
Other knowledge of the Bible is much more obscure. In a Gallup poll
taken for the Bible Literacy Project, only 37 percent of high school
students could identify what Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Even among those identifying themselves as evangelicals, 56 percent did
not recognize "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom
of heaven" from a list of four sayings of Jesus.
The same happens with Shakespeare's stamp on the language: We all know
the meaning of phrases such as "one fell swoop" or "too much of a good
thing." But we're only getting the Cliffs Notes version if we never read
"Macbeth" or "As You Like It."
Biblical literacy courses do not and should not catechize or
indoctrinate students. They help them play catch-up on a core component
of Western culture. Schools already teach classical myths, but learning
about Apollo hasn't led students to sun worship, and knowledge of
Artemis hasn't increased the popularity of hunting.
Teaching U.S. history to those who are ignorant of the Bible is as hard
as teaching the subject to people who have no concept of democracy,
taxes or war.
Everyone thinks they know that the Puritans left England to seek
religious liberty, for example, but try explaining what John Winthrop
and his colonists wanted to escape.
Nowadays, Satan is an abstraction. Raised on the Halloween version of
the Devil, many of today's students just don't get why the people of
Salem took witchcraft so seriously. A biblical struggle between good and
evil shaped their world, but students often look at the New England town
as if it were a mental asylum.
By the time, students land in the 19th century, they understand the
moral evil of slavery but they cannot comprehend the religious impulse
that drove many of the abolitionists. When William Lloyd Garrison called
the Constitution "a covenant with death," it seems like not much more
than political name-calling.
When we study the religion of slaves, students often look at me as if
I'm making it up when I tell them that St. Paul encouraged slaves to
obey their masters, and that this verse from the letter to the
Colossians was a favorite among slaveholders. In the same way, many
students are bemused by the idea that slaves took inspiration from the
Exodus or expected divine intervention to free them after hearing about
the Book of Revelation.
And if you don't know the prophet Amos, you're only seeing Martin Luther
King Jr. through a glass darkly when he talks about "justice rolling
down like waters."
The traditional way of teaching the role of the Bible is to build it
into courses on history and literature. That's hard, but it's not
What is impossible, though, is teaching the kind of Bible literacy
that's needed to make sense of arguments about a whole range of issues
that roil current politics.
Should capital punishment, for example, be understood as "an eye for an
eye" or would we be better to live by Christ's injunction to "turn the
other cheek"? Should we shun gays because Leviticus says lying with a
man is "an abomination," or would we be better to live by Paul's
inclusive mandate to the Galations that "(t)here is neither Jew nor
Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female:
for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but our education
and our civic discourse would improve if students had a better
understanding of the language and history of the Bible. And the school
district can't develop the curriculum quickly enough for me.
The answer to the quiz: They all wrote novels with heroes modeled on
Christ. For extra credit, name three 20th century novelists who did
something similar with biblical imagery.
Ian Mylchreest is a producer at KNPR's
"State of Nevada" and teaches U.S. history at the College of Southern