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Las Vegas Review Journal
Bible study isn't limited to religion
Christian tome shaped literature, language, social issues for centuries

Ian Mylchreest
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 impossible.

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 Nevada.
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