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Bible knowledge can give students an edge

Do Bible-literate students have an advantage in their English and American literature classes?

The Freelance Star
April 30, 2005 1:07 am

WASHINGTON--Not familiar with the biblical story of Ishmael?

Experts say that might hinder your understanding of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

The classic novel is narrated by "Ishmael," one of the sailors whose travels on the fated whaler mirror the biblical Ishmael's wandering in the desert.

Those familiar with the Old Testament's Ishmael, Abraham's son with Hagar who was forced to roam the wilderness, might see the connection and, therefore, get more out of the literature, a study released this week reports.

The Bible Literacy Project's study reveals that respected high school English teachers surveyed believe Bible literacy gives students a distinct educational advantage.

Students with Bible knowledge can easily understand the themes, imagery and plots of Western literature because it's steeped in biblical allusions, said Marie Wachlin, who conducted the 41 interviews with teachers from 10 states for the Fairfax-based project.

"The Bible is important as literature and in literature," she said. "It's necessary for a well-rounded education."

Fredericksburg-area teachers agree that familiarity with the Bible is helpful when studying English and American literature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and John Steinbeck's works such as "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" are great examples, said Rosemary Balgavy, the English coordinator for Stafford County public schools.

Writers use biblical themes such as sin and retribution in their pieces because the Bible is old and well-read, she said. Many readers will have an easier time understanding the literary work if they are familiar with the biblical stories, Balgavy said.

Early American works written by Puritans often refer to Old Testament stories or mention the prophets.

"Religion and religious freedom were so imperative for the people who initially settled the Colonies," she said.

Balgavy, who teaches at Brooke Point High School, said some of her students will recognize passages in a book or poem because they are mentioned in the Bible.

Her 10th-grade class this year read Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon."

The short story's title refers to a verse in Psalm 137, she said.

"The story is about a young boy who is on a quest to find his roots and weeps for the lost culture just like the psalm's passage," she said. "It was interesting to see several students recognize the verse."

Wachlin, a former public school teacher who conducts teacher training at Concordia University in Portland, Ore., presented the study during a news conference in Washington this week.

She interviewed educators who taught at public and private schools and had an average of 20 years in the profession. Two schools provided Bible classes, she said.

The report also included a Gallup survey that interviewed 1,002 teens between May 20 and June 27, 2004. Most students recognized Adam and Eve, Moses, the Golden Rule and the good Samaritan. Slightly less than half of them didn't know what happened during the wedding at Cana, where Jesus Christ turned water into wine.

The Bible Literacy Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, is pushing for schools to teach the Bible as a form of literature. In the Fall of 2005, the group plans to release a textbook designed for public school use.

"Without Bible knowledge students are confused and clueless," Wachlin said. "Teachers need to explain the biblical meaning without offending anyone or coming across as preaching."

Bible classes are required at Fredericksburg Christian High School in Spotsylvania County.

Chris Barham, an English teacher at the school, said she's had students who have difficulty picking up the biblical reference in a story despite having a Bible class.

When reading John Milton's "Paradise Lost" her students "who know the Bible had to look back to the Bible to understand," she said. "Those who aren't familiar with the Bible are lost to understanding great works of our culture."

Zara Haq, a sophomore at the University of Mary Washington, has another perspective.

The 19-year-old Muslim never read the Bible and excelled in her English classes. It was her favorite subject, she said.

Haq, who was born and raised in Virginia, said she read several books "heavy on biblical references" and didn't have a hard time picking up on it in school.

"America is a Christian culture and you learn about Christianity and its traditions everywhere," she said.

Haq, who is a sophomore studying philosophy and religion, said she wouldn't mind if there were a Bible class in schools.

"But they should also have classes for other religions [text] as well, not just the Bible," she said.

To reach JESSICA ALLEN: 540/368-5036

Copyright 2005 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.


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