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Corvallis Gazette-Times
Bible knowledge needed: Teachers say high school students miss much in literature due to biblical ignorance

Gazette-Times reporter
April 5, 2005

RYAN GARDNER/Gazette-Times

A survey of high school English teachers finds they believe students need to know some significant stories from the Bible to be able to understand references in secular literature, such as in the books pictured above.

Research has shown that young people who are active in a faith community and say spirituality is an important part of their life are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, underage drinking, drugs, sexual promiscuity, criminal activity, and even reckless driving.

But who knew reading the Bible would make it easier to get an A in English lit class?

The results of a study released last week on Bible literacy and academic performance suggests most high school English teachers believe students who are familiar with the Bible have a "distinct educational advantage" over those who are not.

Marie Wachlin, a supervisor in the College of Education at Concordia University in Portland, was the principal investigator for the "Bible Literacy Report: What Do American Teens Need to Know and What Do They Know?"

With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, Wachlin teamed up with the nonprofit Bible Literacy Project of Fairfax, Va., and the Gallup Organization to interview 41 of the nation's leading high school English teachers about what students need to know about the Bible. They also conducted a survey of about 1,000 high schoolers to discover what they actually know about the Bible and other sacred texts.

All but one of the educators representing 30 public and four private schools in 10 different states agreed Western literature was full of references to the Bible and that it is important for students to be biblically literate. Ninety percent of them said this was true whether or not they were headed to college.

A public school teacher in Chicago went so far as to say, "The biggest gap in education (today) is lack of Bible knowledge."

American students have an "inability to understand literature, and even the underlying meanings of literature, to figure out the philosophical bent or message of an author by the way they use biblical or nonbiblical allusions," he continued.

"When they don't have biblical knowledge, they're really missing part of what the author has to say. And typically, I don't have time to go back and explain all the biblical allusions," said another teacher from Illinois.

The overwhelming agreement about the importance of Bible literacy among teachers surprised Wachlin.

The Bible is obviously an important ingredient in a successful student's education, she said from her Portland office Thursday. Besides its influence on literature, Bible literacy is also key to appreciating works of art and music and understanding certain political and social issues.

"Many of them said the Bible is beautifully written and fine literature on its own," Wachlin said of the interviews conducted in 2002 and 2003.

Turn to page ...

The teachers cited a number of literary works difficult to process without recognizing the biblical references they contain Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," John Knowles "A Separate Peace" and a variety of plays by Shakespeare.

A specific example mentioned by more than one teacher was George Orwell's "Animal Farm." They noted the character of Moses, a raven who tries to lead the other animals out of their slavery, and the "Seven Commandments" of the Animal Farm.

"If kids have the cross-reference of the Ten Commandments and sort of hold that metaphorically, they get a much richer reading of the depth of that part and the actual changing of these commandments and sort of altering history. We would never dream of altering the Ten Commandments, right? So if they have those two things, they can read the irony much more clearly," said one Catholic participant in the survey.

A majority of the English teachers estimated less than a fourth of their students were knowledgeable about the Bible and said that often created "obstacles to learning in their classrooms."

April Turple, an English teacher at Crescent Valley High School, said she "totally agreed" with the results of the Bible literacy study.

"There's so much history, allusions, parables and Christ figures in literature that if students don't have that background of reading the Bible, they're going to miss a lot," she said.

Using the discussion of "A Separate Peace" in her junior-level literature class as an example, Turple said the Garden of Eden is a key concept in the novel.

"That's a pretty basic reference from the Bible, but I was surprised. So many kids gave me blank looks," she said.

"I can see why people would be leery of bringing the Bible up in class," she continued, "but it's a very important piece of literature. Regardless of what people's religion beliefs are, I don't see how people can argue with that."

Bible questions

One of the questions asked during the survey was "Does your school teach about the Bible (for example, as part of an English or humanities course)?"

All four of the private schools represented in the survey and two public schoolteachers said their schools offered an elective course on the Bible as literature, but 58 percent said their school either did not teach or only taught "a little" Bible literature.

The study suggests one of the biggest obstacles to teaching the Bible is the fear of a lawsuit. Teachers recognize the difference between the academic study of the Bible and a devotional study of Scripture. But several of those interviewed by Wachlin admitted political and legal considerations, whether they were valid or not, often made discussions about the Bible either impossible or uncomfortable.

"The most important thing we can do is increase public awareness of what is legal and what is actually recommended to teach about the Bible," Wachlin said.

School administrators, parents and teachers need to know what the Constitution says about religion in the public square, how that's been interpreted by the courts and then listen to what educators are saying students should be taught, she added.

According to a Supreme Court ruling in 1963, public schools cannot require devotional use of the Bible but academic study of the Bible is allowed.

Wachlin, who teaches a graduate course at Concordia for high school instructors who want to learn how to integrate the Bible into their classes, believes teachers need to get more involved in emphasizing the importance of Bible literacy among students.

She praised two of her 30 students currently enrolled in the class who "have gone to bat" to receive permission from school administrators in Wilsonville and Molalla to develop "Bible as Literature" elective classes.

"It's a shame that political correctness is getting in the way of good education," Wachlin said.

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Carol Reeves covers religion for the Gazette-Times. She can be reached at


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