When American novelists gave their books titles like "East of
Eden," "Absalom, Absalom!" and "Song of Solomon," they assumed their
audience would immediately understand the biblical allusions. With
today's readers, that may be a mistake. In a recent survey, only 1
out of every 3 American teenagers could identify who asked, "Am I my
brother's keeper?" (It was Cain, in the book of Genesis.)
It's every person's decision whether to believe or practice what is
taught in the Bible. But no one can deny its influence. Trying to
understand American literature and history without some knowledge of
the Bible is like trying to make sense of the ocean despite a
complete ignorance of fish.
Religion, particularly Christianity, has played a large role in our
culture since the Puritans arrived intent on "advancing the Gospel
of the kingdom of Christ," in the words of William Bradford, governor
of Plymouth Colony. Yet many American high schools choose not to
teach their students about what is undoubtedly the most influential
book in Western history.
The survey, sponsored by the Bible Literacy Project, yielded other
distressing news. Only 34 percent of teens know what happened on the
road to Damascus--where the Apostle Paul was stunned into conversion
by the appearance of God. Twenty-eight percent didn't know who Moses
Anyone unfamiliar with these stories would be puzzled by countless
biblical references in poems, novels and speeches. That's why, when
college English professors were asked in 1986 what book they wished
incoming freshmen had read, the Bible ranked first. Some 90 percent
of high school English teachers in the new survey said it's
important for all high school students to be acquainted with it. But
they said most of their pupils are not.
That ignorance acts as a hindrance to learning. "I'll make
comparisons, you know, I'll say, `You know, like Noah and the ark or
like Moses,'" one teacher reported, "and I'll have kids kind of look
at me: `Who's Noah?' or `Who's Moses?'" One teacher gave up using
Charles Portis' novel "True Grit" because "the kids were so stumped"
by its many biblical allusions.
But many high schools don't offer courses or even units of courses
about the Bible. Some teachers and administrators fear that any such
instruction is constitutionally forbidden or that it would somehow
be inappropriate. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that
public schools are free to teach about the Bible just as they would
any other work of literature or history. The U.S. Education
Department has issued guidelines stressing that religion is an
appropriate subject for study.
Public schools have no business using Bible instruction to advance a
religious agenda. But when they decline to impart knowledge about
such an important subject, they are not doing anything to preserve
the separation of church and state. They are merely failing their
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