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Biblical ignorance

Chicago Tribune Editorial
May 12, 2005

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 was.

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 students.

Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune


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