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Christianity Today:
The Beginning of Education

By Mark Galli
CT Staff Writer
October 2005

Excerpted from Christianity Today, October 2005 issue, from article by Mark Galli entitled "The Beginning of Education."

No Small Achievement

The Bible Literacy Project came to my attention earlier this year when the nonprofit organization published the Bible Literacy Report, in part a study by the Gallup Organization of the state of Bible literacy among American high schoolers.

First the good news. Eight out of ten teens correctly identified the Golden Rule; 72 percent knew that Moses led the Israelites out of bondage; 80 percent correctly identified Easter as associated with the resurrection of Jesus.

And then the bad: 8 percent of American teens believe Moses was one of the 12 apostles; two-thirds weren't aware that the road to Damascus was where Christ blinded Saul; 63 percent could not figure out that "Blessed are the poor in spirit" was from the Sermon on the Mount.

The researchers also did a qualitative survey of 41 of "the best" English teachers (determined by referral from colleagues, state teacher-of-the-year awards, and so on). They asked these teachers what their students knew and needed to know about the Bible.

Nearly three-fourths of the teachers believed that less than half their students were adequately literate in the Bible. One teacher put it this way: "Twenty-five years ago, I could count on more students knowing the Cain and Abel story. Knowing the Abraham and Isaac story. And knowing other allusions. For example, in All the King's Men, there's a reference to Saul on the road to Damascus. Now I'm lucky if one student knows it."

They defined a biblically literate student as one who knows the Bible as a book, is familiar with common biblical stories and popular characters, is able to recognize common biblical phrases, and can connect that knowledge in literature.

The teachers were nearly unanimous on the necessity of biblical literacy for understanding Western literature. They gave examples of biblical allusions in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dickens's Great Expectations, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, and so forth. As a Wisconsin teacher put it, "It is difficult to pick up a work of literature that doesn't have some reference to the Bible."

And yet only 8 percent of the teens reported that their schools offered a class in the Bible as literature.

There are many reasons for that. To offer a class with the word Bible in it is to invite the scrutiny of lawyers and parents. What administrator wants that? In addition, no adequate curriculum has been created in four decades—at least one that doesn't seem to have a hidden agenda. To remedy this situation, the Bible Literacy Project commissioned a new curriculum that is being released this fall. The Bible and Its Influence seems to be a very good curriculum indeed.

To begin with, the composition of its 40 "reviewers and consultants" demonstrates there is no sectarian agenda afoot. Those advisers include Christians (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) and Jews, professors of biblical studies and of English literature, writers and scholars, conservatives and liberals. (See "Variety of Religious Experience," below.)

Second, the authors manage to avoid the dreary business of textual criticism (an important discipline at high levels of learning, but dismal indeed to a typical teenager). They do briefly note that some scholars think the Pentateuch and Isaiah, for example, were written by multiple authors—but they focus their attention on each biblical book as a book, as a piece of literature with its own integrity. They also recognize that biblical dating does not line up neatly with historical sensibilities today. Rather than dwell on defending or critiquing the Bible's historical accuracy, they simply say that the biblical authors "were concerned with the meaning of events." They recognize that the historicity of key events—like the Exodus or the Resurrection, among others—is crucial to their larger meaning for believers. But their concern is primarily literary: They focus on the telling of each story in the context of the larger biblical narrative.

This is refreshing. In other words, the authors let the Bible speak for itself. Narratives and miracle stories are simply described and their meaning explained in context. Paul's teachings are a message of "faith and grace." Even Revelation is treated with respect! And all along, the curriculum reveals how the story or theme under discussion is referenced in Western literature, history, or art.

In other words, it is a curriculum designed to help students understand the Bible as a book with literary integrity, and to explain the literary significance of the Bible in Western history—nothing less and nothing more. This is no small achievement.

Christianity Today, October 2005


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