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
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
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
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
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