What do the following words have in common: adoption, cucumber,
puberty, scapegoat, sex, blab, liberty, busybody, network, wrinkle
and castaway? They are all English words that originated when the
Bible was first translated into English.
News to you? You’re not alone. According to the Bible Literacy
Project (BLP), the public’s knowledge of the Bible is meager,
particularly among teens. According to a Gallup Poll of teenagers,
fewer than half knew what happened at the wedding at Cana.
One-quarter of them believed the statement “David was king of the
Jews” was false. Unfortunately, evangelical teens weren’t much
better. Just 44 percent of born-again teens could identify a quote
from the Sermon on the Mount, compared to 37 percent of all teens.
In the face of such illiteracy, the BLP recently released a new high
school textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, designed for use in
public schools. To avoid constitutional entanglements, the textbook
was created to satisfy First Amendment standards, which allow the
presentation of knowledge about the content of the Bible, yet
neither promote nor discourage belief.
It broadly covers the cultural contexts and influences of the Bible
with examples of art, literature, rhetoric and music. As BLP
spokesman Sheila Weber told Citizen, “English literature is replete
with biblical allusions. The world’s great authors assumed readers
would have an understanding of the Bible, and without this knowledge
students fail to understand the meanings.”
Indeed, there are more than 1,300 documented biblical allusions in
Shakespeare alone. Consider a quote from Henry IV, Part 2: “I am as
poor as Job, my lord; but not so patient.”
Others include: The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, Great
Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, The Pearl and
Lord of the Flies. The book also features historical connections,
such as “The Bible and Emancipation” and “Abraham Lincoln and the
A primary goal of the book is basic Bible literacy through a
presentation of the language, major narratives, symbols and
characters of the Bible. The book also provides detailed analyses,
and, according to Weber, “When there are differences of opinion or
interpretation of the text based on various religious traditions,
the book defines and delineates those differences.”
It’s just this approach that makes the book constitutionally
appropriate. In 1963, the Supreme Court, in Abington v. Schempp,
prohibited the devotional use of the Bible in public school
classrooms. In that same decision, however, the Court explicitly
acknowledged that academic study of the Bible is not only
constitutional but also part of a good education. In short, teaching
about the Bible is acceptable; teaching what to believe is not.
Because of its approach, the book has been endorsed by 20
educational and religious organizations, including the National
Education Association, the National School Boards Association, the
National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the American Jewish
Congress. The list of individual endorsers also includes several
prominent evangelical leaders, such as Os Guiness (Trinity Forum),
Joseph Stowell (Moody Bible Institute), Ted Haggard (NAE) and Chuck
Colson (Prison Fellowship).
But even some of those who generally support the project express
concern. In a Weekly Standard article, David Gelernter questioned
the lack of teacher preparation: “These are hard courses to teach,
at best. Do we have teachers who are up to the job?” In response,
Weber pointed to teacher training resources the BLP is currently
developing, including a university-based online course, which will
premiere in January, and a teacher’s manual slated for release in
Perhaps more significantly, Gelernter discussed the potential of
“higher criticism,” the practice of “[picking] the Bible to pieces
like vultures addressing a dead cow”—a method of textual
interpretation English teachers typically learn in college. Weber
recognized the possibility. However, she reasoned that a person
interested in teaching the course would likely not veer from the
book’s content out of respect for the sacred nature of the text.
“We can no longer be put off by fear. Fear is keeping generations of
Americans from understanding one of the world’s most important
documents. Instead, we’re raising children who don’t know the basic
context behind newspaper headlines, art and literature. And when
they lose that context, they lose their ability to understand and
appreciate Western civilization.”
For more information on The Bible and Its Influence, contact The
Bible Literacy Project, Inc., 122 W. 14th Street PMB 332, New York, NY 22630; phone
540-622-2265; Web: www.bibleliteracy.org Go to the Web
site to learn how to bring the book to your school.
This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Citizen
magazine. Copyright © 2005 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.
International copyright secured.