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Kansas City Star:
Exploring a source of cultural literacy

By Bill Tammeus
The Kansas City Star

It’s impossible to be culturally literate in America without being biblically literate. That doesn’t mean believing the Bible is God’s word. Nor does it mean making a faith commitment based on what the Bible says.

But it does mean knowing biblical allusions found in everyday American speech and life. It means understanding the biblical source of such phrases and ideas as “beat their swords into plowshares,” “my brother’s keeper,” “original sin,” “burning bush,” “Promised Land” and “double-edged sword.”

Indeed, without such knowledge it probably is impossible to read American and English literature with anything approaching an adequate understanding.

In spite of that, Americans have done a remarkably foolish thing. They seem to have misread the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling that the Bible should not be used devotionally or taught as religious truth in public schools. As a result, they have, for the most part, thrown the Bible out of public schools altogether.

They have done this despite these words of Justice Thomas Clark in the 8-1 majority opinion of that case: “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

One result has been a spread of biblical illiteracy, especially among young Americans. But now there’s a chance to reverse some of that.

A lavishly illustrated, scholarly but highly accessible new book, The Bible and Its Influence, has been published and is available for public high schools that want to create elective, constitutionally appropriate classes in biblical literacy. The book was released recently by the Bible Literacy Project (, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes research and education. It’s supported by prominent Christian and Jewish scholars.

The new book seems to be head and shoulders above a new volume with a similar goal: The Bible in History and Literature. Although that book has its supporters, Mark A. Chancey, who teaches biblical studies at Southern Methodist University, says it contains many factual errors and “presents Christian faith claims as history.”

By contrast, The Bible and Its Influence appears to be as free as possible of preaching, even though some people behind its publication do some of that for a living. Instead, the book tries to make sure that young people understand how foundational the Bible has been and remains in creating much of the atmosphere that our culture breathes. As the book itself insists, “every well-educated person needs to have a basic knowledge of the Bible.”

The volume is divided into 14 units. After an introduction, the book walks students through both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, pointing out the many ways in which the stories found there have become important to our culture. The units include bite-sized but surprisingly complete segments that help students digest this information.

And there are special features within the units. An early one, for instance, talks about the ways the Bible influenced the work of 17th-century English writer and poet John Milton. Another talks about stories of exile and return in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and what they have to do with such well-known literary works as the novel Exodus by Leon Uris.

The book’s general editors, Cullen Schippe and Chuck Stetson, have wisely ranged beyond American culture at times to show how the Bible’s influence can be found, for instance, in the novel Silence, by the great Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, whose book A Life of Jesus is one of my favorite biographies. And it pleased me to find “The Journey of the Magi,” one of my favorite T.S. Eliot poems, included in its entirety.

Some years ago, E.D. Hirsch compiled The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. It tried to acquaint people with the sources of our culture, from Greek mythology to classic English literature, so that when someone referred to, say, a Promethean effort or a Pyrrhic victory, the person hearing the phrase would understand it.

In many ways, The Bible and Its Influence can be thought of as a vital supplement to that broader effort. I hope it gets used widely and is taught well.

An excerpt from The Bible and Its Influence:

“One cultural example of how the Hebrew Bible is interpreted by Christians as predicting and presenting Jesus as the savior of the world is George Friedrich Handel’s oratorio Messiah. Unlike the majority of Handel’s works, which rose and fell in popularity, Messiah has endured. … The libretto of Messiah is made up almost entirely of verses from the Old and New Testaments from the King James Version of the Bible. Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who was a Shakespeare scholar, pulled the verses together …”

© 2006 Kansas City Star


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