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The Bible: Spiritual guide or literary blueprint? Some educators say teaching Bible important to understanding literature

Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Thursday, June 15, 2006

"The Grapes of Wrath" offered his first clue.

A second came with another John Steinbeck classic, "East of Eden."

By the time Alex Cyhaniuk got around to reading "Fahrenheit 451," the South Elgin High School sophomore knew to scout for references to the ancient text that permeates many of its pages - the Bible.

For him, it was not a quest for religion but for literary meaning.

"In order to fully appreciate literature, you need to have some knowledge of the Bible," said 16-year-old Cyhaniuk, whose summer reading list includes Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.

Alex Cyhaniuk, 16, of West Chicago, credits his English and world history classes with teaching him to spot biblical allusions that exist in much of Western literature. (Rick West/Daily Herald)

Alex Cyhaniuk, 16, of West Chicago, credits his English and world history classes with teaching him to spot biblical allusions that exist in much of Western literature. (Rick West/Daily Herald)
Alex Cyhaniuk, 16, of West Chicago, credits his English and world history classes with teaching him to spot biblical allusions that exist in much of Western literature. (Rick West/Daily Herald)

"You can't appreciate literature as you would if you didn't," Cyhaniuk said.

Woven through allusion, allegory and metaphor, scriptural references to the flood, the exodus or the storied tale of two brothers, one good and one evil, pervade Western literature from Steinbeck to Emily Dickinson and Toni Morrison.

Understanding such literary staples requires at least a passing knowledge of the Bible, whether a student worships God, another deity or none at all, according to a survey of university literature professors released earlier this month.

High school English classes sit at the forefront of the literary translation, where they've been for years.

"The Bible is all over the place in public schools," said Charles Venegoni, who heads the English department at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. "The treatment is way greater than people think it is. It's also more scholarly and more neutral than people think."

Yet the advent of academic textbooks plugging the Bible's literary significance coupled with legislative efforts in some states to sanction Bible courses in public schools fuels new debate about teaching old scripture.

This offers an ironic twist on calls by some conservatives to ban books they view as vulgar and profane from high school classes, such as recently occurred in the Northwest suburbs.

" 'The DaVinci Code' showed up on my stepson's summer reading list last summer, and I don't see why the Bible cannot be given equal time," said Mal Kline, executive director of Accuracy in Academia, a conservative education watchdog. Many contend the spiritual weight of the psalms, epistles and gospels should not be glossed over to focus just on the historic or literary gravitas, an area of study permitted by the Supreme Court.

Others of a different ideological bent dismiss studying the Bible's literary significance as an attempt to shoehorn scripture into publicly funded schools.

From the morning bell to dismissal, many educators and students see the Bible as central to lessons in Western literature and thought.

"The alternative is cultural illiteracy," said Rob Boston, a spokesman with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Still, teaching about the Bible's role in books or history can be dicey, experts caution. Some school districts fold the issue into the English curriculum, some don't touch it at all and others leave the matter in teachers' hands.

"It's a tricky thing to do. You cannot avoid talking about God when you talk about the Bible because he's the central character," said Barbara Newman, a Northwestern University professor of English, religion and the classics. "Talking about God will inevitably lead to talking about religion and values."

Between the lines

From William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway and even Dan Brown, authors divided by decades, genre and tone are bound by narrative threads of scripture.

Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" names the man who ordered his half-brother killed who raped their sister.

Santiago of Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" struggles with Christ-like quality; the scars on his hands recall those of the stigmata.

And Brown's best-seller novel and film "The DaVinci Code" stitches together a legend of the Holy Grail, conjuring images of Mary Magdalene, Jesus Christ and the ancient Knights Templar along the way.

"The Bible is the most alluded to piece of literature we have in Western literature," said Susan Carley, who heads the English department at Buffalo Grove High School in Northwest Suburban High School District 214, where an effort to ban seven books riled debate last month.

"It's everywhere," Carley said.

A survey of more than three dozen English professors at the nation's premier colleges and universities - including Northwestern's Newman - concurred.

All but one of the 39 professors said Western literature is steeped in Biblical references, according to a study by the Bible Literacy Project, a non-profit organization in Virginia.

A basic grasp of scriptural allusions are important to a student's education, whatever the student's spirituality, 30 of the professors said. Most of the remaining nine added a caveat that ancient texts from other spiritual traditions also are important.

This echoed similar views offered by high school teachers a year earlier.

Of 41 high school teachers surveyed in 10 states - including Illinois - 40 said students who had some knowledge of the Bible held an academic advantage.

"Almost without exception, English professors we surveyed see knowledge of the Bible as a deeply important part of a college education," said Marie Wachlin, a Concordia University education professor who led the study sponsored by the Bible Literacy Project.

Created in 2001, the group authored a high school curriculum focused on Scripture's literary and historic significance called "The Bible and Its Influence." Come September, the group expects between 300 and 400 schools nationwide will use the book, a spokeswoman said.

They differ from the more established National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools that believes the Bible should be the only textbook in religion classes. An estimated 1,250 high schools use their course materials.

Bible Literacy Project founder Chuck Stetson - a New York entrepreneur - dismisses concerns that including scripture in schools opens a door to proselytization.

"There are over 1,300 biblical references documented in (William) Shakespeare," Stetson said. Citing a reference in "Hamlet" to the Bible's Cain and Abel, Stetson said: "If kids don't know who Abel is, they don't understand what Hamlet's saying."

An objective line

Lecture on the symbolism of biblical brothers Cain and Abel to Steinbeck's "East of Eden," and you're safe.

Highlight the influence of religion in the work of Michelangelo, who painted the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, and you're insightful.

But delve into religious values, beliefs or triumphs, and you'll quickly land in hot legal water.

"It's a fine line and teachers have to be careful," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "But no one has ever suggested you couldn't teach the Bible as part of a comparative religion, so the notion it would be forbidden in terms of its literary value would miss the point."

The legal line in the sand was drawn during the 1960s.

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that reading the Bible for devotional purposes in public schools was unconstitutional. The Bible could be taught so long as it was "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."

"They clearly suggest the study of the Bible should be permitted, but study of the Bible not for its truth, but for another aspect such as comparative religion or literature," Chicago's Kent Law School Dean Harold Krent said.

Legal types measure trouble by textbooks.

If a class invokes the Bible through a study of 19th Century American authors and uses myriad novels to make the point, that falls on safe legal ground. A class that rests solely on the Bible, however, may trigger a legal alert.

"If you call a course religion and only study the Bible, that becomes much more problematic than if you study five texts," Krent said. "It gives rise to inference that what you are doing is focusing on particular religious system or belief system."

Diversity of faith

The line dividing religious belief from religious influence is thin, and walking it a difficult balance for suburban teachers who face more diverse classrooms than ever before.

The minority population among Illinois' 2 million public school students grew steadily during the past decade while the number of white students waned and black students leveled, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

With different ethnicities come different backgrounds, beliefs and faiths.

This prompts some educators to ask if the Bible, why not the Quran, Hebrew Scriptures or Zen parables.

"If we need literacy in our own traditions as we've been defined in the past, we need also literacy in traditions as we are being defined in the present," said Walter Feinberg, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Bible may be the bedrock of Western culture. And so long as high school courses focus on Western literature, they will focus on the Bible, teachers said. Yet required reading lists in some schools increasingly draw authors from non-Western, non-Christian cultures.

World literature classes in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 include passages from the Bible, Hebrew Scriptures, Hinduism's Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Tripitaka.

In Naperville, many students learn about different sacred texts in social studies courses. The English curriculum at Naperville North High School, however, includes neither the Quran nor the Bible, said Traci Fritz, who heads the communications arts department.

Same goes for St. Charles Unit District 303.

"It's not that we avoid it," Fritz said. "When it comes up in discussion, we don't analyze portions of the Bible. It would be more for clarification."

At South Elgin High, Alex Cyhaniuk said his world history class exposed him to different spiritual texts, exposure that proved useful in his English class.

"It wasn't just Christianity. It was Confucianism. It was Taoism," said Cyhaniuk, who lives in unincorporated West Chicago. "I get the separation of church and state in schools. Our teacher just tried her best to work her way around that."

2006 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.


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