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