In college towns around the nation, sales might
be up for the
Bible for Dummies. And certainly, searches
on Wikipedia for Bible are on the rise.
Once a Bass writing tutor at Yale, I’ll never forget
one Asian student. Students could use a 30-minute
session to discuss any writing project, and this was
just before the dawn of Wikipedia as the go-to
source for students with questions. His class had
read “The Love Song by J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S.
Eliot, and the freshman was distraught, ready to
drop the class.
“Everyone in class knew Lazarus and talked about
him,” he said in amazement, referring to the line in
Eliot’s haunting poem: “To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come
from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall
tell you all.’”
“How do they all know him?” he pressed me. “Do you
know who he is?”
A record high, near 725,000 international students,
about half graduate students and half
undergraduates, attended U.S. schools in the 2010-11
school year, reports the Institute of International
Education. Those attending top colleges must fulfill
requirements in English or literature. Many arrive
poorly equipped to understand the themes and
literary devices that enrich so much of American,
English and Irish literature.
The international students are not alone.
Religious-service and religious-studies attendance
is on the decline among teenagers, and teachers in
diverse public schools may hesitate to analyze the
Bible’s contributions to modern poetry, fiction and
essays, particularly when the writers are critical,
lashing out at absurdities or contradictions,
society’s immorality, or loss of innocence. Many
students who are unfamiliar with the Bible miss the
nuanced and broad allusions, imagery, metaphors and
symbols teeming in the novels of James Joyce, John
Steinbeck, William Faulkner and others.
Among the reference books in my office was a basic
children’s Bible in my office – a quick summary for
most students, an investment of a few hours of time.
I promptly handed over my copy to the student. He
glanced at the title, handed it back, and explained
he was Muslim.
“You don’t have to believe what you read,” I
advised, promising him that over the next four years
he would take issue with much of what he’d read in
college. Critical reading and self-examination are
never dangerous. Reading and writing about new ideas
can shift or reinforce values. “You can’t join the
discussion if you don’t understand what others in
the class are talking about.”
I also urged him to discover common ground with the
Koran and contrast values from the two books, to
write about his concerns and raise them in
discussions during class and with friends. And
remembering how many students born and raised in the
United States, native English speakers, struggled
with under-reading or over-reading literary
passages, I cautioned against wild stretches;
comparisons were fine as long as he relied on
Before long, the class and the American culture
became less of a puzzle for him. It’s empowering for
students to explore the great ideas that are the
foundation of a culture, lending support or
critique. In “Character,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
“The religion of one age is the literary
entertainment of the next.” This is not to belittle
religion, as Emerson suggests that religion endures
schisms as “protest against the impieties of the
time, which had originally been protests against
earlier impieties , but had lost their truth.”
Literature is a partner in exploring morality, truth
and the “reaffirmations of the conscience correcting
the evil customs” of our times.
Emerson expresses confidence that morals triumph
over any cruel sect or trend: “Men will learn to put
back the emphasis peremptorily on pure morals,
always the same, not subject to doubtful
interpretation, with no sale of indulgences[,] no
massacre of heretics, no female slaves, no
disfranchisement of women, no stigma on race; to
make morals the absolute test, and so uncover and
drive out the false religions.”
Stories of redemption, rebirth, power, charity,
exile or exclusion are driving metaphors of our day.
Lazy or timid students depend on the interpretations
provided by others. The most energetic and curious
relish their own investigations, and this requires
delving into the great ideas and the assumptions
held by others.
As society becomes more diverse, as English
literature is influenced by writers from India,
Africa or China, scholars must familiarize
themselves with other religions and cultures. New
connections are constantly underway, as demonstrated
by the Society of Biblical Literature looking into
formation of a Society for Qur’anic Studies.
Susan Froetschel is the author of Fear of Beauty, a
novel set in Afghanistan, about a woman’s struggle
to learn to read with the help of the Koran.