With the U.S. being a separate church and state type country, people get a little testy about the idea of teaching the Bible in public school. How could you possibly think of doing such a thing? Don’t you know there’s no proselytizing in schools?
But we do teach literature. A lot of it. How can we even begin to understand the great works of American literature without a basic knowledge of the Bible? And ignorance is what we’re sentencing our children to by not exposing them to this great book, or, er “Good Book.” Let’s put religion aside – let’s talk history, culture and literature. From a purely academic perspective, why not teach the backbone of Western thought?
For one thing, the Supreme Court. In the 1963 ruling of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the Court declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional. In the case, Edward Schempp’s children were forced to hear at least 10 verses from the Bible, without comment, at the beginning of each day, under Pennsylvania law. There are good arguments on either side of the case. Reading the Bible without comment could be construed as compulsory school prayer, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here.
If you say you oppose religion in public schools, consider how your run-of-the-mill monotheist might be offended by one cornerstone of elementary school education.
Starting in about fourth grade, we learned all about Ancient Greece and Rome, and about their gods – from Zeus and Athena to Jupiter and Juno. In short, polytheism unleashed. Was it taught in an indoctrinating way? Were we pressured to turn pagan? Was I offended? Hardly. I felt enriched and challenged, learning how other cultures lived, why they rose to power and why great empires fell. So why censor another great historical document that surveys civilizations, depicts the rise and fall of kings and empires and even imparts a few moral lessons along the way?
Why is it so inconceivable that the Bible can be taught in a non-threatening, non-proselytizing way that will satisfy the most hard-core atheist (or pagan for that matter)?
Stephen Prothero, chair of the Boston University religion department, and author of
Religious Literacy (2007) diagnoses Americans with “religious illiteracy” and supports Bible-literacy education. His amusing anecdotes reveal the sad truth about our public’s ignorance of the Bible’s contents: only half of American adults can name one of the four Gospels, 10 percent of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and “many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.” He suggests American high schools include courses on the Bible and other world religions.
A 2007 article in Time magazine called “The Case for Teaching the Bible” stated: “The ‘new consensus’ for secular Bible study argues that knowledge of it is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen.”
The Bible is taught in some schools in Texas and Georgia. In Israel, it’s taught alongside other subjects like math, Hebrew and science, from elementary school through 12th grade to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. There is even a matriculation exam in the subject.
So what exactly do we not know if we never cracked open a Bible? That’s impossible to answer in a short blog post. But for starters, we probably wouldn’t understand the central themes of some of the books that are taught in public school. Many of the great works of American literature were filled with Biblical inspirations and motifs. Some examples:
Moby Dick: How can we even begin to understand Herman Melville’s classic saga starting with the first sentence: “Call me Ishmael”? The main characters are: Ishmael (Abraham’s first-born son), Ahab (King of Israel married to the evil Jezebel in 1 Kings), Elijah (prophet, 1 Kings).
John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: The title is from the Book of Revelation.
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom. Absalom was King David’s son who rebelled against his father (2 Samuel). Even so, when he dies, David is distraught and cries out “Absalom, Absalom!” Absalom is also referenced in Cry the Beloved Country by South African Alan Paton and The Manticore by Canadian Robertson Davies. Absalom in Hebrew means “Father of Peace.”
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. The title is a literal translation of Beelzebub, the Canaanite pagan god, the epitome of evil, which in Hebrew means “Lord (Baal) of the Flies (Zebub).” In the beginning of the book, the beast takes on a snake-like shape, alluding to the creature in the Garden of Eden that persuaded Eve to reject God’s rules. Also note Simon’s character (disciple of Jesus).
A non-fiction book: The title of Adam Smith’s treatise promoting free market economics, The Wealth of Nations, is from a quote in the Book of Isaiah.
These are just a few examples of the Bible’s use in literature. Sadly, by skipping this Book of riches in our public education, we as individuals, as society and as students of literature and history are all the poorer for it.