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Thursday, April 05, 2007

a digressive post

After thinking about the Booking Through Thursday questions in the last post, I found this article.

Dr. Stephen Prothero has been "conducting informal tests of the religious knowledge of undergraduates and what he finds is disturbing. Students have told him that it was Moses that was blinded on the road to Damascus and that Paul led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. He notes that more scientific polls have found that only one out of three US citizens is able to name all four Gospels and that one out of ten think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Small wonder, he writes, that noted pollster George Gallup has concluded that the United States is 'a nation of Biblical illiterates'." (emphasis mine)

"On the principal that it is better to light a small candle than to curse the darkness Prothero’s book offers a set of proposed remedies based on his hope that 'the Fall into religious ignorance is reversible.' Among those remedies the most controversial is his call for the teaching of the Bible in American public school classrooms, not simply as literature but also a study of the Bible’s impact on history. As the professor notes, teaching about religion as opposed to preaching about it, is not prohibited by the First Amendment’s ban on an 'establishment of religion.'"

At the risk of offending some, I have to say that I agree. The Bible's impact on literature and history is worth examination.

And what of Joseph Campell in the examination of world religions? In The Power of Myth, Campbell and Bill Moyer's exchange views about the importance of myth in civilization and in individual lives.

Belden C. Lane's The Power of Myth: Lessons from Joseph Campbell begins: "Theology and myth are stepsisters of truth. The one probes with questions, the other spins out tales on gossamer threads. But both serve a common mystery."

Also from Belden: "Simply put, theology gets caught up too often in explaining the meaning of life instead of seeking an experience of being alive."

Oops, I'm wandering again... One subject leading to another. I think what I'm saying is that theology and myth have importance in our lives -- and learning more about religious works can be useful in ways we aren't even aware of. Western literature draws heavily on the the Bible and without understanding the allusions and symbols, much of the impact of the literature is lost. A general knowledge of myth and world religions adds to our appreciation of what we read.


  1. Absolutely - I agree. Without understanding the history of religion and how its leaders and its metaphors have changed the world, how can anyone make sense of anything, present or past?

  2. I am a major proponent of keeping religion out of public schools, but teaching the bible as history and literature is a wonderful idea. So much of our national and world history is based on all of the holy books, we are doing future generations a diservice by not giving them the tools they need to decode the world.

  3. I also see no reason why the Bible can't be taught as history or literature. I do think "religion" classes need to stay out of public schools. I'm quite surprised that students did so poorly on that test.

  4. I remember being in an art history class some thirty years ago (mid to late '70's) and listening to an art history professor explain the symbolism of Mary Magdalen with her hair unbound and flowing around her torso in strategically placed locks. The gap in knowledge of the classic bible stories isn't entirely recent.

    The exposure to biblical stories needn't be done in the public schools at all if that's the sticking point, although I don't see why one can't outline the stories in the context of art, history and/or literature. If one really doesn't trust the schools to do it, parents can impart the basic stories by reading aloud to young children. There are respectable collections, neither disrespectful nor overly pious, that present the biblical stories as stories.

    To my mind, it's a question of finding the right balance between exposure and indoctrination.

  5. The Dr. was on Oprah today and I liked his view. He mentioned how Oprah's own book club had Bible based titles, i.e. East of Eden, Book of Ruth, and Song of Solomon.

    Continuing on his reasoning, most literature is a story up from the foundation; Should the Dr. be reminded "Noah's Ark" was first written in Gilgamesh. Oh, or did I just demonstrate a little "religion" illiteracy? ;D

  6. I agree -- to really understand history and literature students need the Bible! I would want to be very careful, though, about how it gets taught -- and I imagine the whole thing would be quite controversial.

  7. teabird - Yes, history hinges on so many of the events in religious works. Leaders from the world's great religions have changed the course of events, over and over. So to understand our current world, we need some background...

    Lisa Jean - I agree. A course on world religions might be the best approach. I like your comment about "giving them the tools they need to decode the world." My original response to the topic was literature based, but it is broader than that, isn't it?

    danielle - I understand some of the problems of teaching such a course without moving into the area of personal beliefs...

    Jill - Oh, yes, how could I forget art? Medieval paintings are full of religious symbolism that add so much meaning and complexity.

    I think part of the problem is that many parents have not had any religious background and can't teach their children. And you're right, the balance between exposure and indoctrination is key.

    Maggie - Good point - even titles of literature have import. How about comparing other similarities in the flood story? Gilgamesh and the Bible have several similarities and there are religions and myths from all over the world that have flood stories.

    Dorothy - Again, we are back to "easier said, than done." Truthfully, there are so many areas of education with gaps and most are not controversial. I can see how most school systems would prefer not to stir the pot. Still...

  8. Doesn't Helene Hanff make precisely this point somewhere in 'Q's Legacy'? If memory serves me, trying to read Q's lectures on English Literature she got no further than the first couple of pages before discovering that as a Jew she had no knowledge of anything that referenced either the New Testament or the Apocropha. Mind you, I bet she knew who Joan of Arc was!

  9. Art, history, politics, anthropology, poetry, language, archaeology and other subjects would be enhanced by including The Bible in curriculum. Greek mythology is taught because it is basic to understanding history. Why is the Bible so different? It shouldn't be taught as religion in public schools, but as literature.

    I love your blog and have found several others I enjoy on your list. Thanks!

  10. Ann - I've not read Q's Legacy, and I thank you for the mention. It has been years since I read 84 Charing Cross Road, and I adored it. Now would be a good time to see about Q's Legacy for a number of reasons!

    Marty - So much is predicated on religious works, and you've broadened the possibilities again. If religious works were presented as history and as literature, we might all gain better understanding.

    Thanks for the nice comments.

  11. I love Joseph Campbell!

    My sister went to a British school for a couple of years (we're American), and they have a 'world religion' class where they study all of the major belief systems. I'd like to see something like that here in America. The problem, of course, is that some people would like to see only Christianity taught. I took a Bible as/in Literature class in (public) high school and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite being the only non-Christian in a class of 30+! I think you *have* to know the Bible in order to be considered well read in the Western tradition, since it's referenced by so many people in so many times.