Monday, September 07, 2009

Why the Bible should be taught as literature in public schools

The question of whether public schools should teach the Bible as literature has come up again, this time as a result of a piece of legislation in the Texas legislature that proposes to do just that. Some people seem to think that there are two sides to this issue: secularists who don't want the Bible taught in any way because it would violate the separation between church and state, and religious people who want the Bible taught in schools because they think it's true.

That would be a dramatic oversimplification of the situation. You could just as well point out that there are secularists who, whatever they think of the Bible, agree that there is an educational value attached to Biblical literacy that is essential to understanding, for example, much of Western literature. And there could certainly be a case made by a religious believer that he doesn't want the teaching of the Bible placed into the hands of an unbelieving public school teacher.

D. A. Ridgely at Positive Liberty gets some of this. Being a secularist, he still understands, for example, the value of Biblical literacy for understanding classic literature, but he doesn't get the relevance to contemporary literature or society, and, because of this, his analysis goes from the sublime to the ridiculous:
This is an excellent idea at least insofar as understanding literature, art and music is concerned. I’m not so sure contemporary literature, art or music requires all that much of a working knowledge of the Bible as literature, but the history of Western civilization and its literature, art and music sure as hell does. Nor do you have to go back as far as Dante or Milton or medieval mystery and morality plays or European sacred music or church architecture or the endless profusion of religious paintings and sculptures between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment. You can’t read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom or understand the death and resurrection themes in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest without a working knowledge of the Bible. So, also, an inadequate knowledge of the Bible as literature might lead one into thinking that Lyndon Johnson (“Come, let us reason together”) or Abraham Lincoln (“A house divided against itself cannot stand”) were more original orators than, in fact, they were; so I’ll grant Texas the oratory rationale, too.

But “contemporary society and culture, including … mores … and public policy”? Can this language be anything other than a glaring 1st Amendment violation just waiting to happen? Not, I hasten to add, because I think Judeo-Christian ethics are per se incompatible with contemporary American secular mores and public policy but because biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives are not, in fact, prerequisites to understanding contemporary mores and public policy and the suggestion that they are constitutes at least a colorable case of unconstitutional establishment.
First to the issue of the necessity of Biblical literacy to an understanding of classic literature. To put it simply, you can't understand much of classic literature without it. End of story. It is like trying to understand the Iliad or the Odyssey without understanding Greek mythology, or the Aeneid without understanding the Roman versions of the stories of the gods.

This point is, in fact, mentioned prominently in Northrop Frye's book, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Frye, one of the great literary critics of the 20th century, became so frustrated with Biblically illiterate students in his English classes when he was a junior instructor, that he started teaching a course in the Bible so his students could understand what they were reading:
I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads: the most conscientious student will be continually misconstruing the implications, even the meaning.

... The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think we believe about it. It insistently raises the question: Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage like the "great Boyg" or sphinx in Peer Gynt, frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?
It is a book, says Frye, "that has had a continuously fertilizing influence on English literature from Anglo-Saxon writers to poets younger than I." "The Old and New Testaments," he quotes William Blake as saying, "are the Great Code of Art." Hence the title of Frye's book.

Just try reading Melville's Moby Dick, or Billy Budd, or his short story "The Lightening Rod Man" without a basic knowledge of the Bible. Or anything by Steinbeck, but especially East of Eden and The Pearl. And then, of course there is Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Faulkner, O'Connor, Tolkien, Golding. The list goes on. Even works by people plainly non-Christian in their own beliefs are steeped in it: for example, Fitzgerald's The Grapes of Wrath, and Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. I mean, for crying out loud, there is a Christ figure in Hair.

Of course, these works, along with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, are the backbone of our Western heritage, and the chief impulse of our public schools seems to be the abandonment of this tradition. It is seen not only in the choice of book students are expected to read, which tend toward the modern and ephemeral, but in the overall change in the purpose of education, which is now seen, not as the the passing on of Western culture, which was always the objective of classical education, but, instead, progressivism (the political use of schools to change the culture) and pragmatism (the practical use of schools to fit children to the culture).

Your support for teaching the Bible as literature should have nothing to do with what your religious convictions are, and everything to do with whether you think Western culture is a legitimate focus of education.

It is a measure of Ridgely's own lack of Biblical literacy that he would say that contemporary literature and society is not informed by the Bible. It is the Biblically illiterate who swim like fish in the Biblical water and wonder where the water is. He thinks because the influence is mostly imperceptible, or indefinite, or inconspicuous that it is not there. Or that because the influence is second or third hand, that it is therefore not important to be aware of.

I don't know what Ridgely means by "contemporary," but if 19th century to mid-20th are too dated for him, he ought to try reading Stephen King, or John Grisham, or Robert Heinlein, or Ray Bradbury, or Wendell Berry. Oh, and then there's that silly little series of children's books, Harry Potter, where, in places, the Biblical imagery is palpable. And that's just the books.

If Ridgely wants to keep his contemporary world sanitized of Biblical influence, he'd best not go to the theater. The list of movies he'll have to miss will include virtually every superhero movie (especially Superman), Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings (he might want to miss the book as well), the Pirates of the Carribean, The Matrix, Star Trek (particularly II), and (I am told) Transformers.

Oh, and if it makes Ridgely feel better, I'm going to miss Transformers with him.

The people who argue against teaching public school students some kind of basic Biblical literacy ought to come right out and say they are for keeping public school students ignorant. And now that I think about it, that fits right into the rest of public school policy these days.

5 comments:

Lee said...

No, we can't teach the Bible as literature, though clearly it is, and then some.

But we can allow Muslims to enter the public schools and give their spiel to the kids, in the name of multiculturism, which it isn't.

It's not multiculturalism because if Muslims had their way, everyone would be Muslim. And those who wouldn't be would be killed or enslaved.

History Matters said...

That's very well said! You didn't quite cover it from Alpha to Omega, and I don't mean to be a Doubting Thomas, but there are tons of other examples even in our daily speech. How often have we heard these?
Eye for an eye
Forbidden fruit
Go the extra mile
Good Samaritan

I posted about this myself a short time ago:
No Religious History of USA? It Permeates Our Culture!

We should also remember that the man we quote when we say "separation of church and state" is Thomas Jefferson. When he was president (small "p") of the Washington, D.C. school system he approved that the two primary sources of reading in the public schools would be the Watts Hymnal and the Holy Bible. I don't for a minute think Jefferson was trying to spread Christianity by that action. But he understood that the Bible was a huge influence on Western Civilization. In any event, he apparently did not think that was a violation of the First Amendment!

D.A. Ridgely said...

I don't much mind being accused of ignorance, but I care occasionally about whether the particulars of the accusation are correct.

First, contemporary literature, art, etc. is usually understood to mean the work of living authors, artists, etc., or at least artists and writers of the current generation.

Second, I said only that I questioned whether such contemporary works require Biblical literacy to the same degree much 20th century and earlier works do. I certainly never said or suggested that there were no contemporary works of literature, etc. about which Biblical literacy would be advantageous.

Third, while I agree with some of your contemporary counter-examples (and offered some myself, by the way), I would quibble some of your others. Suffice it to say I suspect you may be engaging in a more eisegetical than exegetical analysis of some of those films to make your case.

Fourth, while I have no idea what you mean by "secularist" (just as you have no idea as to the extent of my knowledge regarding the Bible), I have to say I think you misread my entire post. I was endorsing the notion of teaching the Bible as literature while bemoaning what I believe to be the fact that the political realities of contemporary American society make doing so next to impossible in the average public school system. But questioning the political viability of something is not at all the same thing as opposing it on its merits.

Thanks, in any case, for your interest in my post.

Martin Cothran said...

First, contemporary literature, art, etc. is usually understood to mean the work of living authors, artists, etc.

On your first point about "contemporary" referring to living authors, that is why I cited Stephen King, John Grisham, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Wendell Berry--amd J. K. Rowling--living authors all.

Second, I said only that I questioned whether such contemporary works require Biblical literacy to the same degree much 20th century and earlier works do

You said, "I’m not so sure contemporary literature, art or music requires all that much of a working knowledge of the Bible as literature..." This is what I was contesting. If your intention was to say that there is not as much as in earlier works, I would agree. I would disagree, however, if you added to that (as I thought you were) it was not still significant.

I suspect you may be engaging in a more eisegetical than exegetical analysis of some of those films to make your case.

I don't contest that, but I don't think it affects my case. What an author means to say and what he does in fact say can be different things, as many of the best authors would admit. What a work can be determined to say from an eisegetical reading can be just as important as what it says from an exegetical one.

I have to say I think you misread my entire post. I was endorsing the notion of teaching the Bible as literature while bemoaning what I believe to be the fact that the political realities of contemporary American society make doing so next to impossible in the average public school system. But questioning the political viability of something is not at all the same thing as opposing it on its merits.

I don't think I misunderstood your point at all. In fact, I agreed with your main point and was contesting only the part about contemporary art and culture. But I probably did not say enough about the quality of the post: it was a good one (which is one of the reasons, despite disagreeing often with the content, that I read your blog).

javieth said...
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