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My public library has a section of books for classic literature or novels that are typically assigned reading in high school or college. From time to time, I go to that section and choose a book that I never read in school or want to re-read. Doing this for several years, it has jumped out to me the frequent references to biblical things in much classic literature. Without a basic knowledge of the Bible, certain nuances of a story or what a character is communicating could be simply missed or outright misunderstood.

My last post was on the reference book: The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know. A concern of the authors is that we are teaching the skill of reading, but failing to teach general knowledge that is essential for reading comprehension. Of the 23 chapters on major areas of knowledge, one is on the Bible. I appreciated the introductory thoughts to the section on the Bible:

The Bible…is the most widely known book in the English-speaking world….No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible…All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish, or whether saying “my cup runneth over” means the person feels fortunate or unfortunate.

The Bible is also essential for understanding many of the moral and spiritual values of our culture, whatever our religious beliefs….

No person in the modern world can be considered educated without a basic knowledge of all the great religions of the world – Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. But our knowledge of Judaism and Christianity needs to be more detailed than that of other great religions, if only because the Bible is embedded in our thought and language. The Bible is a central book in our culture, just as the Koran is central in other nations. The logical conclusion is that our schools need to teach more about the Bible than about the Koran, but they have a responsibility to teach about both. Far from being illegal or undesirable, teaching about the Bible is not only consistent with our Constitution, it is essential to our literacy.

While some of the bolding was my own addition, the word about was emphasized by the author. There is a difference between teaching the Bible (or another religious book) in an objective, factual way and teaching it in a subjective or proselytizing way. But there in lies the concern, that it can be difficult to teach the Bible without drifting into subjectivity. Parents on “both sides” may object. The Christian parent may fear their child will hear biased or inaccurate teaching about the Bible. While the irreligious parent may fear their child could be proselytized.

I found this interesting article from CBS news from 2006 on teaching the Bible as literature in public schools. It emphasizes that the Bible’s influence is impossible to ignore. It is embedded in literature, history, art, and even modern pop culture. (Not to mention that the Bible itself contains some great literature, history, and human interest stories!) Yet there is that fine line between teaching and preaching, and controversy surrounds the issue.

A way needs to be found around this impasse, and I don’t know the answer. To not teach the Bible seems neglectful to a well-rounded education, and can make it more difficult for students to understand and learn as they study certain subjects in school. The problem is that we have gone through a cultural shift. General Bible knowledge used to be more common, and directly teaching it was not necessary as the basics were familiar. But that is no longer the case as our culture has become increasingly secular, yet the influence of the Bible remains leaving a knowledge gap for too many.