Bible Literacy in America
- Chuck Colson Chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries
- 2001 10 Oct
The next day he was assassinated-a horrific national tragedy. But to grasp the full significance of those famous words, you need to know about the book that inspired them, the Bible.
In most classrooms today, the Bible is mostly unknown. Mountaintop? Promised Land? Students don't get it. Without knowledge of the Bible, students will never understand the Civil Rights movement, the Mayflower Compact, or Ronald Reagan's "Shining City on a Hill" address. In fact, little of our history can be understood without reference to the Bible.
Nor can our literature. Try reading Milton's Paradise Lost, Camus' The Fall, or Leon Uris' novel Exodus without it. How do you grasp references to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, or the Last Supper? For Christians and Jews, the Bible is sacred. But for anyone, regardless of faith, it's essential for a good education.
A survey of English teachers in Oregon found that 81 percent agreed that the Bible ought to be taught in their schools. Sadly, only 10 percent were actually doing it. So why did they think it was important? Look to one teacher's statement:
"Today we discussed [Hemingway's] Old Man And The Sea... When he lies spread out on the mast, it's just like Christ crucified... Most of the class didn't have any idea. Tale Of Two Cities -- Sidney Carton walks through the garden before he decides, just as Christ walked through the garden. I tell the students, I'm not a Christian. You just have to know the Bible."
He's right. As E. D. Hirsch writes in Cultural Literacy, "All educated speakers . . . need to understand what is meant [by] a contest . . . between David and Goliath or . . . whether saying 'My cup runneth over' means a person feels fortunate or unfortunate. Those who cannot use or understand such allusions cannot fully participate in literate English."
But if this is so, why isn't the Bible taught? Some people think it's illegal. Not so. The same 1963 Supreme Court ruling that banned mandatory prayer explicitly authorized academic Bible teaching. Justice Tom Clark wrote: "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."
But teaching about the Bible requires training, and good curricula are hard to find. Well, the Bible Literacy Project has a curriculum I gladly recommend, vetted by professionals from many fields. And the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has agreed to defend (at no cost) any school district sued for using it.
There's no excuse for ignorance of this great book. As E. D. Hirsch says, "Far from being illegal or undesirable, teaching about the Bible is not only consistent with our Constitution, it is essential to our literacy."
I couldn't agree more.
Copyright 2001 Prison Fellowship Ministries. All Rights Reserved.
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