Parochial Bible Literacy

Save Ballet !

Two well-known religion-poisons-everything Atheists just wrote about Bible Literacy.  Biologist Jerry Coyne wrote “Is the Bible Great Literature?” as a comment on biologist Richard Dawkins’s Gardian article called “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible“.   How do you feel about Biblical literacy?

As I got ready to publish this post, I thought, “Gee, haven’t I had already written on this subject?” And indeed I had, but the post was in my unpublished draft pile — so I just posted it.   In that post you can see that I think saying “The Bible is a great literary masterpiece” is false on several levels: (1) The Bible is not homogenous, and (2) Many books of the Bible are certainly far from unique and many are worthless as literature.  But in this post, as in Coyne’s and Dawkin’s articles, I address two different issues:

  •  What is the value of reading the Bible in order to understand Western literature?
  •   What is the value of requiring such reading?

These are two important questions to keep distinct.  One is a personal question, while the other is a policy question.  Public (government) schools must make choices on exactly what to teach children.  But the number of classes are limited.  Should Bible Literacy be one of those class — and at the expense of what other classes?

I am not in favor of the government’s role is saving orchestras, classical languages, ballet, Shakespeare, sports or the Bible.  For me, all such efforts are stuffy parochialism.  The world is a big place and always changing. Who is to say what should be preserved?  Let people decide freely.   Though I love religious literacy, I would not impose my pleasures on others.  Religious literacy greatly improves my enjoyment of literature and films, but I disagree with Stephen Prothero’s book, “Religious Literacy“, where he advocates for more religious education in secular schools.

I agree that to deeply understand European and American literature prior to 1970s (* Sabio shamelessly pulls a date out of thin air), familiarity with both the Christian religion and its scriptures along with familiarity with Greek religion helps immensely. But so what?  Is that a reason to require Bible classes in the first 12 years of a child’s education?  The pertinent religious allusions in a novel can be explained during a literature class,  students could then read more of the Bible on their own if they desired.  No need for separate courses on the Bible.

A favorite Japanese Anime (“Spirited Away“)

To enjoy all literature deeply, much more than just Biblical literacy is needed.  If you want to read any of India’s literature, familiarity with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana is essential too. Understanding many Japanese animes without understanding the Japanese mix of Buddhism and Shintoism means much of the story will go over your head.  Confucian ideology is essential to really understand much of Chinese literature and film.  The list goes on and on.  Should we require all of these?

I love tasting new experiences, so my homework becomes daunting and is always incomplete! But I should no more demand all children to have my sensibilities than others should demand that my children learn to enjoy their favorite arts or past-times. People forget how parochial their education policies are.

Question to readers:

  • What background reading is necessary to understand your favorite forms of fiction?
  • Have you seen the value of knowing another religion’s literature in understanding any literature or film?
  • Do you feel Biblical Literacy should be required teaching in children’s education in the West?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Parochial Bible Literacy

  1. It’s interesting for me, because I mostly enjoy sci-fi, so there really isn’t any need or benefit for me in reading the Bible. Though I feel like I might better understand Battlestar Galactica if I were to read the Book or Mormon! I definitely have benefitted from knowing a fair bit about Buddhism when I watched “Travelors and Magicians” and “Samsara” – I don’t think I would have got as much out of those films if I hadn’t.

    The matter of Biblical literacy in the West is a tricky one because, of course, many people still treat it like it’s real (no one does that with the Illiad). Then again, that’s precisely why it probably is important to have some basic literacy of the thing (and also, I suppose, the preservation of Western heritage: reading Homer falls in this category also). Dan Dennett also proposed something similar (2nd vid down). I think this sort of thing could be done right, provided that it is taught in a neutral way, as literature, etc., but that may be too much to ask for.

  2. Interesting. I feel it’s important to teach people about religion, from a neutral “this is what people believe” standpoint, but I’d have said no to anything like Bible Literacy.

    Having read this, though, and thought about it some more, I have to admit there’s a lot of shared culture that does pretty much depend on basic Bible knowledge. In fact, there’s so much of it that it’s hard to draw out specific examples. So there’s a sort of cultural reason for covering it, but doesn’t that just propagate a sort of cultural chauvinism?

    I suppose the answer is just to let people pick it up the way they absorb all kinds of cultural ideas which aren’t specifically taught, and that sounds fine to me. But I think I’m a bit less certain of my ground than I was before reading this.

  3. I’m not sure that it’s chauvinistic to teach those resident to a culture about that culture. If I were in China, say, I think I would be glad to receive some cultural instruction (admittedly, literature comes a distant second to practicalities of daily culture – e.g. how not to enrage people inadvertantly). In fact, I would expect it, if they figured that their culture is good and worth sticking with. Now, if it was insisted that (e.g.) French culture must be taught in China…

  4. I think bible literacy is only important from a political perspective. As long as our political parties and leaders use the Bible to advance their agenda we need to be aware of what it says.

    Outside of this….what book do I have that is worth reading over, and over, and over? none, the bible included.

  5. This has nothing to do with anything, but I also loved spirited away! Although my favorite japanimation is probably Akira.

  6. @ Andy: I love all his works!

  7. @ Bruce Gerencser: Certainly the political perspective is drastically important. And the idea of reading books over and over would be a post in itself!

  8. @ James,
    The word “culture” is often used manipulatively to reinforce the ideology of the ruling class (see my post here). The USA is made up of very different, contradictory subcultures. Minorities are becoming a majority and so even dominant cultures will change. So buying into the dominant culture myth can be a trap.

  9. @ Recovering Agnostic,
    I agree. See my note to James. Well said.

  10. “Do you feel Biblical Literacy should be required teaching in children’s education in the West?”

    With hesitation, I’d say yes, but it’s important to make literacy a requirement first. I remember a lot of High School students complaining about having to take English every year. But as you hint at in your other post, “Is Fiction Bad for You?” people don’t really understand how to read literature safely.

    “What background reading is necessary to understand your favorite forms of fiction?”
    I’d like to think many of my favourites can be read on many levels – with or without whatever background the author might have been drawing from, or whatever critical sources tell me I should find in them. Some things don’t need to be understood with rigour or with an authority’s approval. Not to begin with, at least.

  11. @ Andrew G
    Good point, works can be enjoyed at many different levels.

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