USA Today recently published an opinion column discussing the issue of teaching biblical literature to public school students. Like it or not, the Bible has had a profound influence on history and culture throughout the world. Several of my students taking biblical poetry last semester were English majors, only there to raise their biblical literacy enough to catch and understand more of the biblical allusions in classic English literature. Time magazine ran an article a year or so ago that explored the issue of teaching Bible as an elective in public schools. Their article looked specifically at what was being done in some of the states that had added the Bible elective to their curriculum. Here's an excerpt from USA Today. I recommend reading the whole piece.
"Students who want to do serious study of Western civilization need to know the Bible," says Barbara Newman, Northwestern University professor of English, Religion and Classics. "They need to know the Bible, even if they do not believe the Bible."
Harvard professor Robert Kiely, for one, agrees. In 2006, he participated in an academic survey of professors from many of America's leading universities — including Yale, Princeton, Brown, Rice, California-Berkeley and Stanford. The survey — commissioned by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools — found an overwhelming consensus among top professors that incoming college students need to be well-versed in the stories, themes and words of the Bible.
"If a student doesn't know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on and on," Kiely told Concordia professor Marie Wachlin and her research team.
"Knowledge of the Bible can be a key to unlocking other subjects. . . especially literature, art, music and social studies," say Chuck Stetson, co-editor of the visually stunning high school textbook The Bible and Its Influence, and founder of the Bible Literacy Project.
And knowledge of the Bible can be a key to understanding much of today's pop culture. Like Stephen Colbert's irreverent humor on Comedy Central. Or Jim Carrey's screwball spirituality in Bruce Almighty. Or the devilishly clever title of the band White Stripes' release, Get Behind Me Satan.
Not surprisingly, students growing up in non-religious homes are often behind the curve. "Many of my students are quite secular and have very little knowledge of the Bible," Northwestern's Newman says. "This is a major disadvantage."
Indeed, Newman says that trying to appreciate biblical allusions in literature without an underlying knowledge of Scripture is like trying to appreciate a good joke when someone has to explain the punch line. You might eventually "get" the joke, she says, but by the time you do, "it's not funny anymore."