Friday, May 25, 2007

Many kinds of literacy - in this case, Bible Literacy

See Update below: (should updates go at the top?)

This post has been sitting on my desk for nearly two months, but I am determined to share this. Time Magazine on April 2 ran a great cover story by David Van Biema "The Case for Teaching the Bible" in which he argues that the "Holy Book" should "be on the public-school menu" because "It's the bedrock of Western Culture." And, he says "it's constitutional - as long as we teach but don't preach it."

Van Biema's point is well taken that many Americans today do not know the Bible well enough to understand the positions of those in society whose values and politics are closely driven by what they read and understand in the Bible. Van Biema quotes Stephen Prothero, new author of Religious Literacy, as evidence:
In the late '70s, [students] knew nothing about religoin, and it didn't matter. But then religions rushed into the public square. What purpose could it possible serve for citizens to be ignorant of all that?"
Prothero's book will be out soon. According to Lisa Miller's March 12 Newsweek article "The Gospel of Prothero" the professor at Boston University bemoans the fact that "In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, only a tiny portion of them knows a thing about religion. "

Miller points out that when Prothero "began teaching college 17 years ago, Prothero writes, he discovered that few of his students could name the authors of the Christian Gospels."
What happens when I teach Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech or his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is that students do not recognize the references. Many don't notice the epistolary form and connect that to the New Testament or get many of the allusions. So I tell them. They don't recognize "every valley shall be exalted" from Isaiah, even after I sing to them from Handel's "Messiah." This makes me sad. College is supposed to be a time to broaden horizons, so I explain about cultural and religious literacy and urge them to become more informed.

I agree with Van Biema's claim that "knowledge of [the Bible] is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen." And my motivation accords with Prothero's position as reported by Miller:
His motivation is more than pedagogical. In a world where nearly every political conflict has a religious underpinning, Prothero writes that Americans are selling themselves short by remaining ignorant about basic religious history and texts, by not knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite or the name of Mormonism's holy book. "Given a political environment where religion is increasingly important, it's increasingly important to know something about religion," he says. "The payoff is a more involved [political] conversation."
Right now one of my students is writing an essay claiming that public high schools should offer electives in intelligent design but continue to teach evolution in the required science classes. He and I talked about whether these proposed courses should only feature the Christian perspective or creation as explained by all religions.

Well -- it's getting late and I want to head home for the Memorial Day weekend to grade papers. I have one more short blog post to make up for being absent for so long. Have a great weekend.

Note: Prothero now has a 15 question "religious literacy" quiz on Newsweek. The quiz would not launch for me at first, but then it did, and I scored 87, missing 2 questions.

According to Chronicle of Higher Ed (but an article I don't have a subscription for)

Secularism in the Elimination Round By JACQUES BERLINERBLAU

Christopher Hitchens closes his subtly titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything with the following directive: "It has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it." The enemy in question would be religion. All religion, all manifestations of religion — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and all their sundry denominations, too. It's all bad! And unless Hitchens's grand strategy is to taunt religion so mercilessly that it packs its bags and storms, red faced, out of the cosmos, his book provides little of use for the coming struggle.
Here's a link to an excerpt of Hitchens' book, entitled "Religion Kills."



Blogger Michael Faris said...

I too only missed two, but it seems that some 60+ percent of quiz takers only miss 0-2 questions.

I'm not sure how I feel about this whole bible literacy thing. On one hand, yes, it helps people to understand cultural allusions. On the other hand, teaching the bible to students seems like another way to reinforce and continue cultural hegemony. Part of me wants to ask, "So what if students don't know the allusion in "every valley shall be exalted"? I certainly didn't. And I think I'm probably more biblically literate than most people in this country (and even more than most Christians, I'm sure).

The argument that we should be religiously literate because religion is dominating our public discourse doesn't really hold much ground, except on the fact that we should be forcing state religion out of our public discourse (i.e., state Christianity that so many are pursuing) and having a form of religious or biblical literacy is useful to combat those forms of oppression.

I haven't read Van Biema's article, but I doubt that's what he has in mind.

Of course, I'm all about learning about other cultures and ways of life, but it also doesn't seem that that's what he's espousing either (esp. based on the quiz, which was full of trivia instead of understanding, but of course, it's a banal quiz).

I'm not trying to argue against some form of biblical literacy (indeed, I've found mine useful in defending myself against homophobia), but then what kind of biblical literacy would we teach? Is it just a literary game of "what reference is he or she making?" Or is it combating cultural hegemony?

2:44 AM  
Blogger Sara Jameson said...


Thank you for reading this post and engaging with it. I should probably have said religious literacy though I was working off Van Biema's article. I wish I did know more of the various religions so as to understand what motivates people. But that is such a huge topic because look - how even Christian groups/ sects / denominations vary - from Episcopalian to Catholic to Baptist to Mormon, etc., with varying degrees of inclusiveness.

And then, I am sure there are huge differences between Sunni and Shia and other sects of Islam, as for aspects of Buddhism (Zen and otherwise) etc. Would knowing and understanding be more along the lines of finding common ground for a Rogerian argument or for knowing the enemy for a Machiavellian argument?

Maybe you are right that it doesn't matter if students don't recognize allusions - I miss quite a few from Shakespeare and other famous authors - maybe that is not so important after all. And I guess I would not want to teach the "factoids" of the Bible - 10 quick references to astonish and impress others! As you say, a literary game.

And your point about the cultural hegemony is right on -- in order to fight it, one must first see it? Notice that it is there? If one doesn't know the clues - - -??

5:28 PM  
Blogger Michael Faris said...

I don't think I could ever argue from a Machiavellian perspective. I am quite fond of Rogers. :)

7:23 PM  

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