The Bible as comprised of the Old and New Testaments is, simply put, the most important and seminal work of literature in Western Civilization. While for millions of people it is also the revealed word of God, for everyone it is an indispensable font from which springs the art, history, philosophy and governmental structures of our society. Biblical literacy, which is to say a basic, functioning knowledge of the stories of the Bible, is essential to have a full understanding of how our society works and why it differs so dramatically from others. This is why it must be thoroughly taught in the public schools.
Sadly, almost two decades into the 21st Century, biblical literacy is slipping away from us. A recent correction to a story in The Wall Street Journal gives a tidy example. “Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Benjamin Netanyahu said Moses brought water from Iraq. He said the water was brought from a rock.”
The Israeli Prime Minister was referring to a miracle in the book of Exodus. Somehow this mistake was not only made by the writer but got past editors and proofreaders as well, who were all, one assumes, well educated people. And this is far from an isolated example.
Does The Bible Still Matter?
I asked Robert P George, the McCormack Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, if he feels teaching the Bible is still an essential element of a good education. He had this to say:
As a matter of historical fact, the core ideas and institutions of Western civilization were shaped in decisive ways by biblical religion. That fact alone establishes the need for schools to teach our young people what the Bible says. What’s more, knowledge of the Bible is required not only to understand the great Jewish and Christian thinkers, writers, and artists of the past two thousand years (from Augustine and Maimonides to Luther and Newman; from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Austen and Waugh; from Michelangelo and Botticelli to Rouault and Chagall), but even to understand anti-religious Western thinkers such as Hume and Nietzsche. Whether one happens to be a believer or a skeptic, biblical illiteracy condemns one to ignorance of things that decently educated people know and understand.
I’d call that a solid yes. And of course he is absolutely right. In all of the areas he mentions much will go over the head of students who do not know the foundational mythology of our culture contained in Scripture. The Bible is not only the first book ever printed, it is arguably the raison d’etre of Gutenberg’s great leap forward. Its words launched Christendom, ushering in the Middle Ages and then again fractured it during the reformations, ushering in the Renaissance and eventually, modernity. Trying to understand Western civilization without reading the Bible is like trying to understand American history without reading the Constitution. It won’t work.
How To Teach It
How ought we teach the Bible? That’s not an easy question. Oceans of blood have been spilled over disagreements on this matter. But in the context of the public schools the answer is, basically as a work of literature. As stories. It may be unrealistic to imagine that the entire work would be read by a student throughout their elementary and secondary career, but certainly essential portions could be treated. The advantage of which is that writers at The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t think Moses walked to Baghdad with a bucket.
There already exist academic texts of the Bible that eschew its revelatory nature. In practice the study of the Old and New Testaments would resemble current study of Greek and Roman mythology. Indeed, these mythologies all compliment and inform one another.
The study of Greek mythology is not proselytization; no student runs out of class and starts worshiping Zeus. And if studying the Bible does lead some students to adopt Christianity or Judaism as a religion, not just a mythology, that is simply a function of their being exposed to the stories that founded their culture. In no way shape or form would practice or conversion be an intent of the study.
No, It’s Not Unconstitutional
Those who object to teaching the Bible in public schools might frantically point at the Constitution and exclaim that such a plan establishes a state religion and is forbidden. The relevant case here is Abington School District v Schempp. And while the court did find against the school district’s bible readings, it did so with a major caveat:
“It may well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or of the history of religion and its relation to the advancement of civilization,” the court found. “It certainly may be said that 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 a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
So, that’s pretty much that. And of course the Bible should be taught in conjunction with the study of other religious texts, but always with the understanding that none of them created the basic structure or DNA of our society in the way the Bible did.
At this time in our country’s history the need for exposure to the Bible in public schools is especially pressing. This is because the expressions of the Bible’s stories in the past were ubiquitous. In movies, music, holiday TV specials, political speeches, and almost everything else, the Bible and its tales were simply part of a fabric of American life. This is no longer the case. Some say that’s a good thing, some say it’s a bad thing, but either way, it leaves our kids in an intellectual lurch when trying to understand the world in which they live.
Some will argue that reading the bible should be done at home, which is a good idea and a regular practice of millions of Christian and Jewish Americans. But even those who practice another faith or none at all would do well to add bible stories to their kids’ reading list, just as stories. Throughout their life they will be rewarded with connections from it to the world around them.
But it is no longer enough to rely on social osmosis or home study of the Bible to give our children the framework needed to study our culture and civilization. Our school systems needs to see the dagger in their eye and provide students with the Biblical literacy needed to be “decently educated.” Our culture has roots that are powerful. They exert influence on almost every aspect of our daily lives; they nourish our social fabric. No root runs deeper than the Bible, our kids to need to know and understand it.