One short conversation from graduate school stands out above all the others. It was during a cigarette break. (This was back when Californians could still have a cigarette break, having not yet been legally turned into the less-social smartphone break.)
The class had been discussing a modern novel and I had perked up with a comment about how the author had put an unattributed quote from the Psalms in a character’s mouth. It wasn’t the first time I had offered this sort of insight in class, but I tended to keep these observations casual so as not to draw too much attention.
During the break, my oh-so-hip San Francisco-dwelling classmate turned to me and asked, “How did you know that about the Psalms?” I explained that I was a Christian and sheepishly confessed that I read the Bible pretty regularly. He looked at me with longing and confessed in turn, “I wish I knew the Bible.”
Knowing the Bible
I didn’t know how to respond. I had spent most of my young life avoiding letting people know just how well I knew the Bible. In thousands of veiled and unveiled ways, it had been clear to me that having spent evenings and weekends reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible made me odd. Yet here was the secular cool kid I’d envied my whole life, having reached the logical end point of his educational career, looking longingly back at me.
I was odd, yes, but odd in a way that was needed. A colleague of mine studied for his Ph.D. under renowned deconstructionist scholar Jacques Derrida. He recalled that each year when Derrida taught, he spent lots of time covering the biblical literature. When asked why, Derrida’s response echoed my cigarette break revelation: If they don’t know the Bible, they won’t know much.
The lack of biblical literacy has been catalogued by various polling firms and lamented from countless pulpits (or at least at pastor support groups), but no one is cataloguing the emptiness of a culture without a sacred rock at its foundation. It isn’t catalogued because it isn’t quantifiable.
I’m not talking here about the value of religious belief, although I’d be interested in discussing that on wholly other grounds. I’m talking solely about about education and culture. My graduate school friend desired a particular educational experience of being formed as a child by a tradition that included the biblical authors, plus Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Fielding, Dostoevsky, Melville, Faulkner, and so many more. My friend was sad that he, being now older and done with his education, couldn’t go back and be formed the way these and countless other authors and artists were formed.
The Tradition of the Bible
This formation is a tradition that he, not possessing, cannot pass on. This is a loss not only of the Bible or Christian faith but a severing of his connection to all the other aspects of a culture that ought to have been his. Studying the liberal arts without any knowledge of the Bible is to dine without salt. Having become a reader, my friend knew he would prefer my oddness.
I am sure that this oddness-envy is being experienced right now by the writer at NPR who wrote this spring that Easter is “the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere at all, but rather arose into heaven.” That is what I imagine California Buddhists sound like to monks in southeast Asia when they describe the Four Noble Truths: in the ballpark but still basically wrong. This is self-anthropology, American style.
The Wall Street Journal corrected a similar error when their reporter misunderstood Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying that “Moses brought water from Iraq.” Oddness isn’t just about our enjoyment of the flavor of culture; it can also spare us from embarrassment. These journalists can write clean copy, but like my graduate student friend who can’t pick up an author’s biblical hint, they’re poorly educated. Unlike my graduate student friend, they’re probably too dumb to know it.
An End to Biblical Knowledge Through Osmosis
Where in the past we could hope that the general population would pick up a good bit of biblical teaching from a book, film, or at least a department store, we now live in a world where that’s all in the past. Google will gladly doodle out about Hannah Glasse’s 310th birthday or the 30th anniversary of Pi day but, come Christmas time, it will merely say “Holidays 2018.” Come Easter, and it will celebrate nothing at all.
Thankfully, however, with just a little bit of intentionality, most people can enter into this tradition of learning. My kids, for example, really get a kick out of the “What’s in the Bible” DVDs, which are instructive and entertaining, even for adults. But the real McCoy is to dig into the Good Book itself.
For that I recommend finding a local organization that runs Bible-reading groups like Bible Study Fellowship or Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. These groups tend to have plenty of non-Christians in attendance and are often led by enthusiasts who make for better teachers than your average theology professor. The Good Book is also a pretty good book.
For me, the paradigm has shifted. I’m glad for all the sword drills I did as a youth and for all the Scripture I was forced to memorize. I am glad not only because I’m a Christian and because in Jesus’ death and resurrection I live, move, and have my being. I am also glad because as I continue to study and teach literature, art, philosophy, music, and history, I do not have to do so as a stranger in a strange land. Rather, I am an insider to a conversation that’s been taking place for thousands of years.
I look at my college students now and think about that cigarette break. If you want your kids to thrive in graduate school, send them to Bible study.