Thursday, August 9, 2007

Know Your Bible

I know that my students have read a number of works of Greek mythology. I know my students have read, or will read Beowulf, and books detailing Arthurian legend. What I was surprised to find in a Christian private school was that students did not know, and had never been assigned to read the Bible.

This fact led me to assign seniors the reading of the book of Genesis and the book of Revelation for summer reading. Why those two books specifically? Well, I thought those two books would be a fit place to begin. I also plan to work in some psalms and other sections as necessary to our study over the course of the year. Why not? The Bible is a work of literature and therefore it can be subjected to literary criticism like any other good book.

According to an article in The Los Angeles Times datelined Sunday, August 5, 2007, I was dead right in my assignment. It seems to be a commonality among high school and college level students that they do not know the Bible. In America, we live in a culture profoundly influenced by Judeo-Christian philosophy. That philosophy is spelled out in stories, poetry, letters, and testaments in the Bible. Not having a familiarity with the Bible will limit a student’s understanding of literature and culture, seeing that the books we study are filled with biblical allusions and references.

Seema Mehta, the author of the Times article, writes “There is a broad agreement across the social, political, and religious spectrum, and most important the Supreme Court, that the Bible can be taught in public schools and that knowledge of the Bible is vital to students’ understanding of literature and art, including Moby-Dick, Michelangelo, and The Matrix.”

Justice Tom C. Clark, writing in a Supreme Court decision in 1963, declared reading of the Bible and prayer in schools as unconstitutional. But he emphasized in the ruling, according to Mehta, “that the court did not intend to discourage academic study of religion.”

“It certainly may be said,” Justice Clark wrote, “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 1st Amendment.”

Mehta makes the point that “high school English teachers and university professors say this lack of exposure to Bible tales has led to an education gap.” This, I can verify in my own classes, among students who are professed Christians, or at the very least, baptized Christians who have fallen off the path so to speak.

Still, it really does not matter what religion, or lack of religion, one professes to have. The Bible influenced this country from its beginnings; it has also played a major role in the development of western culture and therefore, students must know their Bible as well as they know Greek mythology, or the stories of Gilgamesh.

This study does not have anything to do with Christianity, per se. I did not ask my students to read the Bible this summer to reacquaint them with their lapsed Christianity, nor is it a conversion tactic on my part. A person’s religious belief is his own business. I am not interested in the Bible as truth, or even as a literal document. The Bible to me is literature—stories, essays, poems, letters. And these stories, essays, poems, and letters just so happen to have influenced all of western thought.

The Bible is not history either; at best, it offers an interpretation of history.

Genesis makes a good beginning because it plays a role in so many works of literature. Just what knowledge did Adam and Eve partake of when they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? What kind of sin is Original Sin? John Steinbeck wrote a novel that updated the story of Cain and Abel. Mehta’s article makes mention of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is loaded with biblical allusions. When I last taught that novel, I had to push my students to realize that Jim Casy, the former preacher, gives his life to save others. His initials are J.C. like Jesus Christ. Most of my Christian students missed this on first reading.

Revelation is the classic end of the world narrative. Given the times we live in, the idea of the end of the world is something kids speculate about all the time. They talk about the new millennium, the prophecies, and Nostradamus, but they do not realize that Revelation and Nostradamus are written in code, in a language of symbolism known to the people of the time. To read these prophecies now is to attempt an understanding without the cultural underpinnings. There are events listed in Revelation that make so much more sense when the time period in which the book was written is examined. And yes, some of the things listed there could happen, may have happened already. It will make for good discussion.

This is also not about literal interpretation versus figurative. I tell my students that we will read the Bible the same way we read all literature—looking for meaning, symbolism, theme, and of course, the use of language to convey meaning.

Sometimes when we are reading a fictional short story, a student will ask me, “Is this a true story?” It makes for a good discussion. I ask them in what ways is the story “true” and in what ways could the events never happen. What they come to quite readily is that a good story has truth to it, meaning that the characters, the situation, the plot, the events, have the richness of truth. They ring true, even if they are fictitious. We look at the Bible the same way.

In the story of Cain and Abel, what rings true? Well, almost everyone who has siblings has at some point felt competition with them, especially for attention from parents. I ask the class, how many of you feel you do not get as much notice as your older brother or sister? Now we have a basis for discussion. Not many students have ever felt jealousy to the point of committing murder, but they have all heard stories from the news where this has occurred. Cain and Abel would be tabloid fodder for sure in today’s world.

When I was in high school, we spent an entire semester of freshman year studying the Old Testament, mainly the Torah, or first five books of the Bible. This was at a Catholic high school. I cannot say we studied the rest of the Bible as intensely, but reference was made quite often to the New Testament and other books. This study was a definite plus when we went to literature class. The allusions made sense. The connections could be made.

The Bible can also be discussed philosophically. Like the best works of philosophy, the Bible attempts to explain why we are here. Students can feel free to reject biblical ideas as one might reject existentialism as long as one understands what it is he is rejecting and its importance to western culture.

So somewhere out there, I expect that some of my students are slugging away at Genesis and Revelation, as they are also reading Crime and Punishment and 1984. Like the novels and stories we will read this year, the Bible offers some exciting episodes. In my life as a reader, good literature is good literature. The Bible, like most ancient works of literature, began as stories around a camp fire, performed by the first actors to an enthralled audience who may have described themselves as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or atheists, but in that moment, they were simply human beings listening for the truth in a good story.

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