Putting the Bible back in public schools

Published On:
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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Umberto Eco’s 2004 novel “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” traces the rich metaphorical journey of literary antiquarian Giambattista Bodoni as he, without medical explanation, forgets everything about his life, his marriage, his past — except the contents of every book he has ever read.

America has undergone an exactly opposite amnesia. We know enough, indeed, too much, about ourselves and our friends, and our popular culture. Yet we have forgotten, largely as a matter of policy, about the foundational tradition of thought that birthed our nation and fortified its forefathers.

It all started when we removed the Bible from our schools.

I make this point, not as an unprompted salvo in some cultural war, but as a simple secular statement of fact. The history, literature and politics of the Western tradition are unintelligible absent a basic knowledge of Scripture. It is strictly impossible to be a well-informed American without a familiarity with the stories and language of the Bible.

The Bible is central to the narratives of the Western tradition. From Shakespeare, to Milton, to Dante, to Melville, all the great works of our literature depend on the themes and phrases of the Bible.

How should we expect students to decipher the often-cryptic language of Shakespeare’s plays when they do not have with them a common store of allusions and knowledge that comes from the Christian scripture?

The noted religious studies professor Stephen Prothero made what should have been a non-controversial argument in his 2007 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.”

In the book, he argued the American political tradition, quite apart from the usual dichotomous relationship between church-state separatism and the suffusion of government with religion, depends on a certain understanding of religions; and that national and international politics past and present — from the abortion and slavery debates to the wars in the Middle East — are indecipherable without that understanding.

Prothero argues, movingly, that we must “reconstruct the chain of memory” that connects us to our national forebears, and treat religious knowledge as “a civic duty of the highest order.”

This University does offer classes in the Bible as literature, and should be commended for doing so. But the Bible should be studied as part of any core curriculum far earlier than college.

Arizona’s Great Hearts Academies have recently been in high demand among parents. As charter schools, they subsist on public funds and do not charge tuition, and are open to all applicants, though the spots in each class fill quickly. Yet, they consistently rank near the top of the state’s academic rankings. One possible factor, among many, in this success, is that every student reads the Bible as part of the literature curriculum, thus unlocking much of the previously incoherent Western canon. Other schools would do well to follow suit.

As our culture rifles through the abandoned knowledge of our past like Eco’s bookseller, searching for the one unlocking text, it is ironic to note that the one text that could bring back the flood of his memories was an original copy of Shakespeare’s “First Folio.”

Today’s amnesiac, adrift without knowledge of the Bible, would have dismissed Shakespeare’s works as unintelligible long before finishing, rendering his memories forever lost.

Reach Will at wmunsil@asu.edu.