Saturday, June 03, 2006

Biblical Literacy for English Majors

If you have read about this study, but have not yet read the details, you should. The study surveyed 39 English professors and asked them about what incoming freshmen need to know about the Bible. No big surprise here -- they overwhelmingly agreed that every educated person needs to know about the Bible, that Western literature is steeped in references to the Bible, and that it is important for students who take their classes to be familiar with the Bible.

Interestingly, one person disagreed with the last two. OK, that it is important for students who take their classes to be familiar with the Bible -- I suppose if you were a pre-Christian classicist, you could reasonable say "no" to that. But disagreeing that "Western literature is steeped in references to the Bible?" Any English professor failing to agree with that either didn't understand the question or is incompetent (they list the professor's name in the text. I'll not mention it here, under the assumption that she did not really understand the question and does not need the embarrassment.) Everyone else seems to roll their eyes at the question, with such responses as:
  • Some scholars? Any scholar...
  • A truism.
  • Incontestably true.
  • It's everywhere.
  • Absolutely. Who could deny it? [....] I cannot imagine such a position.
  • It's not an opinion. It's just a fact.
  • I don't know of any field of English literature you can teach -- or American literature-- that it's not key.
My favorite page is the one listing "Literature that professors specifically mentioned for which Bible literacy is advantageous. The professors cited examples, not an exhaustive list." No kidding. An exhaustive list would have been a lot shorter: "Damn near all."

I found the listing of particular books useful. About a third of them listed Genesis by name, 10 listed Matthew, 9 listed Exodus Luke and Mark, but only 6 listed John, Revelation, and Psalms. If I were ranking the Gospels according to importance in studying literature, I'd have ranked them:
  1. Luke
  2. John
  3. Matthew
  4. Mark (distant fourth)
Not that I strongly disagree with their rankings ... it is simply that this is one of the few parts I found surprising.

In any case, it is a far more engaging read than you might think. You should read it.

The real question to me is this: Why do we even have to discuss this issue? I know that secular American culture tends to be hostile to faith (especially Jewish and Christian faith), but has our culture gone so mad that we debate the question, "Should we teach the Bible as literature?" Shouldn't we instead be asking, "HOW should we teach the Bible as literature?"

hat tip Chronicle of Higher Ed


  1. Anonymous11:56 PM

    I don't get what all the hubbub about the Bible is -- everyone knows that the world sits on the back of a giant turtle.

  2. Great link! I'm looking foward to reading this... Then maybe y'all can put out something on what Div students should know about English... ;-)

  3. Knowing the Bible is essential, of course, but the more that I teach English literature, especially Medieval English literature, the more I see that knowing the Church is essential.

    So much of what Western Christians took for granted, up to the Reformation, was Catholic teaching and tradition. As I learn it, so much more becomes clear to me in literature.

    And I speak as a Protestant raised in the Bible Belt Ozarks who does know the Bible.

    Jeffery Hodges

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