We’re back — let’s read about the Bible!

This article is one of the best I have read on the importance of the Bible to understanding literature and understanding the history of the United States. It make several primary points: 1)the Bible is the basis for most of our greatest literature 2)reading the the Bible is essential to knowing the history of the United States and 3)most teenagers today know very little about the Bible because 4)secular interest groups have succeeded in forcing Bible study from the schools.

As a Latter-day Saint, I am as concerned as anyone about the establishment of a single dominant religion. But can’t we separate out the two distinct issues: studying the Bible, at least as literature, does not establish a single religion (in fact, stories from parts of the Bible are part of the Christian, Jewish and even the Muslim religions). Shouldn’t we be supporting Bible study in the schools simply as the promotion of knowledge of literature and history?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

17 thoughts on “We’re back — let’s read about the Bible!

  1. Geoff, I agree with your proposal. The Bible as literature is a very serious and important and potentially neutral course of study in public schools.

    A legitimate counterargument, though, could be made by those who fear an establishment, stating a fear that this could lead to abuse by zealous religious groups in schools. I have to agree that once the Bible is in a classroom as a topic of discussion, there are those who feel so passionate about it that they might try to move the discussion far beyond literature. In fact, that kind of setting has to be a prime moment for witnessing, by a teacher or other students. To those who fear this kind of atmosphere, I don’t have an easy answer.

  2. I took a Bible in Literature class in a public high school in a liberal New York suburb with a large Jewish population. We read some of the Bible itself, and other works that drew heavily on the Bible (Cry, the Beloved Country, Perelandra, “Samson Agonistes” are what I remember off the top of my head). It was a great class, and non-controversial as far as I remember. This in a town where a fight over a nativity display in a public park went to the Supreme Court.

  3. I went to three different high schools, all public, and all had Bible as literature classes as English electives for juniors or seniors. I don’t remember any controversy, although I never took the class.

    I have heard, however, from some fundamentalist types, that they don’t like Bible as literature, precisely because it offends them to study the Bible as anything other than the word of God

  4. The Bible should be studied for so many reasons, secular or otherwise. One reason is simply because it provides events and personalities that are useful as references in understanding contemporary events. There’s nothing quite like a Biblical locus classicus to put a modern day utterance or event in perspective.

    I was reading this morning about Saddam Hussein and his son Uday — and at one point Uday states that when he takes over (thank goodness he is dead now) from his father he will up the ante and be even more cruel than his Saddam was. He states that the people will then “yearn for the days of Saddam.” As soon as I read that, a line from Rehoboam, son of Solomon came to mind: “my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:11 / 1 Kings 12:14 / 2 Chronicles 10:11 / 2 Chronicles 10:14). It was very worthwhile then to re-read the passages associated with that saying and thinking about how Rehoboam’s petty cruelty divided his kingdom in almost an instant …

  5. and what, pray tell, is wrong about a student ‘witnessing’? I would agree that a teacher doing so would be inappropriate; but a student? So what? shouldn’t that be a form of protected speach by the student? if classrooms are open to discussion, and that student wants to use their speaking ‘opportunity’ to witness…so what?

  6. Here‘s a good editorial on the subject from the Chicago Tribune.

    True story: growing up in a liberal Marin Country, California in the 1970s and early 1980s, I never read the Bible until I took it upon myself to do so in when I was 35 years old. How can somebody get into and attend a major university (Stanford) and not read the Bible? A very good question. I’d like to think kids these days are getting more exposure to the Bible, at the very least as a source of literature.

  7. I think that the Bible should be studied by kids for all the very good reasons listed above, as well as for basic cultural literacy. I’ll never forget a very bright boy in a college modern poetry course who saw the word “Calvary” in a poem we were studying (in a group project, ugh) and assumed it was a misspelling. I had a hard time convincing him we didn’t want to talk about war references in our presentation.

  8. As someone who teaches a “Bible as literature” class at a Community College I can tell you that it is sometimes challenging to deal with students for whom the Bible is NOT literature (but is instead the pure, unadulterated Word-of-God, and all these lit-crit approaches are tantamount to heresy). Fun!

  9. In my AP English class we read both the book of Job, and Paradise Lost. The discussions revealed a little bit of Bible illiteracy, but others with good familiarity. This was in Massachusetts.

  10. It would be great to have the Bible as lit. taught in schools. But I think Bill and Ronan have a good point about its being accepted as literature. This, by the way, is one thing that I appreciate about the LDS perspective. I think we have considerable leeway in reading the Bible as lit., and I think that the book was largely intended to be read as such.

  11. Public School English teacher here…I just finished teaching Lord of the Flies, and was pleasantly surprised at how much the kiddos knew about Old Testament symbols. I’ve had some really neat discussions with some of my students about religion, spirituality, faith, etc.

    As for ‘witnessing’, Lyle–true, in a classroom, students can freely share ideas (some teachers are better than others at equal time for differing opinions) but when asked, teachers can share their opinions or beliefs. It must be initiated by the students.

    I’m the only LDS teacher on our faculty, and pretty much every kid in school knows who the Mormon teacher is. This year I was a guest lecturer in the World Religions class, and there was zero fallout about whether or not it was appropriate.

    As a side note to the importance of reading the Bible as literature, or reading it as “stories”: the LDS kids I’ve taught in my brief career typically understand Shakespeare and classical literature better than non-LDS kids. I attribute it to reading KJV and the Book of Mormon. Looking at the Primary and Sunday School curricula, kids begin piecing together the language of the Bible, the stories, and the practical applications at a young age. It doesn’t apply to EVERYONE, of course, but as a general rule, that’s what I’ve noticed.

  12. Wasn’t the Bible ‘the’ study material for the first (at least) hundred years of public school? If I remember correctly the U.S. Constitution didn’t change, just the opinion of (black robed) men… So tell me again why the Bible can’t be taught in school – oh yes – false priests who oppress.

  13. DD,

    You must not have read the editorial Geoff cited in comment 6:

    Excerpt: “In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that public schools are free to teach about the Bible just as they would any other work of literature or history.”

  14. Is the concern that our LDS seminary students need the additional perspective toward the Bible that a high school literature class would provide, or just that the Gentiles aren’t attending seminary? Should missing biblical allusions be any more of a concern than those coming from classical literature? For me, an American high school literary education would be incomplete without Huckleberry Finn, and I am ever grateful for a high school where we studied Animal Farm and 1984; would that every citizen had. Would Job or the books of Samuel have been better spent time than The Scarlet Letter or Billy Budd? I’m not sure. Some of our high school texts were certainly dispensable. I’ve never regretted a single page I skipped of that noxious Salinger novel.

  15. John M, I have several concerns: 1)Gentiles do not have a good knowledge of the Bible and should be more familiar with it on for its religious nature and also so they have a better understanding of history and literature 2)there is no such thing as LDS students reading to Bible too much 3)there are LDS students who don’t go to seminary or institute (in my area, lots of them, certainly the majority). It is crucial to read the source documents to know where stories come from. I have written before that the Bible is the first story ever told and the source of all stories (including movies, plays, books) in terms of its structure and content (this is not an original point on my part, just an extrapolation of others’ writing, including Nibley’s). Ideally, we would read all of the books you mentioned and the Bible. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Old Man and the Sea” and then read the parts of the Bible that are the models for these stories? I think it gives students a much greater level of knowledge and helps them with analysis and criticism and critical thinking, all essential.

  16. John, I’m not going to differentiate between “gentile” and LDS kids. In my opinion, every public school kid should be able to recognize plain references to a work that is as influential to our culture as the Bible. Of course familiarity with Huck Finn and other classics is important, but because it’s influence is so vast (in literature, in politics, in history), I’d place the Bible right on top of the heap. As Geoff mentioned, it would be ideal for students to read all the classics, but if it can’t be done, at least we should have priorities.

  17. I heard a paraphrase of a quote a long time ago that suggested we should read the Bible to understand God and read Shakespeare to understand mankind. I haven’t been able to find the actual quote or attribute it to anyone, but it seemed like an interestin idea. I sometimes think that LDS people might be better prepared to study Shakespeare because of their previous contact with the KJV and its language.

    Setting aside Shakespeare, I think we can learn a lot about God and human nature (the good and bad sides of human nature) from the Bible as well as the other books of scripture. My guess is that if we can truly imbibe the lessons and teachings of the Bible, there might be little that God or a person might do that could surprise or shake us.

    I read the following quote from Billy Graham yesterday in a USA Today article: “I used to read five psalms every day — that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.” I hadn’t thought that way about Psalms and Proverbs before but I found it interesting nevertheless. Maybe I’ll have to reread those Biblical books with that context and perspective in mind.

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