Biblical Illiteracy is a Sign of Ignorance of Religion, History, Literature, and Art

The renowned American New Testament scholar Richard Hays was  in Australia last year attending a conference in Perth. While on a train, he got talking to someone who asked him what he was doing in Australia. He replied that he was attending the Society of New Testament Studies conference. Sensing the person’s confusion he clarified that he was a New Testament scholar from Duke University. The person on the train responded with a question, “Is that associated with any particular religion?” Welcome to the state of secularism in Australia! Sometimes its a kind of apathetic secularism, a kind of “meh” or “nah, not for me.” Other times it is a very aggressive secularism that that is fearful that teenagers will walk around the streets singing, “I went to church and I liked it.” But most of all, the secularism we have in Australia is one based on utter ignorance, ignorance of the book that has so profoundly shaped and influenced our language, ethics, politics, art, literature, and movies more than any other. 

For case in point, a few months ago I was watching the ABC Show, Spicks and Specks, a music quiz show  featuring musicians, comedians, and cultural icons, and on this particular episode they were played some music and were asked to name the piece, its composer, and what book of the Bible it was based on. The answer of course was Handel, The Messiah, and Isaiah. The two hip, cool, young people had absolutely no idea. One girl said that the only book of the Bible she had ever heard of was “Job.” Fortunately, there was an older guy on the show who guessed all three!  Doesn’t strike a lot of confidence in me that left leaning critics of the Bible even know what they are talking about. 

It is in this context that Greg Clarke (CEO of the Aussie Bible Society) has written The Great Bible Swindle … And What Can Be Done About it. There’s a good piece about the book from The Bible Society itself. Clarke shows that without knowing at least something of the Bible you’ll never be able to understand Shakespeare, the art of Leonardo Da Vinci, the lyrics to U2 songs, or even The Simpsons.  Clarke contends:

The scandal is this: millions of people have been denied a basic knowledge of the key text that has shaped their culture. The heritage that should be ours has been taken away from us. We are being ‘protected’ from an understanding of our roots – why we think the way we do, why our novels are about love and suffering, why we value education, why science has made so much progress, why forgiveness matters, how we came to value hospitals, why we think that all people are equal” (13).

Clarke shows that we all need to understand the Bible in order to understand words and phrases in our own language; in order to grasp stories, poems and plays; in order to appreciate music; in order to know what is going on in architecture; in order to enjoy movies; in order to appreciate TV shows.

He thereafter provides a brief summary of the role of the Bible in Australian history since colonization. He gives great summarizes as to how the Bible has shaped our universities, political leaders, government, national icons, and charities. My favourite is that former Labour PM Ben Chifley’s famous “Light on a Hill” speech, which is the name of an annual address given by a Labour leader, is in fact based on Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

Then, Clarke gives an overview of what the Bible is and how it came into being with a great 500 word summary of the entire Bible itself! He then suggests a way of getting bits of the Bible someone’s life and describes what kind of impact it might have.

This is a great book, light yet informative, very readable, succinct while also entertaining and engaging, and is guaranteed to make you feel like you are an ignoramus when you need not be. I cannot think of a better manifesto for telling people why, for the sheer love of knowledge, that they need to know the Bible.

  • Ian

    Can you give a list of bits in Shakespeare that *cannot* be understood without knowing the bible (as opposed to folk spirituality, heaven/hell/demons, etc)? I can think of a mention of Golgotha in Macbeth. But it is a throwaway allusion, the context makes it clear that it is a place of evil, so any literate person would have no difficulty understanding the passage without knowing its biblical context. There are many other such allusions in Shakespeare, allusions to contemporary political figures and scandals, for example, which would be equally lost on you and I, and any non-specialist.

    The only concrete example you gave is a TV quiz show question. No offence, but it hardly makes your point very firmly. They call such quizzes ‘trivia’ for a reason.

    I’ve studied the bible for the last 30 years. I learned Greek and Hebrew, and have read it pretty much every day. But I’m struggling to think of many situations where I’d be left utterly unable to understand some crucial piece of culture without it. I come across more references to Shakespeare and Greek mythology and all three are utterly dwarfed by the references to popular culture.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I purposely kept my children from Biblical brainwashing because I disagree so strongly with the messages presented as eternal, universal truths. there are many avenues of study for religion, art, history, and literature that are not limited to the Bible.

  • MichaelNewsham

    As an ESL teacher who has worked in Asia for the last 30 years (and a life-long atheist) I have to agree with you.
    I was teaching a class of English Teachers in Beijing in 1986 who were doing their Master’s in ESL and had to take a literature course. These were the children of the Cultural Revolution who had had no exposure to Chinese Classical teachings,never mind the West. In my conversation classes, I was constantly asked to explain the Biblical and Classical allusions in the literature they were reading.’

    A fellow teacher,a Canadian-Chinese from a Buddhist family, also told me how she had struggled in Literature classes in college in Canada because of a lack of Biblical background.

  • ortcutt

    It’s disappointing that you chose to interpret the Australian man on the train’s question as uncharitably as possible. It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask whether the Society of New Testament Studies is a secular, academic or rather a confessional society. It’s also reasonable to ask whether it might be affiliated with a particular denomination, such as the RCC, Anglican Church, etc…. I wouldn’t be so quick to brand someone as a biblical illiterate on the basis of some small talk on the train, but that’s just me.

  • Joe

    Doesn’t strike a lot of confidence in me that left leaning critics of the Bible even know what they are talking about.

    Yeah if only they had read the Bible then you would have more confidence. So what about the left leaning critics who do know what they are talking about? And/or who have read the Bible? YEAH DIDN’T THINK SO. Anyway they are more than “critics of the Bible”. More like critics of superstition. So you are misleading yourself with your own sentence. Be happy in your little bubble where people are critics of something, who knows what, because they never read the Bible. Yeah people who are skeptical of your religion are “critics of the Bible”. Like, totally the same thing dude. Also they are “left leaning” for some reason. Totally rad, dude.


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