Bible thumping

Intended Unabomber victim David Gelernter has a sprawling cover story (here and here) in the current issue of The Weekly Standard on the knowledge of the Good Book in the United States.

The (ugh, bad pun warning) good news, says Gelernter, is that “If you ask questions that are so simple the average arthropod would find them patronizing, and cast them in multiple choice format to make things even easier . . . American high school students do okay.”

Otherwise, not so much. Gelernter writes of a study by the Bible Literacy Project:

Go beyond rudimentary and you find that “very few American students” have the level of Bible knowledge that high-school English teachers regard as “basic to a good education.” “Almost two-thirds of teens” couldn’t pick the right answer out of four choices when they were asked to identify “a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”). Two-thirds didn’t know that “the Road to Damascus is where St. Paul was blinded by a vision of Christ.” Fewer than a third “could correctly identify which statement about David was not true (David tried to kill King Saul).” And so on.

Most of this would not be a surprise to GetReligion readers. But I think Gelernter’s case for Why You Should Care is worth a read. He begins,

Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don’t tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.

The piece is a sizeable collection of fun historical material, some spot on, some of debatable merit (the higher criticism bits are both too sweeping and not sweeping enough for my taste), so I won’t attempt a summary, but I invite readers who decide to give it a go to share your impressions in comments.

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  • jimbo

    I’ll never forget one time in the early 90′s when I was out with a bunch of friends (all college-educated, most with master’s degrees), U2′s “Actung Baby” had just come out, and I was talking about how I had just read an interesting interview with Bono in which he mentioned that the song “Until the End of the World” was actually in the form of a conversation between Judas and Jesus.

    Without exception, I got blank stares. “Who’s Judas?”, they asked. I mean, I understand if religion’s not your thing, but how can you understand anything about the western culture you an heir to if you don’t at least know who freakin’ Judas Iscariot is?

  • Bartholomew

    I’ve got friends who were shocked after the invasion of Iraq to see on the news that Babylon was a real place. They thought it was something like Atlantis.

    But the piece’s author makes the point that a lot of people don’t know much about anything. My ability to name all the planets in the solar system is often taken for a geeky eccentricity.

  • wes

    Joe and Jane Q. Public don’t seem to desire anything beyond bread and circuses or nascar and McDonalds if you prefer. History may some day tell us this is the natural course of democracies. Let us hope not.

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  • Yusuf AbdulHakijme

    As an American Muslim who was raised Christian in Texas, I find it appalling (if utterly unsurprising) that ignorance of the Bible has sunk so low. In my honors English classes in high school, nearly every year my teachers would put the Bible at the top of the “suggested” summer reading list they handed out at the end of the year. I was probably the only one, even in that select group of students, who had already read a good deal of it — at nine I attempted to read it all the way through, though I bogged down somewhere around I Chronicles.

    But I must take exception to one phrase in Gelernter’s article, and that is “without parallel in history.” This reflects a narrowly Western view of history and of art. The Qur’an and Sunna have inspired at least as much art and literature as either Jewish or Christian scripture. Bollywood continues to recycle Hindu mythology and Indian history as rollicking entertainment. Chairman Mao cribbed at least half his Little Red Book from the Chinese classics, especially Sundse’s _Art of War_. And there is good reason to believe that Dante Alighieri drew upon early Islamic accounts of Muhammad’s [pbuh] mystical ascent from Jerusalem through the Heavens to the Throne of God when writing the _Divine Comedy_.

    If Gelernter’s point is that churches aren’t doing their job in educating young Christians about their own religion, he’s right. If he is suggesting (and I haven’t read the article, so I don’t know) that this deficit should be made up by another institution, e.g. public schools, then I hope he’s prepared to add the Qur’an, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Tao Te Ching to the syllabus.

  • Marion R.

    The past two generations have

    1. suppressed the teaching of Christian tradition and

    2. suppressed Christian references in public.

    At root this suppression was for economic reasons: over time a Christian worldview does not make for eager consumers or passive employees.

    I’m not saying this was deliberate or foisted on us by a conspiracy of atheistic middle-aged corporatists. It was a much broader, unintended conspiracy of the comfortable.

  • Gina

    Um, this question seems pretty obvious to me, but I wonder why no one here has picked up on it: If only a tiny and ever-diminishing fraction of Americans knows what’s in the Bible, how come we have a large and growing contingent of right-wing Bible-thumpers?? Hmm. 2+2=…

  • Doug

    Gelernter’s piece doesn’t begin to hold together logically. Yes, plenty of great figures in Western history, especially in American history, were inspired by the Bible. But up until the late 19th century virtually *every* educated person in Western culture was a Bible reader. For a supposed scientist, it’s amazing that Gelernter could pose a cause-and-effect relationship between biblical literacy and successful culture. There are simply too many other factors involved.

    More disturbing was his description of George W. Bush’s “worldwide war on tyranny” as “the quintessence of a biblical project–one that sees America as an almost chosen people, with the heavy responsibilities that go with the job.” This is disturbing precisely because it may well reflect President Bush’s own thinking. But it’s also the sort of perspective that justifiably gives biblicism a bad name. Remember the Crusades? It’s also why the restrictions of prayer in public schools are necessary to protect the rights of those who may not hold the same religious views as the dominant Christian majority.

    One other note. Gelernter pleads for a revisionist view of the Puritans. I would direct his attention to Marylynne Robinson’s essay, “Puritans and Prigs,” in her 1998 collection, “The Death of Adam.”