Time for a quiz.
- What do the following place names have in common: Salem, MA; Sharon, CT; Jericho, NY; Rehoboth Beach, DE?
- The name of Samantha Stephen’s mother in the television show “Bewitched” was Endora. What was the significance of her name?
- What design did Benjamin Franklin want for the Great Seal of the United States of America?
While you are pondering the answers to those questions, let us reflect on the fact that President Trump has embraced proposals in six states to offer classes in biblical literacy.
Let me state, at the outset, that this is a bad idea — in practical terms, and for political reasons.
The ACLU is aware of the dangers and risks; a case in Kentucky emphasized that “Bible Literacy” courses may not promote religion or a particular religious viewpoint, test students on matters of religious faith, nor be designed to instill religious life lessons.”
Also: because of the atmosphere in America today, such classes would undoubtedly become part of the culture wars.
And: even the choice of a Bible — especially the choice of a Bible — is a politically partisan choice. King James? Revised Standard Version? New American Version? For the Hebrew Bible — Jewish Publication Society?
Moreover, with the proliferation of religious and cultural diversity in the United States today, growing numbers of American citizens do not find their primary religious inspiration in either the Jewish Bible or the New Testament, but rather, in the Koran, the Vedas, and in other religious texts.
Or, in no religious texts at all.
Having said that, let me also say that America needs more biblical literacy.
First: knowing about the Bible as literature is a crucial part of what it means to be a literate person.
Notice the precision of my language. It is knowing about the Bible; it is certainly not believing the Bible.
Neither is it reading the Bible for the sake of reading the Bible. To put it in Jewish terms: this is treif (unkosher), and has been since 1963, with Abington School District v. Schempp, which ruled Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional.
There is a crucial and subtle difference between a faith-oriented approach to teaching Bible (“This is what you should know and this is what you should believe”) and a literacy-based intellectual and academic approach (“This is what you should know about, because this is part of your literaryinheritance.”
Consider what American students have learned, and continue to learn, in their English classes: Greek mythology; Greek theater; Shakespeare; Dickens; Hemingway. Consider the various narratives that they know, just from daily life: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and a plethora of video games that I could not even name.
If they can learn, understand, and appreciate Greek literature for its aesthetic and emotional value, why not the Bible? When I was a teenager, my extraordinarily talented teacher, the late Bob Yesselman, made my soul quiver when I read of the moment when Oedipus learned the truth about his life.
Would there be anything wrong with teenagers having that same moment of catharsis in reading about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son?
If they can learn about Iphigenia, then why not Isaac — especially because he survived? Why not compare those stories?
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Source: Religion News Service