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 literary inheritance.”
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?
Second: knowing about the Bible as literature can help us understand some of the motivations of the founders of our nation.
David Gelernter put it this way:
Winthrop, Adams, Lincoln, and thousands of others found a good destiny in the Bible and made it their own. They read about Israel’s covenant with God and took it to heart: They were Israel. (“Wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke,” said Winthrop. “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.”) They read about God’s chosen people and took it to heart: They were God’s chosen people, or–as Lincoln put it–God’s “almost chosen people.” The Bible as they interpreted it told them what they could be and would be. Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book.
Take New England, for example. Early American colonists saw themselves in biblical terms. The English monarchy was Pharaoh. England was Egypt. The Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea. Their destination was like the land of Israel. (Tragically, horrifically, this meant that the natives were forced to play the role of the Canaanites, which meant that they had to be defeated and extirpated. That is but one of the problems with American exceptionalism, which itself comes from a biblical source.)
Without biblical literacy, we don’t know the meaning of “a shining city on a hill.” We miss the allusions in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. We remain deaf to the references in American patriotic songs and spirituals. We lose large pieces of our understanding of how America came to be, and the vision that permeated that founding.
You need the Bible to understand American history — in a way that no other country other than Israel can claim.
Now, to the answers to the quiz:
What do the following place names have in common: Salem, MA; Sharon, CT; Jericho, NY; Rehoboth Beach, DE?
Answer: all of those names find their origins in the Hebrew Bible. As I said before, the original English settlers (though not all of them — see Colin Woodard, American Nations) saw their destiny in biblical terms. That is why biblical place names dot the maps of New England and the Middle States — as well as Utah, and various other places.
The name of Samantha Stephen’s mother in the television show “Bewitched” was Endora. What was the significance of her name?
Answer: “Endora” is a reference to the Witch of Endor whom King Saul consults in First Samuel, chapter 28. A modicum of biblical literacy is necessary for even popular culture. (Trivia question: in the series, how many times did Endora actually pronounce her son-in-law Darrin’s name correctly?) (Answer)
What design did Benjamin Franklin want for the Great Seal of the United States of America?
Answer: Franklin’s preference for the Great Seal was a depiction of the ancient Israelites crossing the Red Sea — with the motto being “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” As I said earlier, the Exodus from Egypt loomed large in our colonial ancestors’ imaginations.
To repeat: I am not in favor of teaching the Bible in public schools, for the various reasons that I stated earlier. It will only lead to trouble.
That said, I think of the late Mr. Bob Yesselman, my English teacher at Bethpage High School.
He instilled in me a lifelong love of Greek drama and Shakespeare.
Sometimes, I wonder: if I had learned the book of Genesis from him, back when I was a junior in high school, would I have learned to love text a mere five years earlier?
I can only imagine.