How Biblical Illiteracy Is Ruining the Humanities

(ChristianChan/Getty Images)
The increasing unfamiliarity with the Bible threatens the study of the Great Books. That must change.

I attend a well-to-do liberal-arts school in the Midwest. The professors are wonderful and the classmates impressive. However, I find myself consistently pained by one thing: Many have little to no familiarity with even the most widely known Bible stories. In the words of the adventurous Professor Indiana Jones, “Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?”

If the purpose of this essay were to merely shout at the heavens, proclaiming that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of rampant biblical illiteracy on Earth, many may be tempted to dismiss my concerns — flippantly enough. But no, this article isn’t about that .  .  .  not exactly.

The institution I look to protest on behalf of is instead the Western Canon, the Great Books. These enduring tomes, which start with the Iliad, Pentateuch, and the Odyssey and end with whichever text John J. Miller — host of the Great Books podcast — so declares, are threatened by the willful ignorance of we moderns.

(My Catholic readers can be excused for feeling slightly alarmed when confronted with multitudinous complaints compiled by a fellow named Luther; fear not, railing against the Papacy can wait for another article.)

Let us first address the practical concerns: When a class must stop at almost every biblical reference in the poetry of Emily Dickinson — so that a student or the professor can explain who John the Baptist was or why the Book of Revelation is kind of a big deal — the quality and pace of instruction decline. Emily Dickinson was influenced mightily by her Calvinist roots, and though somewhat heterodox in her theology, she could not help but use Christian imagery and biblical allusions throughout her writings. When a majority of the class is unfamiliar with the Crucifixion, it makes for a long, and value-deficient, class.

A student attending college in the humanities should know who Noah was and what made his boat better than most. The student need not believe that Noah existed, or that his animal magnetism was as great as is said, or how long-lived his children were. Yet he ought to at least be aware of the fact that, say, the image of the dove returning to the vessel with the olive branch in its beak repeats as a symbol of peace and salvation throughout the Bible and Western literature.

When schools, and the parents whose voices influence said institutions, balk at the thought of their children being exposed to the Bible — not as a religious text but as an affecting collection of stories — the kids are deprived of the groundwork necessary to approach the Great Books with any level of background understanding. I am not asking for seminarian depth here. I’m simply suggesting that the mention of Ruth should make the reader immediately recognize she is a figure of import in the Bible and that researching her story will help to better understand Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.

While Christianity has been on the wane in the West for some time, there seems to me to be a generational difference in religious familiarity. The older generations, while eschewing organized religion, still recognize and trade in biblical metaphor routinely. Those my age and younger, on the other hand, have entirely secular replacements. The Harry Potter series is often the choice for simile for many my age or younger. No longer is an evil man “the devil” or “anti-Christ,” but a “Voldemort.” An agnostic college student 60 years ago would have been more likely to recognize many of the Catholic virtues and allegories in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fantasy stories, respectively. Today I very much doubt the same could be said.

This generational biblical-recognition gap between the faculty and students is striking. While there are few practicing Christians or Jews on the humanities staff — a national trend — it’s rare that a professor will fail to recognize a lamb, lion, or strong man’s haircut as some sort of reference to the Bible. Part of this is doubtlessly because of their familiarity with the text, their formal training, and related research.

That said, I think some of their knowledge base can be attributed to their sitting in a pew many years ago and hearing these stories told to them by a priest or pastor. Things tend to stick in the mind better when they are first learned as a kid. Even if the knowledge is not called upon for 50 years, I’ll bet most Sunday school–educated sixtysomethings can tell you Moses hung out by a burning bush for a hot minute.

The fear is that as those my age — who are unable or unwilling to recognize biblical symbolism in texts — take the places of today’s professors, the Great Books will suffer misreading, misrepresentation, or even face replacement by modern books of middling quality and pregnant with leftist ideology. While some of my peers will continue to read Paradise Lost faithfully, I think the potential for degradative laziness coupled with passion for opposing views will mean a plurality of young professors will make up their own interpretations of these symbols and allusions.

Degradative laziness is not meant to invoked as a slight, per se. I use it intentionally, and with full understanding of the dynamic at play. It is surely difficult and humbling work for an academic to familiarize himself or herself with a complex book like the Bible and then have to teach another exacting text correctly. How great the temptation would be to simply skip the historical background and invent new interpretations, never mind bastardizing the author’s intent in the process.

But perhaps these concerns fall on deaf ears. Perhaps you think the biblical background knowledge one needs to understand the Great Books is unnecessary because the Great Books themselves are unnecessary, or even problematic; that they have had their day in the sun and that it is time to move on to other books that better fit the values of the times. This would be unwise, and counter-productive.

The Great Books are not great simply because they make for a satisfactory read — you know, the sort of read that after finishing the final page makes you go, “Hm, reading this book was a worthwhile and enjoyable use of my time.” These books, while undoubtedly worthwhile for the strength of their prose, are also bound historical artifacts. They tell a story as a whole of civilizational highs and lows, and of progress in recognizing the value of all men and all women. The books use one another to better explain themselves, a dialogue sometimes called “The Great Conversation.”

Mr. Clemens would likely bask in the irony that his own Huckleberry Finn finds itself banned today for the same reason it was banned soon after its original publication in 1884 (because his word choice isn’t agreeable to modern sensibilities). Forget that it was, and still is, one of the greatest pieces of humanizing fiction written during the 19th century. It has an ugly word — that was used intentionally — so Huck must go.

No, the Great Books cannot be replaced because to do so would be to scrub history, to cast it as a backward time of no value to our present selves. The hubris of such a line of thought beggars belief. We are just as vain, just as brutal, and just as fallen as those who came before us. Thankfully, the Great Books allow us a window into how such a vain, brutal, and fallen people as we overcame these impulses in order to have a freer, wealthier, and more peaceful world than has been seen. Indeed, it is a tale that began with some bearded, berobed figure walking down a mountain with tablets. Antiquated? Perhaps, but all the more important by the day nonetheless.


The Latest