Over the weekend, columnist Christine Emba commented on an interesting typo from The Wall Street Journal. As Emba explains, the WSJ quoted Benjamin Netanyahu as saying that the prophet Moses carried water from the country Iraq, rather than a regular rock, thus convoluting the famous miracle from Israel’s days in the wilderness.
The mistake naturally garnered some titters, but in the eyes of Emba, the fact that such an error occurred is a sign of more than simple oversight. In fact, it is a sign of the ever-growing biblical illiteracy which grips America.
This is a problem, Emba asserts, because the loss of biblical literacy leads to a loss of shared culture:
“But when it comes to the Bible, it’s not necessary to believe (though there are benefits to faith, too) to derive meaning from the text. As a reference point, the Bible is a skeleton key that unlocks hundreds of years of culture, from Shakespeare to Kehinde Wiley. … And many of the book’s moral lessons have become more, not less, relevant with time. Without knowing them, how could one parse the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “ Letter From Birmingham Jail ”?
In a broader sense, having widely understood cultural references and conversational touchstones can be deeply important when it comes to building a sense of community. In a nation with a comparatively short history and extremely diverse population, they provide shared context for discussion and a common language of expression — even if one might disagree on their meaning.”
Unfortunately, the decline of biblical literacy only promises to continue. As a 2016 Barna research poll discovered, half of what it terms “Elder” age demographics – allegedly those in the Gen X, Boomer, and Silent Generations – admit to reading the Bible weekly. By comparison, only one-quarter of those in the millennial range do the same.
The most natural place to lay the blame for this decline is at the feet of churches and families. When these institutions fail to teach and pass on solid tenets of the faith, then it should come as no surprise when the next generation knows next to nothing about the Bible.
But surprisingly, the blame for the mass decline of biblical literacy can be placed at the feet of the education system as well. As Charles Murray explains in the book, Coming Apart, the U.S. school system once had a tool of instruction which was used by almost every student in the country. This tool was known as the McGuffey Reader, and in addition to teaching the basics of reading and writing, the textbooks incorporated a number of moral lessons, many of which came directly from the Bible.
McGuffey himself is reported to have given the following explanation for including biblical texts in his schoolbooks:
“For the copious extracts made from the Sacred Scriptures, he [McGuffey] makes no apology. Indeed, upon a review of the work, he is not sure but an apology may be due for his not having still more liberally transferred to his pages the chaste simplicity, the thrilling pathos, the living descriptions, and the overwhelming sublimity of the sacred writings. The time has gone by, when any sensible man will be found to object to the Bible as a school book, in a Christian country; unless it be purely on sectarian principles, which should never find a place in a system of general education. Much less then, can any reasonable objection be made to the introduction of such extracts from the Bible as do not involve any of the questions in debate among the various denominations of evangelical Christians. The Bible is the only book in the world treating of ethics and religion which is not sectarian.”
Because of McGuffey’s persistence in including biblical passages and stories in school textbooks, generations grew up having a common culture around which they could unite.
Such cannot be said of today’s students. For them, the thread of commonality in school lessons is multiculturalism and diversity, two things which seem opposed to creating a unified culture.
The question is, can today’s schools even teach biblical literacy to fill this apparent cultural void?
Recent legislation in various states suggests it’s tricky, but possible. According to Newsweek, seven states have now passed laws allowing the incorporation of biblical literacy into social studies classes. Such legislation is in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1963 case, Abington Township v. Schempp, which declares that "'the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities ... when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.'"
Given this legality, is it time Americans recognize the important cultural literacy and unity which biblical knowledge brings and seek to reincorporate it into school curriculum?
Annie Holmquist is editor of Intellectual Takeout, an online magazine and sister publication of Chronicles.