Stephen Prothero is chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University and author of the new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't. He recently published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Worshipping in Ignorance.” In the article he writes about a “religious literacy” quiz that he gives at the beginning of the semester to the students in his introductory religious studies class. He asks them to name such things as the four Gospels, the religious text of Islam, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Prothero said, “This year I had a Hindu student who couldn't name one Hindu scripture, a Baptist student who didn't know that ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is a Bible quote, and Catholic students unfamiliar with the golden rule. Over the past two years, only 17 percent of my students passed the quiz.”
Prothero makes a compelling case for requiring an Introduction to Religion course in the curriculum of both private and public colleges and universities. He says that religious literacy and sound citizenship are integrally connected. How, he reasonably asks, can Americans deal rationally with the problems of the world, so many of which have religious components to them, if we are not conversant with the teachings and practices of at least the major world religions? Prothero does not want religion taught in colleges in order to proselytize for a certain faith. He wants religion courses taught that will provide American students with the knowledge that they need to understand and deal with religion which is, after all, a vital component of the lives of vast numbers of people throughout the world.
I agree with Prothero that college students should be taught about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the religions of China. I agree that colleges would make a solid contribution to the ability of their graduates to deal with the religious, social, and political complexities of the world if they required such a course. Prothero does not say, and it really should go without saying, that those courses would be taught by trained and qualified scholars of religion. I’m with him on this.
I confess that I am a little more nervous about a related idea that he proposed in an interview that was published recently in U.S. News & World Report. In response to the question “How should America address religious illiteracy?” Prothero said, “I think we need to have courses about the Bible and world religions in middle schools and high schools, and I think they should be mandatory—with an opt-out provision.” Two things make me nervous about this proposal. First, where will middle and high schools find teachers who are qualified to lead such courses but who will not cross the line into proselytizing? Second, and this concern is related to the first, will just as much if not more damage be done to American biblical literacy if courses on the Bible are badly taught as if they are not taught at all?
As a Baptist who believes in the separation of church and state, I suppose that I naturally get a little skittish when folks start talking about teaching the Bible in public schools. The practice is just too prone to be abused by radical religionists on one extreme and by radical secularists on the other. I fear both the evangelical teacher who tries to use the course as an overt witnessing tool and the secular humanist who would use the course as an opportunity to attack the Bible. I also fear those in the middle who would be so intent on being neutral in their presentations that they would make the Bible look like a boring or insignificant book, which it most certainly is not.
Still, biblical and religious illiteracy certainly contributes to cultural illiteracy. In his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature , literary critic Northrop Frye wrote about his the experience he had early in his career “teaching Milton and writing about Blake.” He said, “I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads….” (p. xii). Frye understood, and we all need to understand, that while “Jewish and Islamic conceptions of the Bible are very different….it is the Christian Bible that is important for English literature and the Western cultural tradition generally” (p. xiii). The fact is that if we are going to produce citizens who have an adequate understanding of Western culture and literature, we need to teach them the Bible. Is it possible to do that in a way that does not improperly impose somebody’s religious perspective—be it the teacher, the curriculum writer, or the local Board of Education—on students? The devil is surely in the details.
What Prothero is advocating is teaching the Bible so that American students will be biblically literate, so that they will know the information that the Bible contains. Perhaps that can be done in our middle schools, high schools and colleges in a way that will prove effective. Such a program, particularly if joined with courses in World Religions, may well help our children grow up to be better citizens of this nation and of the world.
Let’s not forget, though, that while the Bible contains much information, its main purpose is not fulfilled when that information is learned. Eugene Peterson has said that the Bible is meant to be read not as information but for the sake of formation; as we read with the intention of being formed into the persons that God means for us to be we are reading correctly. Such reading, Peterson says, must be done patiently and slowly so that the words can become a part of us to form and shape us. Peterson wrote, “The danger in all reading is that words be twisted into propaganda or reduced to information, mere tools and data. We silence the living voice and reduce words to what we can use for convenience and profit” (Eat This Book, p. 11]. That is the danger that needs to be avoided in any teaching of the Bible, whether it is in school, church, or home; we do not want the words of the Bible to be “twisted into propaganda” or “reduced to information.”
That is not to say that if the Bible is to be taught in schools it should be done with an eye toward spiritual formation. But it is to say that we who are people of faith need, in our private reading and in our shared reading with other believers, to read the Bible as what it is: Holy Scripture, a gift from a gracious God that brings us into continuing encounters with him that will over time transform us more and more into his image.
Teaching the Bible in schools with an eye toward the sharing of information may help us to produce better citizens.
Reading the Bible in our homes and in our congregations with an eye toward the forming of Christian persons will help us to be the people that our God means for us to be.