The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Bible knowledge tied to literature

Quick: Was Moses one of Jesus’ disciples?

Of course not, you knew that. But 1 of 10 teenagers would answer otherwise, according to a report that says lack of biblical knowledge could cause an educational disadvantage for young people, who wouldn’t fully understand religious references in Western literature. So say 98 percent of the country’s “best” high-school English teachers contacted by the nonprofit Bible Literacy Project.

For instance, the complete works of Shakespeare have more than 1,300 biblical references. “Call me Ishmael,” the introductory line of Herman Melville’s nautical tale Moby Dick, the report says, is lost on most students who don’t know Ishmael was a famous castaway in the Bible.

The two-part report, released in April, first interviewed 41 English literature teachers in 10 states then analyzed data from a 2004 Gallup survey that revealed teenagers’ confusion about Moses.

Although classic and modern literature is filled with biblical references that the report calls the “common currency of our language,” only 8 percent of public school students surveyed said their schools offer elective courses on the Bible.

“Students lacking knowledge of characters and stories from the Bible are seriously handicapped ... if they can’t recognize the allusions that provide its depth. And teachers are likewise handicapped because they need to try to fill in the gaps,” says Mary Fielder, a retired English teacher and member of Ascension Lutheran Church, Brookings, S.D. “If schools can’t offer entire elective classes on the Bible—and I doubt few can—units within literature classes or even independent study units that students might select within a course could help fill their void of knowledge.”


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