Cainan the barbarian

To be culturally literate, educated Americans should know Bible stories, characters and ideas, argues the Bible Literacy Project, which just released a survey on what young people know.

Gadfly’s Justin Torres summarizes the results:

Almost three-quarters of students know that Moses “led the Israelites out of bondage,” while more than 90 percent know who Adam and Eve are. (Unfortunately, 8 percent “believe that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles.”) But . . . two-thirds of teens couldn’t identify the phrase “Blessed are the poor in spirit” from the Sermon on the Mount, while similar numbers were ignorant of phrases such as “the road to Damascus” or such stories as David and Saul.

The literacy project, which is endorsed by the ACLU as well as by church groups, links to a clip of of Jay Leno quizzing Angelenos about Bible knowledge. “Fill in the blank,” he says. “Cain and . . . ?”

“Cainan the Barbarian?” guesses a blonde woman.

David Gelernter in the Weekly Standard asks why the Founders were so sure of our country’s destiny, and explains the importance of the Bible in British and American history, politics and literature.

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.

Gelernter concedes it’s very difficult to teach the Bible well in public schools, which are skittish about appearing to teach religious faith.

Do we have teachers who are up to the job? (With laudable foresight, the Bible Literacy Project is already developing workshops for teachers.) And let’s also keep in mind that, for most children, such courses can only be half-way houses. Children studying the Bible should learn their own religious traditions as precious truth, not as one alternative on a multicultural list.

Teaching precious religious truth is not what America’s public schools are for. Ultimately there is only one solution to our Bible literacy crisis. Our churches, our synagogues, and all other institutions that revere the Bible must do better.

When I was an op-ed columnist and editorial writer, I often used biblical references in my writing — until I came to believe that a lot of readers didn’t know the way to Damascus. So to speak.

About Joanne


  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    From a cultural rather than specifically religious standpoint, full appreciation of English literature absolutely requires an acquaintance with the King James Bible, just as it requires an acquaintance with Classical mythology. Also every educated English-speaking person should have read _Pilgrim’s Progress_; along with the Bible, Bunyan was a major influence on many important figures in American history, particularly Lincoln.

    That idiot Gelernter is full of it as usual. It’s not at all difficult to teach an excellent Bible-as-literature course; the difficulties, if any, come from attempted interference by fundies (who typically are appallingly ignorant of modern scholarship about the Bible, since it would disturb their mentally primitive worldview.).

  2. AndyJoy says:

    It’s appalling how ignorant some people are of the Bible–and it’s not just today’s kids. My husband’s high school English teacher assigned the requisite book, “The Scarlet Letter.” At one point, he made a comment about the book’s description of a tapestry in the minister’s office, depicting “the Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba, and Nathan the Prophet, in colors still unfaded, but which made the fair woman of the scene almost as grimly picturesque as the woe-denouncing seer.” The teacher (and most of the class) had NO idea to what this alluded. When my husband explained the biblical story of King David’s adultery, the teacher was dumbfounded. This is only one example of how reading of great literature becomes shallow without familiarity with the Bible.

  3. My husband is an extravagently well-educated guy (Exeter, LSE) and he can’t name the 12 apostles. I’m always sort of horrified–it’s like not knowing the 7 dwarves. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Sleepy, Dopey and Doc.

  4. Doug Sundseth says:

    I rather like the premise of E.D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy” — that an educated person needs to have easy access to a set of common cultural information. Certainly a part of that comes from the King James edition of the Bible, but only a fairly small part, and that part is shrinking over time.

    There are many reasons for this, including a decline in religiosity among the educated class, and a proliferation of easily obtained and memorable recent works (on TV, in theaters, and in print). We are no longer limited to the Bible and a dozen or so poets, playwrights, and novelists for our cultural context.

  5. Steve,

          That idiot Gelernter is full of it as usual.

    Would you see a Biblical reference here?

                            No, ’tis slander,
       Whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue
       Outvenoms all the worms of Nile, whose breath
       Rides on the posting winds and doth belie
       All corners of the world: kings, queens and states,
       Maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave
       This viperous slander enters.
          Pisanio, Cymbeline, III.iv

    Just wondering,

  6. Steve LaBonne says:

    I think Gelernter, the secularist-slandering “conservative”, is the one who needs to ponder tbat quote. (The linked screed was actually a relatively mild example of the bilge his word processor pumps out.) Your mileage, of course, may vary.

  7. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Jews, Christians, Muslims, and anyone else who respects monotheism should have a good working knowledge of the Torah (5 Books of Moses, aka ‘Old Testament’), the foundation of all monotheistic religions.

  8. BadaBing says:

    No one without a knowledge of the Bible can rightfully call himself edgycated. The Bible is central to our culture, but I guess we trashed both of them a long time ago.

  9. Tom West says:

    Nice typo, Badabing :-).

  10. Walter E. Wallis says:

    While we may not know about Damascus, we all know Ginsu.

  11. pouncer says:

    The science-fiction community references the Star Trek (NextGen) episode “Darmok” — about the aliens who communicate wholly by allusion to their common literary heritage.

    “Darmok”, the noun, is used to refer to such an allusion; and “to Darmok” is the verb form where such allusions are deliberately made so as to endarken listeners and outvite their conversational participation.

    Much of English literature is as opaque as Darmok-speak, without recourse to Biblical allusion.