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Biblical Literacy and Christian Privilege

July 14, 2009

There has been some talk in the blogosphere about a new report that shows people don’t know much about the Bible. Jim West posted a link to Philip Davies’ post, which has all the details and a bit of commentary.

I’ve seen arguments like these before—Stephen Prothero wrote an entire book dedicated to a consideration of Religious Literacy (by the way, there was a really interesting symposium on that book in the April issue of the CSSR Bulletin). In sum, the argument is that even non-religious people should know something about the Bible, because it is such a huge part of Western culture.

My general response is that no, people don’t need to know about the Bible, any more than they need to know about Homer’s Odyssey or Plato’s Republic. As Craig Martin notes about Stephen Prothero’s book,

Prothero’s grave concern about religious illiteracy seems to be invalidated—or at least attenuated—by his own argument. On the one hand, he argues that Americans don’t know much about religion anymore and, on the other hand, that this ignorance prevents them from understanding religious references in popular culture, political speeches, etc. However, if people don’t know much about religion, won’t those references slowly disappear, in which case there’s no need to worry about the matter? There is a part of me that wants to summarize Prothero’s central concern like this: “Americans don’t any longer know about this important part of their culture that’s no longer important.” This formulation is unfair—Prothero’s argument is not this superficial—but I think that there is something to it that is right.

I’m inclined to think that if we stop making such a big deal about the Bible it will just go away—the evidence of these polls shows that it’s already going away.

Let me make a few additional comments, particularly about Davies’ post. First, he says that Hector Avalos is “the only non-religious scholar I know of that actually seems to hate the Bible.” Really? Maybe he meant that Avalos is the only non-religious Bible scholar? I know plenty of scholars of religions other than Christianity or Judaism who think the Bible is crap. Maybe Davies doesn’t know any of them? Perhaps his view of religious stuides is very narrow.

Perhaps Davies doesn’t know of many scholars who openly oppose the Bible because it’s unpopular to do so. If this is the case, we should ask ourselves why. Think about it: it seems to be perfectly okay for me to say that I hate Plato, or I hate Kant, or I hate Scientology (in fact, I do hate Kant). Why can I hate Kant but not the Bible? Is it unpopular for one to say one hates the Bible because there is special privilege awarded to it not awarded to other texts or traditions?

In the middle of his post, Davies asks the question, “How bad are things” (i.e., how bad are things with respect to illiteracy about the Bible)? This question made me jump, and revealed to me the fact that he’s working with a partisan frame I do not share. I would have said “How good are things?” The fact that “How bad are things?” will seem like the natural question to most of his readers reveals the privilege awarded to the Bible. I don’t know anyone asking how bad it is now that students don’t come to college with an adequate grasp of Cicero any more.

There was a time when this would have been a chief concern; I can picture a white guy in a suit with a bow tie mumbling to his colleague, “these kids can’t even conjugate in Latin anymore. What’s the world coming to!?” We would, of course, today recognize that concern as reflecting the presumption of a certain type of white, bourgeois, upper-class privilege. That was a system designed in a way that ensured that students coming to college from elite prep schools would have a a greater possibility of success than students from working-class families.

Why would we stand around mumbling about how “these kids don’t even know who Moses is. What’s the world coming to!?” What forms of privilege are we maintaining when doing so? Are we reproducing a system that puts non-Christians and non-Jews at a disadvantage in our schools?

Davies asks us to “Imagine a national art gallery without any biblical scenes.” Okay, so what? I’m fine with that! The next sentence is this: “The history of western culture collapses without the biblical backbone that keeps it erect.” This is false, not least of which because it is an absurd essentialist claim: cultures do not have backbones. There are many cultural threads feeding into western culture—we could remove that one thread without causing the weave to collapse.

And, in fact, that thread is already fraying. It was a worn out thread anyway.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 14, 2009 4:39 pm

    “cultures do not have backbones”
    What sort of invertebrate is a culture? Something entirely soft, like a mollusc? Or something with numerous related by separable parts, each individually supported by a rigidly enforced ‘skeleton’ but not having any such rigid support overall – i.e. an arthropod?

    Can cultures grow back in their entirety from one part, like an echinoderm? Do they have have a soft, mobile early form followed by transformation into a hard, rigid form?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 14, 2009 4:49 pm

    Hi Alderson; I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or serious! My response is that cultures are “written,” in exactly the way Derrida describes arche-writing in Of Grammatology.

    The closest animal or plant analogy to “writing” would be grafting: graft one plant onto another plant, and repeat about a million times. What you have left is a network of interwoven grafts, without a center or essence. “There is nothing outside the graft,” to paraphrase Derrida.

  3. July 14, 2009 11:58 pm

    Of course people need to know about the Odessy and the Iliad and Plato’s Republic!

    The only alternative is this:

    Part of the reason I find modern culture to be so shallow is – besides the fact it seems to be served up in bitesize portions where there is no room for much depth, it seems to suffer from some kind of senility and forgets the past.

    It’s one thing to come to university having not read the Iliad, but to leave and still having not read it? Well, perhaps a science student can get away with that, but someone reading the liberal arts should not be allowed to!

    And I’d have loved to have been able to do Latin in school, I think the answer to working class people not being able to do things like that is not to say “it’s not necessary” but to give them the opportunity to learn!

  4. July 15, 2009 4:46 am

    I think there’s more to Davies’ “backbone” line than you admit. If we take away a particular and dominant reading of the Bible from “western” culture then we do away with the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim white Christian chauvinism that feeds the notion of a distinct “western” culture/civilisation in the first place.

    Having said that, when a friend asked me a few years back whether the stuff in the movie Troy was from the Bible, I was actually speechless.

  5. July 15, 2009 5:01 am

    What is anti-Jewish about “Western” cuture. Jews are totally Westernised. It’s why (apart from the whole stealing the land thing) the Arabs hate them. They see them as a bunch of white europoids who’ve stolen their land and spread “decadent western values” in the middle east.

    And there are actually a lot of Jews *coughIrvingKristolcough* who see it that way too (but consider it positive).

  6. Barrington Levy permalink
    July 15, 2009 7:38 am

    Well, no, Jews aren’t “totally Westernised” (the more secular ones in America, well, sure, but if we are talking culture, and things that one chooses, rather than the birth accident of ethnicity).

    They rather have a distinct and ancient culture – can we just say based on ethical monotheism – that has undergone various evolutions (and has various forms – with distinct cultural expressions – even if that means that some wear a sort of 17th century Polish aristocratic outfit today, even though a lot don’t);

    but quite apart from that you neglect the fact that a sizely proportion of the Jews who are citizens of Israel have no connection with “the west” whatsoever. but are either those who were expelled from Arab or other Muslim countries, mostly but not entirely post-1948 – and that their displacement, from places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq (and even the Arab-dominated states of the Maghreb) represents (at least) every bit as much a painful displacement, and forced removal as anything ever experienced by Palestinian Arabs as a result of the establishment fo the State of Israel. And even beyond them, a sizable proportion of the other Jews of Israel would have emigrated from Eastern Europe or Eurasia rather than anywhere particularly cultural “Western” (if by that we mean: secularised, liberalised, post-Reformation, exposed to feminism, post-modernism, etc etc etc)

    but anyway I disagree with the fundamental point being made in the original blog post: a society that has lost its roots (thru things like a sound knowledge and relationship to its defining myths and religious truths) is to my mind on the brink of collapse. And indeed Christianity IS the principal backbone, the fundamental and foundational essence (combined with Classical things and other local elements, for sure – and the loss of knowledge about those in much of mainstream education is also disasterous, a kind of philistinzation and cult of banality and the “relevant”_) , of Western civilisation.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 9:24 am

    So, ibs, are you saying that the bible is actually an anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim backbone?

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 9:25 am

    Sophia, I think a lot of modern western culture is shallow too, but the best way to rectify that is NOT to make everyone read that Bible.

    How do you justify your claim that students MUST have read the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Bible, the Republic, and so on? What makes that more than a mere assertion?

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 9:31 am

    Is no one here an anti-essentialist?! I learned from day one of my doctoral program that essentialist identity claims (as if there were an essence or a backbone to racial identities, religious identities, cultural identities, and so on) were not only unverifiable power grabs at best, but inherently contradictory at worst.

  10. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 15, 2009 1:00 pm

    “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or serious”
    Oh I am. Very much. Well I guess more of the sarcastic. But yeah, I think I agree with you about all the culture stuff. And as someone who made it through something like a ‘liberal arts’ course withou reading a line of the Iliad, I’m very intrigued by the idea that I will be made fundamentally unable to connect with the foundations of my society. I haven’t noticed that yet, and by and large the people who have read the Iliad don’t seem much better adjusted, more able to function, or more socially accepted than the others. It’s almost as the supposed ‘necessity’ of these ‘classics’ is, well, nothing beyond the hand-waving.

  11. July 15, 2009 1:12 pm

    Well I think people must read the Iliad specifically because it’s great.

    But without things like the classics and the Bible… how do you understand the references in more recent literary works? How do you understand the cultural context of only a few generations ago (especially the Bible)? If you cut off the Bible, you’re not just cutting off the Bible, you’re cutting off huge swathes of references from most literature before the 1600s and large amounts of it since then.

    And in the end, unless you can connect with that history, how can you avoid just going over it all over again? One thing that I find funny is how the same old heresies in institutional religion come up again, and people think they are being original and new when in fact they are just saying the same stuff that some sect was saying in the 4th century or whatever. That doesn’t just happen with heresies, but with all kinds of debates, and if it must happen (and its probably inevitable) it might as well happen in a way where people have the understanding of the last time this argument happened so they can build on and draw from the pre-existent material.

    It’s not so much that the classics make people better people or more well ajusted (that seems rather absurd to me) as that knowing the classics means that people however messed up they might be personally can draw on far more additional levels of shared meaning in the construction of culture. And not just shared with their own generation but with countless generations who have been nourished by it.

    It seems tragic to me to throw that connection away.

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 2:38 pm

    “But without things like the classics and the Bible… how do you understand the references in more recent literary works?”

    1. Not everyone needs to know references in literary works.

    2. If people did need to be able to understand references in contemporary literature, they would need to know a lot more than the Bible–so why aren’t we trotting out Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham, Machiavelli, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Marx, Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wollstonecraft, Peirce, James, Dewey, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. DuBois … you get the picture.

    It is completely disingenuous to insist that people MUST be able to understand contemporary literature and then only insist on one thread that feeds into contemporary literature.

    3. In any case, if they need to figure out an illusion, it turns out that they can look it up. If I want to understand Hegel, I’ll need to do my homework on Kant. However, it doesn’t follow that Western civilization will collapse if everyone hasn’t read Kant—they can read him if they need him.

  13. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 2:41 pm

    In addition, last I checked, America was made up of people from Europe, Africa, Asia, and so on. Why are we getting our knickers in a twist only about the disappearance of European literature? Eventually non-whites will overtake whites in America—why don’t we prepare for that moment by teaching people African, Asian, and Indian literature instead of European literature? By that time “we” will be less white than anything else, in which case “we” will have lost touch with our roots—since by then our dominant cultural roots will be from elsewhere.

  14. July 15, 2009 2:48 pm

    Well the classics are so called for a reason. They are a lot more influential than something like Margaret Atwood.

    I definitely think everyone should read Gramsci though.

    I suppose if America wants to cast off European culture, its no skin off my back. But I’d rather Europe didn’t. Arabic is a very difficult language (although Islam too has been very influenced by the classics – although one has to add the Persian to the Greek to make it more complete.)

  15. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 3:08 pm

    The classic are classic for a reason? What reason is that? Pierre Bourdieu gives us a pretty good one—the “classics” are part of system that reinforces the the privilege of elite classes—but since I don’t think it is yours, I’ll have to ask you to explain.

  16. July 15, 2009 3:18 pm

    They are called classics for a reason, not they *are* classics for a reason. Why the classics are the classics is not really relevent, so much as that because they are “the classics” they have been taught to and therefore influenced a far wider spectrum of people and generations than general. They are a point of connectivity between eras and between individuals. Without a classical corpus of work – whether it be the greek and roman classics or some other thing – that is lost, we are stuck with individuals pursuing their individual interests independently and lose the shared language in which we can explore deeper themes. Every encounter becomes shallow because in every encounter we need to reassert the obvious in order to reach a point where we can interact.

  17. July 15, 2009 4:34 pm

    What is anti-Jewish about “Western” cuture. Jews are totally Westernised.

    “Western” culture of the sort that one could root in the Bible long sought to define itself against the internal other, Jews, and the external other, Muslims. The notion of “western” culture as “Judeo-Christian” is a very recent invention and the Christian bit always seems to cover over the Judeo bit.

    So, ibs, are you saying that the bible is actually an anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim backbone?

    No, cos I said “a particular and [historically] dominant reading of the Bible from “western” culture” is/was anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim.

    A thing just struck me though that this talk about the Bible as a cultural “backbone” is a shift from when it used to be seen as a cultural “exoskeleton” – the notion that Biblical truth was the first and last barrier against cultural deviation.

    Next there’ll be an essay calling the Bible the cultural “liver”, western civilisation’s ethical and artistic filtration system or something, and then – if our host here gets his way – the cultural appendix. We don’t know why it’s there. It just happens to be there. Cosmonauts ought to have it removed before going into space.

  18. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 5:03 pm

    Bible as cultural appendix. Awesome.

  19. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 15, 2009 5:24 pm

    Just to add another voice to the conversation …

    One of my friends said to me, via email: “I would probably argue that people need Biblical literacy because it is precisely be being able to write the genealogies of the images, narratives, and intellectual themes of western thought that we can begin to think outside of them. The Bible is somewhere near the beating heart of power in western culture. That makes it important to know not so we can reinscribe its authority, but to question it. How much more effective is someone who talks about the limitations of the Bible when they can also quote it chapter and verse?”

  20. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 15, 2009 8:06 pm

    “They are a point of connectivity between eras and between individuals…[if] that is lost, we are stuck with individuals pursuing their individual interests independently and lose the shared language in which we can explore deeper themes.”

    See, I know what you mean because I see this kind of thing at work sometimes in philosophy, where points of reference from 400 years ago either held to give depth to contemporary discussion, or impoverish it by their absence.

    And yet. There are a hundred equally important points of ‘connectivity’ that I’ve not got the foggiest about. And most of the ones I am familiar with, most people aren’t. In fact, I have a lot of history, oodles of the stuff, and if I tried to understand all of it, I’d have no time for living. Fortunately, I can muddle along with only a few, because none of them is individually important enough to cripple me by its absence (by analogy, it’s as though society involved nothing but humans, without a divinity in sight).

    Anyway, I mainly just feel the urge to say – if the Bible is so vital, why is it so hard to find some feature of ‘western’ society which is clearly, obviously, related to the Bible, and isn’t shared by most other societies or related to most other historical sources.

    I’ve tried to do that every now and again, and I’ve been stumped. But it should be unbelievably easy, if you’re right. For any bible scholar, 5 compelling examples should roll off the tongue without much mental exertion.

  21. July 15, 2009 8:22 pm

    It’s because you are looking for the general not the specific.

    5 things? Churches, the English Civil War, Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, Catholic Hospitals, the division (and occasional lack thereof) of power between Pope and Emperor.

    Now is it easy to find parallels to all these in non-Christian societies. Oh yes. The general proves to be very similar wherever you look. Just like most people, are pretty much the same if you generalise. There is nothing really that special about my mother, she is much like many other people, each attribute I can speak about can be found abounding in many others. But she is my mother, and on a specific level she is unique, in terms of both her relationships and her personality.

    So although a church can easily be compared to a mosque, and the monastery at Valaam can easily be compared to a monastery in Tibet, if you are looking to generalise – looking to generalise is actually part of the shallowness problem. Relationally and personally – when you think of the specifics, Valaam is special, Iona is special, my mother is special.

    But again, maybe not to Americans. Just as my mother is not special to Adam Smith, perhaps Valaam is not special to Americans (except of course Metropolitan Jonah). If Americans want to abandon the European part of their past, for whatever reason, it’s not the end of the world.

    They can always worship Maria Leonza and go to the Viking Court after all.

  22. July 16, 2009 2:43 am

    Is it just me or is Alderson Warm-Fork not the best goddamn proper noun, like, ever?

  23. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 16, 2009 8:58 am

    Maybe not the absolute best ever, but it’s up there near the top.

  24. Dr. Hector Avalos permalink
    July 16, 2009 12:45 pm

    I have posted a reply to Philip Davies at Debunking Christianity:

  25. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 17, 2009 6:52 am

    Great post, Dr. Avalos; thanks for sharing it!

    I could learn a bit from you about how to be a little more classy and generous to those I’m criticizing!

  26. Alderson Warm-Fork permalink
    July 17, 2009 6:12 pm

    Sophia, if your point is qualified as being about these sorts of specifics rather than anything general, then I won’t disagree, but it will be much harder to see why one such set of specifics is of any greater importance than another. If the contribution of the Iliad, say, to ‘our culture’ isn’t any general feature of that culture but just the specific fact that other people have read the iliad, we have some words derived from ancient greek, we have phrases like ‘Achilles’ heel’, as opposed to saying ‘Rama’s kneecap’ or something…well then I don’t see much reason to study the Iliad, if my culture provides me with enough other points of connectivity to study, which it clearly does. You almost seem to admit this when you say that it’ll be ok if Americans want to ‘abandon their European roots’ – although I hope the same goes for us Europeans…

  27. July 17, 2009 11:30 pm

    Well, truth be told, if people replace Western Culture with Hindu Culture, there is no general loss, you are right. There is a specific loss, and there is a loss of connection with the whole swathe of people who came before us, our specific ancestors, which personally I find a little tragic.

    But in the end, cultural conquest is not such a big deal to me, but that is not what happens, we don’t stop reading the classics and start reading Hindu scripture. We stop reading the classics and …everyone starts reading – or not reading what they like. There is objectively less of a common culture – a few decades ago there were points of connectivity with shared television etc because there were only 4 channels on TV – but even that has been broken down. There is mass education, but mass education is …not very good. At least what I remember from school are cringeworthy documentaries about teen pregnancy, terrible plays by some traveling theater troop about what terrors await us if we drop rocks off bridges and making excuses for not bringing my PE kit. Maybe I can share that with most Brits, but… if that’s all I have in common with them, the only source of shared language – I feel rather impoverished.

    We’re not replacing the classics with some new set of classics, but with individualism. The idea is that there doesn’t need to be any commonality or cohesion, and also disposability – the idea that nothing has to be enduring in culture, of course, everything changes, but the wholesale ideology of change, that change in itself for itself is good, the worship of novelty – is not a normal state of affairs in society, it is an aberration which damages social cohesion by disconnecting one generation from the next.

  28. Dr. Hector Avalos permalink
    July 22, 2009 8:45 am

    I could learn a bit from you about how to be a little more classy and generous to those I’m criticizing!

    I wish that arguments were always so civil. But actually I use a proportional response method. If the person is civil to me, then I am civil. If the person is disrespectful or utters just plain nonsense, I have been known to be a bit more assertive as in this recent post:

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