I remember sitting in an undergraduate course in American literature. The protagonist in some poem I’ve long forgotten had done something and was washing his hands in a silver bowl. “Come on, come on,” said the professor. “Who knows what the reference is?”
“Pilate?” I ventured.
“Yes, of course,” said the professor. “How many of you know what he’s talking about?” A few hands went up, not many. “Look,” said the professor, “if you want to understand literature, the first book you have to read is the Bible.” It was my first clue that the Bible might actually be useful for something.
That was decades ago, and the rate of biblical illiteracy is now higher than ever, but I have never forgotten the lesson: an education without a religious component is a poor education indeed. Imagine
trying to read Margaret Atwood or John Irving or Timothy Findley without the ability to recognize biblical imagery.
I suppose we don’t have to be familiar with Pilate to understand “I wash my hands of the whole affair.” Some images are in common usage — everyone knows a dove symbolizes peace, even if they’ve never heard of Noah. And Bible-based phrases like “as old as the hills,” “guiding light” and “beating swords into ploughshares” are self-explanatory. Knowing their origin enriches them but isn’t necessary.
Other references are not so self-evident. Ask some high school students if they know the difference between the Good Samaritan and the Good Thief. Words and phrases we are apt to come across in the media — prodigal, David and Goliath, apocalypse, Promised Land, chapter and verse, kosher, beatitudes — require a biblical explanation.
Don’t kid yourself that most people know this stuff. They don’t. A woman who saw someone holding up a sign on a televised sports event asked me, “Does that have something to do with the Bible?” She had two university degrees but couldn’t be certain that “John 3:16” is in the Bible. People don’t know unless they are told.
How about art? Well, most modern art is so self-referential that one needs a degree in art history to understand it. And to get that, one ought to know the story behind a host of biblical images. When a hospital chapel was refurbished, I had to explain to a group of puzzled nurses that the picture of two hands reaching their index fingers to each other was from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Students of civics ought to know that English common law, the foundation of our legal system, is biblically based. It’s all there in the Torah, from the distinction between murder and manslaughter to restitution for damages.
And that’s just the Judeo-Christian component of a religion class. In our increasingly multicultural society, students should learn the difference between sharia and halal, Shiva and Ganesh, satori and nirvana. How do teachers have a class discussion on, say, the wearing of face scarves without teaching students what the Qur’an says (and doesn’t say) about it?
Admittedly, it seems governments have little respect — or funding — these days for “non-essential” courses such as music, drama or religion. They may enhance life, but they don’t increase employability, at least not directly.
Until that changes, if you want your children to know who Pilate was, you’d better keep sending them to Sunday school.
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