Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"Christian civilization is over"

The Wall Street Journal takes on biblical illiteracy in The Bible Tells Me So.

I can't help but think that the church in America -- at least at this time -- is an utter failure. We are a nation that, collectively -- while claiming to be Christian, mind you -- knows nothing of God's word. This is not a problem for the public schools, this is on the doorstep of the church.

In full ...

Do we need to know what it says in the Bible? Are we somehow illiterate if we don't? Up until, say, 100 years ago, biblical literacy would have been practically mandatory. If you didn't know what "the powers that be" originally referred to, or where "the writing on the wall" was first seen, or what was meant by "the patience of Job," "Jacob's ladder" or "the salt of the earth" -- if you didn't know what an exodus was or a genesis, a fatted or a golden calf -- you would have been excluded from the culture.

It might be said that a civilization consists, at its core, of these easily transmitted packages of implication. They are one of the mechanisms by which cultures can be both efficient and rich. You don't have to return to first principles every time you wish to communicate. You can play your present tune on a received instrument, knowing that your listener hears not only your own music but the subtle melodies of those who played it before you. There is a common wisdom in common knowledge.

But does this Bible-informed world still exist? I would guess that on the whole, and outside committed Christian groups, biblical literacy is a thing of the past. That long moment of Christian civilization is over. The lingua franca of modern, English-speaking people is not dense with scriptural allusion, just as the conversation of educated people no longer makes reference to classical civilizations. If you dropped the names nowadays of Nestor, Agamemnon or Pericles -- every one of which would have come trailing clouds of glory up to a century ago -- you would, I think, draw a near total blank from even educated listeners.

The references we make today are not to these ancient sources of meaning. That is not to say that we don't have other sources; simply that our models tend to come from more recognizable and more recent worlds: We harken to Jefferson and Lincoln, Nelson and Churchill; to Madonna not the Madonna, to Britney not Brutus.

Does it matter that we have tended to drop the old referential structures? Certainly the people behind a new high-school textbook, released this week, think so. "The Bible and Its Influence" is an exceptionally well-executed introduction to the books of the Bible and the shaping effect that it had on the writers and artists of Western civilization. It is a scholarly, clear and richly illustrated amplification of the stories of the Old and New Testaments. And where else will a high-school student find out that the Eucharist was the inspiration for Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis"? Or that when Hamlet calls Polonius "Jepthah," he is pointing to the willingness of Ophelia's father to sacrifice his daughter for his own advantage?

The textbook's intention is to provide precisely the kind of biblical understanding that has drained out of the culture in the past century. (This sort of book itself has a long tradition: family-accessible biblical exegeses began, in English anyway, with the Geneva Bible, brought to this continent by the first settlers.) But once such understanding is on the slide, is there anything to be done about it?

The Bible Literacy Project, which published the textbook, aims to provide a way for students to read the Bible in public schools without trampling on the rights of religious or secular families. But the reasons that biblical literacy has declined are more deep-seated than any First Amendment restrictions on the teaching of the Bible in public schools. In Britain, where there are no such restrictions, the understanding of biblical references has, if anything, sunk further.

This is not necessarily a disaster. Ignorance of the Bible does not mean that we cannot respond to Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Bach. Just as there is no need to be intimately familiar with the Greek myths to feel the surging power and humanity of Homer, there is no need to know the Bible in order to hear the passionate meanings of Martin Luther King Jr.'s great speeches or the Gettysburg address. These works may be fueled by the Bible, but they are not in code. What they mean transcends their sources.

But if this loss of biblical literacy is not disastrous, it is at least a shame, the fading of an aspect of our civilization that has enriched it. Without the set of archetypes and fount of wisdom in the Bible, our lives would be thinner and poorer. I know my own life would have been immeasurably less if I had never encountered the majestic language of scriptural stories, as told in the King James Version. I think of the Bible as our great joint cathedral, a place where, as Philip Larkin wrote in "Church Going," "someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious."

"The Bible and Its Influence" could not have been better made, but its publication is like putting a fence of palings in a river. Change, made up of all sorts of powerful modern forces, will continue to flow whatever high-minded educators do to deflect it. Maybe a few people will be caught and held back from the swift motion of the current by that fence. One can only hope so.

Mr. Nicolson is the author of "God's Secretaries" on the making of the King James Bible.