Why Biblical Literacy Matters for Teachers of Literature

by Anna Blanch on July 20, 2011

When I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree way back when I took a seminar on Shakespeare. Before a tutorial one morning I mentioned to a friend who happened to be in the class that i’d almost finished reading the Book of Revelation (the final book of the Bible). A fellow student happened to hear me and said lightly, “Oh, the Bible, I read that once.” Genuinely interested, because I knew this woman to be well read, “how long did it take you to read the whole thing?”

I asked because I was nearing the end of a 4 month epic stint of reading 3-6 chapters a day in the midst of my other academic work and I was almost done. “Oh, a couple of days I think” she replied. To which I was genuinely astonished. I thought at that moment that she must have been much much faster at reading that I.

About an hour later some issue or another had come up where there seemed to my mind to be suggesting a typological reading, that is a link between a phrase or image from both the Old Testament and the New Testament in the work we were studying – It may have been “Measure for Measure.” My friend who i’d mentioned my Revelation reading to at the beginning of class had drawn a link to a certain moment in one of the gospel, and I was reinforcing her point by mentioning an old testament moment which Shakespeare might have been echoing. After I used the phrase Old Testament, my fast reading colleague asked (I believe sincerely) “Is the Old Testament in the Bible, I thought it was a completely different book.” At which moment I wondered what book she had been referring to in our original conversation about reading the “whole” Bible from cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation.

I don’t tell this story for any reason other than to offer a kategoria for why I think Biblical Literacy is a fundamentally important part of being an excellent teacher of Literature, in whatever language, at whatever level, regardless of what your personal religious or spiritual beliefs may be. Some of these reasons include:

1. The bible is still the best selling book of all time.
2. It has played a fundamental shaping role in the development of western literature.
3. For genre studies there are types of literary writing for which the bible presents the earliest example we still have, or the largest example from such an early period: think parable, and some of the wisdom writings in the very least.
4. The watershed in historical and literary terms of the Gutenberg Bible, the King James Authorised Version and even the link between contemporary literary and translations such as the Message means that to ignore it entirely or to treat it with contempt is inconsistent with good literary critical practice.
5 . To me it’s more than just a book, but it’s a darn good book! the narrative shape has been influential in both content and style on generations of authors and on us as readers; whether people are responding in positive or negative terms it is part of the grammar of western societies. One misses so much when you haven’t read the key texts. This is essential for you as a teacher, and for your students!

If you like your job as a teacher of literature (and i’m sure you do!) and you want to do the best by your students, I would strongly encourage you to put some time and effort into increasing your literacy of the bible. There are resources around for this – among them, the Bible Society and the Big Bible Project (run out of CODEC, Durham University). If you’re interested I’m also thinking about putting together a list of resources for those who teach english literature who’d like to improve their biblical literacy; let me know if you’d like a copy.

Why do I not say the same thing about the Koran or Buddhist Writings?

Simply because, in my experience, the development of Western Literature has been so fundamentally tied to the history of the publication of the Bible. The sheer significance of the King James Authorised Version (known as the KJV) cannot be underestimated. The number of phrases that made their first appearance in the KJV alone is enough to make it a work of fundamental importance to scholars and teachers of Western Literature.

Let me leave you with this fabulous little clip from the Open University about the literary significance of the King James Version:

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  • markmeynell

    Spot on
    And you even have support on this point from Richard Dawkins http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/ar
    and other members of his Foundation: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/2469
    Happy days!

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      Part of the reason I framed my post in the way I did was to present a "kategoria" of sorts that was not reliant on a spiritual argument, but on the descriptive fact of the significance of the old and new testaments (whether KJV, Douay-Rheims, Jerusalem bible, and including Hebraic and Greek versions) for teaching literature at any level. To that end, thanks for the link – although for Dawkins to suggest otherwise would be to rewrite social, political and literary history in a way that even he could not justify! I'll definitely have to remember this for interviews when the panel asks me on what basis I think there will be student interest in courses on religion and literature (and specifically bible and literature).

      • markmeynell

        i'm sure that is a good tack to take

  • Steve S.

    When I set out to teach Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton in my general education college courses here at my small, Christian liberal arts institution, I often remark to my students that if they are familiar with a good number of Bible stories, they are better situated to understand the literature than are many students at much more prestigious universities. There are plenty who should be more biblically literate than they are, but most of them at least acknowledge that they SHOULD know the Bible better than they do.

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      Indeed. I'm convinced that we're going to end up with a kind of literary poverty unless we seek to help students be able to trace the course of these images, ideas, and stories. It's been something I've noted (as i mentioned above) in my fellow students, but also in the reaction of teachers to my noting of clear use of biblical images or the author drawing parallels with a particular biblical story – they were receptive but surprised that it was something that seemed to be so apparent to me. It's why I sought out graduate training with scholars who knew the bible better than I – for this reaction did not mark me out as anything than a student who had a good familiarity with one of the most important texts in my field of study. …although it is, of course, so much more than that to me!

  • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

    So, i've been criticized in other fora for this post not being explicit enough about the bible as a source of allusions for english literature. Because the comments have made it apparent, let me be very clear. It is implicit in my noting of the bible as a key text and it's significant role in the development of phraseology we know consider passe, and the origin of many of our most reworked metaphors (think Eden, Adam & eve, journeys in the wilderness, the child as prophet, messiah and savior figures (though I'm cringing as I acknowledge the tendency to merely highlight those rather than a more nuanced reading)). I considered it implicit because the bible isn't just a source book of allusions – the layers of meaning evinced by their use must be read carefully and with the guidance of literary critical best practice.

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