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Ecellent point. Although I do not spend much time in churches these days, I do find that the time I spent studying the Bible as a child in parochial school has indeed helped me in various other studies. I have had this discussion many times with a well-read friend who has no working knowledge of the Bible. She had to ask whether the flood came in the Old or New Testement. She also had no idea that the name of one of Lyle Lovitt's CD's was a play on words from the books of the Bible... "Joshua Judges Ruth". Those were instances that did indeed make me wonder if one doesn't at least need a superficial working knowledge of the's stories, lessons, etc. I also wonder if my kids won't be in the same boat as my friend since they are not getting the same education I did. Hopefully they won't amass the same baggage I did, but they also won't have the same working knowledge... It does seem to me that there should be a way to include the stories of the Bible (sans the dogma)into a literature class.


I plead guilty to often not knowing the source of familiar phrases. I often misattribute them to Bill S. when it should be the Bible. However, in these days of Google, I lean toward looking them up to be sure I've sourced things correctly, so I discover my error.

When I first read that marquee I said "You can't sell the Treasurer! That's illegal!" It's hell being a literalist.


Hi Lance,
I just couldn't miss out on this. But as an alum of the same High School as you... In 10th grade at the same public school we actually studied the King James Bible as literature. I do remember the parents having to sign a permission slip. And a couple of interesting discussions resulting but we all did have a better idea of the allusions to Biblical Works.

mac macgillicuddy

Here's another good reason for Bible-thumping Americans not to object to reading the Bible in school: THEY haven't read it yet.

Bill Moyers often cites a survey (forgive my sloppy scholarship, but I can't remember who sponsored the survey -- you can look it up, though -- I'm too tired) whose results show that more than 40% of Americans believe that "God helps those who help themselves" is from the Bible. It's from Ben Franklin, and he apparently spoke it with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

I'm not really criticizing people who haven't read the Bible, though. I was raised Catholic and went to parochial school. Unlike Jennifer, though, we didn't read the Bible. I didn't think we were allowed to read it. It was read TO us, in carefully selected, out-of-context segments depending on the time of year in the Church calendar. And then the priest told us what we had just heard.

When I was in high school, the English department decided that we would study the Bible "as literature." Everyone got a permission slip to take home to their parents. Supposedly if any parents objected, for any reason, to reading the Bible (either because they didn't want their kids viewing it "as literature" or because it was "the Bible"), that kid would be excused from class. I don't remember the English class emptying out. In fact, I don't remember anyone, save those who normally skipped the class or who were sick, failing to show up.

Anyway, that unit in English was the first time I became aware of the fact that the Gospels actually tell a story in narrative form, complete with transitions, and that the Book of Job is a dialectic.

Incidentally, another tid bit from the survey: 60% of Americans still believe (I say still because this seems to be a prevailing believe throughout history) that the world will end in their lifetimes, that it will end in something called "the rapture," and that, of course, they will be part of that.

They never read the passage from the Bible in which Jesus says, "You know not the day nor the hour."


I was raised as a Lutheran and we definitely read the Bible, discussed it, memorized it, etc. I always assumed everybody who went to a parochial school did the same. My husband was raised as a Catholic and said that reading was indeed NOT allowed. He, too, said something similar to the above comment about it being read to him and then being told what it meant. He always figured the nuns and priests didn't want people reading it because then they might make their own assumptions and thus gain some control in the matter.

mac macgillicuddy


This is exactly the reason. And it isn't even an ulterior reason. Back in the Middle Ages, when almost all of the rabble was illiterate (and the scripture was in Greek or Latin anyway), monasteries were the keeper of the keys to the ark. The Catholic church decided that it was best to spoonfeed the word of God to the people.

At that time, there was a lot of mysticism in church rituals, and mystery too. The transubstantiaton of the eucharist took place behind a rood screen, sort of a huge trellis between the altar and the pews that allowed people to sort of see, but not really.

Pope John XXXIII fixed a lot of that in the Vatican Council, but not all of it obviously.


And, mac, the priest didn't face the congregation until Vatican II, either. Neither did we altar boys.


Pardon my Catholic ignorance, but if I recall, a Catholic couldn't even pray directly to God, isn't that right? I guess the priest was acting as the rood screen between the parishoner and God.


Jennifer, I don't think that's quite accurate, but I'll defer to mac. I know I spent a lot of time after confession saying a lot of Our Fathers and Hail Marys to somebody. ;)


I think what I was recalling was the Catholic practice of praying to saints or to Mary in addition to God. Rememeber, I was raised as a Lutheran and Lutherans were all about separating from certain Catholic practices. It was pointed out to me that you do indeed pray directly to God hence the Our Father.

Okay, here's one I can't remember since confirmation was quite a long time ago... Catholics tend to end the Our Father rather abruptly, but the Lutheran Our Father has a couple of lines tagged on the end... does anyone remember why?

I have to say, I am glad I never had to go to confession, not that confession was never needed...

Elayne Riggs

Man, I have GOT to write my Megillat Vashti comic book story. Looks like there's a market out there more than ripe for decent Bible stories...



Thanks for the linkage and for the comment at PK.

Your observations about the relative Biblical ignorance by students who attend church regularly is a very telling sign of the times. One that Carla and I have discussed, privately, many times.

Carla was raised in a devoutly conservative Baptist tradition while I was raised in a devoutly conservative Seventh Day Adventist tradition. Adventists spring out of the exact same American Protestant tradition, having had an ex-Baptist minister among it's founders. In fact the first Adventists worshipped on Sunday until a chance meeting with some Seventh Day Baptists irrevocably changed their theological perspective. But, somewhere along the line the traditions veered in very different directions. Carla was taught to never ever question, much less challenge, anything that their minister said. Whereas I was taught to think and examine. Never once did my parents even hint that sincere questions were out of line in any way.

Obviously, an environment where questions are not tolerated isn't exactly conducive to learning.

That said... I must confess that my own knowledge of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was relatively shallow until well into my adult years. But, even as a young student I knew the story of Cain and Abel, having heard it many times growing up. I may have been unsure exactly who Ahab was, but I knew exactly who Jezebel was. Song of Solomen, of course, wasn't widely talked about. But, I suspect that had everything to do with the embarassing reference to breasts like twin Gazelles and all... It was, after all, a socially conservative upbringing. Absolom I knew about, but not the other two men you list. David and Bathsheba was also very familiar to me too.

That having been said... I will note that my Old Testament knowledge had as much or more to do with my parents than it did anything I learned in church or in the parochial SDA schools I attended. My dad used to read to us boys when we were kids. Our family worship for several years when I was in grade school consisted of him reading OT stories out of a Living translation of the Bible, which is infinitely more readable than King James. I remember it being an hour of riviting stories from the Joshua thru 2 Chronicles portion of the OT and we routinely begged him to read one more chapter when he announced that family worship was done for the evening. The family prayer and all that was stuff that I didn't care much about. But, the stories were fascinating to listen to.


My mother made me read "Illustrated Bible Stories for Children" so I can have some idea about what on Earth is in that book. She fed me Shakepseare for the same reason. I never really wanted to read the real Bible so I never did. Yet I did much better on that survey than many Americans who call themselves Christian.
Sometimes I think that the "socially religious" people understand the Bible better than the fundies. Does that have something to do with children's rebellion against the parents?


...and funny, but I have linked to the very same Kevin's post earlier today.

mac macgillicuddy

Jennifer and Link,

I don't pretend to be an expert on all things Vatican, but this is an odd misunderstanding so many protestants seem to have heard about Catholics praying TO saints.

Catholics pray to God. period. Catholics also pray to God THROUGH the intercession of the Holy Spirit and the Son of God. Catholics may also -- but they don't have to -- pray to God through saints, some of whom are believed to have pretty powerful influence (e.g, St. Anthony as the patron saint of lost items -- btw, I can't demonstrate any of my experiences with him scientifically, but many a lost key has been found after soliciting his help. For really HOPELESSLY lost items or causes, pray to St. Jude).

But no one prays TO a saint. Something to think about: Does St. Peter also pray to St. Anthony when he misplaces the keys to the gates of heaven, or does he just walk over and see him?...


The Bible in the middle ages was indeed kept "locked" but that was not to keep it from the faithful. It was kept locked because they were so fiancially expensive and vulnerable to theft. Since the officially recognized translation of the Bible was the Vulgate the Catholic Church frowned on people not reading the Vulgate. That was passed down to school children as a fear of "reading" the bible. After Vatican II affirmed that all translations based on the original texts then the reading of the Bible became more common. At my Catholic school, during the early seventies, we were reading the bible as early as third and fourth grade. Much to the dismay of the good Sister who had to deal with our fourth grade about a passage we found in Revelations. ;-)

P.S. St. Peter wouldn't pray or go over to Anthony since as any good Pope he would send a Papal Delegate. And a close reading of the gospels would show that to person to be St. Andrew, his younger brother. (typical )


When I was in public school as a kid, they read us Bible stories, but mostly they were from the Gospels and whether or not the same was done in other schools I don't know. But I do know that even in my generation, and the generations before me, there were and are plenty of people who were completely unfamiliar with the contents of most of the Bible, and that includes those people who run around quoting the Bible when they censure the rest of us. (I quote Jesus to missionaries and theys say things like, "Where did he say that? - because they've never read the damn thing through.)

I happen to have had a better education in the book than most people, perhaps because I just liked to read and spent two years in a school that had a remarkably tiny library, so there wasn't much to read. But my god that book is full of weird stuff. If it hadn't been The Bible, I sincerely doubt the adults around me would have let any kid anywhere near it. Sex, violence, and a god who often seems quite mad.

I can't remember now whether it was Fallwell or Robertson who talked about building the Tower of Babel as if it was something God wanted people to do, and they should try to do again, but it's kind of typical - they take for granted that the only Bibilical passages you know are the ones they repeat to you, and thus you don't know the context and they can say anything they want. Just like, as long as I can remember, I've heard people refer to the story of Onan as a condemnation of masturbation rather than what it's actually about. I don't believe there was ever a time when a whole generation really knew the Bible, and I don't think we're going to see one any time soon, either.


As a writer, I can testify that the bible is a rich source of imagery, metaphor and analogy. Why, the first scene I ever wrote had as an analogy the money changers at the temple scene. And you can bet I mined it for all it was worth.

Where would we be without the gospels?


I wonder if you compared the "sins" of the current administration vs. their good deeds, which catagory would have more comparisons with Biblical stories. I am guessing the former. I know it has been mentioned before, but it does indeed seem like we are due for a deluge of frogs or locusts.


I am glad that you specifically mentioned the King James version, an incomparably beautiful work of literature. The American Standard version, or whatever you usually encounter in a Protestant church these days, is a poor substitute indeed, even if the translation is supposedly more accurate. I can still remember when, as a teenager, I opened a new Bible edition and found the opening line of the 23rd Psalm rendered as:

"Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need!"

Yes, that abominable exclamation point was in there, too. It was like trading in Mozart for a kazoo quartet.


"It was like trading in Mozart for a kazoo quartet."

Now there's an image. What would Schroeder say? ;)

Jennifer, the Catholics don't (or didn't) use the "for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory" phrase at the end of the Our Father.


I read most of the Old Testament at age 16, in a beautiful modern translation from either Cambridge or Oxford University that I'd gotten out of a public library in Lake Tahoe. The reason for "most" and not "all" is that I finally found myself seriously revolted by the narratives, which are essentially one ugly revenge tale after another under the eye of a pretty, vengeful God. Under any kind of close inspection, the Judeo-Christian tradition is nothing to be proud of.


That should be "petty, vengeful God" above, though I rather like "pretty, vengeful" as a typo.


As Kevin mentioned, I was brought up in a strict, conservative Baptist enviornment. Perhaps Baptists are outside the norm of other mainstream Christian sects, but every Sunday and Wednesday were spent learning stories and parables from the Bible. These memories are some of my earliest.

I can remember sitting in my Civics class in high school, talking about the structure of Rome in Biblical times..with most all of my classmates having reasonable knowledge of the topic. Of course I grew up in a very small, conservative, Eastern Oregon town. Most everyone attended some sort of Christian church. I also remember my high school English teacher talking to us about East of Eden..all of us riveted to the analogies of Genesis.

Heh. Maybe I got a better public school education than I thought.


Phew, Campaspe, that is some bad literature there! I've never come across the American Standard Bible. I always thought that was the brand for a toilet.

No one around me really worried about the Bible. I'm an Episcopalian.


Our Host: Really, Luke's birth (villainous flesh & blood father, mother who dies in childbirth) is mythic, but not really a strong version of the hero's birth. Now, ANAKIN'S birth -- born to an unwed woman, in a desert town, found by three travelers from abroad -- is an interesting comparison topic.

Elayne Riggs: Frankly, I think Megillat Esther would work remarkably as a shoujo manga, and have started preliminary work on a version as such (we have character designs!).

Kevin Wolf

Where to start? Maybe by saying School District of Abingdon Twp. v. Shemp was rigged. Ask Moe.

Sorry, but this is all too much. I was raised Catholic, did time in parochial school, don't believe any of it, and wouldn't raise my kids in any religion.

But the Bible (esp. the King James version) is a cornerstone of Western lit. Whether you want it to be or not, it simply is. I honestly think any well read person should know the usual stories and understand the attendant allusions.

The problem surfaces when you dare point out these quaint verses are mythological (or benignly treat them as such) - same as the Greek and Roman myths, Native American stories, and related materials - and the hardcore aren't satisfied with that.

Despite the fact that public ed has to please a lot of people and cover a lot of bases, religious conservatives aren't happy with how "their" material is represented unless it's done their way (i.e. proselytizing). When others don't want to do that, well, then they're "unwilling" to welcome the Bible into classrooms.

mac macgillicuddy

I once had a series of conversations with a minister friend, whom I respected a lot and who I think had a refreshingly straightforward interpretation of the Bible, from beginning to end.

He held that as we now have the Bible in its entirety, it's not correct to read only verses, chapters, or even individual books and draw conclusions. The Bible is the story of humanity's fall from grace, AND our working our way back toward God, getting to know the divine nature all over again.

It isn't until you get all the way through to the Book of Revelations, my friend said, that you can say you've, as Milton said, "justified God's ways to man."

We can imagine that to an essentially pre-literate, early-history collection of slaves and reluctant followers of Moses, there might be the tendency to believe that the nature of the universe, and therefore of its creator, is unpredictable and irrational. They then believe they are chosen by God, and so it's fairly easy to understand that they might interpret every bad thing that happened to be God's vote either FOR what they were doing, or AGAINST what they were doing.

But that's the very primative, unfamiliar interpretation of what's happening by a culture that has NO IDEA what's happening, my friend said, and it's influenced by being so close to the original fall (my friend interpreted Genesis fairly literally, but whatever the moment in creation's evolution that humanity became more earthly and less divine, would be "the fall").

Following the narrative all the way through the Gospels, and hearing Jesus explain to us that so much of what we thought about God and God's law was just plain wrong, we get an evolving image of the divine. Jesus sets us straight about the fact that God is not a petty, vengeful codger of a judge, doling out endorsements or punishments willy nilly, but a parent, who's searching for signs of our wanting to come home, and rooting for that.

As for reading onward to the book of Revelations, don't even get me started on that. It is NOT a prophecy, and it is NOT literal. Heck, it's not even a story.

Anyway, it's interesting that even in a modern, supposedly Christian country, so many people still see the sour grapes of God's "wrath" in so many events that have nothing to do with God -- other than that they are evidences of the laws of physics.

I heard a piece on NPR just after the middle Asian tsunami about how people were "strugglng" to understand why "God would do such a thing," and coming up with the conclusion that it was his punishment --

(hey, here's a wrinkle in that article -- if we believe that heaven is a much better exisitence than ours here on earth, why would death, by any means, be God's punishment; wouldn't it be his reward -- a "get out of jail free" card?)

Just today I read an article about similar "struggling" following the hurricanes.

Ah, well...I think too much, and no one's going to read this anyway.


Here is the solution to all the problems highlighted on this thread:

Cliff Notes for Christians


You're another victim of the Baltimore catechism.



I read it and it's nice to know other people think too much as well.

It seems that in this day and age, people are going back to the fearful intepretations of the Old Testment and are forgetting about the grace that is talked of in the New.

The Pew Potato

Glad to see so many respond. I wrote about the survey in a post called Did Ben Franklin Write Scripture?" Keep up the good work.


A delicious subject!
[I started this last weekend, but attentions went to hell and back, for good reasons. Sorry for the delay.]
My childhood household was divided, in my mind, in three parts - my literal-minded Mom, from a fundie family who knew scripture very thoroughly, and, perhaps osmotically, valued the cadences of the King James Version; my agnostic Dad, who loved the words but probably more the ethical and moral puzzles in the Text (he used to debate them, with my Grandad); and teachers and friends at public school whose perceptions and readings (from a variety of traditions) seeped into my reading of everything else.
Still, it was refreshing to read Daniel and a couple of the Synoptic Gospels absolutely straight my first year in college - maybe not absolutely straight, either (we were reading Nietzsche, Plato and Kierkegaard, too) - but we were being intent and careful about what was on the page. That's going to rankle someone, in the smallest group, and from whatever tradition, and it did.
When I started to read to and to tutor friends' kids, this subject came up in conversation with their parents. How can your kids understand the references in this story or book without knowledge of the religious sources? You don't have to be a believer to recognize how the sacred and profane interpenetrate (or, if you are a believer, how ignoring the legacies of pagan philosophy can put you at a disadvantage). If I were a parent - again, faith-and-tradition neutral, for the sake of argument - I would still want to have scanned the Bible for stories and passages that touched nerves over many centuries - for better and worse, depending on my view of the world. I would also want, perhaps a bit later, to compare translations - King James against, for example, the wonderful Fox translations of the Pentateuch.
One of the most delightful evenings I've ever spent spun out of a question I asked a yeshiva-educated friend about a footnote in Exodus to an opinion of the Sages. He leaned back in luxury and said, "This gives me as much pleasure as you talking about writers!" - and then we went into the exegesis - who was old, who was new in the commentaries, where the problem was, etc.. I don't think anyone who hasn't seen a page of commentary in Hebrew - the subject text in a center block, the commentary, with references to earlier commentaries, surroundng it - can understand the beauty of that conversation, but they should go take a look. It's my principal argument with my fundie forefathers and mothers - any tradition worth its salt is active and encourages inquiry. Nonbelievers, likewise, need to know what they don't believe in order to develop coherent arguments against it, and in that process they may, from my point of view, also absorb the 3rd, 4th, and 5th-hand references that inform things they read everyday. I suspect that a lot of athiests know a lot more Bible than their casual Christian counterparts.

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