The Good Book, or Just a Good Book? Some Educators Say to Understand Literature, High School Students Should Know Scripture

By Malone, Tara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 15, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Good Book, or Just a Good Book? Some Educators Say to Understand Literature, High School Students Should Know Scripture


Malone, Tara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Tara Malone Daily Herald Staff Writer

*****

CORRECTION/date 06-20-2006: To correct a statement in a story in Thursday editions of the Daily Herald, nine books were targeted for removal from required reading lists in Northwest Suburban High School District 214.

*****

"The Grapes of Wrath" offered his first clue.

A second came with another John Steinbeck classic, "East of Eden."

By the time Alex Cyhaniuk got around to reading "Fahrenheit 451," the South Elgin High School sophomore knew to scout for references to the ancient text that permeates many of its pages - the Bible.

For him, it was not a quest for religion but for literary meaning.

"In order to fully appreciate literature, you need to have some knowledge of the Bible," said 16-year-old Cyhaniuk, whose summer reading list includes Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.

"You can't appreciate literature as you would if you didn't," Cyhaniuk said.

Woven through allusion, allegory and metaphor, scriptural references to the flood, the exodus or the storied tale of two brothers, one good and one evil, pervade Western literature from Steinbeck to Emily Dickinson and Toni Morrison.

Understanding such literary staples requires at least a passing knowledge of the Bible, whether a student worships God, another deity or none at all, according to a survey of university literature professors released earlier this month.

High school English classes sit at the forefront of the literary translation, where they've been for years.

"The Bible is all over the place in public schools," said Charles Venegoni, who heads the English department at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. "The treatment is way greater than people think it is. It's also more scholarly and more neutral than people think."

Yet the advent of academic textbooks plugging the Bible's literary significance coupled with legislative efforts in some states to sanction Bible courses in public schools fuels new debate about teaching old scripture.

This offers an ironic twist on calls by some conservatives to ban books they view as vulgar and profane from high school classes, such as recently occurred in the Northwest suburbs.

"'The DaVinci Code' showed up on my stepson's summer reading list last summer, and I don't see why the Bible cannot be given equal time," said Mal Kline, executive director of Accuracy in Academia, a conservative education watchdog.

Many contend the spiritual weight of the psalms, epistles and gospels should not be glossed over to focus just on the historic or literary gravitas, an area of study permitted by the Supreme Court.

Others of a different ideological bent dismiss studying the Bible's literary significance as an attempt to shoehorn scripture into publicly funded schools.

From the morning bell to dismissal, many educators and students see the Bible as central to lessons in Western literature and thought.

"The alternative is cultural illiteracy," said Rob Boston, a spokesman with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Still, teaching about the Bible's role in books or history can be dicey, experts caution. Some school districts fold the issue into the English curriculum, some don't touch it at all and others leave the matter in teachers' hands.

"It's a tricky thing to do. You cannot avoid talking about God when you talk about the Bible because he's the central character," said Barbara Newman, a Northwestern University professor of English, religion and the classics. "Talking about God will inevitably lead to talking about religion and values."

Between the lines

From William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway and even Dan Brown, authors divided by decades, genre and tone are bound by narrative threads of scripture. …

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