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Mark Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things, spoke Tuesday night on bib­lical illit­eracy and edu­cation in America. Julia Mullins | Col­legian

“People interpret the Bible dif­fer­ently,” said Mark Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things mag­azine, during a speech at Hillsdale College. “This is an inescapable fact of our fallen and partial per­spec­tives, of our human interests, and of our varying for­mation which leads us to debate, espe­cially over any pow­erful texts.”  

Stu­dents and faculty gathered on Nov. 6 to hear Bauerlein, a pro­fessor of English at Emory Uni­versity, discuss the issue of bib­lical illit­eracy in America, for a talk hosted by the Dow Jour­nalism Program.

Bauerlein dis­cussed the faults of purely secular edu­ca­tional systems and defended the need for bib­lical lit­eracy in order to have a deeper under­standing of American culture.

Bauerlein said many people do not know the Bible. He cited examples of political figures like Howard Dean and media reporters who were ignorant of bib­lical ref­er­ences.

“It’s embar­rassing. It’s humil­i­ating,” Bauerlein said. “They didn’t have any bib­lical edu­cation; they didn’t have any good, solid American history edu­cation; they haven’t had a good American lit­erary edu­cation.”

Despite this rising bib­lical illit­eracy, Bauerlein said bib­lical under­standing and ref­er­ences can be found every­where throughout American history.

“The most referred to book in the debates leading up to the passage of the Con­sti­tution was not Mon­tesquieu, it wasn’t John Locke, it wasn’t Hobbes; it was Leviticus, where you have the fullest impression of the Ten Com­mand­ments,” Bauerlein said, “Not to have bib­lical lit­eracy is to be ignorant of a lot of American culture and American history.”

Bauerlein attended graduate school at UCLA, where he said he received a very good edu­cation, but he never read or dis­cussed the Bible.

“I was par­tially edu­cated in this world,” Bauerlein said.

It was not until he came back into the Church and joined First Things that Bauerlein said he noticed the presence of bib­lical allu­sions within lit­er­ature.

“Reading bib­lical mate­rials makes your expe­rience of American culture today a richer, deeper one,” Bauerlein said.

Sophomore Mary Car­oline Whims said she read Genesis and studied some rab­binical com­mentary on it during her Great Books I class with Pro­fessor of English Justice Jackson.

“We’re looking at lit­er­ature, and we’re looking at the Bible,” Whims said, “The Bible is part of what makes lit­er­ature beau­tiful and good, and we have to rec­ognize that it is the truest thing in all lit­er­ature.”

Bauerlein is on the board of the Core Knowledge Foun­dation, an orga­ni­zation which develops cur­riculum designed to build reading skills by giving broad back­ground knowledge in history, pol­itics, and lit­er­ature, he said.

“So much of reading is based on your back­ground knowledge of what you’re reading,” Bauerlein said.

In order to give that broad back­ground of knowledge, Bauerlein said the cur­riculum must be reli­gious. However, he said some schools will not adopt the cur­riculum if religion is incor­po­rated.

“Religion is con­tro­versial,” Bauerlein said, “so we have to present core knowledge without religion because of the secular bias against any religion.”

Bauerlein said stu­dents in public schools today are receiving half of an edu­cation. Stu­dents at Hillsdale have an advantage over those stu­dents.

“Kids who receive a reli­gious instruction in America today actually have a wider scope; they have a broader horizon of expe­rience, and they know more about American history,” Bauerlein said. “They are able to read Lincoln’s speeches and rec­ognize some­thing like ‘a house divided.’”

Whims said she is grateful she attends Hillsdale for this reason.

“I am able to have the full picture of every­thing, all the influ­ences that have shaped our culture,” Whims said, “We’re not leaving things out because they’re not polit­i­cally correct, and because of that it’s a richer edu­cation.”

Bauerlein shared several findings from the Bible Lit­eracy Project about bib­lical lit­eracy in public high schools. According to the survey, only 8 percent of teenagers in public schools reported that their schools offered any elective course on the Bible.

Bradley Conrad, a prospective student who attended the lecture, is a junior in high school from Alabama, who is home­schooled and takes online courses from Liberty Uni­versity. He said the Bible is part of his cur­riculum but also noted Liberty is a Christian uni­versity.  

“I was def­i­nitely sur­prised by some of the ref­er­ences he made,” Conrad said, “I’ve heard dif­ferent things about people not believing in the devil and how that’s affecting culture, but I hadn’t heard a ton about the actual illit­eracy of just dif­ferent random pieces in the Bible.”

Whims said she was grateful for the oppor­tunity to meet Bauerlein.

“It’s exciting we can have someone like this on our campus,” Whims said, “This gives Hillsdale stu­dents an oppor­tunity to connect with him, to think about their future, intern­ships, and writing.”

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    The bible is a very old, very cobbled-together, and very rich piece of lit­er­ature.… and nothing else. So in that regard I would agree with the pro­fessor that the lack of Bib­lical ref­er­ences in culture is some­thing lam­en­table. The issue becomes that many groups refuse to teach the bible as a book (it was taught as a book at Hillsdale when I was a freshman… and nothing more) and try to make belief in the mes­sages of the book as mandatory. It doesn’t help that there are prominent sex-scandals involved with the church that stretch the limits of the argu­ments which claim a sup­posed rela­tionship with the divine improves your way of being in the world.

    Not sure what the home­schooler from Liberty Uni­versity part-time has to do with Hillsdale. LIberty is indeed a christian uni­versity and Hillsdale is not. If Hillsdale wants to become a christian uni­versity and hire people like Ian McCaw (was in charge and attempted to cover up the Baylor Rape scandal) and make sure the Bib­lical inerrancy position is prominent in every class, then I would hope the stu­dents, pro­fessors, and alumni would revolt.

    • Timothy Dexter

      I would be curious to hear why you believe Hillsdale not to be Christian. Article Six of its Articles of Asso­ci­ation, which were adopted in 1855, reads as follows:

      “Reli­gious culture in par­ticular shall be con­served by the College, and by the selection of instructors and other prac­ti­cable expe­dients, it shall be a con­spicuous aim to teach by precept and example the essen­tials of the Christian faith and religion.”

      • Jen­nifer Melfi

        Harvard was founded in 1636 as a christian college to educate the clergy. Obvi­ously some things have changed there, just like they did at Hillsdale. The main reason I say this is that on my first day at Hillsdale slightly over a decade ago, Jeff Lantis, Dean of admis­sions, stood in front of a bunch of incoming freshmen and their parents and told everyone that Hillsdale wasn’t a faith-based school. Hillsdale was explicitly not a christian school until 2015 when Dr. Whalen chose to make this a central part of the college again and publish the whole “christian” identity. Look back at when that was pub­lished. It was con­fusing to stu­dents then as it is to alumni now.

        • Timothy Dexter

          Yet, the fact remains that, under Michigan law, Hillsdale is a Christian college.

          • Jen­nifer Melfi

            so by law Harvard is a christian college as well? Great dis­tinction you make there.

          • Timothy Dexter

            According to Hillsdale’s webpage:

            “Under an act of the Leg­is­lature of Michigan approved Feb­ruary 9, 1855, the Trustees on March 22, 1855, adopted the original Articles and the orga­ni­zation was per­fected May 17, 1855, by filing the Articles with the Sec­retary of State.

            The Supreme Court of Michigan having in due time ren­dered a decision that the life of certain cor­po­ra­tions was limited to thirty years, and the Leg­is­lature having passed an act enabling col­leges and other cor­po­ra­tions to rein­cor­porate, the Trustees of Hillsdale College, on June 26, 1891, adopted Articles of Rein­cor­po­ration almost iden­tical with those of 1855 (as mean­while amended), and the rein­cor­po­ration was per­fected by filing them with the Sec­retary of State on July 26, 1892. Those Articles of Rein­cor­po­ration, as amended to January 1, 1920, are given below.

            By action of the Trustees on November 11, 1911, the College was brought under an act of the Leg­is­lature entitled “An Act to provide for the incor­po­ration of col­leges,” being Act No. 231 of Public Acts of 1911.

            On April 13, 1943, the cor­porate exis­tence of Hillsdale College was extended to July 17, 1952, under Act No. 95 of Public Acts of 1943.

            On June 3, 1952, the cor­porate exis­tence of Hillsdale College was extended to July 17, 1982, under Section 62, Act 327, Public Acts, as amended.

            On October 20, 1981, Hillsdale College was granted a per­petual cor­porate term of exis­tence under Section 62, Act 327, Public Acts of 1931, as amended, and Section 815, Act 284, Public Acts of 1972, as amended.”

            So, yes – Hillsdale is a Christian college under Michigan state law.

            As for Harvard, I am not familiar with its standing with Mass­a­chu­setts law.

          • Jen­nifer Melfi

            so what you basi­cally said is that they were accredited at those times under their original charter. I can’t quibble with that fact. It is just irrel­evant, just as it is irrel­evant to say that any other insti­tution that was orig­i­nally incor­po­rated as a “christian” (what does this term mean, other than to say that they, like many ignorant people in the past, believed that the bible should be foun­da­tional to edu­cation — these people didn’t know about germs and infec­tions!) college is still tech­ni­cally, a “christian” school, when it obvi­ously isn’t in the char­acter that it is admin­is­tered under. When I was at Hillsdale we didn’t have prayer, we didn’t have mandatory chapel, it was explicitly a secular, private, liberal-arts college that focused on the greco-roman and judeo-christian lessons from western civ­i­lization. the whole point was that beyond the reli­gions asso­ciated with these civ­i­liza­tions, there were certain truths that were foun­da­tional to them, and that focusing on those things were more important that orthodoxy. Obvi­ously, this lesson went over the heads of many.