“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.”