The decline in religious literacy has some surprising consequences, not just spiritually, but culturally.
For years, religious scholars have lamented a decline in Bible literacy in society. One study showed that one in four Christians hadn’t read their Bibles in a year. And one in five church-going people have said they never read their Bibles.
Of course, for clergy and biblical scholars, the concern is connected to the idea that biblical illiteracy could lead to a moral or spiritual decline. But there’s another loss—a loss that affects the general population, whether you read the bible or not, whether you profess to be Christian or not. As David Neff, former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, says, “Biblical illiteracy is a form of cultural illiteracy.”
Indeed. The bible has been so intertwined with history and art, it seems inevitable that one form of illiteracy could lead to the other. “Of course, this hampers high-school and college students who need to study literature and art,” Neff says. “Without biblical context, they’ll have a hard time discerning even the meaning of many books’ titles, much less their contents. As recently as last year, we were given Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (title from Isaiah 21). And recommended reading lists include titles like Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father (Exodus), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (Ecclesiastes), and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Job).”
But understanding titles is just the beginning. Neff suggests that much is lost when reading the story if you can’t grasp that certain themes, references, and conflicts originate from religious scripture.
Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, writes in the New York Times, “A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity.” Robinson goes on to describe questions of good and evil, of mercy, of justice, of confusion.
In referencing the writings of Faulkner, Dante, Milton, Dostoevsky, and Melville, Robinson writes, “Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms.”
Without at least a basic knowledge of the religion these two, there’s an inability to grapple with the deep questions of Scripture raised by these texts.
“We have moved into an area of even more significant loss that will have far greater effect than the inability to recognize biblical texts and allusions,” Prior says. “This is the inability to distinguish between the act of reading literal words and the act of interpreting those words, or application. For example, I recently encountered some Christians who insist on using what they call ‘biblical language’ on topics the Bible never directly addresses. Now biblical application can surely be made to every area of life, but when we fail to distinguish between what the Bible says and what we are doing as interpretive, meaning-making creatures, then we diminish an essential aspect of God’s image in us.”
And of course, when dancers dance, painters paint, sculptors sculpt, writers write, actors act, and singers sing they reflect the image of a creative God whether they acknowledge it or not. But more often than not, they all tap in to questions that the Scriptures both raise and spark.
“In its emphatic insistence that the burden of meaning is shared in every life,” Robinson writes. “The Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively. But as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our civilization.”
So it seems, as people interested not only in faith but in the arts, in culture, the rich beautiful, complicated and comforting words of Scripture need to be read, studied, enjoyed, memorized, pondered. As they have been with the great artists. When we don’t—when we fail to read the words of the poets in the Psalms and in the prophets, in the great stories of Genesis and Exodus, and in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels—we not only miss God, but we miss so much meaning and depth of what his people create.
Though the list of works of art with Scriptural references could go on for days, following are some favorite examples from recent and older works.
Of the massively-popular Broadway show, Hamilton, Alissa Wilkinson writes: “This display of biblical literacy is good for the show: it enriches both its sense of history—the Founders, whatever their individual beliefs, were conversant in the Bible—and in several cases builds out the story’s themes and characters in ways that make them even more complex and fascinating.” In an article for Christianity Today, Wilkinson references 18 specific Christian or biblical references.
Karen Swallow Prior says of all the biblical allusions in literature, that of Langston Hughes’ speech- and play-inspiring “Harlem” is “probably” her favorite. It “has the line ‘a dream deferred’ [see Proverbs 13:12] and expands on that whole idea so powerfully.”
The return of the prodigal son
Though the Parable of the Prodigal Son is among the most well known of Jesus’ teachings, to appreciate Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son, fully (the different hands! the eyes! the brother in the background) demands intimacy with the parable and the painting.
David Neff cited the number of title meanings we miss without biblical knowledge and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is no exception. Without an understanding of King David’s anguish over his rebellious (and murdered) son, we miss so much of this masterpiece.
Without a knowledge of Jesus and the Bible, how easily we miss—and misunderstand—the “Christ figures” rampant in literature and cinema. Read through the gospels and then watch, say, The Lion King or ET or reread The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Flies, and the more obvious The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
God is everywhere in art. Without knowing the Scriptures we stand to miss out on a deeper understanding of not just our faith, but our culture.
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