There was a time when the Bible and Shakespeare were recognized as twin pillars of not just English literature but Western civilization. Wherever the English-speaking peoples went, these books would go, for they were compact storehouses of wisdom, strength and beauty.
Even the humblest cabin along the American frontier might have a family Bible and maybe a copy of Shakespeare's plays. Those books would introduce a young Abe Lincoln to life and thought, and it showed. One day it would show in the language he would mobilize on behalf of nothing less than the American Union itself.
Mr. Lincoln and his country would both face many a trial in his time, as freedom does in all times, but he would go forth to meet those tests in the whole armor of the Word. Beware the man of one book, it has been well said. Especially if it is The Book.
Now we seem to live in a biblically illiterate era, and it shows. Not just in the quality of the prose that crosses an editor's desk every day, or in the junkspeech that politicians and educantists mouth as a matter of course, but in the paucity of thought behind their tinny catch words.
Today the English language is said to be much improved. We're assured that it has been streamlined, made so much more functional, reduced to the essentials, or maybe to just numbers. Not just our computers but our thought becomes binary, shorn of connotation and resonance, starved of greatness.
Greatness? What's that -- one more outdated romantic notion? Instead, we want to know the Bottom Line. We want a PowerPoint presentation, not literature. And so the rolling cadences of the King James Version and the comprehensive worldliness of Master Shakespeare must be digitalized and locked away in Kindle's electronic hieroglyphs, unsought and untroubling. We can relax, for our consciences are safely stored. And a brave new generation twitters in a language large enough only to fit the tiny screens of its apps.
Such is what passes for thought among the young and all-too-restless of any age. Now it's a Facebook world, always in communication but with not much to communicate. Its tweets may be able to inspire revolutions, but not what comes afterward. In an internetted world, speed is of the essence, not depth. And that, too, shows.
Even now the West is engaged in a great conflict the extent of which we scarcely recognize. We find ourselves led by a commander-in-chief -- the title used to be Leader of the Free World -- who at best sounds an uncertain trumpet. (1 Corinthians 14:8) Even the most astute observers cannot be sure what aims he is pursuing, if any. His words waver, his policies are more like moods. But what else could they be? For, unformed and uninformed by literature, language languishes. And language is the very currency of thought. When it is devalued, thought itself is diminished.
Today the biblical allusions that were once every American's rightful inheritance may elicit only puzzled looks, or, worse, pass completely unnoticed in the detritus of our deconstructed, disconnected dialogue. One school of linguists assures us that language is just a mask for privilege and status, anyway, rather than something of intrinsic and inexhaustible value. The Bible may now be reserved for ceremonial occasions only.
Even in church schools where the Bible may be drilled into students, it may be reduced to only a series of Do's and Don'ts, a set of rigid rules rather than a never failing garden of inspiration and instruction, song and story. But as many a court has ruled, there is no constitutional bar to teaching the Bible as literature -- with all literature's scope and power. What a pity to deny it to students; it leaves our young unarmed in mind, in spirit, in soul.
At this year's session of the Arkansas legislature, a bill was introduced that would lay the groundwork for a course in the Bible in the state's public schools, where it should have been taught all along as an integral part of our literature, history and thought. Instead, it has been banned as effectively as Darwin's "Origin of Species." Both have been marked Controversial (as if all great ideas aren't) and so may be relegated to the closed stacks. Much like books listed on the Index in medieval times. They are not to be discussed lest they corrupt the young. Wasn't that the charge against Socrates, too?
The passage of such legislation is to be applauded, not feared. Other, states, sensing the vacuum in their students' education, have introduced courses in the Bible, carefully drafted to avoid mere indoctrination. And such courses have withstood the inevitable challenges in court. For there is nothing in our litigious society, no matter how needed or elevated, that will not be challenged in court -- or at least by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The object of this bill is to let school districts in Arkansas teach the Bible unafraid, and, in the language of HB 1032, without "religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation." The courses would be designed not to "disparage or encourage commitment to a set of religious beliefs," but to acquaint students with the very basis of so much of Western civilization itself.
Who could object to the study of the Bible for its own sake in order to fill so obvious a gap in the education of the next generation?
Answer: The ACLU, of course, along with all those who confuse the Constitution's neutrality toward religion with a mandate for ignorance.
The executive director of this state's chapter of the ACLU acknowledged that the bill was drawn: "On its face, it's not unconstitutional. If they followed it word for word, line by line ... and taught the Bible academically, it would be fine. But...." And with the ACLU there is always a but. "But," the ACLU's director went on, "in a pubic-school setting, I think it would be very difficult to teach it properly, and very tempting to teach it with religion."
Yes, careless and/or opinionated teachers we will always have with us, along with the best kind. But if a history teacher gives his students ideology instead, or an algebra teacher gets an equation wrong, we don't cease teaching history or math. Any more than we should deny our children the Bible with its majesty, wisdom, poetry, humor (have you read the Book of Jonah lately?) or just verbal delights. Any more than we should ban any mention of Evolution in biology classes.
Let the Bible ring out in our schools, inseparable from Western civilization. Let its words, as it says on the Liberty Bell, "proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." (Leviticus 25:10.)