Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Illiteracy, Both Biblical and Cultural


"Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can't name even five of the Ten Commandments. . . .

"According to 82 percent of Americans, 'God helps those who help themselves,' is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better--by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one's family. . . .

"A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham. We are in big trouble."

HT-Ray Ortlund

I don't necessarily expect everyone to know the Bible inside out, especially in a pluralistic society. But knowing at least a little about Joan of Arc and Ben Franklin doesn't seem to be too much to ask of the average high school graduate. Or does it? Am I a complete nerd, or should this be common knowledge? How about knowing the Judeo-Christian foundation of our legal system? What do you think?

9 comments:

Donna said...

These stats are shocking -- at least to me! The only one that makes sense is the Joan of Arc stat. Don't you think at least 12 percent of graduating students would think that choice (I assume it was multiple choice) was too funny not to vote for?

Jena said...

As a 22 year old who didn't regularly attend church or get baptized until I was 17 I have to admit that I can't answer a lot of those questions. Maybe a plan to read the Bible this year is in order for me too. I'm glad I have friends who led me to church but I don't think anything can replace the experience of being raised in a churchgoing household where knowing all of those things becomes second nature. I hope you can appreciate my perspective on things! :)

Joyce said...

Donna, you're right- sounds like it would be fun to give that answer!

Jena, I know there are tons of people like you, and have met so many of them at church. You have one advantage, in my opinion: you haven't been "vaccinated" against Christianity like so many kids who grow up in church-going families. I like talking to folks who look at things with fresh eyes!

I guess what I was concerned about here was the secular knowlege, like the history of Joan of Arc, or whether people had read "Poor Richard's Almanac". Maybe I'm being an old fuddy-duddy, and schools don't feel they need to emphasize those things any more.

Nan said...

Tom has had to tell his students the golden rule on occasion. They had never heard of it. :<( There is a ton of secular, so-called, 'common' knowledge that is not so common anymore. I think, and this is just my opinion, that there is so, so, so much to know and absorb that it is impossible to know it all. Taking a very secular subject to illustrate - entertainment. When I was a girl, there were three networks and the whole country watched the same programs. All the music anyone knew was on the radio stations which played the same songs. Now, there is a huge choice and variety of both tv and music, and of course, many more people so there really isn't such knowledge in common anymore. Some people focus on politics, others books, others films, others scientific stuff. I think we are more specialized if that makes any sense. I'm not saying either the past or the present is good or bad, just that life is different.

DramaMama said...

As a teacher and now a Mom, I think a lot has to do w/parents not really spending much time w/their kids. I am not trying to throw stones, even as a SAHM mom I'm guilty of this too! (Case in point, the TV is on, the kids are half watching as they play w/noisy toys from relatives. I am on the computer!) Anyway - teachers can only teach so much. It's hard to fight the 'pop cultural knowledge base' that kids already come in w/. They know tons of cartoon characters, singers (my hubby teaches pre-k and is so sick of Hannah Montana!) and commercial jingles. I don't know the solution...I wish we could all work less and be w/our kids more. I also think preschool and pre-k is a bit overrated. As a parent I am loving teaching my boy the names of the 'guys' on paper bills, Spanish words for things around the house and Bible stories. The other day I read a library book - Yellow Submarine, by the Beatles - and after reading it only one time, Mo read it back to me. He insisted that the guys' names were Peter, Paul, John and James!!! I laughed pretty hard...somehow the Yellow Submarine morphed into a fishing boat and Jesus told them all they needed was love!! The more years (!!) he is home w/me, the more control I have over what gets in his head. I think a lot of teachers are starting to use pop culture to demonstrate things these days...math rap, reality show exams, or cartoon novels! Some of that is ok I guess...balance...wow - sorry this got long again. Joyce, you really know how to get it all out of me! We care about the same topics...

ruchi aka arduous said...

I don't know ... I'm not a Christian as you know, and I don't know most of these answers.

I know there's a gospel of Luke and I think a book of Matthew? And a book of Revelations and Genesis. I don't know what the four gospels are though.

For disciples ... Matthew, John, Paul, Judas ... and I'm out.

I don't know anything about "God helps those who help themselves" as a Bible verse, though I've definitely heard it. And I don't know what the Bible says is the most important purpose, though if I were to hazard a guess, my guess would be to serve God ... isn't that the most important purpose of most religions?

The Joan of Arc one is easy, but only 12 percent got that wrong to be fair. And I am aware that Sodom and Gomorrah aren't husband and wife, but I don't know the story. And I know that Billy Graham didn't preach the Sermon on the Mount, but I can't tell you who did ... I have a vague suspicion it was Moses.

BUT, so I don't really know any of these questions, but frankly, as a non-Christian, I do know a lot in general about Christianity. I know the story of Adam and Eve. I know about Mary Magdalene. I know Jesus was a carpenter, and I know about his birth in a manger. I know about his betrayal, and I know that he was crucified and I also know the story of his resurrection. I'm fairly familiar with some passages of Bible text like I Corinthians given that it is read at every wedding ever.

I'm glad I have this knowledge because I think I know it because it's culturally relevant and because it's always good to learn more about religions, but sometimes it makes me sad because I think I might know more about Christianity than I do about the religion I was born into. And while I'm not religious, like I said, I think it's important to learn something about all religions.

And I definitely know more about Christianity than any of my Christian friends know about Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Shintoism. So, I guess, long story short, I don't think it's that bad or surprising that most Americans can't name the four gospels or the commandments ... I think, and I hope I'm not offending you, but most Americans know the story of Jesus' life. And I guess, to me, that seems much more important to understand as a non-Christian than being able to name who preached the Sermon on the Mount. One, for its cultural relevance, and two in terms of understanding Christianity and understanding where its principles come from. Because even though I'm not a Christian, I still think I can learn a lot from what Jesus taught which, as I understand it, was a lot of respect and tolerance. And ultimately, in this world filled with conflict and hate, that's probably the more important message than knowing the four gospels or such. To me, anyway.

Joyce said...

Ruchi, I hear you. We were just watching something the other night about India on PBS, and I probably learned more in that two hours about Hinduism than I had for many years prior to that. I would say I know a fair amount about Islam and and lot about Judaism, but clearly the East-West divide, and my Euro-centric education would make me a cultural illiterate in India or China. I think the Barna survey was surprising more because about half of Americans actively go to church, so it seems like there should be more of them that have that Biblical knowlege. I think he wanted to wake churches up to the fact that they aren't teaching their people very well sometimes. Your comment is really an important one, though, to remind me that there are a LOT of people for whom this information is almost irrelevant.

I also agree with Nan. Kids are learning different things now, and people have so many things to choose from, between the media and our more pluralistic society, that we have to accept that. I guess I wish we were adding to our cultural base, instead of substituting, if you get my meaning- knowing Joan of Arc AND the writings of Gandhi, for instance.

DrammaMamma, I'm with you about parents being the most important teachers. Our kids didn't go to preschool. Some of that was financial, but some of it was because we wanted to work with them ourselves, which we did. We also didn't have a TV when they were small. We did read to them a lot, spent time outside, played and pretended, etc., without the background noise and distraction of media. When they finally went to kindergarten, their teachers commented on their long attention spans, so, even though they hadn't seen Semsame Street, they did well in school. But that could be the subject of another post sometime!

Rose said...

This was a thought-provoking post, Joyce, and the comments here were just as interesting! I must admit I chuckled to think that some people thought Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount:)

I used to be amazed at the lack of knowledge of Biblical references in my students, many of whom went to the same church as I did. I'll readily admit I'm not much of a Bible reader anymore, but all those years of Sunday School lessons have stayed with me.

Years ago there were some schools, especially at the college level who taught an English class, "The Bible as Literature." I would have loved to incorporate a unit like this into our curriculum, but frankly I was too cowardly to do it. I was afraid that both sides--Christians and non-Christians--would view that as some form of indoctrination. And, of course, the teacher would have to tread very carefully in how she approached the subject matter. But it always seemed to me that if we can teach classical mythology to high schoolers so that they can recognize mythological references in literature, the same could be done with the Bible. The Judeo-Christian culture has had such an influence on Western literature as well. A student needs to know the significance of "thirty pieces of silver" if an author uses that reference in his writing.

I'm afraid in today's society, this will never happen. At the same time, it's pretty hard to teach "Paradise Lost" without discussing the Biblical story of creation!

Joyce said...

Rose, I can understand your fear of adding a course in the Bible as Literature to your curriculum. I'm sure some Christians (not me!) would see it as diminishing the value of the Scriptures, and some agnostics and atheists squawk about separation of church and state, etc. It would have been a battle. But it's too bad, because, as you say, it's referenced so much, and has influenced our language and thinking so much, it's just a foundational text in the West. Then again, as I mentioned to Ruchi, why do we totally ignore teaching anything about Hinduism? There are so many people of Indian extraction right here in our community.

Well, as no one can know everything. The quote just got me thinking...