You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.The assignment came from my Aunt Myrtle.
Each week she expected me, and two or three others in my Sunday School class, to begin the session by reciting a Bible verse from memory. Each week, we all did the same thing. Having forgotten to do our homework, we’d fall back on our knowledge of the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” John 11:35.
If she was disappointed in us, she never let on. Instead, she’d just continue with the class, and soon we’d be studying stories like Moses parting the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus, or Cain slaughtering his brother Abel. “Studying” is probably the wrong word, though, because I don’t actually remember any “lessons.” I just remember the stories themselves.
This is where I first heard about David and Goliath, about Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac and about Jacob wrestling with the angel, about Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the whale, King Saul’s madness, Jesus turning water into wine, the beheading of John the Baptist, St. Paul blinded on the road to Damascus, and a whole host of stories that have since enriched my life beyond measure.
At the risk of sounding like an old crank, my sense is that children today have almost no knowledge of such stories. The vast majority of students I teach are really smart people, but they are also Biblical illiterates.
Not that long ago, I could assume that kids would enter my class knowing a certain stock of stories. But no longer. I recently assigned a poem that referred to Adam’s banishment from Eden. One student wanted to know who Adam was. I alluded in a recent essay to our having sold our souls “for a mess of pottage.” No one knew the source of the phrase (it’s from the story of Jacob conniving to steal Esau’s birthright). One of my best students decided to read Moby Dick on her own but found it almost indecipherable because she didn’t understand any of the Biblical allusions. I’ve quit teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost because it takes too much time to teach the stories upon which that great poem is founded.
As for references to the sufferings of Job, cherubim, and seraphim, towers of Babel, bulrushes, widow’s mites, or jawbones of asses, I might as well be speaking a different language. More and more, I find myself teaching the absolute basics to high school students who should have learned such stuff in childhood.
Actually, I’m lucky to work at a school which requires students to take a religion course that stresses stories from both Old and New Testaments, as well as stories from the world’s other great religious traditions. The course gives a good grounding in religious literature; however, students learn this material much as they learn facts about European history or formulas in chemistry class. The stories aren’t ingrained, aren’t bred in the bone. They’re learned by head, not heart. The goal is to pass a test, not to live well.
The truth is: even good schools can only compensate so much for the failings of parents.
And make no mistake. Parents have failed. We have raised a generation of people who can quote every stupid line from every stupid Will Ferrell movie ever made, but who don’t know a word of Psalm 23 and who think Moses is a character from a Disney film. It’s a generation utterly starved for the power that sacred stories can provide — not only religious stories, but mythology, folklore, legend, fable, and fairy tale, as well.
Without access to such literature, children are deprived of a kind of spiritual and psychological richness that they simply can’t obtain elsewhere.
A quick survey of my students showed that everyone in the class had seen Anchor Man, Happy Gilmore, several episodes of Family Guy, and, at least one Ben Stiller movie. Only a handful had read or heard any Greek mythology. None knew any Norse myths. A few had cursory acquaintance with Aesop’s fables and the Brother’s Grimm. As for a working knowledge of Bible stories, the cupboard was pretty bare.
It’s a sad fact: we have substituted images — idols really — in the form of silly television shows and crude motion pictures — for the ancient oral tradition of handing down our most important stories from one generation to the next.
And Jesus wept.
- John Amos
from his column "Every Now and Then"
©2008 by John Amos
reprinted by permission
"Every Now And Then: Occasional Essays"