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The Bible As Literature

The Bible as Literature

In the English language more allusions are made to the Bible than any other work of literature. Its number of references even beats out Greek and Roman mythology. Allusions to the Bible permeate our artwork, our music, our literature, our conversation, and even pop culture.  In spite of this ever-presence of the Bible's influence, many students lack a basic familiarity with the Bible, its stories, and its language. This leaves students to puzzle over allusions that they encounter in art and literature. But can you teach stories from the Bible in public schools?

Teaching the Bible as literature in public schools is allowed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Although the Supreme Court ruled that students could not be forced to study the Bible for religious purposes, they are allowed to study the Bible as they would literature in order to understand its influence, language, and artistic legacy. This study must be strictly academic, not devotional. Teaching the Bible "as literature" does not imply that the Bible is not factual. This description merely indicates that selections from the Bible will be studied as any other text would be in an English course.

FIRST AMENDMENT GUIDE TO TEACHING THE BIBLE IN SCHOOLS This handy document presented by the Bible Literacy Project gives a great overview of Supreme Court rulings that state the Bible can be studied in public school classrooms for academic purposes.

In a 2007 Time magazine article some of the nation's top colleges agreed that students must have a working background knowledge of the Bible to understand literature at the college level. Click here to view the TIME magazine article which analyzes the benefits of teaching the Bible in schools. (The full article is available to subscribers only!)

I do not teach a separate Bible As Literature course, but I do incorporate several stories from the Bible in my World Literature, British Literature, and American Literature courses. For example, I teach a list of biblical allusions that appear in the English language that I feel all students should understand. We read the story of Moses and the Hebrew's exodus from Egypt. Also, before reading Of Mice and Men I read the stories of "Adam and Eve" and "Cain and Abel," so my students will understand the biblical allusions Steinbeck has embedded within his novel. In my opinion this biblical background knowledge is vital for students.

I understand that teaching the Bible As Literature is a double-edged sword. (There's a Bible reference, by the way.) The non-religious may say that the school is imposing religion on students while the religious may feel offended that the Bible is taught "as literature." But if it is taught in a careful and academic manner, the teacher can help impart valuable background knowledge that every student needs.

BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS (PDF)  This list of common allusions is a good way to inform students just how many common phrases are references to the Bible.

THE ANCIENT HEBREWS This worksheet introduces the ancient Hebrews and discusses their impact on Western Civilization. It also takes time to discuss the concept of studying the Bible (in this case the Old Testament) as literature.

The Bible As LiteratureIN THE BEGINNING (SALE ITEM) This collection of three Reader's Theater script-stories presents three famous stories from the Book of Genesis:  The Creation, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. Each play comes with a 2-page teacher guide, which provides techniques for teaching these stories as literature.

THE CREATION STORY FROM GENESIS (PDF) This excerpt from the King James Version of the Bible tells of God's creation of the heaven and the earth. The King James Version, more than any other English translation of the Bible, has had the most direct influence on the English language.

CREATION ART ANALYSIS (PDF) This is a collection of artwork inspired by the creation story of Genesis and the subsequent story of Adam and Eve. After reading these stories in class, I ask the students to analyze how artists have interpreted the stories. (I have edited some of the "naughty bits" out of the paintings.)

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT  This sermon delivered by Jesus Christ has inspired leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. As recorded in the book of Matthew, his words are some of the most famous ever written. This worksheet presents excerpts from the famous sermon for students to analyze for theme and imagery.

I stress to my students that many non-religious works reference the Bible, too. This popular song by Coldplay makes several Biblical allusions.
 This popular song by the Byrds is a reworking of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14.
This popular song by U2 alludes to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.  (Lyrics sheet includes the scripture and the song lyrics.)
This worksheet presents a section of Exodus from the King James Version of the Bible and asks students to interpret and respond to the text.
Teaching John Milton's Paradise LostJOHN MILTON'S PARADISE LOST   An adaptation of stories from the Book of Genesis, John Milton's great epic Paradise Lost grapples with weighty questions: Why is there evil in the world? What is the role of good and evil? Why do humans have free will? This 9-page Reader's Theater script-story adapts the first part of Milton's epic, giving students an overview of the poem's main characters and themes, as well as a taste for Milton's poetic language. Satan, decisively defeated by God, decides to build a capital in hell called Pandemonium and make it his personal mission to corrupt God's perfect creation. The poem addresses concepts of good and evil, free will, and the power of divine grace. This download also includes a reading guide, key, and anticipatory activity.
The Pilgrim's Progress Reader's Theater Script-Story Adaptation
THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS  Second only to the Bible in all-time readership, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress is a classic allegory and a staple of British Literature. Plagued by visions of destruction, Christian (the titular pilgrim) must travel the true path in search of the narrow gate, through which he may lose the burden upon his back. This adaptation covers the first portion of Christian's journey from the City of Destruction, through the Slough of Despond, past Worldly Wiseman, and finally to the Wicket Gate, where he finds salvation. A second handout gives a 4-page excerpt of Christian's battle with the monster-like fiend Apollyon. Click here to find out more about this product.