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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Why and What Professors of English Say Students Need to Know about the Bible: A Research Report Summary

Marie Goughnour Wachlin

"The Bible is the cultural heritage of the nation we live in, and also the heritage of the creation of literature in English," asserted Stanford's English Department Chair, Robert Polhemus, in a study to determine what Bible knowledge students need. The study focused on Bible literacy for participating fully and equally in Western cultural discourse—not a Bible scholar's knowledge, but a layman's literacy.

Reference books such as The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy[1] and The Facts on File Dictionary of Classical and Biblical Allusions[2] catalogue the hundreds of Bible phrases, characters, place names, and symbols that are the common currency of Western culture.

To compensate for "We no longer live in the age when literate persons had a daily intimacy with the Bible,"[3] some jurisdictions have recently considered or implemented Bible courses: Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.[4] Other schools have long offered Bible literature courses.[5]

The absence of scholarship regarding current specific Bible literacy requirements made a strong contextual case for researching contemporary academic thought. The goal, therefore, of this study was to learn what today's English professors, representing America's most academically-prestigious halls of higher education, say incoming students need to know about the Bible. What advantages do biblically literate students have when approaching literature? What problems have scholars observed in their students who lack basic Bible knowledge?

Using US News and World Report's ratings as a guide, the top-rated schools in four categories were contacted: (1) National Universities, (2) Top Public Universities, (3) Liberal Arts Colleges, and (4) Comprehensive Colleges.[6] Thirty-nine English professors participated, double the usual maximum number.[7]

Personal interview was the method of choice.[8] Nine open-ended questions were prepared in consultation with scholarly advisor Byron Johnson, Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, Princeton, and Director of the Center for Religious Inquiry across the Disciplines, Baylor. The professors' answers were transcribed verbatim. Transcriptions were reread several times, noting key words and common topics.

English professors at major American colleges and universities saw Bible knowledge as a deeply important part of a good education. Professors' statements included here were edited for fluency.

Interview Question One
When asked about the value of classical literacy, the professors answered that knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology was an academic advantage. Corban's Martin Trammell explained: Knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology advantages a student by providing an understanding of the context the allusions create in a piece.

Interview Question Two
English professors overwhelmingly agreed that knowledge of the Bible was an academic advantage. Responses were "indispensable," "terribly important," "absolutely crucial," "reasonable acquaintance is an advantage," "enormous advantage."

Gerald Bruns, Notre Dame, said: You can't really study Western literature intelligently or coherently without starting with the Bible. . . . You're simply ignorant of yourself.

Twelve professors noted that footnotes were not the answer for Bible illiteracy. For example, Kevin Dunn, Tufts, said: If they don't know Bible literature, they're spending more time in the footnotes than they should be, spending their energies just decoding.

Interview Question Three
When asked, "What do you think about the following statement? Regardless of a person's faith, an educated person needs to know about the Bible," no professor disagreed. The professors saw Bible knowledge as an academic necessity.

Wheaton's Leland Ryken said: I would rephrase the statement to read that every educated person deserves to know the Bible. The Bible is a birthright of every educated person, just waiting to be claimed. Not to know the Bible is to be unfairly disinherited.

John Netland, Calvin, noted: On a global scale also it's important—just as it's important for Westerners to know the sacred books of other traditions. . . . The works of Japanese writer Shusaku Endo are quite interesting, reminding me of how much Bible vocabulary and the Christian-West thinking have shaped even those who kick the hardest against orthodox faith.

One apparent paradox was that although professors agreed an educated person needs to know about the Bible, at least two professors felt Bible study should not be required. Harvard's Robert Kiely explained:

I only agreed to teach [the Bible course] on the understanding that it would not be required because I think it's important for students—whether they're religious or not religious—not to feel that it's an obligation. . . . Last year 400 students elected to take it. And most of them were junior or senior students who were tired of not knowing what people were talking about or what literature or history was all about that in some way is connected with biblical sources.

Interview Question Four
Every professor, except one, agreed that Western literature is steeped with biblical references. Stanford's Polhemus wryly said: Suppose you were teaching a course in Hemingway and you got a novel called The Sun Also Rises, it would be nice to know that he's talking in Ecclesiastes and . . . such instances could be multiplied infinitely.

The professors indicated that contemporary authors also use Bible references. As Tufts' Dunn noted: I know of no period where it's not just everywhere and always, within the most contemporary kinds of things.

Interview Question Five
According to the interviews and school web sites, the professors taught a wide range of courses—autobiography, novels, plays, poetry—from Old English to contemporary literature with authors from Arnold to Updike. The professors indicated that familiarity with the Bible was important for the courses they taught. Virginia's Gordon Braden explained:

I teach mostly Renaissance literature, and if they don't understand how the Second Shepherd's Play is a representation of the birth of Christ, then I have to stop and tell them the Christmas story, and also explain typology—the idea that sacred history is something continually repeated in everyday life, which is the way the Second Shepherd's Play is structured. . . . If students are not used to the tradition of reading biblical paradigms in everyday life, then the whole shape of the play just looks like nonsense to them.

When asked what they wished their students knew about the Bible, professors agreed: "More!" Michigan's Ralph Williams, said, They need to know it all!

Northwestern's Barbara Newman said: The most important thing for them to know is simply, What is between those two covers? What are the stories of the Bible? Who are the characters? What are the teachings? . . . I'm not trying to undermine anyone's faith or teach them the Bible is not inspired, but I do want them to learn to read the Bible in a historical context.

The two most-prioritized books by the professors who chose to name books were the same as high school English teachers': Genesis and Matthew.[10]

Interview Question Six
The professors articulated more than 18 things that are easier with Bible knowledge:

1. Doing everything or almost everything with texts.

2. Studying all subsequent literature and culture.

3. Being richer, more sophisticated readers.

4. Recognizing literary allusions, references, typology and echoes.

5. Understanding how characterization in novels and thematic levels in poetry are linked to Biblical allusions.

6. Grasping things directly without having to make the three-way connection through footnotes, through explanatory things.

7. Understanding and recognizing the idea of the Christ figure.

8. Reading specific authors.

9. Hearing Toni Morrison's "voice."

10. Finding their way around a text.

11. Possessing a solid advantage in understanding Victorian art and literature.

12. Not needing translation when learning Old English.

13. Understanding the parable genre.

14. Doing literary analysis.

15. Understanding questions of canonicity and non-Biblical literature.

16. Appreciating the tone of the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries.

17. Making personal connections.

18. Discussing "meaning" and "values" with understanding and insight.

Interview Question Seven
The professors listed a plethora of things that are more difficult when students don't know about the Bible. MIT's Ina Lipkowitz articulated: Take something as basic as Hamlet. Why is the poison poured in the King's ear in the garden? Shakespeare's drawn upon a tradition of gardens are going to be places of temptation, betrayal, poisoning. Students who don't make that connection are missing some of the richness of what Shakespeare is doing. It's like seeing Monet in black and white.

Interview Question Eight
Regarding trends in students' Bible knowledge, George Landow, 35 years at Brown, lamented: The bottom line is . . . far fewer students know the Bible . . . Our students find themselves cut off from the culture 2,000 years—and don't know it.

Because of their students' Bible illiteracy, twelve professors reported supplementing literature teaching by introducing Bible information. For at least two schools, the trend of less Bible knowledge affected course offerings. Yale's Leslie Brisman, 35 teaching years, explained:

We have a larger population that is not Western, or that is totally secular, so there are students who are missing this piece of fundamental, crucial background. How has this changed how I teach? Well, it's changed what I teach. The Bible course is the only course I have taught without interruption year after year. Even the years I am on leave, I teach the Bible class because I think it's crucial there be such a class.

Interview Question Nine
The professors were asked if they had additional comments, "especially if the eight interview questions did not represent your overall perspective of the Bible and education." The two most common answers reiterated earlier statements: (a) Bible literacy is important; and (b) Bible literacy is missing. New York University's Ernest Gilman, among the twelve professors who re-emphasized the value of Bible literacy, said:

You could argue that basically everything written in English is in some way a footnote to the Bible. You can't read Melville without reading the Bible. You can't read Faulkner without reading the Bible, Absalom, Absalom!, if you don't know who Absalom is, you can't look at Renaissance art. You're deficient. You just do not have the equipment for understanding Western culture unless you've read the Bible.

But read the Bible critically, historically, asking questions like not just what does it mean here, but what does it mean when and to whom and how do we know what it means, and what differences in meaning has it had over the years, and what's at stake in deciding between one meaning or another.

Princeton's Ulrich Knoefplmacher said: Any culture that loses a sense of the foundations of its past is in a sense doomed because, yes, it can be well and it can go in new directions, but you have to know on what those foundations sit.

Ten professors noted the lack of Bible literacy and lack of Bible teaching. As Harvard's Kiely said: I certainly do understand that a good education needs to include other than the Judeo-Christian or Western perspective. However, some schools and universities and colleges have gone so far away from that, that what students end up knowing is marginal and trivial and disconnected.

The professors' answers showed virtual unanimity—whether doing cluster analysis or cohort analysis.[9] No statistical difference existed among state and private schools, sectarian and secular schools, large universities and small colleges, among professors who were department chairs and those who were not, between males and females, between those who had taught 5 or 45 years (this study's range). Answers were on one end of a continuum, rather than at opposite poles.

In recording answers and grouping common comments on a grid, the following six themes emerged:

1. Challenges with faith-based students. The professors related challenges they experienced with students of faith. And among professors who felt challenged, the greatest concern was rigid, closed minds, all of which limited understanding and literary analysis (15 professors). David Kastan, Columbia, articulated: They're too many of them whose religions close their minds instead of opening them. . . . I find that rigid fundamentalism of any sort—whether Islamic, Judaic or Christian—from an intellectual point of view seems so limiting, and I assume limiting spiritually.

2. Political incorrectness. Professors alluded to political incorrectness issues. For example, Princeton's Thomas Roche: It is unfashionable to be Christian now—Christian intellectual.

3. Discomfort with religious alignment. On the other hand, although not always directly stated, associating with a perceived religious-right organization was something some professors chose not to do. Six professors indicated they would distance themselves from an evangelical, fundamentalist, right-wing study.

4. Core curriculum valued. A fourth theme was the value of a core curriculum. Maryland's Adele Berlin said: I would like us to have some body of common knowledge to build on. That's what's lacking now. I would like the Bible to be part of people's general literacy. I think with the breakdown of the canon in general, this certainly has disappeared.

5. Concern for the next generation of instruction. Some professors commented on professional biblical illiteracy. Brown's Landow said: I find this ignorance of biblical and classical texts also characterizes grad students, who will be the next generation's teachers.

6. Pleasure in Bible literature study. Professors reported that Bible literature courses were characterized by academic satisfaction and cerebral pleasure. For example, Berkeley's Steve Goldsmith said:

I'm always impressed by how excited students are, in part because when you take a literary approach to the Bible and read the text closely, the text itself is so fascinating and strange that students are amazed when they encounter it. . . .They come to it with a whole set of preconceptions; they have ideas either from religious training, or because they've avoided religious training. But when they actually sit down to read the Bible, they're fascinated. I know that's a class where I can get students hooked in the first week.

From the professors' statements about the Bible and education, one can conclude: English professors, as represented by this austere sample, see Bible knowledge as a deeply important part of a good education. The Bible is not only a sacred scripture to millions of Americans, it is also arguably the "most influential text in all of Western culture" (Newman, Northwestern).

Students lacking Bible literacy are under prepared for college-level literature study, perhaps contributing to dismal national reports.[11] At the same time, a number of professors expressed discomfort or reservations with appearing to "take sides" in favor of the Bible in the contemporary context. In this, they recapitulate a central dilemma. The Bible is the only enormously influential book that some voices are tempted to censor or ignore because teaching about it has become embroiled in other highly charged cultural disputes ("the sad part, now embroiled in controversies," Warren Ginsberg, Oregon). But the next generation's education should not become hostage to adult agendas of left or right.

If all young people are to have full access to their shared heritage, obstacles must be overcome. The alternative, born out of fear of religion or religious culture wars, is to advocate for ignorance and illiteracy.

Although English professors at America's most prestigious schools agree that Bible knowledge confers a distinct advantage in post-secondary study, follow-up questions remain:

1. How do students who have had a vigorous secondary-school Bible literacy course compare with those who have not?

2. What are the best teaching practices for Bible literacy instruction?

3. What roadblocks inhibit Bible literacy study in the nation's schools?

This report concludes with a comment and question posed by David Kastan, Columbia:

The State has allowed the Bible to become either a kind of lost resource or to belong exclusively to some sectarian interest. Whether one believes as a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or doesn't believe at all, the fact is: This is one of the great literary works that we have. It has been for thousands, thousands of years a way in which people have engaged their becoming humanity.

How could that not matter?

Marie Goughnour Wachlin, Concordia University College of Education

[1] Eric Donald Hirsch Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil, A New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd ed.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

[2] Martin H. Manser, and David H. Pickering, eds., The Facts on File Dictionary of Classical and Biblical Allusions (New York, N.Y.: Checkmark Books, 2003).

[3] Robert Alter, and Frank Kermode, eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 6.

[4] Associated Press, "New Text on Bible's Influence Renews Religion, Public School Debate," May 14, 2006. Cited October 18, 2007. Online:; Michael Linn, "Public Schools Looking at Bible Literacy Class," USA Today (24 January 2006). Cited December 12, 2006. Online:; Joe Murray, "Alabama Is First State To Adopt Bible Textbook," The Bulletin (17 October 2007). Cited October 18, 2007]. Online:; Jenni Parker and Jim Brown, "Virginia and Wisconsin Consider Bible Studies," American School Board Journal (August 1998):10-12; idem, "Many Agree: Bible Is Not Just a Good Book—It's a Good Education." Montana News Association (April 29, 2005). Cited October 18, 2007. Online:

[5] Jane Lampman "A Bible Course without the Lawsuits?," Christian Science Monitor 29 (September 2005): 12; Marie Goughnour Wachlin, "The Place of Bible Literature in Public High School English Classes," Research in the Teaching of English 31 (February 1997): 7-49.

[6] “Best National Universities,” US News and World Report 137 (August 30, 2004): 94-96.

[7] Lorrie R. Gay, and Peter W. Airasian, Educational Research: Competencies for Analysis and Applications (7th ed.; Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2003), 95.

[8] Delbert Charles Miller and Neil J. Salkind. Handbook of Research Design and Measurement (6th ed.; Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2002), 310. Cited October 18, 2007. Online:

[9] Miller and Salkind, Handbook of Research Design, 410.

[10] Marie Wachlin, “What Do High School Teachers Think Students Need To Know about the Bible?” in Bible Literacy Report: What Do American Teens Need To Know and What Do They Know? (New York: Bible Literacy Project, 2005), 5-21, 26-27.

[11] Karen W. Arenson, "Study of College Readiness Finds No Progress in Decade," New York Times (October 14, 2004): A26; Anne McGrath, "A New Read on Teen Literacy," US News and World Report 138 (28 February 2005): 68.


Citation: Marie Goughnour Wachlin, " Why and What Professors of English Say Students Need to Know about the Bible: A Research Report Summary," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2008]. Online:


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