Excited young brown faces press up against the iron bars of the literacy centre’s windows, jostling to get a closer look at the cluster of Australians. One thousand Indian children in bright green and fuchsia clothes, sequins and ankle bells, had waited for hours, sweltering in the afternoon humidity, their stomachs full with boiled rice, after travelling from all corners of the south-eastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh. They were from poor to well-off families, Hindu and Muslim, hungry to learn, clutching sweaty permission slips. Security guards made sure no one was allowed inside too early, even padlocking the doors to stop a riot.
Inside, the Australians were calm. They’d seen it before. It would mirror their other stopovers across India and China. The kids desperately wanted what was behind the Australians in stacked cardboard boxes. They even had their parents’ signed permission to prove that they weren’t being coerced.
For a Western passer-by, it would have been reminiscent of the Harry Potter phenomenon by J.K. Rowling, who, with a wave of her wand, made young readers materialise out of thin air. Their guess would have been close to the mark. For inside those cardboard boxes waited a thousand copies of a single book. An old book. The world’s best-selling book. A book that is seen by some as heaven-sent—and others as dangerous.
At the same time, unbeknown to the group in India, that very book was causing controversy back home. Tony Abbott had turned Malcolm Turnbull into a Christmas turkey by carving him up in the December leadership spill, and was already playing Scrooge to Kevin Rudd. Within days of taking over the Liberal Party, Abbott announced, “I think everyone should have some familiarity with the great texts that are at the core of our civilisation.”
One could imagine Labor senator Kate Lundy spitting out her Christmas pudding when she heard his next sentence: “That includes, most importantly, the Bible.” Clanging the cymbals on the bandwagon and hoping to attract passengers, Senator Lundy hit the airwaves and claimed that such an action would “take the choice away from parents and force every kid in every school to study the Bible”. She declared: “Mr Abbott must … rule out including Bible studies, in any form, as part of the compulsory national curriculum.”
Dousing the fire and brimstone of politics for a moment, the question has to be asked: Why? Why shouldn’t elements of the Bible be taught in public schools? It has had an unparalleled impact on Western culture, history, music, the arts, politics, morality, law and literature. Are we embarrassed about our country’s foundations or, worse, have we become intellectual cowards?
The irony cannot be overlooked. Bible societies worldwide are unable to keep up with demand in countries like India and China, but in a so-called Christian country, many Australians have more knowledge of the television guide.
With 2.5 billion to 6 billion copies in print, the Bible is the most circulated book, the most stolen book, the most criticised book and probably the least understood book. Its own sixty-six books range from poetry, songs and lamentations to narratives, war stories and eyewitness accounts that are authored by kings, prophets, fishermen, murderers, a doctor and a hated tax collector. It has inspired great acts of charity and social reform, and been exploited by corrupt men and warmongers obsessed with power. Between its covers are heroes, villains, Roman centurions, pharaohs, lepers, adulterers, forgiven men and freed women. It will continue to triumph all challengers, long after Harry Potter suffers from wand dysfunction and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampires have been confined to the crypts of time. All this without an Oprah Book Club sticker on the front cover.
The fact that it is so poorly understood indicates a need for an open dialogue about its role in education.
On an elementary level, the Bible is about man wrestling with God, and God wrestling with man. As with any relationship this results in love, joy and obedience, as well as tension, hurt and doubts. Dismissing its authors as superstitious people scared of thunder and lightning shows the folly of one too scared to explore its depths. Take the poetry of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Not all Biblical poetry is triumphant. Compare the pained, doubting prayer of a believer found at the beginning of Psalm 55:
Listen to my prayer, O God,
do not ignore my plea;
hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
at the voice of the enemy,
at the stares of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering upon me
and revile me in their anger.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest—
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”
Confuse the wicked, O Lord, confound their speech,
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they prowl about on its walls;
malice and abuse are within it.
Destructive forces are at work in the city;
threats and lies never leave its streets.
The book of Job dares ask questions about the fairness of suffering, while wicked men prosper:
Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest? One man dies in full vigour, completely secure and at ease, his body well nourished, his bones rich with marrow. Another man dies in bitterness of soul, never having enjoyed anything good. Side by side they lie in the dust, and worms cover them both.
In an age where sex is no longer a mysterious bride but a trollop trawling the streets hawking everything from tween girls’ clothing to used cars, the sensual Song of Songs is a heartfelt sigh for intimacy and genuine romance:
May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth. I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me. Come, my lover, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom—there I will give you my love. The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover.
Even the Proverbs recorded by the Hebrews thousands of years ago are still relevant. For example, take the colourful: “Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” Or alternatively, “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.”
Studying imagery is the boulder placed on every English pupil’s shoulder and Jesus used it extensively in his parables. “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one,” he said, possibly referring to worn marriage dowry:
Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” In the same way there will be more rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
We cannot play ostriches in the sandpit. Teenagers, just like any rational person, are going to ask themselves on their journey for identity: Is there a God? Trying to expel Him from schools because of fears that He doesn’t play well with other children is naive. Biblical elements are unescapable, and our best craftsmen aren’t afraid of using them.
Authors, poets and playwrights have been drawing from the deep inkpot of the Bible for centuries—and not always favourably. Tolstoy, Dickens, Chaucer, Bunyan, Milton, Tennyson and Robert Louis Stevenson are but a few, while C.S. Lewis roars across the pages of The Narnia Chronicles with his lion, Aslan. Modern writers such as Tim Winton, Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, Arthur Miller and John Grisham mention God. Should they be censored from school libraries? Unlikely. If they did, a good lawyer like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird might be handy. In a famous scene, Harper Lee writes:
Lula stopped, but she said, “You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here—they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?
Calpurnia said, “It’s the same God, ain’t it?
Singers including Elvis, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, U2, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Kanye West and even Coolio aren’t adverse to the odd biblical verse in lyrics, and “Amazing Grace” is performed 10 million times annually, according to one estimate. Art ranging from stained-glass windows and the statue of David to Rubens, Titian and Reg Mombassa’s Australian Jesus all draw their inspiration from the scriptures, while Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper without the Son of God and his disciples would be a boring painting of a table.
Movies are awash with biblical stories, quotes and imagery. Popular sayings such as “out of the mouths of babes” (Psalm 8:2, King James Version), “the apple of the eye” (Psalm 17:8), being a good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 24:20) and the “blind leading the blind” (Matthew 15:13) are just a few drawn from the Holy Book. The most popular baby boy’s names continue to have biblical roots. Likewise, taking the Lord’s name in vain hasn’t stopped with the rise of secularism.
Even knowledge of the Bible is an essential reference point for the growing multi-million-dollar anti-Christian industry. Richard Dawkins is evolving from the primordial swamp to lead the cult of New Atheism, The Da Vinci Code didn’t let truth get in the way of a fat pay cheque, children’s author Philip Pullman blatantly attacks God in the His Dark Materials trilogy, cartoons such as South Park, The Family Guy and American Dad are rarely flattering and the last iron filings of heavy metal culture still sell their anti-religious black T-shirts.
A basic understanding would spare everyone from another nonsensical backyard barbecue debate about how religion is the cause of all wars—propaganda that overlooks both world wars and ignores mass killers Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.
Even to mention teaching religion at public schools is asking for fire and damnation from some quarters. Some parents want a secular education for their children. So how can children be informed about the role of the Bible in society without charges of government-sponsored proselytising?
The United States has wrestled with the same debate since 1963 when the Supreme Court banned the devotional use of the Bible in schools, but allowed its academic study. Justice Tom C. Clark wrote for the majority opinion:
It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study.
Recently, the Bible Literacy Project brought together academics, constitutional lawyers, Christian and Jewish groups and public school English teachers to publish The Bible and its Influence, the first of its kind that covers biblical literature, art, drama and music for public schools. Aimed at students in Years 9 to 12, it covers all sixty-six books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation with the view of being an English, social studies or humanities elective. It even throws in a chapter on the controversial Apocrypha—books not found in Protestant bibles.
The project could easily have restricted itself to a narrow view of Christian history, literature and commentaries, but it doesn’t. It uses drama, music and art from the secular world to draw parallels or contrasts to the Bible, including an entire unit dedicated to Shakespeare. As the authors point out, Naseeb Shaheen, in his book Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, “documented an average of forty biblical references per play”.
Take the following from Richard II (Act 1, Scene 1):
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s, cries
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement …
Compare this to Genesis 4:10–11, which recounts the murder of the Abel by his older brother Cain:
The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
In Richard III (Act 1, Scene 4), the Bard draws from a well-known scene from the New Testament:
How fain, like Pilate, would I wash my hands
Of this most grievous, guilty murder done!
Pilate, the governor who agreed to the crucifixion of Jesus at the behest of the mob stirred up by the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem, is immortalised in Matthew 27:22–24:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!
Washing one’s hands of culpability is a well-practised art among politicians, possibly much to the delight of soap companies. But it—and the reference to Cain and Abel—grow out of biblical roots.
Chapter 14 of the textbook explores songs and poetry in the Bible and asks students: “Why do you think the people felt confident enough to complain to, criticise, question, and even express anger towards God in the psalms?” Another suggests:
The psalms have been set to music in a great variety of forms over the centuries. As a class, try to gather a representative sampling of recordings based on the psalms, from Hebrew melodies to Gregorian chant, from Bach and Mozart to the Orthodox traditions, from the Anglican hymnbook to African American spirituals, from folk songs to the recordings of contemporary Christian rock groups.
Rock’n’roll—traditionally the devil’s music—gets the volume turned down low, but there’s a nod to Don McLean’s “Babylon” and the reggae classic “By the Rivers of Babylon” for classes to compare when researching Psalm 137. That wouldn’t stop any teacher exploring other modern music tastes to compare and contrast. Just wind the window up on doof-doof music for the rest of us, thanks.
And what has happened since the book’s publication five years ago? Has America undergone a spiritual revival among teenagers? Are churches so inundated that they are radioing helicopter pilots for urgent aid drops of milk and Oreo cookies for after-service suppers? Have teachers stopped asking students to raise their hands to answer a question because both arms are already up in the air Pentecostal-style?
Simply, students received an education. SWAT officers weren’t needed, police dogs were kept chained in their kennels and dial-a-quote civil libertarians clutching mobile phones that never rang.
Western society has become embarrassed about its Christian roots, thanks to two battlefronts—the Science-versus-Creation debate and the rise of New Atheism, which naively and loudly blames religion for most of society’s woes, especially in the wake of September 11. Christianity, they claim, is now equated with anti-intellectualism, despite judges, lawyers, doctors, scientists, academics and mathematicians being numbered among the faithful. Don’t even debate us, because we’re right and you’re clearly wrong, it seems.
A third front where the white flag has been quickly waved is political correctness. For fear of offending someone—anyone!—we’ve accepted the lie that we shouldn’t talk about religion in polite company because they might burst into tears and go home. We see this at Christmas, where junior schools and shopping centres have told Joseph and Mary that not only is there no room at the inn but the manger has been rented out, so move along before you cause any trouble.
Predictably, critics will jump to their own pulpits and ask: Why should it just be the Bible? Why shouldn’t the Koran get equal footing? Simply because it isn’t and never has been a core text of Western society. How about the Jews? See the Old Testament in the front of the Bible—that was written before Jesus was a boy. Arguing for other religious texts is a well-used ploy by critics to divide and conquer, so the original idea gets stoned to death.
We cannot ignore the fact that the Bible contains three basic controversial ideas. First, there is a God. Second, He so loved the world that He took human form and was called Jesus; he was then crucified so as to take the punishment for the sins of those who believed in Him; he rose from the dead; and appeared to more than 500 witnesses—many of whom were still alive when the letters and gospels of the New Testament were being circulated in the first century. And third, moral laws are still important.
For the initial two, teachers don’t have to worry about wearing a Catholic dog collar to work, or clearing a playground so they can swing an orb of incense. Following God is a personal choice. If teenagers want to learn more about salvation through accepting Jesus as their Messiah, then they have priests and pastors who can mentor them. Students can still be taught a basic concept of God in the classroom, rather than getting their understanding from The Simpsons.
The last idea is a prickly issue in our shake-and-bake postmodernist world, where my truth is different from your truth, and people like Paris Hilton, Brad Pitt and Tiger Woods are fawned over and held up as role models. As one Christian writer lamented:
Is there any doubt that the handwriting is on the wall for where we are heading? … We see in such cases that manners have been corrupted, morality has sunk into depravity, indulgence is out of control and, above all, faith has been discredited and unbelief has become fashionable. When a culture reaches this point, it becomes so out of touch with truth that masses of people deny outright the existence of God. God’s will for the nation has been abandoned and man has been made God.
Readers could be forgiven for thinking this quotation comes from a twenty-first-century writer, but it’s from a modern-day translation of the 1797 book Real Christianity by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, immortalised recently in the film Amazing Grace, fought twenty years to abolish the British slave trade—a pivotal moment in modern democracy—not to mention his agitation for reforms in the prisons, education and public health. No one could convince him morality was just up to the individual.
Biblical morality stretches the mind of both believers and non-believers because it challenges our more comfortable Hollywood mythology. Love your neighbour as yourself. Bless those who curse you. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Just because you’re good, definitely doesn’t mean you go to heaven when you die. Sorry, doing good works won’t get you an economy seat there either. Only faith in Christ and the unmerited grace of God will absolve you of your sins and grant you eternal life.
They’re unpopular ideas—exactly as they were 2000 years ago when Jesus overturned conventional thinking and ended up being crucified, much to the delight of the self-righteous Pharisees. Neither will be the teaching of the Bible in public schools now.
But when boys are accessing internet porn for the first time, on average, aged eleven, teenage guys are using their mobile phones to swap images of sex with their girlfriends like footy cards, and sportsmen and women cheat on their partners by engaging in group orgies, we have to accept that as a society we’ve drifted too far from our common foundations.
If the best and brightest artists of the past were brave enough to explore the wide-ranging impact of the Bible on Western thought, why can’t we challenge our own generation’s best and brightest? The compulsory national curriculum is a perfect time for a rethink.
Scott Monk is a journalist and the author of five children’s novels, including Beyond the Knock-Knock Door and Raw, which was an HSC text from 2001 to 2008.