Incorporating the Bible as Literature
Discussing religion in public schools can involve occasional tension. The role of Christian educators is not to advocate for a particular faith, but to encourage ethical thinking and critical response.
In order to meet the rising standards in English/Language Arts, I attempted to incorporate Scripture not with the objective of pushing a particular faith onto my students, but rather ushering them into complex literary discussions. These discussions took a variety of forms, and included both Old and New Testament passages.
Recognizing Biblical allusions is cited in the Common Core State Standards for 8th-grade English/Language Arts, which is the level I taught for eight years. Many of the course expectations for students are lofty; they include recognizing mood and tone, active and passive voice, shifts in point of view, and analysis of text to understand how dialogue and events in the narrative propel action forward. The open-ended nature of Common Core means that teachers can draw on a variety of materials; no one curriculum is prized above another.
Biblical passages have been cited in many pieces of literature. For example, Daniel Keyes’ novel, Flowers for Algernon, makes several references to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. An excerpt from this book appeared in our basal reader, and my students drew parallels between the story of Adam and Eve and the role of moving from ignorance to knowledge in Flowers for Algernon. Students noted the impact of the knowledge of the evils of the world on Charlie, the main character of the story, and how this knowledge impacted his development as a character. In this way, students could see how the author used well-chosen references and information, including the Bible, to advance concepts of characterization and, to paraphrase CCSS, move the action forward in the story. I believe this consideration of Charlie in a more rounded way helped my students relate to him better.
In my classroom, I utilized quotes from passages in the Bible, along with a more than equal share of other texts, to illustrate differences in point of view. I would specifically choose passages in which first person commands, like Old Testament law passages found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, emphasized the importance of using “I” and “me,” and then compared these to passages from other sections of the Bible. One of the troublesome distinctions my students were required to make in points of view was the difference between a third person narrator with knowledge of some characters and a third person narrator with knowledge of all characters. Given that this second type of third person is called third omniscient, which has been dubbed the “God view,” it just made sense to use passages from Scripture to send this point home.
The narratives of Abraham, Moses, David, and other Biblical figures are loaded with conflicts and other features of high quality stories. These features include the already-mentioned development of character and plot, but can also include poetic features. A study of the Bible as a work of inspired literature quickly gives readers insight into the poetic nature of the opening passages of Genesis, utilizing an ancient structure called a chiasm. In other places, characters stand in juxtaposition to one another. Consider, for example, the portrayal of the good king David and the unfortunate example of Saul. These are two men who stand in diametric opposition to one another, and their story is told with great dramatic flair.
The high drama and charged events of the Bible can make their way into classroom activities not only in writing responses, but in drawing on visual representations of events in the Bible. It should come as no surprise that Biblical stories have even made their way into the comic book and graphic novel medium, a type of reading that is on the rise in middle and high schools.
Furthermore, exposure to Biblical stories produces more literary knowledge so that students can better understand works by authors like William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston. Without knowledge of the life of David, the novel Absalom, Absalom loses some of its depth and meaning. David’s powerful story of a dysfunctional family dynamic can lead the reader into a greater appreciation of Faulkner’s story.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which is required reading in many high school courses across the country, also makes use of religious imagery. A quick study of Hawthorne’s other, shorter stories, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” illustrate his use of the Bible.
By drawing on the high expectations of standards already in place, we can invite students into a thoughtful discussion about literary themes that draw on spirituality. Teachers who wish to use challenging and rich texts should consider the Bible, and can open doors by making use of this powerful cultural resource.