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Religious education as a part of literary culture

(This excerpt was posted as a reference for those reading the recent article from the Guardian by Mark Ravenhill)

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(From Chapter 9 of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins)

I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was. Or maybe it isn't a decade thing. As long ago as 1954, according to Robert Hinde in his thoughtful book, Why Gods Persist, a Gallup Poll in the United States of America found the following. Three quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two thirds didn't know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought that Moses was one of Jesus's twelve apostles. That, to repeat, was in the United States, which is notoriously more religious than other parts of the developed world.

The King James Authorized English translation includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right, for example the Song of Songs and the sublime Ecclesiastes. But the main reason the Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture. The same applies to the legends of the Greek and Roman gods, and we learn about them without being asked to believe in them. Here is a quick list of biblical, or bible-inspired phrases or sentences which occur commonly in literary or conversational English, from great poetry to hackneyed cliché, from proverb to table talk.

Be fruitful and multiply • East of Eden • Adam's Rib • Am I my brother's keeper? • The mark of Cain • As old as Methuselah • A mess of potage • Sold his birthright • Jacob's ladder • Coat of many colours • Amid the alien corn • Eyeless in Gaza • The fat of the land • The fatted calf • Stranger in a strange land • Burning bush • A land flowing with milk and honey • Let my people go • Flesh pots • An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth • Be sure your sin will find you out • The apple of his eye • The stars in their courses • Butter in a lordly dish • The hosts of Midian • Shibboleth • Out of the strong came forth sweetness • He smote them hip and thigh • Philistine • A man after his own heart • Like David and Jonathan • Passing the love of women • How are the mighty fallen? • Ewe lamb • Man of Belial • Jezebel • Queen of Sheba • Wisdom of Solomon • The half was not told me • Girded up his loins • Drew a bow at a venture • Job's comforters • The patience of Job • I am escaped with the skin of my teeth • The price of wisdom is above rubies • Leviathan • Go to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. • Spare the rod and spoil the child • A word in season • Vanity of vanities • To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose • The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong • Of making many books there is no end • I am the rose of Sharon • A garden inclosed • The little foxes • Many waters cannot quench love • Beat their swords into plowshares • Grind the faces of the poor • The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid • Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die • Set thine house in order • A voice crying in the wilderness • No peace for the wicked • See eye to eye • Cut off out of the land of the living • Balm in Gilead • Can the leopard change his spots? • The parting of the ways • A Daniel in the lions' den • They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind • Sodom and Gomorrah • Man shall not live by bread alone • Get thee behind me Satan • The salt of the earth • Hide your light under a bushel • Turn the other cheek • Go the extra mile • Moth and rust doth corrupt • Cast your pearls before swine • Wolf in sheeps' clothing • Weeping and gnashing of teeth • Gadarene swine • New wine in old bottles • Shake off the dust of your feet • He that is not with me is against me • Judgment of Solomon • Fell upon stony ground • A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country • The crumbs from the table • Sign of the times • Den of thieves • Pharisee • Whited sepulchre • Wars and rumours of wars • Good and faithful servant • Separate the sheep from the goats • I wash my hands of it • The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath • Suffer the little children • The widow's mite • Physician heal thyself • Good Samaritan •Passed by on the other side • Grapes of wrath • Lost sheep • Prodigal son • A great gulf fixed • Whose shoe latchet I am not worthy to unloose • Cast the first stone • Jesus wept • Greater love hath no man than this • Doubting Thomas • Road to Damascus • A law unto himself • Through a glass darkly • Death, where is thy sting? • A thorn in the flesh • Fallen from grace • Filthy lucre • The root of all evil • Fight the good fight • All flesh is as grass • The weaker vessel • I am Alpha and Omega • Armageddon • De profundis • Quo vadis • Rain on the just and on the unjust

All of these idioms, phrases or clichés come directly from the King James Authorized translation of the Bible. Surely unfamiliarity with the Bible is bound to impoverish one's appreciation of English literature. And not just solemn and serious literature. The following rhyme by Lord Justice Bowen is ingeniously witty:

The rain it raineth on the just,

And also on the unjust fella.

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust hath the just's umbrella.

But the enjoyment is muffled if you can't take the allusion to Matthew 5: 45 ("For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust"). Or, from My Fair Lady, the fine point of Eliza Dolittle's fantasy would escape anybody ignorant of John the Baptist's end:

"Thanks a lot, King," says I in a manner well bred,

"But all I want is 'Enry 'Iggins' 'ead."

P G Wodehouse is, for my money, the greatest writer of light comedy in the language, and I bet fully half my list of biblical phrases will be found as allusions within his pages. (A Google search will not find all of them, however. It will miss the derivation of the short story title, 'The Aunt and the Sluggard' from Proverbs 6: 6.) The Wodehouse canon is rich in other biblical phrases, not in my list above and not incorporated into the language as idioms or proverbs. Listen to Bertie Wooster's evocation of what it is like to wake up with a bad hangover:

I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head — not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.

Bertie himself was immensely proud of his only scholastic achievement, the prize he once earned for scripture knowledge.

What is true of comic writing in English is more obviously true of serious literature. Naseeb Shaheen's tally of more than 1300 biblical references in Shakespeare's works is widely cited and very believable. The Bible Literacy Report published in Fairfax, Virginia (admittedly financed by the infamous Templeton Foundation) provides many examples, and cites overwhelming agreement by teachers of English literature that biblical literacy is essential to full appreciation of their subject. Doubtless the same is true of French, German, Russian, and other great European literatures. And, for speakers of Arabic and Indian languages, knowledge of the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita are presumably just as essential for full appreciation of their literary heritage. Finally, to round off the list, you can't appreciate Wagner (whose music, as has been wittily said, is better than it sounds) without knowing your way around the Norse gods.

Let me not labour the point. I have probably said enough to convince at least my older readers that an atheistic world view provides no justification for cutting the bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. I think the important thing to learn is that we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.

Read the first chapter of The God Delusion

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