David Gelernter: Bible Illiteracy in America

Roundup: Talking About History

David Gelernter, in the Weekly Standard (5-23-05):

A REPORT JUST ISSUED BY the Bible Literacy Project (more on this later) suggests that young Americans know very little about the Bible. The report is important, but first things first: A fair number of Americans don't see why teenagers should know anything at all about the Bible.

Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don't tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.

Go to the center of Paris and drop in on the apotheosis of the French Middle Ages--Sainte Chapelle, whose walls are made almost entirely of stained glass. It "has rightly been called," writes the scholar Shalom Spiegel, "the most wonderful of pictured Bibles." The King James Bible, says Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "has influenced our literature more deeply than any other book--more deeply even than all the writings of Shakespeare--far more deeply." The poet and painter William Blake calls the Old and New Testaments "the Great Codes of Art." America's foremost prophet offers his culminating vision in the second inaugural address--"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right . . . " Lincoln's speech "reads like a supplement to the Bible," writes the historian William Wolf, with its "fourteen references to God, four direct quotations from Genesis, Psalms, and Matthew, and other allusions to scriptural teaching." "The best gift God has given to man," Lincoln called the Bible. "But for it we could not know right from wrong."

Ronald Reagan called America "a great shining city on a hill," three-and-a-half centuries after John Winthrop (sailing for Boston in 1630) anticipated a new community that would be "as a Citty upon a Hill"--invoking the famous verse in Matthew, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid" (5:14). Which harks back in turn to the prophets (Isaiah 2:2-3, Micah 4:2) and the book of Proverbs (4:18). John Livingstone Lowe called the King James Bible "the noblest monument of English prose" (1936); George Saintsbury called it "probably the greatest prose work in any language" (1887). Nearly two millennia earlier, the great Pharisee rabbi Hillel described the ideal life: "loving peace and pursuing peace; loving humanity and bringing it close to the Torah."

Here is a basic question about America that ought to be on page 1 of every history book: What made the nation's Founders so sure they were onto something big? America today is the most powerful nation on earth, most powerful in all history--and a model the whole world imitates. What made them so sure?--the settlers and colonists, the Founding Fathers and all the generations that intervened before America emerged as a world power in the 20th century? What made them so certain that America would become a light of the world, the shining city on a hill? What made John Adams say, in 1765, "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence"? What made Abraham Lincoln call America (in 1862, in the middle of a ruinous civil war) "the last, best hope of earth"?

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