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Biblical illiteracy

Chapel staging. Some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-SA) by LMP+This week I had opportunity to attend a live performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was wonderful, which was to be expected (it’s my favourite Shakespearian play). This performance was wonderfully done, perhaps one of the best I’ve seen.

There was a child sitting behind me, and while very well behaved, he did (quietly) ask his mother a number of questions throughout the performance. She would whisper back a response, all so the boy could better understand what was happening. One of their interactions jostled me out of Elsinore, and stayed with me the rest of the play. During the gravedigging scene, when Cain and Abel are referenced, the boy asked:

“Who’s Cain?”

to which his mother replied:

“I don’t know.”

It made me realise just how much I take for granted my religious education and general knowledge.

Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows the multitude of religious references, both obvious and subtle. I would not necessarily be surprised if an average theatre-goer could not identify some of the scriptural quotations or more nuanced references to biblical themes. However, the more obvious connections are evident throughout the play; indeed throughout so much of Shakespeare’s works. Prayer is regular, sins and sacraments are regularly mentioned, underlying themes include forgiveness, judgement, heaven and hell.

The religious themes which would have been well-understood in Shakespeare’s time can no longer be assumed to be comprehensible to today’s theatre-going audience. Even when it is obvious; Claudius’ failed confession without penance, Ophelia denied a Christian burial, the Nunnery scene; all conveying a secret message to those who understand the context.

There is much beauty and depth of Shakespeare’s work which depends on a basic knowledge of religion. The staging for this particular performance emphasized religion’s role; there were several scenes in a chapel, and Polonius was not just advisor but priest to the royal household.

It is not just Shakespeare who bases much in the presumption of religious knowledge; so much of our arts have been inspired by the scriptures; painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, plays. One need not look far (nor too far back in history!) to find religious connections in the arts; yet one does need to know what they’re looking at if they’re to understand it.

As such, I now wonder about our society: are we biblically and religiously illiterate? Are we to lose the meaning and benefit of centuries of art because we do not know the most basic of biblical narratives? Is it possible to reverse this trend, and if so, how?


About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I’m a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I’m passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.

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11 Responses to Biblical illiteracy

  1. As a public high school English teacher, I find myself frequently having to teach the biblical narratives in order to help students make sense of the texts we study.

  2. This is not new; but I can imagine it is getting worse. Back in about 1973 I remember a friend agonizing about a passage bt T S Eliot he had to analyze. It went something like this: The dove descending splits the air with tongues of incandescent splendour. Our only hope, or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre; to be consumed by fire or fire. (Probably badly remembered/quoted) He was making things up about buzz-bombs during the war, and quite confused until I explained to him the story of Pentecost.

  3. While I’m in agreement here, and while I, too, grieve the loss of the contextual understanding for literature and the arts, I can’t help but wonder if what we’re experiencing is part of a much larger problem. Let’s face it: we live in a diverse world–and a time and place where Christianity is a matter of intentional faith and belief, rather than something imposed by society. And that’s hard–but I think that identifying as a Christian in that context might require a little more integrity than it would in a world of cultural Christianity. Alongside that reality, we find ourselves challenged by holes in our inherited model of education. Some of that is coming out following the final event of the TRC in Ottawa: growing up, I had no idea that residential schools existed. It simply wasn’t part of the history I was taught.

    So in all of that, I find myself asking what might be a better model? If I wasn’t aware of residential schools, then as much as I might try to understand Indigenous sculpture or painting (because they are historically important expressions of art that are part of the history of this county), then my understanding will be limited because I don’t understand the cultural or faith traditions that informed them. Does that mean I should convert? No. Does that mean I should try to learn more about what informed that art? Yes!

    But part of me knows that no matter what I am able to learn, I probably won’t ever understand that art the way someone who grew up in, or who lives in that tradition does. Nancy’s comment reminds me of a high school English class where my teacher (otherwise fantastic) tried to explain his way through Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” as a non-Christian. I was so frustrated! So while the audience in attendance could learn about Cain and Abel, without the context of life in a faith community, it’s just going to be a historical fairy tale some people used to believe. I’m left with many questions here, one of which is this: when does teaching religious context outside the life of faith actually reduce or belittle that faith tradition?

    • Indeed, Jesse. We can all learn more about the world in which we live, so that we might better understand the world in which we live.
      I could raise another angle here; formal education is not the only place for us to learn… are we adequately educating ourselves as Christians to be intentional about our beliefs? Are our children learning the basic biblical narratives? From time to time I (as priest) field questions about Christianity or the Bible that have come from cultural tradition/understanding, or from something off the internet.
      Adult faith nurture… possibly another blog post. 🙂
      But I also raise the issue of responsibility: is it incumbent on others to educate us, or on ourselves to become educated?
      Alas, as often happens, I have more questions than answers. And I thank you for the conversation.

    • Matthew Griffin

      I’m having three flashbacks, reading your response, Jesse.
      One is to grad school: despite it being an English lit program, my friend Paul and I were each called ‘Captain Bible’ by our classmates. We were the most likely ones to catch and understand allusions and references, and the only ones who could reliably elucidate them.
      I’m also remembering a moment in high school, when a teacher asked me what I’d made of Faulker’s _Light in August_: a book about a man named Joe Christmas, whose presence stirs up a town, before he’s lynched and hung. And yet I didn’t make the connection.
      The third is less something I remember, and more a story my mom tells me: about the day in kindergarten when I refused to talk to the supply teacher. She’d been my swimming teacher, and I didn’t want to admit that she could be anywhere other than the pool.

      The challenge of the bulk of Western literature over the past two millenia is that it was and remains dependent on familiarity with the stories that are at the centre of our faith. Precisely because they reveal deep truth, they’re picked up and used–sometimes without alteration and sometimes with significant changes–to make new stories and poems and tales.
      Engaging what lies behind a work of art, seeking to experience it richly situated in its culture and context and as its own noumenon, will always take work.

      I think that there are deeper ways to experience the roots that lie behind the art without resorting to thinking of those roots as fairy tales. Or rather, when we acknowledge and appreciate the deep power of myth not as something false but as something that is perhaps the most true, we’re welcomed into something new.

      I suspect our own challenge as disciples is more one of engaging kerygma: proclaiming the good news from the wealth of the stories that are ours, which means constantly striving to hear them anew and hearing how the Spirit is making them speak for us, now.

      The real challenge in the different context

  4. Yes. Yes we are. It’s particularly obvious here in Québec, among my fellow French speakers.

    • Thanks, Vincent, for this extra insight. As I understand (and it’s been a long time since I lived in la belle province!), in Quebec the church and religion is still much more intermingled with daily life than in much of Anglo-speaking Canada. How does this affect modern art and culture?

  5. Biblical illiteracy is quite prevalent in the world . There was a theologian said resently that there may come a time in England that if one talks about Jesus Christ he will have to explain himself. The sad thing is how prevalent it is in the church and even among clergy. How are we to spot false teaching and teachers if we are not even a little savvy as to what the bible has to say about some basic theology. This is why guys like Joel Olsteen ,Kenneth Copeland ,Bennie Hinn and the like have such a large following .People have a tendency to be willingly ignorant on these subjects rather enjoy having their ears tickled How are we to spread a gospel that we can’t even cogently explain what the gospel is according to the bible. We need to daily read afresh what the bible has to say and to believe it and teach it.

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