Friday, September 23, 2005

Cultural Literacy

There is a good article today over at about the sad state of Biblical Literacy:

Do we need to know what it says in the Bible? Are we somehow illiterate if we don't? Up until, say, 100 years ago, biblical literacy would have been practically mandatory. If you didn't know what "the powers that be" originally referred to, or where "the writing on the wall" was first seen, or what was meant by "the patience of Job," "Jacob's ladder" or "the salt of the earth"--if you didn't know what an exodus was or a genesis, a fatted or a golden calf--you would have been excluded from the culture. It might be said that a civilization consists, at its core, of these easily transmitted packages of implication. They are one of the mechanisms by which cultures can be both efficient and rich. You don't have to return to first principles every time you wish to communicate. You can play your present tune on a received instrument, knowing that your listener hears not only your own music but the subtle melodies of those who played it before you. There is a common wisdom in common knowledge. But does this Bible-informed world still exist? I would guess that on the whole, and outside committed Christian groups, biblical literacy is a thing of the past. That long moment of Christian civilization is over. The lingua franca of modern, English-speaking people is not dense with scriptural allusion, just as the conversation of educated people no longer makes reference to classical civilizations. If you dropped the names nowadays of Nestor, Agamemnon or Pericles--every one of which would have come trailing clouds of glory up to a century ago--you would, I think, draw a near total blank from even educated listeners.

This is doubly poignant for me, as someone who communicates for a living and who grew up in church that required its children to be biblically literate, and to, in fact, memorize large chunks of the Authorized (King James) Version. When we loose the shared heritage of these common stories (not only Biblical, but classical), we loose an ability to communicate, or at least, the task of communicating becomes much more difficult.

Even if we retain some of the terms, we are adrift from the meaning behind the terms. People may understand when I say that I "escaped by the skin of my teeth," but why would people "beat their swords into plowshares?" Losing the original context we loose all of the implications of the original meaning. Why would the lion lay down with the lamb? Why would the lamb put up with it?

There is a wonderful rant by Bernard Levin that shows how much we are in danger of losing when we do not attend to our cultural heritage:

If you cannot understand my argument and declare "It's Greek to me", you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master) , laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort, or too much of a good thing, you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise - why be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a forgone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is ours and that the truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
Sadly enough, many of the wonderful turns of phrase in the preceeding (large) sentence would be "Greek" to many people today.

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