- - Thursday, December 11, 2014

Every year two million visitors file past the famed Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. As they look at the cracked bell, they read these words: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” The inscription comes from the Bible (Leviticus 25:10).

When presidents of the United States raise their right hand to take the oath of office at their inauguration, they place their left hand on a copy of the Bible.

When Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C., and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Those words come directly from the Bible (Amos 5:24).

Why does the Bible appear in these places? Because it is the central and foundational book of Western culture, including American culture. Everywhere we turn in the cultural past, we find the Bible. We cannot avoid it if we tried, and we will not understand our past without a knowledge of the Bible.

George Lindbeck, former professor of theology at Yale University, once described the cultural position of the Bible in American culture this way: “Its stories, images, conceptual patterns, and turns of phrase permeated the culture from top to bottom. This was true even for illiterates and those who did not go to church, for knowledge of the Bible was transmitted not only directly by its reading, hearing, and ritual enactment, but also indirectly by an interwoven net of intellectual, literary, artistic, folkloric, and proverbial traditions. There was a time when every educated person, no matter how professedly unbelieving or secular, knew the actual text from Genesis to Revelation”

The evidences of this cultural influence permeated every sphere of life. Theodore Roosevelt correctly observed of the English Bible that “no other book of any kind ever written in English has ever so affected the whole life of a people.”

One of the most important spheres of influence is the English language itself. One index to this is the familiar sayings that come straight from the Bible (and of course everything that we say about the historic influence of the Bible is a comment on the King James Version). “The salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). “The signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). “The root of the matter” (Job 19:28). “Old wives’ fables” (1 Timothy 4:7).

When American pioneers rode westward with two books in their covered wagons, they signaled the foundational importance of those two books for the civilization that they hoped to preserve amid circumstances that threatened it. The two books were the King James Bible and the complete works of William Shakespeare. Part of what was being preserved was a standard of excellence for the English language.

Among the cultural influences of the Bible, none is more obvious than literature. English and American literature scarcely exist apart from the Bible. Titles of literary works can be regarded as the tip of the iceberg: The Power and the Glory. Measure for Measure. The Sun Also Rises. East of Eden. Absalom, Absalom. Evil under the Sun. Literary scholar T. R. Henn has written that the Bible “becomes one with the Western tradition, because it is its single greatest source.”

An obvious conclusion to be drawn from the centrality of the Bible in literature is that the Bible should be part of every literature curriculum. In fact, Northrop Frye, the most influential literary scholar of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the Bible should form the basis of literary education. He famously wrote that “the Bible should be taught so early and so thoroughly that it sinks straight to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes along later can settle on it.” Frye’s vision was never fully realized, but it remains a beacon toward which we can aspire.

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