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Religious amnesia

On Beliefnet today, Rod Dreher has a column on religious illiteracy. Dreher refers to a three-year-old interview with Camille Paglia, with thesesobering paragraphs:

The decline of religion in Europe frightens this stalwart atheist. "The Europeans have become very passive, all of them," she said. "There's a fatigued worldliness typical of Europe right now, and that's why nothing very interesting artistically is coming out of there."Can you have a vibrant culture without cult? Traditionalist conservatives say no. Dr. Paglia is inclined to agree and says that our lazy secularism and superficial religiosity puts America at risk of succumbing to acedia, the Greek term for spiritual slothfulness. She is shocked to discover how few of her college students grasp basic biblical concepts, characters and motifs that were commonly understood one or two generations ago. This stunning loss of cultural memory renders most Western art, poetry and literature opaque."The only people I'm getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans," she said. "And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible. Most of these white kids, if they go to church at all, they get feel-good social activism."What are they left with? "Video games, the Web, cellphones, iPods that's what's left," Dr. Paglia laments. "And that's what's going to make us vulnerable to people coming from any side, including the Muslim side, where there's fervor. Fervor will conquer apathy. I don't see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West."

Dreher also refers to the comment of a Christian theologian that "unlike ages past, when it was most important for the church to preach the Good News to the world, our situation today in the West makes it more important for the church to focus on articulating its teachings, and its distinct way of seeing the world, to itself."

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I think this is exaggeration :) The idea that educated and/or well-off peoplelhave less interest in religion, aand also the idea that there can be no passion or erudition or depth of culture without a corresponding interest in religion, are just false.

It is interesting and confusing that an atheist (Camille Paglia) should be so concerned about religious illiteracy.

Fervor will conquer apathy. I dont see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West.Exactly. In addition, that cultural class of people wh routinely sneer at and disparage "the fundies" are infected with that same "fatigued worldliness" that saps the vigor of the Europeans. It is as if a deadly virus has invaded our cultural institutions and centers of higher learning. The spirituality of the gltteratti is in ascendancy.

Obviously, what we need are better hymns.

Let me take this a controversial step further. From the article:"Can you have a vibrant culture without cult? Traditionalist conservatives say no. Dr. Paglia is inclined to agree..."By that measure, then, Islamic culture should be percolating like, say, the thirteenth century. It seems not to be, at least from my perspective. So there seems to be a hole in the logic, or not all cults foster culture, or Christian culture is sui generis?

David: To say that you can't have a vibrant culture without a cult does not logically entail that whenever you have a cult you will have a vibrant culture.

I think I follow. And that is true. But Paglia (and Dreher) are stipulating that Muslim culture exists and indeed is so dominant that it will overrun Western "Christian" culture. I'm just not so sure about that parallel. The Romans had cults and culture, and look what happened.

Aside fom suicide bombers what does the West have to fear from Islamic culture?

Ed: What we have to fear is that the fundamentalist Muslims are vigorously propogating while the West, becoming hypnotized by entertainment and sexual excess, is slowly committing suicide as its population numbers decline. Vigor will win out over apathy and apathy every time. Islamic culture is high-energy, if fundamentally demented.

What we have to fear is that the fundamentalist Muslims are vigorously propogating while the West, becoming hypnotized by entertainment and sexual excess, is slowly committing suicide as its population numbers decline. Vigor will win out over apathy and apathy every time. Islamic culture is high-energy, if fundamentally demented.The idea that religious people do or should have more children and that that is the sign of a vigorous culture, is an assumption. Less developed cultures, poorer societies, tend to have more children .... high birth rates has been associated with health impairments and low life expectancy, low living standards, low status of women, and low levels of education. (Wikipedia). Wealthier, more developed societies have fewer, not because there's apathy but perhaps because the citizens have noticed there's more to life than reproducing themselves (and the women there have better access to reproductive health care).

I would like to express my thanks to Fr. Komonchak for the link to the wonderful article about religion. I seem to gather a wealth of information that reinforces what I am trying to teach at the highschool level and though I am certain my students think I am a nerd for bringing in these articles, I frequently do simply to show them that despite what they think, some of the discussions we have in class are pertinent to the outside world.Just yesterday I mentioned to my students that while at university one of my English Lit professors (an avowed atheist, feminist and pro-abortion activist whom I had little in common with other than a love for dark ales) told me that one of the major problems in teaching literature was that todays' students have no foundation to draw from when authors make such literary allusions to antiquity. Joyce's Ulysses and Michaelangelo's David are just 'some guys' without any context. Even my religion class (most of whom have 11+ years of Catholic education) were unaware that Isaiah was from the old testament and that gentile are not the same as Jews.So what one may ask. Well, maybe I am too Chestertonian but I would rather execute people for heresy than theft and murder because heresy is a much greater threat to our social order. I am reminded of an article from (I believe it was commonweal) that argued along the lines that highschools teach Shaw and Wells and Orwell and Huxley (and Sallinger) who spend so effort deconstructing their respective societies that our modern student no longer UNDERSTAND what they are tilting at because that society is long dead.And unfortunately it is in that void, that cultural vacuum where people are so disconnected to any past, that these fundamentalist groups emerge. Be it Christian or Muslim or even Catholic, fundamentalism remains a strong force in our respective societies because it is easy, it fulfills that need and it offers simple and simplistic solutions to complex problems.

And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible."Yes, that's true. I live among rural, less well-educated white people who drive around in pick-ups with Confederate flags stenciled on the back window. They know a Bible taken out of context by fundies and pentacostals who emphasize proscriptions against sex (especially homosexuality) and the talkin' in tongues parts. This is not the group from which high culture springs. This is the group who cries over Lee Greenwood's "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free." I agree with Adam that students have little knowledge of context. I was depressed for several weeks last semester when none of my students had ever heard or nor could recognize the Marx Brothers. I showed them some Google images and a YouTube clip, but that hardly begins to really explain the influence they had on American comedy and satire. But does it follow that being able to recognize cultural icons leads to vibrant culture? Paglia says that nothing culturally interesting is coming out of world-weary Europe. Yet the Europeans I know and correspond with DO know their cultural history far better than Americans. If there is a cultural problem in Europe, it's that the old culture is failing to inspire or inform new culture. Can we blame that on the decline of Christianity in Europe? I'm not sure I can really connect the dots in that argument.

Joseph Gannon,That was what the lectionary said as well: http://www.usccb.org/nab/020510.shtml

I think that the late Irish author and artist Christy Brown once said "There are two kinds of art. Religious art and the circus."I think that in her usual clear and detached way, premier postmodern circus clown Camille Paglia has hit upon something. But only half a something. It isn't that one has to be religious to produce art. It's that good art comes from something real behind it. Religion is often (but not always) the place where people still look for this "something real". But if it is real, then it will be available to anyone; atheists or even Muslims.

In my humble opinion, as a little Church of Christ boy, I was taught the Bible cover to cover. None of my Catholic friends knew anything about the Bible, only the Church. As I grew up and closer to conversion to the Catholic Church, I found that the biblical knowledge I possess puts me heads and tails above the regular pew sitting Catholic. Teach the Bible to the children, teach it to the adults. Everything I've seen in parishes indicates that church school is about learning the lessons of the church and not the Bible. I teach a class at a Cistercian Monastery of the Strict Observance, to lay people, and am regularly astonished when I quote some passage and someone says, "that's in the bible?"

Do we dare try a biblical literacy test on this blog? Very elementary: How many have read the Bible all the way through? The Old Testament? The New Testament? Read any book of either Testament all the way through? Taken a course on the Bible? I'm sure we could go on forever with anecdotes. One of mine. After beginning a course on The Church and Social Issues with a two-day section on the relationship between faith and justice in the Old Testament, an undergraduate junior came up after class and asked: "Father, you've been talking about the Old Testament. What's the Old Testament?" When I showed her from my Bible that the larger part was called the Old Testament and told the story of the rise and fall and rise and fall of Israel, she said, as if she had just been told of a new planet: "Oh, that's so interesting!"

The experience of prison ministry around here (including mine) is that the lower the socioeconomic class of the resident, the more open s/he is to the living water. I'm told that the worst inmate population for Christian ministry is the minimum-security Club Fed inmates - the ones in for white-collar crimes. I'm told that they couldn't care less about prayer and the Bible. The lower-class teens I worked with were very open and enthusiastic about our sessions.

Regarding religion, culture and social class: it seems to me that a more or less permanent feature of American culture is that the cultural energy and innovation percolates up from the lower classes. If that is true, then it might explain why Evangelical Christianity has eclipsed Catholicism (and mainline Protestant denominations) as a source of religious cultural energy in the US for the last generation or so. And it might explain why Islam is ascendant in Europe.

"And it might explain why Islam is ascendant in Europe."Except that Islam is not ascedant in Europe.

Bravo again to Jean.If we want to attract younger folks back into the Church world, having them read the bible is not going to do it if we don't have a Church that shows them the values there. And then balmes them for ignorance.

"Except that Islam is not ascedant in Europe". you are right Unagidon.

Let's roll back here and clarify what we are talking about. Islam doesn't produce culture??? Muslims have a vast cultural patrimony: World class architectural monuments, artwork, minatures, calligraphy, music, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, literature--you name it. They are not all living in caves with a rifle and Osama Bin Laden! Just as we would not like Christianity to be defined by the most narrow-minded of fundamentalists in the pickup trucks that Jean Raber describes so well, we should also be careful in characterizing one of the world's great religions as bereft of "culture producing" attributes.

On biblical literacy -- does everybody know the American bishops came out with a new set of guidelines for high school students? Scripture study is now an optional course! It's back to the Catechism. We studied scripture copiously in my (Catholic) high school -- it was some of the best work we did. It used to be standard too, does anybody else have this recollection? Old Testament in freshman year, gospels in sophmore year, the writings of St. Paul in junior year... Catholics, at one point anyway, cared about biblical literacy. (This was in the 1970s.)

We studied scripture copiously in my (Catholic) high school Rita,When I was in Catholic school (grade school and high school, ending in 1965) there was little emphasis put on the Bible. I am sure some will argue with this statement, but I believe it to be true: Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible, and in some ways were discouraged. In my experience, it was not a common practice for Catholics to read the Bible on their own, and there were no Catholic Bible study groups that I know of (or anything like them) in our parish. Furthermore, the only Bible permitted was the Douay-Rheims. My father, who was not a Catholic, had a copy of the RSV, and we felt obliged not to look at it. The common attitude was that it was the job of the Catholic Church to tell us what the Bible meant. Protestants read the Bible, but Catholics relied on the Church.We were not required to own a Bible in my high school (run by the Christian Brothers in Cincinnati). A few years ago, because of a discussion like this one, I called the school. It is now sort of a Christian Brothers' school without Christian Brothers. In any case, I was told that there is no religion textbook for freshmen. They are required to own a Bible, and that is what they study all year. I would have been shocked if they had introduced this change in their religion classes when I was a student. Sometime in the 1970s, I read the Pelican New Testament Commentaries (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and I was thunderstruck all the way through. It was my first encounter with modern Biblical criticism, and I felt I had been horribly cheated by my Catholic education. For many years after that, I avoided any Catholic works on the Bible and anything that had an Imprimatur or a Nihil Obstat. (People like Raymond Brown helped me get over that.)

Unagidon and Mary: you don't think it's true that the Muslim population in Europe is increasing? And that Muslim culture is becoming more visible and assertive?

We studied the Bible freshman year in Catholic High school (mid to late '70's). We had Christian morality sophomore year, Christian Marriage senior year ... I think we had electives as a junior - I took World Religions and Medical Ethics (those are two differenc classes!)In college, all undergrads were required to take at least three theology classes. Old and New Testament courses were offered and were pretty popular, although I didn't take them.

Fr. Komonchak, I don't know that the notion of "reading the Bible all the way through" is actually a helpful measure of biblical literacy. I know a lot of people who have tried this, found themselves bored or defeated, and concluded that reading the Bible is not for them, or that they've failed at it. So sad and unnecessary, really. Because of the nature of the material -- because it's a library of books, rather than a unified start-to-finish narrative -- it seems to me to be really fine to begin in a variety of places, as I'm sure you would agree. I also believe one can be highly biblically literate without having ever done a straight through reading. That's not to say that one should be satisfied with the "canon-within-a-canon" that is supplied, say, by an educational program or the Sunday Lectionary. We should value the whole Bible. There is much more there that could be read with profit. Also, let me hasten to add that I think a straight through reading of each of the gospel accounts is essential. But I wanted to add this nuance, because reading the Bible does seem daunting to people if they go about it in a naive way.

Paul, I think the Mexican population in the United States is expanding and becoming more visible and assertive. But I have no fears whatsoever that we are in any danger of being "taken over".

My Catholic formal education from 1939 to 1955 included occasional references to the Bible but no systematic study. I became interested in the OT as a child when I used to listen during one summer to a program on the radio that feature dramatization of stories from the OT. At the time I was listening there was a lot about Ahab, Jezebel, Jehu and of course Elijah. I tried to find the story in the Bible but the names of the books were different, and of course we called Elijah Elias in those days. I also read some stories in a reader for children. As an adult I had little interest in the Bible until some point about twelve years ago when I spotted Raymond Brown's Introduction to the NT in the Brown University Bookstore--I kid you not--and decided I ought to acquire a copy. I gradually became more and more drawn into the study of the Bible. I even took up Biblical Hebrew.On another note, this morning we learned from the homilist that Salome was Herod's "own daughter"!

Regarding biblical literacy, I wonder how many Christians ever spend much time reflecting on the idea of scripture as an imperfect (although still sacred) text:http://www.notsodeepthoughts.org/55-Reasons-Why-The-Bible-Is-Not-A-Perfe... religious and non-religious types would like people to know more about the Bible, should they know the above material as well?

I was fortunate enough to see Alec McCowen doing his solo performance of St. Mark's Gospelon stage here in New York.

About people seeking "something real" in religion --I'm not sure people are looking for reality at all these days. Last night at the end of one of the TV talk shows a singer sang a "Valentine" song. He promised his beloved this and that (all sexual) and at the end he promised, "I'll be your fantasy". Not "I'll make your fantasy real" but "I'll BE your fantasy", and he repeated it several times.It might partly be the hard times, but I think a trend towards escapism started some time ago, in the U.S. Possibly with the advent of the movies. It's so much easier to live in those virtual worlds, and to live movie stars lives' vicariouy when the vie is over. Hence the cult of celebrity. Somewhat the same thing could be said about books, of course, and don't we all know avid readers who seem to retreat into them. How to lure the escapists back to preferring reality might be one of our fundamental problems

Joe Pettit: It's not as if the things that unnecessarily shocked Bart Ehrman into unbelief were unknown before him. That says more about his prior education than about the Bible.Kathy and Joe Pettit: The same mistake is made in my edition of the NAB translation.Rita Ferrone: Yes, indeed, reading the whole Bible can be quite a slog, as I recall when I got to all those genealogies in the books of Chronicles (or Paralipomenon, as they used to be called in Catholic Bibles). I find it interesting that only one person above has said anything about a college-level course. Maybe I should add another question:How many courses in theology did you take in college? And what were their subjects?

If truth is one, then I cannot know the meaning of a single passage of the Bible without knowing everything about how things are, inside and outside the Bible. Otherwise I risk misinterpreting it. Plus, I have to be holy so that I am open to what it means and so don't play unacknowledged games when I turn to the business of sense-making.That is just depressing.

The other day I was recounting to one of my choirs the old MA exams in theology at CUA. We had to be able to outline any NT book, discuss authorship, etc. Some years the exam asked for a comparison between two books.

Mr. James: Your first criterion is too demanding. We don't know and will never know "everything about how things are, inside and outside the Bible." That would be like saying that we can't know anything until we know everything. Holiness can indeed be of great help.

Fr. Komonchak: Now who is not answering questions? You seem to indicate that the material from my lihk above (largely from Ehrman, indeed) is widely known. My experience is quite the opposite. So my question remains, should it be taught?As for undergraduate theology courses, my undergraduate life was rather unique. I was a theology major at Georgetown, and I spent my junior year at the University of Edinburgh where I studied nothing by systematic theology and New Testament (along with Koine Greek, which has largely gone by the wayside, I fear).

As with all things among Catholics, I find that biblical literacy varies. I direct an annual Institute on Sacred Scripture which will meet this June for the 47th consecutive year. Some people have been coming for a very long time, and they are quite knowledgeable about the Bible, the texts themselves and various methods of interpretation. They also expect high quality lecturers. I also speak in local parishes where there is still a high interest in the Bible. Usually the audiences are a bit more mixed, and literacy levels vary. But I think the interest is still there. I can remember several years ago how I was warned that the Institute on Sacred Scripture may see declining enrollments because most Catholics today are more interested in dogma than Scripture. I do not think that prophecy has been fulfilled. Our numbers have been steady for the past five years. My Catholic students are not as biblically literate as evangelical students in my classes are, but they are still very interested. We have a two course requirement in Theology, but many students take additional courses in their programs. The biblical courses are well subscribed. I have 41 students in my Portraits of Jesus in the New Testament this semester and 17 in an advance NT seminar on Paul, which is capped at 20 and meets at 8:50am.

Sorry, that should read "nothing but systematic theology." Serves me right for blogging without my reading glasses!

Mr. Pettit: I didn't say Ehrman's material was widely known but that it was known long before its discovery shocked him into unbelief. I don't have any problem with anyone's being made aware of those things as they arise in the various biblical books. That's how I learned about them. In the first serious course I had on the Bible--it was St. Mark's Gospel--we used the Nestle edition of the Greek NT, which had all the textual variants at the bottom of the pages.

When I attended Catholic primary school in the dark ages, we had 8 years of "bible history" which was effectively reading the Old Testament, with the goal of proving Catholic claims, of course. But we read it.I didn't go to Catholic high school so had to book larning in the New Testament.Is bible history simply an arcane course of studies that went the way of the Friday fast?

We had "salvation history" in the sixth grade (1970s).

I didnt say Ehrmans material was widely known but that it was known long before its discovery shocked him into unbelief. Fr. Komonchak,Bart Ehrman was not "shocked into unbelief" by the kinds of things Joe Pettit points out in his piece. Ehrman had been a fundamentalist who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, but gradually came to the opinion such a position was untenable. He became a "normal" Christian. He is now an agnostic, and he has made it clear that is was wrestling with the problem of evil that caused him to lose his faith, not the kinds of problems he has pointed out in Biblical texts. I do think the average Catholic would be shocked or at least surprised by a good course on the Gospels by how many contradictions there are in the Gospels and particularly by the conclusion of perfectly mainstream Catholic Biblical scholars about how much of the Gospels aren't history, what liberties Matthew and Luke took with the Gospel of Mark, how much the Gospels were shaped by the communities they were written for, and things like foreshadowing and predictions not actually being such, but being additions by the post-Resurrection community.I think a lot of things just go right past people. I remember reading in the Pelican Commentaries the story of Jesus and his disciples going through a corn field and picking grain on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees accusing Jesus of violating the Sabbath. The commentary began something like, "It is idle to ask what the Pharisees were doing in a corn field on the Sabbath." I laughed out loud and realized I had heard the story innumerable times and that question never occurred to me!

It's been a while, but ... the three theology courses I had as an undergrad included a "101" introductory course (I recall learning about the difference between theism and deism), taught by a kind old Italiam Jesuit by the name of Fr. Petani who referred to me in class as the "bearded prophet" (it was the '70's, after all ...)The second class I had ... I don't remember the title or the subject matter. But I remember the reading list: Viktor Frankl's The Unconscious God and CS Lewis' Mere Christianity. So perhaps it was a course on God and Man.Finally, I took "Church of Christ". The teacher was a wonderful old Jesuit named Fr. Earl Weis - the only instructor I had in four years at Loyola who actually began each class meeting with a prayer. The text was Models of the Church by Avery Dulles. I remember three things about the course: Fr. Weis ejected an obviously-in-love (or -lust) couple on the first day because they sat next to each other and he thought that was improper; he disputed Dulles' interpretation of Lumen Gentium's statement that the church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic church could possibly mean that other ecclesial communions somehow came under that umbrella ("I taught Fr. Dulles his Latin!" said Fr. Weis in some distress). And I persuaded him to let the entire class leave in the middle of class one sunny spring day because the Skylab (or was it the Space Shuttle? - would have been ca. 1981) was supposed to pass overhead. We stood outside and gazed skyward for 10 minutes but nothing transpired. He looked at me in a sort of disappointed way - I think he suspected I was pulling his leg - of which I was entirely capable, but would not have done to such a nice old man as him.I guess I remember the books more than the classes themselves.

Fr. Komonchak,To answer your questions: I took a few theology courses at the seminary while I was there. I also took some religious studies courses at my secular university. But as a high school teacher at a Catholic school, I am in the minority (even on religion teachers) having taken any theology courses. I took classes on the Old and New Testament, Sacraments, Ecclesiology and Christology.Unfortunately, most religion classes become sit around and talk about your feelings classes from my experience. Or worse, watch a movie and talk about your feelings. By time the students come to my grade 11 class few are aware of the distinction between OT and NT, many are even surprised that the bible is not one book written by one person. None are aware that the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant canons are different and as I said earlier, most seem unaware of the difference between Gentiles and Jews (ironically even one of my jewish students). I do agree with Jean's comments that historical knowledge will not produce a vibrant culture necessarily. But I cannot think that historical amnesia or ignorance will produce a culture worthy of the name. Without those roots to feel the budding culture and tie the culture to something larger than just trends, I think we end up with ahistorical sects that rapidly rise and fall leaving nothing but destruction in their wake.

Fr. Komonchak: Yes, that was silly of me. I have concerns about part-whole relationships in connection with the interpretation of the Bible, and I need to articulate them better.Quiz results:Never read the Bible all the way throughNever read the entire Old TestamentHave read this or that entire Old Testament book, but fewer than 5 totalAlmost read the entire New Testament, but not as a unified projectNever completed college-level courses on the Bible (though atheism doesn't stop all atheists from taking such courses, it stopped the atheist I was, and that goes for college-level theology too)

Apart from religious indoctrination, I'd always assumed that some measure of biblical literacy is a prerequisite for cultural literacy. In any event, the college-level introductory course I took also went into textual analyses, which was an eye-opener for me.

When I joined my RCIA class I was given a bible - my first, the NAB. We didn't actually use it much in RCIA, though. But I've read all the gospels through. And I've learned so much more about the bible since blogging ...... there are a number of biblio-bloggers online and one who's blog I especially like is a professor of NT studies at Duke University, Mark Goodacre. I have a recent post at my own blog on the synoptic problem and his podcast about it. Another resource - Jesuit Felix Just's Electronic New Testament Educational Resources page.

It has sometimes happened to me that a Calvinist (usually) will ask, well what about book x chapter y verse z? Since I almost never know the exact verse number I have to ask them to say what the verse is. My excuse is that Catholics know the words, not the numbers.A couple of decades of daily Mass and any regular exposure to the Office builds up a fairly "thick" knowledge of Scripture, even without extra study. Catholics know the words. Of course it would be even more so if we sang propers, or at the very least hymns that pointedly reference Scripture.

Answer to Fr K.'s quiz: "no" to all questions. But I am an avid reader of the Sunday Lectionary and mull over the Sunday readings throughout the preceding week (so as to prepare to hear the homily).True story about the loss of religious culture in France. -Middle school teacher: "What's a crucifix?" -Student:"It's a special kind of screwdriver for screws with a cross-shaped head".

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.