Rob Boston is the Editor of Church & State (Americans United for Separation of Church and State). Here we talk about secular interpretations of religious literature for educational purposes, where there should be souciance over texts from the religious traditions regarding literary import.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Margaret Atwood sees three sources in Western literature. One in the Bible. Another in folktales and legends. A further one in Shakespeare, because he’s good. How can religious texts provide a basis for a greater appreciation for honoured literature in the Western, and other, traditions?
Rob Boston: I think an educated person needs to be familiar with the Bible on at least a basic level. You don’t need to accept its claims literally, of course, but you need to know the most prominent stories because they have, for better or worse, had a huge impact on Western culture and society.
Biblical themes are common in literature and even in everyday conversation. If I told you that someone I know has the troubles of Job, you have to know who Job is or it makes no sense. Book titles like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth contain biblical references, and biblical allusions are common in many works of literature. Biblical themes have also inspired art and music. As I said, one does not need to accept the Bible’s claims as true to appreciate these works.
Jacobsen: How are the books comprising the Bible important for the knowledge of the intellectual traditions rejecting them?
Boston: Obviously, those who aspire to subject the Bible to critical analysis need to know what it says and, perhaps more importantly, how it came to be. Fundamentalist interpretations are easy to knock down because there’s simply no evidence for certain claims found in the Bible – such as the creation story and Noah’s Ark. But the book also has a metaphorical meaning, and here is where I think things get interesting. What, if anything, can it teach us? The Bible is sprawling work pulled together over thousands of years, and some of its ethics reflect the pre-scientific societies that spawned it. The Old Testament contains horrific stories of war, violence and abuse, but some of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament speak of the need to help the poor, which many people find appealing. I think we need to look at the Bible as we would any ancient text. The writings of Greek and Roman philosophers contain many disturbing things, such as sanctioning slavery and subjugation of women. They are products of their time. But that does not mean there may not be elements that still speak to us today.
Jacobsen: How can a younger person infused in a culture of popular media including social media and cheap entertainment rediscover and appreciate the literary and cultural import of religious writings?
Boston: I would push this question out a bit. I worry about the future of great literature, whether it is religious or secular. I think attention spans are dwindling, and social media is not helping. Our schools at all levels need to stress the importance of the written word. It’s not an either/or situation. There’s no reason why a young person can’t enjoy time on social media and action movies yet still read serious novels or works of non-fiction. The good news is that, in America, at least, most people are still reading. A 2018 poll showed that 75 percent said they read books. Parents have an important role to play. Studies have shown that children who are read to from an early age and who see their parents reading will become readers themselves. The challenge is getting people to engage with serious literature, whether classic or modern, and the humanities. Sometimes I look at the bestsellers list in the newspaper, and the fiction section is all genre works, and the non-fiction section is all self-help books or political tirades. Some of that is all right, I suppose, but a steady diet of it indicates a society that is turning away from serious thought.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rob.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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