The Bible As Literature: Read It To Improve Your Writing, If Nothing Else

It’s not often that this blog intersects with conversations about religion and education policy. But as a communications professional, someone who trades in words, words, words … we are, thanks to this recent op-ed by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. Basically, they’re saying what educated people, writers, and readers know the world over, and I agree: You cannot be ignorant of the Bible. I’m not saying we should all be Bible scholars. I’m saying it’s not useful to be unaware of the literature or its influence.

Seeing Colbert switch fluidly from mock-pundit to serious social justice
      advocate is made that much more powerful at roughly :29 when he references
“the least of my brothers.” See Lisa Moraes’ full write-up of the event.

The Bible doesn’t just inform legal systems and ethics the world over, it’s a cornerstone to so much western literature, which then trickles down to art, and culture, and music. Yeah, the oped is part of the marketing machine for a show about the Bible, but Downey and Burnett are right that something is being lost if we’re collectively biblically illiterate, unaware of where many common sayings, truisms, and cliches  come from and remain in use the world over.

No I do not know Downey or Burnett, am not affiliated with them or their show. And in case you think I’m playing favorites, I would say that this is true of important and dominant religious texts and works of literature in any culture. If you’ve never cracked open a Quran, you’re at a distinct disadvantage in huge swaths of the world, many of them not in the Middle East. And if you want to go to South Asia, you’re at a distinct disadvantage if you aren’t aware of the Ramayana or, my favorite, the Mahabharata.


Draupadi, disrobed in full court after the chess game. Not knowing what that means in South Asia really is like not knowing that turkey’s traditional on Thanksgiving.

I just happen to be thinking over the Bible because well, I live in the U.S. where I see the biblical illiteracy in action all too often, sometimes in painful hilarity:

  • No, The Byrds didn’t actually come up with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” all by themselves – did you not watch Footloose?
  • The most awesome “Kings,” sadly shortlived, didn’t write itself.
  • And let’s not get into how many people don’t understand why Charleton Heston parts the seas every Easter Sunday on ABC. (Hint: Passover, which often overlaps with Easter, is rather important in Old Testament, which is part of the Bible.)

And yes, there are LOTS of people who misinterpret or remain just as woefully ignorant of their own _______ (insert religion of your choice) heritage, and conveniently ignore the social justice and compassion that is demanded of them by their faith. But I’ve already digressed madly, and we can only address so many things in one post, yes? So, back to the Bible.


To me, the question isn’t whether the Bible should be taught in American public schools. The question, more than “Which one?” is “How?”

How does one teach the Bible (especially the much beloved and seemingly go-to but highly complicated King James version), not as religious teaching, but as “a primary document of Western civilization” as Downey and Burnett put it? Because, here’s the thing: Not everyone is going to be fortunate enough as I was to have a Prof. Batten. Let me explain.

I got a BA in English from UCLA – Go Bruins! – where one of the electives I took was “The Bible as Literature – New Testament.” And I was quite intimidated on the first day of class. Because I suddenly took note of a lot of people with big heavy ornate Bibles on their desks. Suddenly, the fact that I was a lapsed Hindu largely raised in the Middle East, seemed to uncomfortably outweigh the fact that I was quite well-read.

In came Prof. Charles Lynn Batten, who announced several things after welcoming us to his class. And I’m paraphrasing here because it’s been, um, many years.

This is class, not church.

He was raised Baptist in Virginia, and raised among people could recite entire sections of the King James by heart. He had the utmost respect for faith. However, if anyone in class thought that was going to be a factor in grading, they needed to reconsider. Furthermore, if the faithful thought this was going to be an easy A, they were invited to seriously reconsider their choice of elective.

Swan Family Bible

A family bible dating from the 1890s. I think I’d be ill if a classmate scribbled over something that old. (

This ain’t your family Bible.

If anyone planned to use a special Bible gifted on the occasion of a confirmation or such like, or if anyone was hesitant to write in the margins, leave food stains on the pages during sloppy all-nighters, or generally treat the holy book reverently …  they were invited to reconsider. We were all invited, and encouraged to trek down to the college bookstore where the cheap paperback was available.

Context, again.

This class would treat the Bible as literature, would treat and dissect it in historical context as a piece of its time, and see who had actually done the writing because hey! King James didn’t actually write anything, had the KJV written by committee, and had intended for the text to be a political and theological compromise between the established church and the growing Puritan movement. Hardly shocking  …. if you’ve actually had a serious education, have ever attended seminary, are trained to think critically, and always consider the source of your information, with a smidge of cynicism.

Which one's in your hotel nightstand? None.

Which one’s in your hotel nightstand? None. (Taliesin/Morguefile)

But it was probably quite the brain turner for those who’d never questioned that “the Bible tells me so.” Because the second and third class were not quite as full. All the Bibles on desks were college bookstore issue. There were some faithful who remained in class. And the next nine weeks of discussion and written work weren’t just impassioned and thorough, they were academically rigorous in a way that opened up my world.

The point is this, rather simple, and again hardly shocking – it’s not just what you teach, it’s how you teach it. Particularly with something like the Bible. Are we prepared to teach generations to read a cardinal and still emotionally charged piece of text with a respectful yet deeply questioning, secular, and sometimes cynical approach? And what would it take to do that across school districts nation wide?

On a totally different note …

I have to also mention that one of the few things Prof. Batten insisted upon in class was our complete attention. We could be eating, sleeping, zoning, or doodling during lectures. Heck, we could make out for all he cared, and he mentioned ignoring precisely such a thing once – entirely possible in the last few rows 400+ amphitheater-style classrooms reserved for the junior year intro courses. What he would not countenance was our reading something else. And he meant that. I distinctly remember him stopping cold in the middle of a lecture to walk half-way up the hall – a whole ominous half-minute – to crisply remove The Daily Bruin from inside a student’s notebook. There were no words exchanged. The student left, lecture continued, Prof. Batten picked up from where he left off. I don’t think he even waited to go back to the stage.

How does that work today? I caught up with Prof. Batten, whose was incredibly gracious about a fact-checking former student, that too over a weekend. His rules have kept up with the times – if he catches you on Facebook, you’re outta there. So noted!