Thursday, June 21, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): 3, Eden - What We Once Knew

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As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. I'm in the process of moving into a new home in North Carolina and have had limited Internet access - so my posting has not been too frequent in the past couple of weeks, and will probably be sporadic for the next couple of weeks - but for now, here you'll find my notes for the first part of Chapter 3: Eden (What We Once Knew).

Chapter 3 marks the start of Prothero's historical investigation of religious literacy in America. One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was "Sola scriptura," "By Scripture alone," which was a defense of Bible-reading as a conduit for the grace of God: "So teaching reading became an act of nearly unparalleled piety, and acquiring basic literacy a religious duty." [60] Prothero provides quotations from both Catholic and Protestant decrees mandating the establishment of literacy education in the American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

With the advent of the American Revolution in the 18th century, there was an added civic need for literacy: "Now children needed to read not only to be good Protestants but also to be good citizens - to free themselves from the tyranny of popes as well as kings." [60] He includes this fine quote by James Madison: "A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." [61] To a limited extent, the literacy drive was even promoted among African Americans and Native Americans.

One such example that Prothero cites is Cotton Mather's North Church in Boston which provided an evening school for Indians and blacks. That is definitely a scene that intrigues me greatly; it's one of those places and moments in history that I would love to be a "fly on the wall" just to see and hear what went on there.

Prothero notes that although the motto was "sola scriptura," there were many catechisms in use, with hundreds of different catechisms circulating in the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Harry Stout, a church historian, concluded that an "average weekly church-goer in New England [...] listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime, totaling somewhere around fifteen thousand hours of concentrated listening" - which Prothero notes is about ten times the amount of lecturing that a college student hears during their career. [63] Outside of church, people were reading religious books at home: "as late as the early nineteenth century roughly two-fifths of the books in family libraries in rural New England were devoted to sacred subjects." [63]

Some of the titles which Prothero lists are Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Lewis Bayly's The Practice of Piety and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan is an author with many works that you can find online, as listed here at the Penn Online Books page. One of the great things about these historical titles is that they are in the public domain, and thus increasingly likely to be found online so that we can explore them for ourselves! Of the three books that Prothero listed, I only recognized one - Pilgrim's Progress - and I will confess that I have never read it, although I probably should (I use the phrase "slough of despond" all the time, which I believe derives from that book...?)

The religious learning that was promoted in this time was strictly Protestant, as Prothero explains: "The religious literacy that early Americans possessed was Protestant literacy of a sectarian sort. What they knew were the basic teachings, core practices, key values and Bible stories of Protestant Christianity as their particular denominations understood it." [64]

In the 17th century, families were actually required by law to teach their children at home, and Prothero cites the laws of various colonies to the effect that both children and servants in a household should be taught to read and instructed in religion. Writing was a skill taught to boys only, as it would serve them in their future careers, but reading was taught for religious purposes, to both girls and boys. There were adaptations of the Bible for youngsters, such as Spiritual Milk for Babes: Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, Chiefly for the spiritual nourishment of Boston Babes in either England: But may be of like use for any Children, by John Cotton, publishing in 1646. I was also able to find this online at the University of Nebraska! It's heavy-duty stuff, with scriptural citations for each question-and-answer, such as: "What is your corrupt Nature? My corrupt Nature is empty of Grace, bent unto sinne, and onely unto sinne, and that continually."

Prothero puts special emphasis on the scriptural focus of sermons in these early New England churches: "preachers rarely colored their sermons with tales from their own lives or the lives of their parishioners. They did biblical exegesis in the plain style, often for as long as two hours at a stretch, typically from notes or a complete manuscript." [67]

The passage of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 did outlaw federal religious establishments, but the advent of religious freedom only strengthened church attendance: "the vast spiritual marketplace brought on by the First Amendment would provide virtually all Americans with a religious option they could call their own. So church attendance boomed, and religious congregation sbecame even more effective transmitters of religious knowledge." [68]

During the 17th century, the home education effort became a school-based effort. Throughout the 18th century, "children learned their ABCs from scripture-saturated schoolbooks or from the Good Book itself." Then, in the early 19th century, immigration, particularly of Roman Catholics, made the schools a focal point for "Americanizing" the population. This was a specific concern of Protestants, who were alarmed by the increasing numbers of Roman Catholics: "From their early-nineteenth-century beginnings, common schools were very much a part of an unofficial yet powerful Protestant establishment. [...] They were religious in their leadership, faculty, curricula, and aims. Their textbooks called the Bible the Word of God, and their teachers endeavored to turn out not just good citizens but good Protestants." [71]

Prothero provides a detailed description of the first textbook in the colonies: the "hornbook," a one-page lesson on a board covered with a laminate of animal horn. Here is a page on the Internet where you can see some examples of hornbooks for yourself! Prothero then moves on to a discussion of the New England Primer, the most important American schoolbook throughout the 18th century. The religious bent of the book is entirely clearly, as from the alphabet rhyme, which begins:

A In Adam's Fall / We sinned all.
B Heaven to find; / The Bible Mind.
C Christ crucify'd / For sinners dy'd.

It also contains this famous prayer for children: Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Thanks to the wonderful Sacred Texts website, you can read the New England Primer (1777 edition) online. You should really take a look - the whole thing is fabulous. It also includes "Spiritual Milk for American Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments," etc. etc.

In the 19th century, Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book dominated: "Aggregate sales estimates converge in the range of 70 million, making Webster's speller one of the best-selling books of all time, behind only the Bible and perhaps Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung." [74] Although it is a secular book, the speller is full of Bible quotations and religious material. The first reading lesson goes like this:

No man may put off the law of God.
My joy is in his law all the day.
O may I not go in the way of sin!
Let me not go in the way of ill men.

Do you see the trick? Each word has only one syllable and no more than three letters. Supposedly easy for beginning readers, but there's definitely nothing childish about the sentiments expressed here! I found a copy of Webster's spelling book online also, and it is also full of wonderful things. Given that I am a proverb-fanatic (see my Latin audio proverbs blog), I was delighted by the proverbs:

Soon hot soon cold.
A good cow may have a bad calf.
He is a fool that will not give an egg for an ox.
You cannot have more of the cat than her skin.
He that lies down with dogs, must rise up with fleas.

There are even Aesop's fables, too (another of my personal passions, for which see So I guess I was born in the wrong century. Noah Webster's speller is definitely the book for me: Bible passages, fables and proverbs. That is the kind of literacy that resonates with me, even though I was not taught any of that in the schools I went to in the early 70s. I really owe Prothero a debt for having alerted me to the existence of these books. I promise an essay on the Aesop's fables in Noah Webster very soon!

Those are just my notes for the first half of this chapter; I'll have to come back and do the second half of the chapter next time. This was, I'll admit, my favorite part of Prothero's book since it introduced me to a world of texts that I knew must have existed, but which I had not known much about. What a delight to find that they are available online for our perusal, to supplement Prothero's basic survey of each one. So, next time I will proceed on to McGuffey's Readers - assuming I can get some Internet access in the coming days. I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): 2 - Religion Matters

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As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. Last time I posted some notes about Chapter 1, A Nation of Religious Illiterates. In this post you'll find my notes for Chapter 2: Religion Matters.

Prothero opens this chapter with some reflections on secularism and how, not that long ago, the secularism of late 1960s and 1970s prompted American academics to propose something called "secularization theory." Prothero suggests that the whole notion may have been groundless to begin with: "Theorists who postulated the death of religion under modernity's crush (or, at a minimum, its retreat into the closet of the private) often based their predictions on nothing more substantial than the vague air of skepticism they detected at the dean's sherry hour." [40]

What is especially interesting is that various forces within the religious world, rather than fighting modernism, have actually embraced it and turned it for their own purposes, showing that there is no inherent entailment of secularism in modernity: "Religion and modernity have become fast friends, with evangelicals borrowing (and sanctifying) virtually every accoutrement of modern life: theater, radio, rock music, marketing, advertising, television and the Internet, to say nothing of individualism and consumer capitalism." [40]

It's very interesting reading Prothero's brief overview of the entanglement of religion and politics as we are about to embark on the latest presidential campaign, with the Democratic candidates professing their faith in a public forum sponsored by Sojourners. This forum marks a self-conscious attempt by the Democrats to move away from the situation that Prothero describes in this book when "in the 1990s a double-digit 'God gap' opened up among frequent worshippers between the Democrats (now understood as the secular party) and the Republicans (the 'faith-based' alternative)." [42] No wonder the Democrats are trying this new strategy, given the statistics that Prothero reports here: "During the 1960s and 1970s there had been no discernible party preference among religious practitioners; religious affiliation was politically irrelevant. In 1992, however, frequent worshippers (those who attend religious congregations at least once a week) preferred Bush the Elder over Bill Clinton by 14 percentage points. that gap widened to 20 percent in the 2000 Bush-Gore and 2004 Bush-Kerry elections, dwarfing the proverbial gender gap." [42]

In short, the "secularization theorists" have given up the concept as irrelevant to understanding American society today. Prothero quotes Peter Berger, a prominent sociologist who had promoted secularization theory, as saying "the whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken." [43]

This is not to say that there is no such thing as secularism, but Prothero argues that instead of being viewed as an inevitable trend, it is secularism that needs to be explainined as a bit of an unexpected oddity: "What needs explaining is not the persistence of religion in modern socieities, but the emergency of unbelief in Europe and among American leaders in media, law and higher education." [43]

Whatever the cause, the consequences of the disconnect between religion and education have clearly had seriously negative consequences. In an assessment of high school textbooks, Prothero observes: "After President Lincoln is buried, religion typically goes underground too, leaving students with the distinct impression that, insofar as religion has had any historical effects, those effects are now safely behind us. In fact, according to one study of US history textbooks, there is typically more discussion of railroads than religion in the postbellum period." [44] Prothero then provides a brief overview of American history pointing to example after example of crucial historical developments in which religion was a key factor.

One interesting item from this list was in Prothero's inventory of social movements (abolitionism, temperance movement, etc.) was his reference to the origin of the "what would Jesus do?" phrase. Apparently it comes from a novel, In His Steps, published in 1897 by a Congregationalist minister, Charles M. Sheldon. As Prothero notes: "Charles M. Sheldon is remember today for bequeathing to us the query "What would Jesus do?" but its original purpose was to drive home the point that if Jesus were out and about in Victorian America, he would be caring for slum dwellers, not selling steel." [48]

I was also intrigued by this comment regarding the Japanese interment camps of WWII: "Religion mattered during World War II, when the federal government packed virtually every Japanese American Buddhist in the country off to an internment camp, in part because government officials confused Buddhism with Shinto (in which the Japanese emperor was worshipped as a god)." This is a recurring theme in Prothero's book. He is concerned that when religion is a factor in public policy, public ignorance about religion will lead to badly misinformed policies.

In a later chapter, Prothero will provide a detailed analysis of the historical evolution of religious education in America, and in this chapter he starts to set out the general lines of that evolution. I'm going to include a rather long quote here, since it is essential to the main historical argument of Prothero's book [52]:
The current booms in homeschooling and evangelical private schooling can be credited in part to a widespread perception among conservative Christian parents that public schools have gone over to the secular side. Recently some conservative Christians have called for what might be termed a 'second disestablishment' of the public schools. Whereas the first disestablishment, effected over the course of the nineteenth century, got rid of a sectarian bias toward Protestantism in public schools, this second disestablishment takes aim at sectarian bias toward 'secular humanism.' Turning the tables on liberal critics of fundamentalists' efforts to censor such books as Catch-22 and Heather Has Two Mommies, conservative Christian critics contend that secular humanists are now effectively censoring schoolbooks and, though them, the public schools themselves.
Prothero will have a great deal more to say in a later chapter about that "first disestablishment" of religion in American education and it is a truly fascinating story, so stay tuned for that one!

In my own teaching, I've had students who are shocked that we read so many religious texts in my classes. They seem to think that the "separation of church and state" means that there is no place for religious texts in humanities courses at a state university. Yet, while they are shocked that they are 'allowed' (as they often put it) to read religious texts in these classes, by and large they are fascinated by the texts and ask for recommendations on more to read. The flexible format of my classes has allowed me to include a wide variety of religious texts and I love introducing my students to the incredible storytelling traditions of Hinduism (I teach a course on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), Buddhism (jataka tales!), Judaism (Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews is available online - a priceless resource), Christianity (especially texts unknown to Protestant students, like Susannah and the Elders, Daniel and the Dragon, etc.), and Islam (the glorious treasure-trove of Sufi tales).

Prothero, thankfully, helps sort through the legal background, showing that teaching ABOUT religion in schools is not illegal! In fact, just the opposite, as he explains: "This muzzling of religion is not only unfair, it is likely unconstitutional. As a series of recent Supreme Court rulings has made plain, the First Amendment requires that the public schools be neutral with respect to religion. That means not taking sides among the religions, not favoring Christianity over Buddhism, for example, or the Baptists over the Lutherans. But it also means not taking sides between religion and irreligion." [53]

Finally, there was also a comment that Prothero made about the larger historical context of this problem which really resonated with me personally. I am not a "religious person" in the sense that I do not go to church, but at the same time my cultural interests are firmly tied to those cultures which put religion at the center of things, where art (music, literature, poetry) is inspired by the profound force of religious mystery. Romanticism has always marked a kind of tragic shift for me in terms of European culture, when the mysteries of religion seemed to morph into a tedious self-obsession with individual ego, numbingly solipsistic. Anyway, Prothero made what seems to me a very astute comment about how it is not simply the Enlightenment but also Romanticism which is at work in the divorce from religion we see today in so much of education and the mass media: "Schoolbooks tend to trivialize religion because of the secular biases of those who write and publish them. Eurosecularity is rampant in both higher education and the media, textbook publishing's two homes. The former answers to the Englightenment and the latter to Romanticism, but neither takes religion as seriously as the American public does. Many authors and publishers are as a result convinced that religion just doesn't matter, except perhaps to the ancient past." [54]

I'm not a historian by training, and I don't tend to think "historically" about things, but I am really intrigued by the historical observations which Prothero shares with us in this book. In the next chapter, he embarks on a wonderful historical exploration of American schooling starting in the colonial period. It's one of my favorite chapters in the book, so I hope I will be able to find the time to blog my notes for that chapter very soon. Stay tuned!

For now, those are my notes for Chapter 2. I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): 1 - A Nation of Religious Illiterates

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As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. Last time I posted some notes about the Introduction. In this post you'll find my notes for Chapter 1: A Nation of Religious Illiterates.

Prothero opens the chapter with an observation that I think is very important - both believers and non-believers are dissatisfied with the religious discourse we have today: "The emotions on both sides of this question are understandable, though the irony of the situation - in which each camp sees itself as a victim and believes that the other is seizing control of the country - seems lost on everyone concerned. The fact of the matter is that, in the American marketplace of ideas, neither faith nor faithlessness is close to either bankruptcy or monopoly." [22]

Part of it is the underlying paradox of the America's situation from its very beginnings, as Prothero points out: "Thanks to the establishment clause, the US government is secular by law; thanks to the free exercise clause, American society is religious by choice. Ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold a godless Constitution, the United States has been both staunchly secular and resolutely religious." [22]

Pursuing the motif with which he opened the book, Prothero notes the sharp contrast here with Europe: "Many theological doctrines that Europeans now dismiss as fables - heaven and hell, angels and the devil - are enthusiastically affirmed by the vast majority of Americans. Out of every ten adults in the United States, more than nine believe in God, more than eight say that religion is important to them personally, and more than seven report praying daily." [23]

Yet despite the pervasiveness of religion in people's lives, their religious literacy is low. In this chapter, Prothero includes his "Religious Literacy Quiz" which you can find online. You can certainly quibble with individual items on this quiz and how it is constructed, but as a rough-and-ready instrument for measuring religious literacy, it looks like it could do the job, since I think everybody would agree that someone who does not pass this quiz (which Prothero defines as a score of 60% or better) would definitely have some serious gaps in their religious knowledge.

Yet as Prothero reports, "most of my students flunked this exam." [28] These are college students at Boston University. Prothero also reports similar results from colleagues at UNC Chapel Hill and Wheaton College in Illinois.

He goes on to explain, however, that the study of religious literacy is not something that scholars have focused on, so there is basically not very much data to go on. Researchers have studied levels of church membership, what people believe about the supernatural or about social issues, such as the role of women in the church, but religious knowledge per se has not been systematically studied.

One anecdotal study was done by a journalist in 2005 who called up ten cosponsors of a bill in Alabama that promoted the public display of the Ten Commandments. Of the ten cosponsors, only one could name ten of the Commandments. [31]

True confession: I could only name 8 out of what are effective 12 commandments, since there are different versions of the commandments in the various versions of the Bible - I forgot to honor my father and mother, and I forgot not to bear false witness against my neighbors! Yet perhaps the more important thing to confess is this: after I listed the first four or five commandments that came to mind, the way I managed to dredge up the other ones that were bouncing around in my brain was by remembering the booming voice in Cecil B. DeMille's movie, The Ten Commandments. Even though I have spent decades of my life in formal education and now teach at a university, it was Hollywood who came to my rescue when taking that part of Prothero's quiz.

Prothero devotes specific attention to the fact that it is not just university students who are in trouble, but also people who are participants in church-sponsored education, including Catholic catechetical training. Prothero includes a very telling quote from John Cavadini of Notre Dame's Department of Theology: "The problem is that somehow the doctrines got lost and we were left with only our desires, hopes, fears, and dreams, together with broad-stroke connections to a few marquee items like Jesus, God (the relationship between them left fuzzy), the Spirit. Most other items were left behind in a penumbra of distinguished but cozy irrelevance." [34]

In what will be one of the most important themes in Prothero's book, he points to "a shift in emphasis from participating in the sacraments to loving Jesus and a growing tendency to reduce the sum of religion to moral behavior." Prothero will return again frequently to this point, not because he is uninterested in moral behavior, but because the question of moral behavior is, in fact, separate from the question of civic participation which is his main emphasis in this book.

The chapter concludes with what is for me one of the most thought-provoking anecdotes of the entire book. Prothero cites the jury deliberations for a murder trial in Colorado in 1995. While the jury debated whether or not to apply the death penalty, a member of the jury pulled out an actual Bible which he had with him and pointed out the Leviticus passage about "eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth" and "he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death." The juror then allegedly told the other members of the jury to go home and consult their Bibles and to pray on the verdict. The next day the jury unanimously voted for the death penalty. Ten years later, in 2005, the appeals process led to the Colorado Supreme Court overturning the decision, ruling that jurors were not allowed to consult the Bible. Prothero then explains:
"In the ensuing hue and cry, conservative Christians, drawing on time-honored culture wars rhetoric, denounced the decision. [...] Few noticed, however, just how impoverished were the exegetical skills of the jury. There are very few passages from the Hebrew Bible that are explicitly rejected in the New Testament, but Leviticus 24:20-21 is one of them, since in Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus says, 'Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' The purpose of citing this passage is neither to provide divine sanction for nonviolence nor to forestall a reading of the Bible in favor of capital punishment, but simply to offer yet another case study in the dangers of religious illiteracy. Were any jurors aware of Jesus' refutation? [...] At least for me,t he moral of this story is neither (as the Colorado Supreme Court ruled) that Americans should not bring Bibles into the jury box nor (as Focus on the Family argued) that they should. The moral is rather than it jurors are going to consult scripture - and, court rulings aside, they doubtless are - then those jurors should at least have the decency (and the piety) to try to get the Bible right.

Finally, I do have to point out that it was in this chapter I found what I think must be some kind of error in Prothero's notes that definitely should be corrected. At a certain point he says: "Even atheists and agnostics have a religious illiteracy rant. The Weststar Institute, the think tank behind the notorious Jesus Seminar (which took it upon itself in the 1980s and 1990s to decide what Jesus really said and did), describes itself as 'educational institute dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy.'" [37] I'm not sure why Prothero lists the folks at Weststar Institute as "atheists and agnostics," because they most assuredly are not that. I happen to be a big fan of the Weststar Institute publications such as The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus and The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition because they attempt to take complicated critical debates about the Biblical text and to present those debates for a lay audience. Fellows of the Jesus Seminar include fabulous folks such as John Dominic Crossan, Bernard Brandon Scott, et al. I'm guessing that Prothero got his note cards switched or something like that, perhaps mixing up Weststar Institute with a bona fide atheistic institute with a similar name.

So, those are my notes for Chapter 1. I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): Introduction

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As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. Here, then, are some notes about the Introduction to the book, and my reflections.

Prothero begins with an anecdote about an Austrian colleague who commented to him that while European students know much more than American students about the cultural history of religion, they do not go to church, while American students seemed to him much more likely to be church-goers, but to know next to nothing about the cultural history of religion. As Prothero states the problem: "One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates." [2]

By posing the problem as one of "religious literacy" (and "illiteracy"), Prothero very self-consciously puts himself in the line of E.D. Hirsch's book, Cultural Literacy, which came out in 1987. (Although that book is not online, the companion volume, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, by E. D. Hirsch, et al. is online at Bartleby - and it includes a Bible section). I have not read Hirsch's book, but he apparently presents the thesis that American cultural literacy was undermined by the educational reforms of John Dewey. Prothero picks up on that argument, and is quite sympathetic to it. Here is what Prothero says:
"When I frst began teaching in the early 1990s I was a follower of Dewey and the progressives. [...] I cared about having challenging conversations, and I offered my quiz-free classrooms as places to do just that. I soon found, however, that the challenging conversations I coveted were not possible without some common knowledge - common knowledge my students plainly lacked. [...] In this way I became, like Hirsch, a traditionalist about content, not because I had come to see facts as the end of education but because I had come to see them as necessary means of understanding. [3]
This is a topic I'll come back to in separate posts. I started out my teaching career as a devoted follower of Dewey, and have become even more of one in the past years - but this does not mean I am uninterested in the problem of literacy. So, this is definitely a topic to return to in a later post.

Prothero then has to pose the problem of why, within the larger field of cultural literacy, religion deserves special attention. This is something that Prothero considers to be an objective issue, not purely one of personal choice: "Today religious illiteracy is at least as pervasive as cultural illiteracy, and certainly more dangerous. Religious illiteracy is more dangerous because religion is the most volatile constituent of culture, because religion has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for good in world history, one of the greatest forces for evil." [4] Prothero notes again and again how pervasive religions has become in American politics and public life: "Ninety percent of the members of Congress, by one report, consult their religious beliefs when voting on legislation," [5] he says, for example.

As someone who grew up on identity politics and the mantra of race, class, gender, I found this remark to be especially striking: "Religion is now emerging alongside race, gender, and ethnicity as one of the key identity markers of the twenty-first century." [5]

Throughout the book, Prothero will list many howlers where people in public pronouncements or in surveys of some kind demonstrate abysmal religious literacy. One of my favorite examples is this one: "A few years ago no one in Jay Leon's Tonight Show audience could name any of Jesus' twelve apostles, but everyone, it seemed, was able to list the four Beatles." [5] Now, I'm not so sure they could name none of the apostles, but I have no doubt at all that they were able to name all four Beatles. Everybody knows John, Paul, George and Ringo! Our heads are, indeed, full of facts - but they are facts that come to us from modern mass media, reinforced by consumer culture. As for the twelve apostles, do you want to try to name them? (Click here to see a list of the twelve when you are done.)

Prothero writes very eloquently about how the loss of religious literacy is a kind of national forgetting. In particular, it is an effect of the melting pot, in the worst sense of that word: "In conforming themselves to American culture, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism had become little more than parallel paths up the mountain of the American dream." [7] For Prothero, this constitutes a kind of civic crisis: "You need religious literacy in order to be an effective citizen." [9]

Prothero admits that using the term "religious literacy" is a bit of shorthand. There are many religions and many literacies, too. He provides a thought-provoking list of the many kinds of literacies that could be taught: ritual literacy, confessional literacy, denominational literacy, narrative literacy and so on. (I'll have a great deal to say about narrative literacy in future posts, since that is my own interest both as a student of religion and as a teacher.)

Throughout the book, Prothero's choice of emphasis for both specific religions and specific types of literacy will be driven by the question of what he thinks people need to know in order to be more effective participants in American civic culture today. Hence the emphasis on Christianity, as that is the dominant religion in the world today. I noticed that in books reviews at Amazon, people were very disappointed in Prothero's emphasis on Christianity, but he is very clear from the outset about his reasons for this emphasis.

In addition, Prothero makes a strategic choice to focus on the educational changes that could take place at high schools and colleges in order to promote religious literacy: "The most effective way forward is to focus on secondary schools and colleges." [16]. As a college instructor, this is something I think about a lot: what are the changes we can and should make to university courses in order to promote general cultural literacy and religious literacy in particular? What do I need to do as a teacher in order to tackle this serious problem? I'll have a lot to say about this in future posts as well, although for now I will just say that as someone who teaches at a research university where the professors are considered, first and foremost, to be scholars, I've concluded that there is nothing like scholarship to get in the way of basic literacy. :-)

So, those are the notes I had highlighted in reading through the Introduction to the book. I'll save my more detailed personal responses for separate posts later. Meanwhile, questions or comments here are always welcome - and I do highly recommend the book! It's still just out in hardback, unfortunately, but surely a paperback edition will be available soon. It's also available in audiobook form at - which is how I happened to read the book in the first place. It's pretty rare for me to actually go out and buy a copy of a book after listening to it, but this book was so thought-provoking for me that I actually went out and got a hard copy, which is quite an endorsement in and of itself! I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Book Reviews

BLOG HAS MOVED: Please visit

for the latest version of this entry.

Another activity I hope we can promote here at the blog is book reviews, sharing favorite books and ideas about books to use for teaching.

In particular, a big impetus for this blog is the new book by Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. I hope we will be able to provide a detailed commentary and discussion of that book here at this blog!

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