A head of humanities writing for Tes recently suggested that all state schools should be teaching the Classics, because being able to recognise and decode references to Hercules or Cupid would give young readers a deeper understanding of the texts they study.
But this got me thinking – what about Biblical literacy? Sunday school may be old hat but Biblical references are as much a part of literature as Classical allusions are.
Having a basic grounding in the Bible would put pupils in a stronger position to appreciate its influence across the subjects they study, and would also give them a head start if they went on to pursue the arts or humanities at university.
Here are four reasons why I think we should be teaching about the Bible in English lessons, as well as in the RE classroom.
1. To contextualise discussion about good and evil
The conflict between good and evil is a key idea in the Bible. Understanding this as the basis for how artists and writers represent these concepts provides a starting point to broaden discussions around characters and their actions. For example, the depiction of Satan as a beautiful angel, thrown out of heaven for rebellion, is a motif repeated throughout literature. Rochester, in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, laments his own status as a fallen angel figure, but without knowing the reference, pupils won’t understand why.
2. To make sense of gender stereotypes
Looking at how men and women are represented in the Bible can help pupils to make sense of stereotypical gender roles in literature. As far as female characters go, a virginal Madonna-like figure is frequently contrasted with an Eve-like temptress. In terms of male portrayals, saviour and superhero are not far apart. Echoing Jesus’ sacrifice of his life to save humanity, Magwitch, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, attempts to be Pip’s sacrificial saviour.
3. To help pupils interpret symbols and metaphors
Symbolism is common in the Bible and many of these symbols have become universal. For instance, stories featuring a theme of guilt frequently borrow from the Bible’s reference to Pontius Pilate’s handwashing; Macbeth has multiple references to bloody hands as a metaphor for guilt – “Out, damned spot!” being the most famous. There are many other symbols, particularly in the Book of Revelation, which has influenced not only literature, but apocalyptic films and media, too.
4. To aid understanding of historical context
Works of art reflect the context in which they are created, and for many texts, this means a society steeped in religion. From Shelley to Steinbeck, writers tend to reflect their era’s concerns about science and religion. Having knowledge of the Bible can help pupils to unpick these concerns.
Can young people enjoy literature without Biblical knowledge? Yes, of course. But with it, they’ll be accessing higher ideas and perhaps higher grades, too.
Fran Hill is a writer and part-time English teacher at a girls’ independent school @beingFran