Holland: Bible literacy has always been part of education

Scott Holland
Scott Holland

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell recently reported a brief story about a war veteran stopping to help someone changing a tire on the Washington, D.C., beltway, then realizing the stranded driver was former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It turns out the helper, who had one leg partially amputated, was headed to the same destination: a medical appointment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“That’s what we’re all about, taking care of each other,” Powell told Mitchell in a short but emotional clip. “That’s what makes America great. We’ve gotta stop screaming and shouting at each other and start taking care of each other.”

It was indeed a heartwarming tale, and Powell’s Facebook account of the interaction generated more than 1 million interactions.

In a tweet promoting the segment, Mitchell wrote: “Powell’s encounter with a good Samaritan offers a welcome reminder of what matters when two ex-soldiers meet.”

The story was a welcome reminder of what matters, but the tweet was an unwelcome indicator of a lack of biblical literacy.

The point of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, as told in the gospel of Luke, is not simply that one stranger helped another. Before the Samaritan arrives at the scene, the Jewish traveler has been beaten, robbed, stripped naked and left for dead. And then Jesus notes a priest and a Levite individually passed without helping, despite it being in each man’s calling to care for a fellow Jew in such a position.

Samaritans and Jews despised one another, and so it would’ve made sense for the third man to carry on his way. But he is the one who, moved with compassion, bound the traveler’s wounds, put him on his own animal and took him to town and paid for his care.

Jesus told this story in response to a lawyer’s inquiry, “Who is my neighbor?” At the end of the tale, the lawyer acknowledges that the Samaritan acted as the true neighbor, “He who showed mercy.”

Powell and the wounded soldier weren’t enemies. The veteran stopped to help before he recognized Powell, which is commendable, but his isn’t a story of someone setting aside a deeply held prejudice in recognition of another man’s essential humanity.

I share these thoughts not to flaunt my Presbyterian upbringing or college religion minor, but to stump for the importance of studying religious writings for their literary value, a rare area where I partially agree with our president.

“Numerous states introducing Bible literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible,” President Donald Trump tweeted Jan. 28. “Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

The issue I take with his statement is not whether studying biblical writings is a good idea, but whether such instruction ever went away.

Honors English III at Ottawa High School asks students to “analyze the historical, cultural, social, political, religious, psychological and philosophical influences on writers and their works,” according to a course description on the school website. Streator High School’s world history curriculum incorporates the influence of religions on geopolitics, presumably true at all schools. Seneca High School’s English IV class includes a nine-week unit on medieval England, which necessarily explores political upheaval in the church of that period, and the school also offers a class called The Holocaust in History.

Even if students aren’t reading something as overtly Christian as Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” or John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” there are countless works deep with religious symbolism, including the commonly taught novels such as William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” or John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Mitchell might’ve misstated the deeper lesson of the parable, but the fact that people easily understood her basic allusion is evidence of the New Testament’s pervasiveness. The Bible is a foundational piece of world literature, and although there’s ample evidence its intrinsic themes aren’t widely understood, it’s wrong to suggest the text isn’t taught in public classrooms.

Among strains of the faithful, there are deep concerns about teaching the Bible solely as literature because of the implication that nothing on those pages is any more real than the fiction of a “Star Wars” movie. Still others suggest that Christian stories are taught disproportionately to sacred texts of other religions, contributing to a lack of understanding about Jews, Hindus, Muslims and more.

Certain politicians might prefer schools be allowed to read a verse such as Deuteronomy 28:52 or Psalm 122:7 along with morning announcements. (I’d vote for Psalm 133:1 or Micah 6:8.)

But indoctrination is different from analysis, and there’s no valid argument that the Bible is irrelevant to understanding society.

• Scott Holland is a former associate editor of The Ottawa Times who continues to contribute his column as well as help with editing and writing. He can be reached at, or 

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