Bible-spotting: A Noah’s Ark for Christian College Students?



I live in the deep South, in the Bible Belt, and to situate myself further, I would say I live on its belt buckle. When my wife and I moved here 22 years ago from Texas, a state which many think is already subject to the loud thump of the bible which rivals only that of the relentless pursuit of winning in football, we were in for an awakening.

Yes, people here take their Christian faith very seriously and there is nothing wrong with professing one’s faith as long as one practices onto others the golden rule, or as I always say, just treat others with respect and be a kind human being.

Lest this turn into a long treatise on faith, which in itself would be a losing proposition because many people tend to get angry and irrational when discussing religion–their ears get plugged up and they start wagging their tongues–let us all turn to this page which says: I discovered that my self-professed Christian students were often times unable to recognize anything having to do with the bible when we discussed literature.

I would lead them trough the vast desert of the fine-print text of the Norton anthology, both British and American, and even T.S. Eliot, who somehow managed to squeeze himself into the narrow openings of both the PR and PS library sections as well gain admission to both the American and English literature anthologies, was just about immune from any student being able to pick out any biblical references.

I explained of course to my students that literature is filled with or full of biblical imagery and allusions, but even Christ-imagery proved difficult for them to spot in Southern authors such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

It was not that I was trying to indoctrinate the students with religion and have them become believers and get saved, though I did express that being able to recognize allusions to the bible would enrich their readings of the works as would the ability to contextualize from other sources and experiences in their lives.

The irony, but it really is not an irony, is that many of the students who could not tell Adam from his house cat (a lovely saying I have picked up in the South), made it very clear to me from the beginning that that they were Christian. They attended church on Sundays and also, as I came to find out upon moving to the Deep South, Wednesday evenings were “church night,” which meant the parking lots of the many local churches were packed, and it made for very comfortable eating out on that night if one did not observe “church night.” Many of the students attended church on Wednesday night.

But how had they managed to avoid knowing such things as Jesus turning water into wine, the waters separating for Moses and his people, a rich man being outdone by a camel if one of them were to fit through the eye of the needle, or silver being involved in Judas’s transaction? Examples from the bible are so useful when doing detective work in literature.

I cannot claim to be a churchgoer, nor do I carry a large bible like candidates running for office, and I am probably guilty of having turned to literature for spiritual enlightenment and study of the weaknesses and also strengths (the latter element is allowed in some churches, I hear) of humankind. Yes, I was born a Lutheran, that happens to people of Swedish descent, and I recall reading a children’s bible from cover to cover, pausing only to glance at illustrations of Noah’s ark and elephant snouts and also Jesus weighing down a donkey with a palm leaf decorating the occasion. I did take religion in America as an elective in college, a great class team-taught by the odd couple, one professor with a Ph.D. in theology, the other a Ph.D. in sociology. We visited several churches, but I think it was an experience like an educational tour through Europe, and I hope that counts. I have also visited a few churches in our city and I have visited on several occasions our local temple.

I offer this personal background as if having to make an excuse for not being a self-professed or proclaimed Christian and also to show that I have picked up enough information to be able to find and discuss religious imagery or allusions in literature. This ability, including my educational tour of religion, has enriched my life, though “enrich” is of course open to much interpretation. Which brings me to the gates of many of my students’ non-understanding or inability to relate to or relate anything biblical in the study of literature. How is their state possible? What has happened or not happened during most of their eighteen or nineteen years of church-going?

In education we resort to finger-pointing and casting the blame (almost said stones) on the parties that we hold responsible for the prior education of our students. So high school makes for an easy target usually. Heaven forbid we should target the churches. But while I am not expecting anyone to be a miracle worker, I wonder, could the churches of my very religious and Christian students please help them to be able to recognize biblical imagery and allusions so that we can discuss this as part of the literary experience? I only have my students for one or two semesters to introduce them to literature. It would really be a great help if the churches could pitch in and help the students and me.

This plea is coming from someone who titled his essay asking if there needs to be a Noah’s ark for Christian college students who do not recognize biblical imagery and allusions in the study of literature. Of course I know that saving Christians who do not recognize such imagery is a bit of a contradiction, at least for some, but I remain optimistic that someone who knows about religion will save and teach these representatives as they step off Noah’s ark. And I don’t mean Russell Crowe.