I have bemoaned the state of biblical literacy in this blog before. I am astonished that references to the ark, or to Goliath are seemingly unknown to many of my students. Their practical knowledge of even the nativity story is awash with traditions and embellishments alien to the accounts of Matthew and Luke.
I find students whose experience of “Christmas” is commercial, and their nativity accounts include stops at multiple inns, stables full of sheep, pigs!, and even pandas. The insistence on Three Kings, rather than a plurality of magi, etc., etc.., etc.
But how have we come to this point?
The nativity story makes for a good study. In many schools in the UK there still is a general practice of putting on nativity plays. These plays are meant to be inclusive, and for all students to be able to take part. As an educator I can see the merits in this. The cost, however, often involves playing “fast and loose” with the text. Why multiple inns, for instance? The answer is simple. More inns, means more innkeepers, thus more roles. Same with sheep. The more animals, the more roles. Pigs and pandas occur from the extension of this. Pigs because in the UK, they are familiar farm animals (though alien to the biblical narrative). And pandas? Well it all comes down to what onesie is available at home.
So what is the cost of this blurring of the detail? Possibly nothing in day to day terms, but in terms of biblical and religious understanding – loads.
The Psalmist wrote in Psalm 78, “My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old, things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, to the next generation would know them even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deed but would keep his commands. They would not be like their ancestors— a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.”
Are the things of old heard and known? Do the descendants know His power and wonder? Or has the chain been broken. Are we to be the weakest link?
Cultural literacy seems weak enough in these days of virtual living, and perpetual gameplay. I recently teased one of my students who was wearing a pair of florescent red trainers. I asked what would happen if they clicked their heels together and said “there is no place like home?” I was met with this vacant look of non-understanding, and a “huh?”
Fair enough, we can continue as a culture even without Dorothy and Toto; but can we without the Word of God?