We need more biblical literacy in America

We need more biblical literacy in America

Video Courtesy of Fox News


Time for a quiz.

  • What do the following place names have in common: Salem, MA; Sharon, CT; Jericho, NY;  Rehoboth Beach, DE?
  • The name of Samantha Stephen’s mother in the television show “Bewitched” was Endora. What was the significance of her name?
  • What design did Benjamin Franklin want for the Great Seal of the United States of America?

While you are pondering the answers to those questions, let us reflect on the fact that President Trump has embraced proposals in six states to offer classes in biblical literacy.

Let me state, at the outset, that this is a bad idea — in practical terms, and for political reasons.

The ACLU is aware of the dangers and risks; a case in Kentucky emphasized that “Bible Literacy” courses may not promote religion or a particular religious viewpoint, test students on matters of religious faith, nor be designed to instill religious life lessons.”

Also: because of the atmosphere in America today, such classes would undoubtedly become part of the culture wars.

And: even the choice of a Bible — especially the choice of a Bible — is a politically partisan choice. King James? Revised Standard Version? New American Version? For the Hebrew Bible — Jewish Publication Society?

Moreover, with the proliferation of religious and cultural diversity in the United States today, growing numbers of American citizens do not find their primary religious inspiration in either the Jewish Bible or the New Testament, but rather, in the Koran, the Vedas, and in other religious texts.

Or, in no religious texts at all.

Having said that, let me also say that America needs more biblical literacy.

First: knowing about the Bible as literature is a crucial part of what it means to be a literate person.

Notice the precision of my language. It is knowing about the Bible; it is certainly not believing the Bible.

Neither is it reading the Bible for the sake of reading the Bible. To put it in Jewish terms: this is treif (unkosher), and has been since 1963, with Abington School District v. Schempp, which ruled Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional.

There is a crucial and subtle difference between a faith-oriented approach to teaching Bible (“This is what you should know and this is what you should believe”) and a literacy-based intellectual and academic approach (“This is what you should know about, because this is part of your literaryinheritance.”

Consider what American students have learned, and continue to learn, in their English classes: Greek mythology; Greek theater; Shakespeare; Dickens; Hemingway. Consider the various narratives that they know, just from daily life: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and a plethora of video games that I could not even name.

If they can learn, understand, and appreciate Greek literature for its aesthetic and emotional value, why not the Bible? When I was a teenager, my extraordinarily talented teacher, the late Bob Yesselman, made my soul quiver when I read of the moment when Oedipus learned the truth about his life.

Would there be anything wrong with teenagers having that same moment of catharsis in reading about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son?

If they can learn about Iphigenia, then why not Isaac — especially because he survived? Why not compare those stories?

Second: knowing about the Bible as literature can help us understand some of the motivations of the founders of our nation.

David Gelernter put it this way:

Winthrop, Adams, Lincoln, and thousands of others found a good destiny in the Bible and made it their own. They read about Israel’s covenant with God and took it to heart: They were Israel. (“Wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke,” said Winthrop. “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us.”) They read about God’s chosen people and took it to heart: They were God’s chosen people, or–as Lincoln put it–God’s “almost chosen people.” The Bible as they interpreted it told them what they could be and would be. Unless we read the Bible, American history is a closed book.

Take New England, for example. Early American colonists saw themselves in biblical terms. The English monarchy was Pharaoh. England was Egypt. The Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea. Their destination was like the land of Israel. (Tragically, horrifically, this meant that the natives were forced to play the role of the Canaanites, which meant that they had to be defeated and extirpated. That is but one of the problems with American exceptionalism, which itself comes from a biblical source.)

Without biblical literacy, we don’t know the meaning of “a shining city on a hill.” We miss the allusions in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. We remain deaf to the references in American patriotic songs and spirituals. We lose large pieces of our understanding of how America came to be, and the vision that permeated that founding.

You need the Bible to understand American history — in a way that no other country other than Israel can claim.

Now, to the answers to the quiz.

  • What do the following place names have in common: Salem, MA; Sharon, CT; Jericho, NY;  Rehoboth Beach, DE?

Answer: all of those names find their origins in the Hebrew Bible. As I said before, the original English settlers (though not all of them — see Colin Woodard, American Nations) saw their destiny in biblical terms. That is why biblical place names dot the maps of New England and the Middle States — as well as Utah, and various other places.

  • The name of Samantha Stephen’s mother in the television show “Bewitched” was Endora. What was the significance of her name?

Answer:  “Endora” is a reference to the Witch of Endor whom King Saul consults in First Samuel, chapter 28. A modicum of biblical literacy is necessary for even popular culture. (Trivia question: in the series, how many times did Endora actually pronounce her son-in-law Darrin’s name correctly?)

  • What design did Benjamin Franklin want for the Great Seal of the United States of America?

Answer: Franklin’s preference for the Great Seal was a depiction of the ancient Israelites crossing the Red Sea — with the motto being “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” As I said earlier, the Exodus from Egypt loomed large in our colonial ancestors’ imaginations.

To repeat: I am not in favor of teaching the Bible in public schools, for the various reasons that I stated earlier. It will only lead to trouble.

That said, I think of the late Mr. Bob Yesselman, my English teacher at Bethpage High School.

He instilled in me a lifelong love of Greek drama and Shakespeare.

Sometimes, I wonder: if I had learned the book of Genesis from him, back when I was a junior in high school, would I have learned to love text a mere five years earlier?

I can only imagine.

Dying While Black

Dying While Black

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An African American man in a hospital bed. Studies show that pain in African American patients is often not addressed.
pixelheadphoto/digitalskillet

Several years ago, MapQuest directed me on a 10-hour drive to visit my father in a Florida hospital. Complications from diabetes, including blindness, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, and a below-the-knee amputation, had taken their toll. This time my father, 69, was hospitalized for an infection of unknown origin that physicians could not name, despite their many attempts to grow cultures.

I did not know it at the time, but my father was dying.

Once I arrived at the hospital from Durham, North Carolina, I could hear his screams from the nurses’ station. “Never mind. I hear him,” I told the nurse whom I had just asked the location of my father’s room. “I’ll follow the sounds.”

That any patient would be left in so much pain that his screams could be heard down the hall was unacceptable to me. That this patient was my father, a man I had always known as a big, strong former football player – the kind of man other men didn’t dare cross (but who was also loving and gentle) – was difficult for me to process. Yet, here I was, being guided to his hospital room by the sound of his cries. Despite being a trained philosopher with an interest in bioethics, I had not yet begun to think about the ways in which racialized health disparities manifest even at the end of life. My father’s excruciatingly painful process of dying was but one example.

The author with her father, John Wesley Wilson, on Easter Sunday, 1977.
Yolonda Wilson, CC BY-SA

Gaps while living, gaps while dying

It is well documented that African-Americans experience excess mortality, or deaths beyond the expected mortality rate. However, even if disparities in the mortality rate for African-Americans were rectified tomorrow, the fact remains that we will all eventually die. And how we die matters.

According to a 2013 Pew Research survey, 72 percent of American adults have given at least some thought to their end of life wishes, with 37 percent of American adults having given their end of life wishes a “great deal of thought.” Some of these wishes include decisions about pain management, maintaining quality of life, and whether to continue aggressive medical treatment for terminal illness.

Additionally, research shows that people tasked with making treatment decisions for loved ones who cannot express their own wishes sometimes experience distress about watching their loved one suffer. Even months or years later, they wonder whether they made the “right” decision.

Pain ignored

Black patients generally receive worse pain management in primary care environments and emergency rooms. Even black children are not treated for their pain to the extent that white children are. Some attribute this to false beliefs about biological differences between black and white patients, including the belief that black people have “thicker skin” and, therefore, do not experience as much pain as whites. These false beliefs lead to inaccurate pain assessments by physicians evaluating black patients and an unwillingness to take the pain complaints of black patients as seriously.

This disparity in black patients’ pain management continues even as black patients are dying. Families often want to ensure that their loved ones are as comfortable as possible once patients reach the point where death is near. Racialized gaps in pain management lead to a denial of humane comfort care that contributes to unnecessary suffering for black patients and their loved ones.

Symptoms ignored

Pain is ignored more in African Americans patients, and so are symptoms.
9nong/Shutterstock.com

Inadequate pain management is but one aspect of the lower quality of care that black patients report in general that affects when and how black patients die. In December 2015, 57 year-old Barbara Dawson was arrested and forcibly removed from Calhoun Liberty Hospital near Tallahassee, Florida, after she refused to leave without further treatment. Although she had been evaluated in the hospital, she was discharged despite her continued complaints of difficulty breathing. Hospital personnel apparently assumed she was faking her symptoms and called police to arrest her for being disruptive. Dawson collapsed before she could be placed in the police cruiser and was returned to the hospital where she died an hour later from an undetected blood clot in her lungs.

Dawson may or may not have been at the end of life when she arrived at the hospital. However, hospital staff allowed her condition to deteriorate by not taking her complaints seriously. She died only feet away from people who could have, at minimum, eased her process of dying. The hospital was later fined US$45,000, and Dawson’s estate settled a lawsuit against the hospital for $200,000 in 2017.

Less interaction

Dawson’s experience is a dramatic and appalling case. Nevertheless, one groundbreaking study revealed that physicians generally interact less – both verbally and nonverbally – with black patients who are dying than with white patients who are dying. At the end of their lives, black patients do not receive the same comfort care, including eye contact and touch, from physicians that white patients do.

The U.S. health care system can improve care for all patients at the end of life. However, this system still denies black patients the kinds of interventions that white patients often take for granted. This denial contributes to more painful, horrific deaths of black patients and compounds the grief of their loved ones.

In my father’s case, even as part of me still hoped for a miracle, the thing I wanted most in the world was for him to be as comfortable as possible. That this did not happen despite my best efforts still haunts me when I think about the end of my father’s life.The Conversation

Yolonda Wilson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Howard University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

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As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.


1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.


2. Home by Toni Morrison

The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.


3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.


4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National AnthemLift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.


5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates

From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.


6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen is an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”


7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.


8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.


9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.


10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes

This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.


11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.


Video Courtesy of LEFT ON READ

Are there other titles that you’d like to add to the list? Share them below.