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Who was Moses? Oh wait, I think I know that one…

by Alexis Gewertz

May 24, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Alexis Gewertz

Alexis Gewertz

Stephen Prothero, author of the new book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-And Doesn't" and chair of the religion department at Boston University showed up on "The Daily Show" recently, hawking the fact that his book contains a quiz to test the reader's "religious literacy." Which raises the questions: Can a 15-question quiz test religious literacy?

Should we gauge religious literacy in this way?

As a divinity school student, I understand that Prothero, a professor of religious studies, is not advocating a simple solution to the problem of American religious illiteracy. His book is meant as a starting point for Americans; but with what aim?

In the book's introduction, Prothero insists that religious literacy is a "civic enterprise," and citizens should be sufficiently educated on religion(s) to be capable of taking part in "religiously inflected public debates."

Every important moment in American history was influenced by religion and religious values, including the Civil War, the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement. To understand our history requires that we understand religion. But Prothero fails to acknowledge that he means "Christianity" rather than "religion." This misuse of religion (in general) where Christianity (specifically) should be used is rampant throughout his book.

His first chapter gives some troubling statistics: only one-third of American adults surveyed know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; most couldn't name the first book of the Bible; and only half of American adults could name one of the four gospels. Interestingly enough, evangelical Christians performed only moderately better than other Christians on the survey. (Prothero hopes to demonstrate Americans' religious illiteracy by demonstrating their Christian illiteracy; again we see his Christian-centric tendencies.)

At first these statistics seemed somewhat drastic. Can Americans be so biblically uninformed? But an anecdote from my recent Birthright trip to Israel seems to support the case. One night, as we gathered in a desert tent, some of my fellow (Jewish) travelers asked me, the divinity school student and (apparent) resident expert on all things religious, to give them a crash course in Judaism.

"Who was Moses, again?" one woman asked.

Maybe Prothero's depressing snapshot of Americans is accurate.

But Prothero's attack on religious tolerance isn't accurate. He laments how the push for tolerance "obscured" the differences between faiths and set us on the dark and doomed path toward "religious amnesia." Americans chose to "jettison particulars" between traditions in order to bow down to the "altar of tolerance." However, religious tolerance doesn't require watering down traditions. Rather, recognizing similarity among traditions is merely the starting point for learning about different faiths.

It is easier to think that Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship the same God than to recognize the deep differences among them; but we don't need to stop there in our religious education.

Prothero's attack on tolerance doesn't recognize the very basic ways in which we make sense of differences. Since "(il)literacy" is academia's new buzz word for religious issues, I want to examine the question of religious education through the metaphor of linguistic literacy.

When I started learning Spanish, I constantly translated what I heard or read into English. My ability to understand without immediate translation slowly improved. Finally, after many years, I studied in Spain. I found myself writing in my journal in a mix of Spanish and English -- what a glorious yet hard-won moment.

Comparing religious literacy to the experience of linguistic literacy, Prothero's downplay of traditions' commonalities is problematic. How can a person learn without making connections to his or her own faith or life? If language learning is any indication, we must have some shared points in order to move forward, so we may eventually be fluent. Language programs don't expect students to be fluent from the beginning; why should we expect that from religious learning?

The more important question is: how do we recognize religious literacy? Perhaps we will be religiously literate when we no longer need to translate a new faith into our own terms. When we can think in the language of a new faith, then we will be religiously literate in that particular faith-language; but again, common terms are a great starting point on the path toward literacy.

An observant Jew can begin to understand the experience of Ramadan by considering the experience of the Yom Kippur fast; of course, there is still much to learn about Ramadan, and it differs from Yom Kippur in many ways. A Jew who is religiously literate in Islam becomes so when he or she no longer needs to look for some similarity in Judaism when facing Islamic practices.

We must try to become literate in the languages of diverse traditions. While Prothero acknowledges that we cannot speak a general language but must instead choose just one, he doesn't explain the importance of this choice. He stresses the differences between religions while insisting on the need for basic "religious literacy." It seems more helpful to know how to speak one language fluently than to know how to ask for the bathroom in seven. If we don't have time to become literate in multiple traditions, then a more narrow but thorough focus is best.

The "civic enterprise" is best served when we can speak intelligently about our own faith, and use that faith as a way to begin to understand other faiths. Of course, the more languages we acquire, the better; but we can't value the importance of basic religious knowledge above deep understanding.

Accepting that each religious tradition is its own complex language clarifies why Prothero's quiz is troublesome. No student would consider herself literate in Spanish if she knew 15 Spanish words. Prothero acknowledges that his quiz and dictionary are only preliminary tools; yet the subtitle of the book insinuates that it provides the American reader with the necessary tools.

As stated in his introduction, Prothero aims to enable readers to discuss political issues involving religion in acceptable terms and appropriate language. This is not religious literacy. Perhaps the book's title should be "How To Gain Very Basic Religious Fluency for Discussions on American Politics."

Then again, I doubt such a book would have earned Prothero a spot on "The Daily Show."


Alexis Gewertz is currently pursuing her master's degree at Harvard Divinity School and specializes in Judaism, Islam and religion in education.
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