Teaching Opinion

Teachable Holidays: Don’t Separate Church and Education

By Marilyn Rhames — December 21, 2011 4 min read
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa.
On Christmas we celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ. At Hanukkah we celebrate the miraculous drop of oil that lighted candles for eight days in the Jewish Temple. On Kwanzaa we celebrate the miraculous strength of our African ancestors who passed down virtue in spite of unimaginable hardships. And others simply celebrate the festive winter season. This time of year is unlike any other because despite all the suffering in the world, a large percentage of the world’s population has something to celebrate. This sounds like a teachable moment to me!

I believe educators can integrate the holidays into their world history, writing, and literature instruction. We cannot be so afraid of crossing the line of separation of church and state that we neglect to educate our students about important historical, cultural, and religious celebrations. We are charged with preparing students for the real world, so we must be able to objectively inform them about how certain popular traditions came to be. For example, one need not preach Christianity to educate our students on how the birth of Jesus Christ defined how historians measured time itself. One need not to preach Judaism to explain how the forced worship of Zeus—which is openly taught in Greek mythology classes—spurred captive Jews to rebel against the Greeks and their victory led to the celebration of Hanukkah. Neither does one need to be of African descent to educate students on seven principles of Kwanzaa that embody the cultural heritage of millions within the Black Diaspora. I think students would appreciate knowing, and it would deepen their understanding of the complex world they live in.

May I take this argument a step further? I believe a truly educated American—regardless of his faith background—has at least a basic familiarity with the Bible. This includes the Hebrew Bible (which is also known as the Old Testament) and the New Testament. I say this because the Bible is like our second language in the West. It is deeply embedded within the English vernacular. Here are several examples:

• “Apple of his eye” -- Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8
• “Blind leading the blind” -- Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39
• “Eat, drink, and be merry” -- Ecclesiastes 8:15
• “Eye for an eye” -- Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20; Matthew 5:38
• “Good Samaritan” -- Luke 10:25-37
• “Handwriting on the wall” -- Daniel 5:5
• “My brother’s keeper” -- Genesis 4:9
• “Out of the mouths of babes” -- Psalm 8:2
• “Signs of the times” -- Matthew 16:3
• “Strait and narrow” -- Matthew 7:14
• “Sweat of your brow” -- Genesis 3:19
• “Drop in the bucket” -- Isaiah 40:15
• “Thorn in the flesh” -- 2 Corinthians 12:7

The Bible is also stitched deeply within the fabric of English literature, which is a class that almost every American student must take in high school. Just read any work of William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Bunyan and try to fully comprehend each line without some basic bible literacy. That’s very difficult to do! And that is to say nothing about the Bible’s influence on medieval and modern era European art, music, philosophy and politics.

There are numerous works in American literature that use Biblical references in its title, themes, and imagery, as well. Take the following for example:

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
The Song of Solomon - Toni Morrison
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe

When we read historical speeches by President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we find them rich in biblical references, making higher-level comprehension impossible without a biblical schema. Some researchers found that 94 percent of the citations found in our U.S. founding fathers’ writings were from the Bible. Whether you believe that statistic or not, there’s no denying that biblical literacy is a prerequisite if one is to fully engage with the writings of early American settlers and government leaders.

I believe atheists could teach this. We do our students a disservice when we pretend that faith and religion do not exist. The U.S. Constitution states that we have the freedom “of” religion, not “from” religion. We must be open-minded enough—intellectual enough—to teach aspects of religion whether we agree or disagree with its content. Doing so does not diminish who we are or what we personally believe in.

And when we are not sure how to answer a student’s question, we can always say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll do some research and get back to you.” Or better yet say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but do some research and come back and teach me.” After all, a good teacher must be a lifelong learner, as well.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Kwanzaa!

Happy New Year to all!

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.