The paperback edition of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero chair of the religion department at Boston University came out in March. The book was named on the the best books of 2007 by The Washington post and received wide acclaim.
Prothero’s book made a splash because of his research, clear writing and findings of how widespread religious ignorance in the US is.
Most Americans can’t name the four gospels, (including Christians) he pointed out that past and current religious fervency in American Christianity was the main cause for the current illiteracy of the Christian faith and suggested teaching some history.
Barbara Brown Taylor on her students in the Introduction to World Religions class (Interdisciplinary Studies at Piedmont college: Failing Christianity:
I have taught it more than 20 times now, to more than 500 students. One of them tells me how different the news from Iraq sounds now that she knows the difference between Shi’as and Sunnis. Another brings me pictures of a new Hindu temple going up in his old neighborhood, which he is able to interpret for his alarmed parents. Students who complete the class say they feel more at home in the world. They are less easily frightened by religious difference. They are more informed neighbors, better equipped to wage peace instead of war.
The only place the course backfires is in the unit on Christianity. Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants, or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing.
With only five class sessions for each religion, I cover the basics quickly: early Christian history, composition and content of the New Testament, the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation, central Christian doctrines and common religious practices. Faced with so much new information, students often have a hard time formulating their questions.
“If Paul wasn’t one of the 12 disciples, where did he get his stuff?”
“Do Catholics really think saints answer their prayers?”
As often as I have answered such questions, my sinking feeling never goes away.
…Soon a consensus emerges, at least to my ears: that when they tried to put what they were learning about Christianity at school into the drawers they had gotten at church, there was no room for the new informationâ€”not because the drawers were full but because they had different labels on them.
The church drawers are labeled “Favorite Bible Passages,” “Personal Commitment to Jesus Christ,” “Summer Mission Trips,” and “What My Church Means to Me.” There is nothing wrong with any of these drawers. Mostly they contain good, life-giving things. But where are you supposed to put your new insight about the role of the early churches in the formation of the New Testament? Where does your fresh curiosity about Orthodox Christians go? What happens to your church drawers once you realize there are hundreds of other churches with just that many drawers of their own?
“I couldn’t hold onto what I was learning,” one capable student said. “I loved it, but I couldn’t make it stay in my head. It was too different from what I had already learned, so my brain just kept switching back to default.”