Monday, April 17, 2006

Cultural Literacy and the Bible - Part 1

I am taking a break from the strenuous work of packing to move. I really hate this job, so I decided to give myself a little incentive to get it done. I promised myself that for every hour I really worked at packing, I will allow myself an hour at the computer. So --- this is my hour at the computer.

Today I am going to post a little of an article in progress:

Cultural Literacy and the Bible - Part 1

In order to be a good reader, a person must have many points of reference to tag new information as it is received, so the more cultural experiences one has in life the better he/she understands what is read. Therefore, a certain level of cultural literacy is essential for fully developing as a reader. For a few years when I was teaching study skills to middle school children, I did a daily cultural literacy moment to encourage reading skill. As the students came into class they would take a sheet of notebook paper and attempt to identify 5 cultural references.

Just by the way -- I discovered, in searching books on this topic, that many of our common expressions in English come from Biblical references, and that children who were from church-going families often were more successful in recognizing their meanings when they came across the expressions in modern literature.

In my class I included many cultural references that were NOT from the Bible as well, but for this article I have selected only those with Biblical origins. How would you do with the five examples below? Can you tell how the word or expression in red is used today and its Biblical origin? After you have referenced each expression, scroll down for the answers and some discussion.

1. Mr. Johnson was a boring conversationalist because he tended to give chapter and verse to any topic.

2. Fred’s firing came as no surprise; he’d seen the handwriting on the wall months before.

3. Finally, after all the bickering, Alvin offered an olive branch. ALSO: The doves and the hawks are expressing their differences again.

4. One of his greatest assets is his wife. She is a pearl.

5. When I told him the project had to be done by Tuesday, he made me feel as though I were asking him to walk on water.


1. In general use, givng chapter and verse means giving precise evidence for any proposition. It also implies giving more information than is necessary. It comes from the means of locating passages in the Bible. Thus Matthew 19:18 means chapter 19, verse 18, of the Book of Matthew.

2. Figuratively, the handwriting on the wall means that some misfortune is impending or that the outcome of a situation is already determined. It recalls an Old Testament story about Daniel. While a king was holding the Jews captive in the foreign land of Babylon, in the sixth century B.C., a mysterious hand appeared, writing on the wall of the king’s palace. The king called upon Daniel, who interpreted it to mean that God intended the king and his kingdom to fall. The king was slain that night.

3. An olive branch is now regarded as a sign of peace, as is the dove. It refers to the branch brought by a dove to Noah’s ark signifying that the flood was receding.

4. A pearl has come to represent anything that is very valuable. For example, Hester Prynne, in The Scarlet Letter, who gave birth to a daughter following an act of adultery that destroyed her honor, named the child Pearl, because she had given up all that she had in bearing the child. It comes from one of the parables of Jesus. In this story, he compares the journey to heaven as a search for fine pearls conducted by a merchant, “who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”

5. Figuratively, to “walk on water” is to perform an impossible or godlike task: It refers to a miraculous act performed by Jesus. In the Gospels it is recorded that Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee to rejoin his disciples, who had departed ahead of him in a ship. When he reached the ship, the winds that had been blowing stopped, and the disciples worshiped him as the true son of God.

Much of the preceding information was gleaned from:

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Edited by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil. Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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