The Word in the Wilderness

02 Dec

The Garden and the WildernessI’ve had a very successful week or so as far as finding some great books at thrift stores and library sales. Fortunately I’ve had the means to purchase the ones I really wanted. Not that any of these were particularly expensive, but times are a bit tight, after all. I’ll be doing another post soon to share these finds, but I wanted to do this post on one book that really started me thinking.

Now, this book isn’t anything rare or expensive. Nothing like that at all. But it is somewhat unique in that I doubt you would find anything like it being published today. Or used, for that matter. The book is titled “The Garden and the Wilderness,” and it was published in 1973 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. It was a high school textbook in a series from HBJ called “Literature: Uses of the Imagination.”

What this textbook does is take excerpts from the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (from The New English Bible, one of my favorite translations) and arranges them with writings from such authors as Carl Sandburg, Edwin Muir, Dylan Thomas, Loren Eiseley and William Blake, among others. The selections include essays, poetry, plays, short stories and folk songs. As the book’s introduction explains:

The Bible has enormous importance historically and as a sacred book. but it is also literature, with a central place in any serious study of the works of the human imagination. We hope that in years to come you will be stimulated to move from this volume and its companions to the Bible itself, and that some of you will even study the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek as paths to the rich absorbing writings found there.


Nearly 40 years ago, this textbook was used in some school, I can’t say for sure if it was a public or parochial school, though my hunch is that it was a public school. Here’s my question: Do you think such a book would find a place in any public school today? Would studying the rich themes of the “book of books” be considered too religious for our children? Despite the role these words played in the founding of our civilization?

In our increasingly secular American society, faith themes and ideas are increasingly marginalized, pushed aside, forgotten and ignored. The “war” isn’t on Christmas, but on religion in general.

The Word is, indeed, in the wilderness.


Posted by on December 2, 2012 in Education, Ideas, Old Books


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6 responses to “The Word in the Wilderness

  1. eaglecanyon

    December 2, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    It is exciting to find a textbook using the Bible as a comparative document for important works of literature by such renowned authors as Carl Sandburg. One of the statements in the introduction was a bit bothersome, though: “it is also literature, with a central place in any serious study of the works of the human imagination.” Take out of context, it is difficult to determine what was meant by that statement – is the Bible being called a work of imagination, or is it being credited for providing the rich themes and plots used as starting points by many wonderful creative writers?

    As for the answers to the questions you pose – interesting points. The current ideological and political restraints definitely prohibit use of such a text in public schools today, unless it is comparative literature in a college level course. Even then, there would have to be equal time given to the importance of similar texts of alternate major religions.

    On your other issue – the marginalization of faith – that is something that is a macro/micro question. My suspicion is it goes back to the very basics of things. Some people have faith and live that way, despite the current socio-ideological-political “climate”. Other people are “just fine” (the macro picture which has been “numbed” into them) until there is a major crisis, when they find themselves in a hospital hallway with a chill going up their spine. Mom is dying of a stroke, Dad has cancer, my sister has just been in a car accident, my son has been kidnapped by – well, we don’t know who… WHY has this happened to me (us, my family)??? First the fist is clenched and raised to the air, with a tortured cry and tears. Then we sink to our knees, the rusty heart opens, and the words, from somewhere, come tumbling out, because we know there is nothing we can do, no control in OUR power, except prayer. It may be wordless, it may only be tears, it is still prayer. And it is ALWAYS heard. Our Father, Who art in Heaven…

    • Rob

      December 3, 2012 at 12:38 am

      Thanks for your input, eaglecanyon!

      I think the quote was referring to the Bible providing the writers’ imaginations with themes and topics to play off of, as you suggested.

      You may be right about the political and ideological situation today prohibiting this textbook’s use in today’s schools, but I don’t think it would be unconstitutional. The Establishment Clause only deals with the government establishing a state authorized church,like the Church of England. The modern interpretation of the “separation” of church and state is, I believe, wrong.

      Finally, the founding fathers counted on religion playing a vital role in the public square, politically and socially. People of faith help maintain an orderly, moral society. When faith is marginalized, the government steps in with more legislation to regulate behavior, thus becoming ever more tyrannical under the guise of watching over us. The founders’ view of faith was both philosophical and functional.

      Thanks again for chiming in!

      • eaglecanyon

        December 3, 2012 at 2:15 am

        You and I are in agreement on the founding fathers views of faith and separation of church and state. The original intent has been perverted beyond all recognition by special interests and, as you put it, the “tyranny of government watching over us”.

  2. jubilare

    December 4, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    I don’t know what our schools would or wouldn’t consider “too religious” but I did have some interesting experiences with bible-study in college. Most of academia seems to regard the Bible as important and relevant in many fields, but in a way that can be troubling for Christians.

    For the record, I am all for being troubled because it makes us think and question and, for most of us, ends up strengthening and expanding our faith, but some of the stuff I encountered in the academic study of the Bible in college disturbed me on the behalf of people who had no other voice to listen to when it came to interpreting the text.

    My class that focused on the Bible opened me up to different ways of seeing the text, and I found it very interesting. A friend of mine, who is Christian, struggled through a class in which she either had to answer questions according to the Professor’s view that Jesus was simply a man and a historical figure (and that the resurrection was an invention of the disciples) or risk failing the class. Every attempt she made to challenge his perspective was quashed. That is, of course, a bad example of teaching in general (any teacher who expects his or her students to accept their word without question has issues…) but it highlights part of the difficulty in the intersection of secular academia and religion.

    Historically, this seems to have been less of a problem (with a few glaring exceptions, of course), but as the imagined conflict between academic/scientific inquiry and Christianity becomes more heated, both become less and less flexible and the conversation between the two becomes less and less informative. Personally, I would like to see both sides relax enough to have open and fruitful conversations again (or for those conversations to be more frequent again). This shouldn’t be a war. From my Christian perspective, I want people to encounter the Bible on a personal level, and sometimes encountering it on an academic level can get in the way of that encounter… but at the same time, as someone who is fairly academic, I want the Bible to be part of the academic conversation, because it’s important and relevant.

    O_o sorry for the ramble. I really came to no conclusion there. It’s just a cluster of hopefully somewhat coherent thoughts.

    • Rob

      December 5, 2012 at 2:15 am

      As usual, jubilare, you give much food for thought. I like that.

      My main point here was that in the past Christianity, and religion in general, were considered important areas of study in relation to the history of Western civilization. In this case, the textbook had to do with Biblical themes in literature. In most public schools today this would not be allowed because of the legal fiction of the “separation” of church and state.

      As I said in an earlier comment above, the founding fathers wanted religion to play a key role in the public square, and that included, I believe, the schools.

      Your friend’s experience with the college professor is a sad example of how today’s colleges and universities are no longer sanctuaries of free thought and expression. And that’s very bad.

      Thanks for making me think! Hope you’re well.

      • jubilare

        December 5, 2012 at 2:44 am

        It is more than a little backward not to teach on a massive influence in history and culture because of “separation of church and state.”

        Our college, Maryville, for the most part was a sanctuary for free-thought and expression. Even there, though, there were exceptions, and that professor was one of those. He’s what I would call a false academic… of which I fear there are many abroad… someone who claims to be intellectual and open-minded, and yet is as afraid of ideas as one can be.

        Well enough! I hope you are, too. Advent has begun, the holidays and The Hobbit approach, and I am smiling.


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