The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 6, 2007

Book review: Books combat religious, culinary illiteracy

‘Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t’

By Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero, the chair of the religion department at Boston University, has written an interesting, if somewhat dense, book on the astonishing state of religious illiteracy in this country and what he proposes be done about it.

He argues convincingly that no one can be fully educated and prepared to deal with the social and political issues the world faces without some basic knowledge of the Bible, Quran and other major religious texts as well as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other major faiths. How can you understand the problems we are currently facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, if you have no concept of the Islamic factions at work and what compels them? How do you know whether to believe those who call Islam a religion of war or those who call it a religion of peace? Only if you have some basic grounding in the Quran and the basic beliefs of the major divisions of Islam can you make your own decision.

On a less calamitous level, if you don’t know the basics about religions and their major books, you just wind up looking dumb and feeling puzzled when allusions to those things are thrown around, as they commonly are. Prothero argues that a great deal of American culture is grounded in our common understanding of various shorthand terms, so that (at least up until the recent past) when someone heard “good Samaritan” they knew exactly what the reference implied. Now, even well-educated people may be oblivious to the reference. Ten percent of Americans, according to one poll, believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Only 50 percent of adult Americans can name even one of the four gospels, and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible, never mind the five major world religions. If you wonder about your own religious literacy, there is an abbreviated version of the religious literacy quiz contained in the book online — — thanks to “Religion and Ethics Weekly” on PBS, which ran a segment on this book in May.

So, if one believes that this widespread religious illiteracy is a problem, either culturally or civically, what’s to be done? The rest of the book answers that question. Prothero proposes that all high schools implement required courses (like sex-ed classes, parents could opt out for their own children) in the Bible and world religion. For readers who think this would be illegal, it’s not, and you don’t have to take my word for it. Prothero happily spells out the constitutional issues here.

The last section of the book, almost half, consists of a Dictionary of Religious Literacy, so if you feel ignorant while reading the book, you can find the basics of religious literacy outlined there. I was happy to find some information on things I felt more than a little illiterate about. An interesting read, full of valid points and disheartening information about how little so many of us know about the basics of religion.

‘I’m Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking’

By Alton Brown

“I’m Just Here for the Food,” on the other hand, helps out with cooking illiteracy, which is not quite so scary a topic. While there are recipes, this isn’t really a cookbook, but rather a clarification of cooking methods and how exactly they work.

Searing, grilling, roasting, frying, boiling, braising, steaming, poaching, roasting, grilling, microwaving (not to mention sauces and brining) — all are thoroughly explained, and I now have a much clearer idea of why some techniques work better than others and how to adapt to different cooking methods.

Of course, I don’t read Alton Brown just to learn things. I read him for the same reason I watch him on the Food Network — he makes me laugh. I think there’s a lot to be said for someone who can teach you something while making you laugh, so I’ll pick Alton over Emeril (or most other celebrity cooks) any time.

The appendix is even chock-full of terrific information, like diagrams of meat critters and what cuts come from where, which pots and pans every cook should have, which knives are most useful, and a whole section on the safe and sanitary handling of food that everyone should know about before they wind up poisoning those near and dear.

All in all I found this cook’s book (as opposed to “cookbook”) riveting and amusing reading for the home cook who wants more than just recipes to follow blindly.

Linda Cannon is the collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.