There was surprise in some quarters recently when it was discovered that three out of 10 British children aged eight to 15 did not know where stories such as Noah's Ark or Adam and Eve come from.

A similar number had never heard of the Crucifixion, or the tale of the Good Samaritan.

In this secular, multicultural age, does this matter? Given the frequent grisliness of the Old Testament, and the sheer horror of the New Testament's scenes at Calvary, why would any parent wish to subject an impressionable youngster to material in which wrongdoers can be stoned and the hero suffers one of the cruellest deaths imaginable?

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Of course, adults introducing children to Christianity these days carefully select the bits to share. Whereas in previous generations parents loved to terrorise the young with tales of hellfire and damnation, today even those who believe in its harsh literal truth would not want to traumatise their kids.

If the Scriptures were merely a fascinating religious and historical text, widespread ignorance of them would be nothing to worry about. It is also a fact that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK will go on to live good, productive and interesting lives without ever knowingly reading a word of them. But for a substantial part of the population, knowing nothing about what you might call the foundational document of western civilisation will prove a disadvantage at best and, in some situations, a severe handicap.

Britain has been shaped, for good and for ill, by this remarkable book. Its imprint lies on our laws, civic institutions, education systems, attitudes to women, and even the layout of our towns and villages. The way we speak and write can be traced directly back to the sonorous beauty of the King James Version, which for lyricism and euphony, quite apart from drama and mood, has rarely been equalled.

Thanks to the language and poetry enshrined in it, nowhere is knowledge of the Bible more crucial than when reading. To attempt to understand literature from Chaucer's times to today without catching the myriad references and allusions to stories, characters or psalms, is like doing chemistry without knowing the periodic table. And while older books are more obviously indebted to it for their ideas, even today's novelists and poets continue to draw heavily upon its phrases or imagery since they, like generations of writers before them, are endlessly alluding to works from earlier, more devout ages, in a never-ending spiral of inspiration and homage. They have also been shaped by a culture and tradition of literary expression still utterly in its thrall.

Thankfully, not all authors rely on readers' prior knowledge. Always ahead of her times, Muriel Spark made sure nobody floundered. Thus, in The Only Problem, her satirical contemplation of the Book Of Job, she quotes liberally from the original text, saving anyone the trouble of putting down the novel and doing some background reading.

But the majority of writers, such as Melville, Austen, Steinbeck or Woolf, safely assumed knowledge of the best-known verses and tales. After all, following the Reformation and until the mid 20th century, it was probably the only book almost the entire population was at some time exposed to.

As such, it must remain essential reading. Though many will still turn to it for its spiritual content, for the rest of us it should represent a pinnacle of literary achievement, the beauty of its language, the richness of its ideas, and the depth of emotions it conveys unparalleled in human history. The influence it has exerted on swathes of fiction and poetry is incalculable, its presence in the literary canon nigh all-pervasive.

So, unless you are a Christian, one should read it as you would Wuthering Heights or War And Peace, though even more closely. With the exception only of the likes of Milton, Shakespeare, Burns or Blake, most writers refer only sparingly if at all to their literary predecessors. Writers great and small, however, have dipped into the Bible as frequently as if it were a cookie jar and dinner a long way off.