Why I Won’t Teach Bible Stories

Not long after first attending Orange Grove Monthly Meeting ten years ago, I joined its Children’s Education Committee. It was a way for me to better know the meeting, but I also had young children who would be in the First Day School and I wanted to have a say in their religious instruction. When the idea of a curriculum in which Bible stories were read to the kids was brought up in a committee meeting, I was adamantly opposed.

After meeting for worship last week, when the clipboard making the rounds looking for volunteers to sign up to teach the children in First Day School reached me, I swung my arms in an exaggerated pantomime of an umpire calling an out. I was still given the clipboard, for that’s the Quaker way, but I didn’t signed it. That’s my way.

The problem is I’m Jewish, not observantly so, not remotely religiously so, but still I bristle at anything Christian. There was a lot of Christianity at the Quaker meeting, or so I thought; in time I realized that, though the spiritual practice comes from a Christian tradition, its un-programmed worship breaks from that lineage to create a wholly new religious society. There were other Jews at the meeting, some observant, there were Buddhists and even atheists, mixed in with the more formal Christian element. This truly was the diverse and openminded contemplative community I had been looking for.

Then the Bible came back, just recently and ironically as I left the Children’s Education Committee to sit in Pastoral Care. This fall’s curriculum is Bible stories, which explains my hyperbolic response to the signup clipboard. While I wasn’t about to deny the group who lobbied for such teachings their chance to expose the children, mine included, to The Bible, I wasn’t going to have anything to do with it.

The First Day School supervisor noted that the children needed my perspective, that I was the perfect choice to lead one of the classes and offer a rebuttal.

First of all, do children ranging in age from toddler to prepubescent even know what a rebuttal is? I’m being serious. This is the root of my argument against the study of The Bible, at least for an immature class. True, I have been dismissive of The Bible in the past. I saw no value in stories that I never for a moment believed came from the mouth of God or should be taken literally. They’re absurd. They contradict themselves. They are from a different time and culture and offer practices that are obsolescent.

Of course, many in meeting would agree with me, but still believe in the truth of The Bible. I’m not arguing with them. There is embedded in these stories wisdom. I see that now. However, whatever one may learn from The Bible takes a level of maturity and experience that our children by very definition of being children are incapable of understanding. They are not equipped at that age to deal with symbolism and nuance. The Bible is not a brunt instrument, though it seems the majority of people who accept it on face value use it as one.

Think about it. The stuff you learned in childhood has a disproportionate power over the way you view the world. A young mind is malleable and what is hammered into it helps define its form. The children who were exposed to The Bible are the adults who are self-righteously denying same-sex marriage licenses. No, not everyone who had a childhood education in The Bible will think of it fundamentally, but it’s hard to break old habits. Why take the risk? The Bible can be taught to adolescents who can spiritually chew on its tough meat with a sense of perspective and intelligence, if any adolescents attended our meeting.

Doesn’t that tell you something? When children reach that transitional age they should break free from the constraints of their parents and their parents’ religion to seek out answers for themselves. They’ll come back or they won’t. My oldest son refuses to go with us on Sundays because of what he calls the “religious indoctrination” of Quakerism. I laugh, “You should try out some of the other spiritual practices if you want to learn about indoctrination,” but maybe he’s right. If he had been read Bible stories as a child I doubt he would have grown into an evangelist, but he might, like me, reject the sacred texts of Jews and Christians, mock it as bogus, and hold onto that prejudice his whole life, instead of using his critical thinking to see where there was value and where there was not for him.

These are big ideas, too complex for kids who really just want to eat the snack and get back to the swing set. Maybe formalized instruction of any kind at this young age is counterproductive. I don’t know. But one thing I’m sure of is The Bible is a book that was not written for children. How could I communicate this to a class of children, if I did teach one? How could I say that there are many books of The Bible, all written by men, some of which got edited together and others which were determined not canonical and rejected, again by men? How about translation and how that moving from one language to another creates a subtly different and new material? Do you really think that’ll hold their attention, let alone edify them in any way?

No, I will not teach The Bible to First Day School. If I’m ask, sure, I’ll help, maybe even teach the class, but I won’t read The Bible. I’ll engage the class with that old surrealist game of exquisite corpse, as I’ve done for most of my instructions, and if they want to add Jesus to their drawings that’s okay. After all, he was just a nice Jewish boy.

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About Peter Landau

Peter Landau has written a memoir, SCHMUCK: FAITH, FATHERHOOD AND FORESKIN, and a children’s novel, UNDERGROUND WITH NICKELAN WAND, BOOK ONE: KID CITY, and is looking for representation for both. Currently, he's working on a novel about New York City in the late 1980s called SCUM ROCK. He manages a project management blog and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children. His creative writings are posted weekly on his Tumblr: peterlandau.tumblr.com.

3 Responses

  1. We don’t have Quakers in this neck of the woods – it’s rough 75% Southern Baptist, 20% Methodist, and 5% Amish. The Southern Baptist adhere to Biblical Inerrancy, neatly summed up as: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Methodists admire the Bible, but they add an element of reason to their interpretation, so they take some positions that are the opposite of what the Baptists believe. The Amish, well, they’re the Amish it’s not as if outsiders who don’t speak their language are welcome to attend their three-hour long church services to figure out their stance, though I’d bet they’d fall on the literalist side of things. I grew up in the Baptist tradition, being taught to memorize scripture, the order of books of the Bible, and by the time I reached High School, how to defend Young Earth Creationism from my evil Science teachers who teach Evolution. I stared with the King James Version, switched to New International Version, and experimented with The Message, which my youth pastor was annoyed with so he gave me a Holman Christian Standard Bible. Eventually, I got curious. Began asking annoying questions like: “How did we get the Bible?” “Why does the exact same word mean one thing when used of men and something else when used of women?” “If Hebrew was almost a dead language, Latin is nearly a dead language, and Koine Greek is sort of a dead language, can we trust the English translations to be faithful to the original languages?” “What’s wrong with this translation and what’s right with that translation?” Then I made the mistake of looking up the answers on my own, and not trusting the pastors to just give me all the answers as I had when I was little. I got to the point where I began to know too much and now I know that the things that many of the pastors teach are from a point where they know too little. It’s a little bit like being the older sibling who knows the truth about Santa who has to play along for the sake of the younger siblings who know a different truth about Santa. Now me, I think I would teach out of the Bible, but I’d teach critical thinking skills – like “Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys” I’d point out that there’s no quick way to make two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred cakes of raisins, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs without somebody noticing. People today would be hard-pressed to come up with food for an army of four-hundred without serious planning ahead of time. What lesson can we draw from this story? Being a loyalist will upset the rebels, being with the rebels will upset the loyalists, you can’t know which one will win so the best thing to do is to hedge your bets so that you’re an ally of both sides and therefore the winning side.

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