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.