“Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, one of the few bible stories I’ve been able to count on my students, even the Christian ones, to know off the tops of their heads.
Having lived most of my life in New York State with a couple of short stints in Boston and Iowa City and one other place I’m going to talk a little more about, I don’t know many Christians.
Of course I don’t mean Christians. I mean Christians.
Evangelicals. Pentecostals. Born-Agains.
Most people I know are Catholics and Jews and members of the higher-churchier Protestant denominations---Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists. Growing up I knew more Unitarians and Mormons than Christians. In fact, I’m just assuming I knew any Christians at all. Going over the first twenty-odd years of my life, before I ventured out to the Midwest, I can’t think of a single neighbor, friend, schoolmate, coworker, or casual acquaintance who was a Christian. It’s probable that all I really knew of Christians is what I learned from television and the movies, where they were usually depicted as caricatures or where, in the form of televangelists, they caricatured themselves.
The first two Christians who made a serious impression on my understanding of who and what Christians are were the contradictory figures of Jimmy Carter and Anita Bryant, and I quickly concluded that of the two, Bryant was the more representative, which means that I quickly concluded that most Christians weren’t very Christian at all.
There’s lots to be said about this. about Christians’ bigotry and hypocrisy and about my own prejudices and cultural snobbery, but the point I’m dealing with here is that until I got to Indiana I did not know personally anyone for whom their bible was the centerpiece of their faith.
Of course people I knew read it. Everybody read it. I read it. I had to study it for two years in grade school. The New Testament in fifth grade and the Old Testament in sixth. I posted about my sixth grade religious education back in December. It did not make me a biblical literalist. One of my best friends was an Orthodox Jew and he studied the Torah, but that’s hardly the same thing as what Christians mean when they say, “Read your bible!” But for my less orthodox Jewish friends, us Catholics, and the Protestants I knew, the bible got read mainly on the Sabbath, during services. And for us non-Christian Christians, the Bible might as well have been just the gospels, some key passages from Isaiah and the letters of Paul, and the Book of Psalms. Other than Isaiah and the Psalms, the Old Testament figured mainly as background. It was the history into which Jesus was born. And as history we were taught it was suspect.
At any rate, I grew up thinking of the Old Testament as a collection of stories, some true, some true-ish in being allegories and fables, and some just plain fiction.
To the degree the Bible was the Word of God, it was because God inspired the people who wrote it. He did not give dictation.
If He had, he would have been more strict with the thousand of translators who have garbled it over the millennia.
It wasn’t until I lived in Indiana that I got to know people who could be called honest to God bible-thumpers.
I arrived in the Hoosier State at the time Christians there were trying to drive Ryan White out.
This reinforced my opinion that most Christians are not very Christian. But by that time I had come to accept that most people, of every faith and of no faith, stink and are stupid---a belief, as I’ve said many times here, that has made me more tolerant, open-minded, and forgiving in my dealings with my fellow man and woman---so I was willing to give the Christians I immediately began to meet and get to know the benefit of the doubt. Some them quickly proved they didn’t deserve it. I lived in Boston for four years, but believe me you haven’t heard a racist joke in all it’s pure ugliness until you’ve heard one told by a sunny, smiling Midwestern Christian who’s just assumed you are eager to add to your own repertoire.
I hadn’t encountered as virulent and blatant homophobia before either.
It was also cheerfully assumed I shared the hatred and would approve of its expression.
But many Christians I got to know were decent people, quite nice, actually.
Most of the Christians I got to know, though, were my students at Ball State.
Generally, they seemed fairly typical college kids. The main difference between them and all my other students then and since and the people I went to college and grad school with was how open they were about their faith and how it didn’t take much to get them to talk about it or write about it.
I tried to discourage them from writing about it. I told them I didn’t want to be in the position of grading their relationship with God. It could attract the wrong sort of attention from the Almighty. Didn’t stop them. They didn’t seem able to help themselves. It just crept in. It crept into class discussions and office meetings too. It was a feature of their casual conversation. Bringing it up and talking about it was as unselfconscious and routine as talking about basketball. Well, almost. This was Indiana. So, one way or another, I got to know about their brand of Christianity. And I learned two things.
They all claimed to put great store in the Bible.
And none of them read it.
At least not since they were young children attending summer bible camps. And whatever they’d learned form reading it there, they’d forgotten.
The didn’t know the stories.
They didn’t know the story of Job. Or Lot’s wife. Or Samson at the gates. Or Judith, Jezebel, or Esther.
The names of the prophets meant nothing to them.
Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, The Song of Solomon were just familiar words like the names of albums by bands they’d heard of but never listened to.
In one class, I drew blank stares when I mentioned Jonah and the Whale.
They knew Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark. Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors---but I think that was because of the musical not their bible reading---Moses, David and Goliath and David and Bathsheba but not David and Jonathan, and Daniel in the lions den.
That was about it for their knowledge of the Old Testament.
As for the New Testament, they knew the major plot points. They knew who Judas and Pilate were. But they couldn’t name all twelve apostles or say who was the one Jesus loved. They didn’t know about the two thieves crucified with Jesus. They knew about the woman taken in adultery although I’m not sure how many learned the lesson from that one. Some of them seemed to know or at least recognize the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Characters from other parables, not so much. Despite their professed personal relationships with Jesus, the only words of his they could quote---paraphrase actually---were key passages from the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule. They certainly couldn’t cite chapter and verse. Some of them only knew John 3:16 as words and numbers on signs held up at football games on TV, and that one is supposedly the key to their faith.
I know this about them because they regularly demonstrated their lack of biblical knowledge in class. Our readings were full of biblical references and allusions that they didn’t get and I had to explain to them. I had tell them the stories. This was fun, tell you the truth. I love telling stories. But it seemed odd to have to tell Christians the stories of Salome, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Temptation in the Desert, Peter’s three denials, and Saul on the Road to Damascus. And I wasn’t assigning lots of religious tracts. Biblical references run throughout American, English, and all of Western literature. We couldn’t get through a week without my having to take on the role of exegete. This was especially the case when I was teaching poetry. So, along with saving a marriage, the other good I might have done as a teacher was teach some bible-reading Christians what was in their bibles.
I don’t regard this as a religious or even spiritual good, although I like to imagine that some of them were inspired to go look the stories up and not just take my word for it and that they were surprised to read what Jesus actually said, especially about whatever you do to the least of his brothers and sisters and not storing up treasures on earth. Maybe a few of them even took a good look into the Old Testament and began to wonder what they were doing worshiping a bronze age sky demon with a fondness for genocide and mass murder. But the good I hope to have done is cultural.
In their ignorance of the bible they weren’t much different from the great majority of college students, then or now. I had to do the explaining and storytelling when I moved on to teaching at a prestigious liberal arts college back here in New York and I sometimes have to do it for my honors students at Syracuse. Few if any of them are Christians claiming to practice a bible-centric religion. Doesn’t matter. I don’t think I should have to tell any American college students the stories of the Judgment of Solomon or Susanna and the Elders, or the parable of the talents, or why Jesus wept.
If I do, I want it to be because it’ll be on the test.
It wasn’t back in Indiana that I began developing my idea that the bible needed to be taught in school. It came to me during a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in a seminar in grad school in Iowa when I was one of only three people in the classroom who saw that in what was happening to Hazel Motes O’Connor was retelling the story of Saul on the Road to Damascus and one of the three wasn’t the award-winning fiction writer teaching the seminar.
Like I said, all of Western literature is informed by the Bible as much or more than it’s informed by Greek and Roman myths and the fairy tales and folk tales of Europe. American literature in particular is infused with matters, tropes, symbols, metaphors, morals, lessons, and language that is biblical. The Bible---the Geneva and even more the King James---is a source, maybe the source, of the American language. We speak and write as we do thanks to people who taught themselves and their children to read from the Bible and who bequeathed us the idea of universal public schooling in which their version of standard English would be taught to everybody’s children. And there I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the company of people I thought aspired to follow in the footsteps of O’Connor and Melville and Faulkner and they didn’t recognize one of the most important stories from the New Testament? Hadn’t any of them read the Bible? How could they understand Wise Blood then? How could they know why Ishmael wants to be called Ishmael or appreciate the cadences of Faulkner’s prose?
Turned out most of them hadn’t read Melville or Faulkner either, so that was another problem. But that’s when I started thinking the Bible should be required reading along with the Iliad and the Odyssey, the tales of King Arthur, and the plays of William Shakespeare. Not to mention Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, and Wise Blood. If it can’t be taught in high school, then it should be required in college.
This has been proposed many times by many people before me and even implemented in places. It’s been opposed by people worried that it’s a way of sneaking religion into the public school curriculum and by people who worry that teaching the bible as literature will teach kids to think that’s all it is, literature, a collection of stories, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths no different from the stories, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths of any other culture. Exactly! That’s the point. Stories, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths matter because they tell the people within a culture what that culture is. They tell us who we are.
Bible literacy---not biblical literalism---should be the norm. And so I’m in favor of anything that spreads the Word or, rather, the words.
Well. Almost anything.
I’m not sure a Museum of the Bible funded by the folks at Hobby Lobby is a good way to go about this.
In Washington, D.C., construction is underway on the Museum of the Bible, an eight-story, $400 million enterprise funded by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green.
Green is a Pentecostal known for donating to conservative evangelical universities and developing a public school curriculum based on the Bible. After the craft store's controversial victory in this summer's Supreme Court ruling over contraception, some people worry the new museum will come across as evangelical propaganda. But organizers behind Green's latest venture say it won't be a memorial to evangelism.
The museum’s president, Cary Summers explained to a reporter for NPR’s Morning Edition, “"We want this to be highly engaging for people of all ages, all cultural backgrounds, all faiths, no faiths”. Martyn Oliver, who teaches religious studies at American University, is impressed by with what he’s seen of the museum’s collection of artifacts and texts and thinks visitors to the museum will get to view the bible as a text that like other texts is subject to rethinking and revising and reinterpretation, that is, as a work of literature and not “the literal word of God”. And Tim Krepp, a lapsed Catholic who apparently hasn’t lapsed into any other religion and who works as a D.C. tour guide and already has plans to make the museum a stop on his itinerary even though it won’t open for two more years, seems prepared to give visitors to Washington he’ll be showing around town a purely informational tour of the museum.
Based on all that, I can imagine the museum evolving over time into a real museum, a place for study and actual scholarship. I can even imagine it being taken over someday by the nearby Smithsonian.
I can imagine it but I don’t believe it will happen, even over the long haul, and I’m very skeptical that when it opens it will be as ecumenical as Summers is talking it up to be.
You could call me a Doubting Thomas.
Well, you could if you aren’t a Christian.
You can read and listen to Rebecca Sheir’s whole story, D.C. Bible Museum Will Be Immersive Experience, Organizers Say, at NPR.
Images: (Top) Giovanni Domenico Tielpo: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. (Second down, left) Bartolemeo Cavorazzi: St. Jerome in His Study. (Third down, right) Vincent Van Gogh: The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix. (Bottom, right) Caravaggio: The Conversion of Saint Paul.
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