A friend of mine taught a First-day school session using a children’s book about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. I’ve been interested in biblical scholarship since college, so I knew that in general, scholars don’t believe this event ever happened.
This got me thinking. Lots of stories in the Bible didn’t actually happen. If we are teaching a Bible story in First-day school, and we know (or believe) it didn’t happen, what should we do? If we don’t mention this, we are misleading the people we’re teaching. If we just say, “Now we are going to talk about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt,” we’re giving the impression that this actually happened. But as Quakers, we’re committed to integrity and honesty. So if we believe a Bible story didn’t happen, shouldn’t we say so? I should make clear that my friend believed that the story actually happened, so there wasn’t an issue of integrity. She honestly conveyed what she felt was true.
But after discussing this question with scores of Friends, I’ve come to believe that if we are teaching a story from the Bible and believe it didn’t happen, it’s important to say so. We don’t want to lead people away from what we know or believe to be true. Now I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching Bible stories in First-day school; I teach them. And I’m not suggesting that we only teach stories that are known to have actually happened. After all, a parable or a fable may not have actually happened, but the lessons the story teaches can still be important.
An example may make this more clear. Take the “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” story from the Gospel of John. In a 2009 interview with INDY reporter Fiona Morgan, the prominent New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman pointed out it isn’t true:
This entire story, a beautiful story that in some ways you could argue is the favorite story of people who read the Gospels, wasn’t in the Gospels. It’s only found in the Gospel of John, and it’s not found in the earliest and best manuscripts of John. So scholars for hundreds of years have known that it wasn’t part of John, it was a story that was added later by scribes because it’s found only in our later manuscripts.
A story about stoning a woman to death for committing adultery may not be a good one for young children but suppose you are teaching it to teens. If you fail to mention that it’s almost certain Jesus never said or did any of this, you mislead the people you are teaching. You also give the story a deceptive amount of spiritual authority. After all, if you taught that Jesus actually said and did these things, you’d give the lessons of the story much more weight.
It might be tempting to avoid stating the truth of a Bible story you are teaching, and instead say that nobody knows whether stories from the Bible are true or not. But that isn’t the case. Scholars have come up with historical, archaeological, and textual methods for judging the historical accuracy of biblical stories. Also, if you do know or believe that a story isn’t real, it would be dishonest to say that people don’t know if it is.
It also might be tempting to think that this isn’t an issue when we teach younger children, who may not understand or care about the truth of a story. But this doesn’t justify saying something we know is misleading. The integrity testimony doesn’t suggest that it’s okay to mislead someone if they don’t care if they’re misled or if they don’t understand the difference between fact and fiction.
Although I first noticed this issue in the intergenerational context of teaching First-day school, it’s also an issue in adult religious education, such as Bible study.
So what can we do if we want to teach a story that we know or believe didn’t happen? We can say it didn’t happen and also say why we’re teaching it. In the case of the “cast the first stone” story, we could say something like the following:
We’re going to read a story from the Bible about Jesus and a woman who was going to be stoned to death for committing adultery. Now this story didn’t actually happen, but we are reading it today because it conveys some important lessons about humility, compassion, and forgiveness.
Saying something like this allows us to be honest about the truth of the story and still convey the lessons it teaches. If we do this, our behavior preaches the integrity that we proclaim as Quakers. This way we can follow George Fox’s call to let our lives preach.
41 thoughts on “Being Honest about the Bible in Religious Education”
Donald W. McCormick’s approach to the issue is sensitive and thoughtful. I think it’s important to emphasize that the reading is a story. And then, what is most important is the meaning of the story in its original context and in what is useful in our context. The “literal truth or falsity” of the story may be a secondary issue of some interest, but not of primary importance.
I appreciate you saying that my approach is sensitive and thoughtful. Thanks. I agree that the historical truth or falsity of a Bible story is of secondary importance. When you think about the integrity of the teacher, their belief in the truth or untruth of the story they are teaching becomes very important. Suppose they teach a story that they do not believe is true, and they do not say whether it is true or not. The implication is that it is a fact. The teacher would be communicating something they believe to be false, and this raises an issue of integrity.
My only quibble here is the certainty with which the presumption that Event X “did not happen” is made—just as vigorously, it seems, as others have presumed that Event X “did happen.” When Event X is something like “the flight into Egypt,” the question of its occurrence is an engaging intellectual exercise. But what if Event X is “For God so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son,” to take one example, or “After Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning, the first person who saw him was Mary Magdalene”? These are events that speak to the core of Christian faith for many people, events for which no independent verification exists, but which many of us choose to believe “did happen,” despite that lack of corroboration, despite their profound improbability.
I don’t think we disagree here. The key point I’m trying to make doesn’t so much have to do with whether an event did or did not happen. I’m saying that if you believe that something did not happen and you act as if it did in a First Day School or Adult Ed session, then there is a clash with the integrity testimony. If you believe that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled into Egypt and you teach that, then you are acting in accordance with what you believe to be true and in that sense, you are acting with integrity.
Whether that happened or not is a different type of issue. It is a historical issue. It doesn’t make sense to insist that everyone who teaches First Day School or Adult Ed should have to delve into the historical basis of everything they teach.
Good points; I’m starting to think what’s thrown me is an inconsistency in the language you use to describe what constitutes speech with integrity, as when you say, “If you fail to mention that it’s almost certain Jesus never said or did any of this, you mislead the people you are teaching.” When, it sounds like, what you’re intending to convey is “If you fail to mention that YOU BELIEVE…”
I’m not quite yet 100% convinced of the need to impress *our* beliefs about the veracity of the Bible (or any other text) upon our students, at least not in a way that precludes other beliefs, particularly in domains like this where “truth” is nebulous and ambivalent and maybe even multivalent. Perhaps it’s enough to say “we’re going to discuss this story” without saying “now (I believe) this story didn’t actually happen,” but to be honest about one’s belief if asked, and otherwise to focus, as you suggest, on the elements of the story that have compelled people of faith to invest it with meaning. This doesn’t feel like a lie of omission to me; honesty and transparency are critical elements of integrity, but so too, I think, is respecting others’ autonomy, and giving them full room to reach independent intellectual conclusions. Obviously we steer students to some degree, but we should perhaps aim to do so as lightly as possible.
Good point! I should have put it the way you suggested… “If you fail to mention that you believe that Jesus never said or did…”
You write, “I’m not quite yet 100% convinced of the need to impress *our* beliefs about the veracity of the Bible (or any other text) upon our students.” I too don’t believe that we need to impress our beliefs about the veracity of the Bible (or any other text) upon our students. But I do believe that we should be honest. If I believe something isn’t true, I shouldn’t teach our children and fellow Friends that it is true. We are, after all, the religious society of the friends of truth.
agreed.. None of us were there.
I think I have a similar (though distinct) reaction to Ron’s. I am no bible scholar, but can we infer “not happening” from later insertion into the sequence of text versions? All biblical stories were originally verbally passed on, the the process of writing them down occurred, in historical sequence. I believe scholars have generally tried to address the question of “truth”–in the sense of historically accurate by using the proxy of original to the oldest texts. But that is certainly not the only way to think about this admittedly vexing problem of historical truth. If we’re concerned about integrity, why be so sure that it didn’t happen or wasn’t true, if what we really know is that it isn’t in earlier accounts? What if it is truthful to the gospel message? Which of these two meanings is more important to convey in religious education?
More broadly, approaching the bible primarily as a historical record is arguably not the most fruitful way to teach the bible, especially for younger folks. I believe we can discuss the bible’s historicity, of course, but not reduce it to a history text, it clearly was not intended to be one. It’s meaning and value can be assessed on other grounds.
You wrote, “approaching the bible primarily as a historical record is arguably not the most fruitful way to teach the bible, especially for younger folks.” I agree. I also agree that we should not treat the Bible as a history text when used in religious education. I teach from the Bible and that is certainly not the approach I use.
I hope that I have not given the impression that my main concern is the historical truth of stories from the Bible. The point I’m trying to make is that if a teacher of First Day School or Adult Ed believes that a particular Bible story did not happen, and they teach it as if it did, there is a problem of integrity. We should teach what we believe to be true, and not teach what we believe to be untrue.
I believe it would depend on the age of the child. Parents reading to their child don’t start the Story with, “There is no Cat in a Hat”, or “Green Eggs and Ham aren’t real”. They tell a story that has Causes and Consequences, no matter how unlikely.
An older child, or young adult should be given the information in regards to historical accuracy as we currently know it, but reminded these are all important Stories that teach lessons in life.
I certainly didn’t tell my son that there is no cat in a hat when I read to him. That’s because, when I read the story of the Cat in the Hat, my son was unlikely to believe that there was a Cat that ran around in a hat causing mischief. If, on the other hand, I told him that Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt, he would very likely believe that this happened. If I also believed this was true, that would be one thing. But if I didn’t believe this happened, I would knowingly be deceiving my son.
I’m not so sure that the appropriate response depends on the age of the child. I see your point that a story told to a child is in many ways about causes and consequences. However, my main concern Is the spiritual integrity of the storyteller. I can say things I believe to be untrue to young children and I can do the same to people who are older. Personally, I think there is cause for concern in both situations. I don’t think there is greater integrity in telling untruths to young children. I should make clear that I don’t mean to imply that you suggested that there was.
Also, we teach much more by what we do than what we say. If I try to teach Quakerism by saying things I do not believe to be true, my dishonesty is the much stronger lesson.
I applaud your view that “An older child, or young adult should be given the information in regards to historical accuracy as we currently know it, but reminded these are all important Stories that teach lessons in life.” I think that is the main reason for teaching any story in religious education—to teach life lessons. Especially spiritual ones.
This is a very narrow understanding of “truth.” We can take the bible seriously without taking it literally, as many biblical scholars suggest we should. This is one of the several reasons I cringe at the too-frequent DIY approach many Meetings take to teaching First Day School. I highly suggest choosing curriculum developed by people with a strong grounding in biblical scholarship. Otherwise, we dismiss way too much of what’s really important in the bible.
I’m intrigued by your suggestion about First Day School curriculum. Can you recommend one or more curricula?
I end up mostly looking to the Episcopalians because they’re really great about being grounded in solid scholarship. I really like the Godly Play curriculum for the younger grades, as it presents the sacred stories without turning them into moralistic tales with a tidy lesson. But Godly Play has its limitations — it doesn’t engage with the kids’ intellectual curiosity as they grow older and want to probe that a bit more. The Forma group is a great resource for learning about other curricula. There’s a great curriculum for older kids including ones that simultaneously affirms the bible and affirms doubts/skepticism about the bible, something that preteens and teens really need room to do. Unfortunately, I’ve never taught it personally and can’t remember its name…. ugh. Virginia Theological Seminary has some great resources you can investigate at its https://buildfaith.org/ site. A dear friend and mentor who’s a United Methodist pastor trained there — it’s an organization that’s very interested in strengthening cross-denominational connections.
If we don’t have strong scholarship as the basis for our teaching, we end up cherry-picking scriptures that seem to support the views we already have, and we completely miss the boat on many parts of the bible that are carefully constructed to comment on social phenomena we have no reason to understand in our modern context. (E.g., why on EARTH does Jesus curse a fig tree for not fruiting… OUT OF SEASON??!? Hint: it has nothing to do with agriculture.)
My approach is to say that there are people who believe that everything in the Bible happened as it was written, and people who believe that it is a set of stories that show us how people came to understand the nature of God. Then we can ask what this particular story tells us about the nature of God, or about the beliefs of the people who first wrote down the story.
I think this is a very healthy, honest way to deal with the Bible. Thanks for stating it so well.
I hope everyone who teaches scripture to Friends also remembers what Barclay said about the scriptures in his Apology:
“Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.”
There’s much more about this here: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/prop3.html
When I was a teen, I successfully read the Bible from cover to cover a couple of times. Even then, I began to see flaws in literal approaches to the Bible; and I began to learn about problems encountered during translation and interpretation. In college, a course in “Historical Linguistics” showed me the complexities that arise when translating ancient texts. My approach has been to treat the Bible as literature, but not to take it literally. Quakerism is a mystical tradition, and some Quakers have documented their direct experiences of the divine. I am attracted to the Quaker focus on “continuing revelation,” and I focus on becoming aware of spiritual truths and spiritual growth in the course of daily experience.
It may not be escapism to say that we do not know for sure whether a Biblical incident happened more or less as described in the text, and there are certainly incidents where we can say it can’t be so, e.g. there is archaeological evidence that the walls of Jericho did not collapse in the era reflected in the narratives about Joshua. But with regard here to the stories about Jesus, I suspect that too many Biblical scholars are tied to a literary / documental model of the formation of the Gospels, without giving attention to the impact of ongoing oral tradition. Bishop Papias, who died c.130 CE, had questioned informants who had heard from those who had known Jesus in the flesh; this is at least a generation after the assumed date when John’s Gospel was compiled. So oral and literary traditions are running parallel; each can be accurate in some ways, distorted in others (think of our own family history stories, and of how Quaker stories are passed on). I am privileged to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, where continuing Māori oral tradition often coincides with and enhances written accounts and archaeological findings. So the story of the woman taken in adultery was being told about Jesus, and may have happened, but we can’t be sure. Still less can we declare that it was invented at the point it first appears in manuscripts. Let’s honour it.
You raise an interesting point about the “cast the first stone” story and how the incident could have happened. I did not know about Bishop Papias. It hadn’t occurred to me that “oral and literary traditions are running parallel; each can be accurate in some ways, distorted in others.” Could you say some more about what you mean when you say “Let’s honour it”?
Thanks for you response, Don. I think I’m saying we can go further than, “This is a lovely story about compassion”. I want to say to people: “This story was being told about Jesus, and passed on from person to person. Perhaps it started as a report from someone who was at such an incident; perhaps it started from someone who was sure this is how Jesus would have behaved if faced with this challenge to his respect for the Jewish Law. We can’t be sure it actually happened, and some of the details may have changed as it was passed on. Does it fit for you with what we know (most probably) about Jesus? Do you see it as teaching from Jesus which can speak to you, or teaching from the early Christians who were trying to live in the tradition and spirit of Jesus, or does it not speak to you at this time?” Personally I see no reason to assume it doesn’t arise from an actual incident.
I like your example of how we can go further than “This is a lovely story about compassion.” You go on to write, “Personally I see no reason to assume it doesn’t arise from an actual incident.” The key issue I was trying to raise in the article is not so much about the truth of this or that Bible story, as it is about the honesty with which a lesson or story is taught.
Our First Day School program does a three year rotation – one year of Bible, one year of Quaker history, one year on the Spices. At the beginning of the Bible year I took a couple sessions to talk to my 3rd,4th and fifth grade First Day School class broadly about the Bible. Who wrote it? When was it written? What’s in it? (Laws, history, adventure stories, stories with a moral, love letters, songs, etc.) Is it true? (Some people believe every word is, but there are contradictions etc. Most Quakers believe some is probably true and some isn’t.) Why bother if it might not be? Some kids knowlegeable about evolution are ready to reject it all at the get go. We’d play the whispering “telephone” game With one answer to the question (so you won’t be ignorant). We’d read a list of common sayings and expressions that come straight from the Bible. We’d pass around a stack of dozens of New Yorker and other cartoons based on Bible stories. Dozens just on Noah and the Ark! (If you have no knowlege of the Bible, you won’t even be able to get the jokes.) We talked about continuing revelation. We talked about the fact that two and three thousand years was ago people were trying to figure out the right way to live and what it’s all about just like we are.
After all that, we were ready. We even delved into the book of Job before year’s end.
Your meeting’s approach to teaching the Bible sounds lovely. Would you mind terribly moving to California and teaching in our First Day School?
Sorry, I meant “your” response.
I assume that most of the time, the Bible’s authors, and even its redactors, like the people who put the story of the adulteress in “later” manuscripts of John, were honestly trying to give their audience a truth they thought was important enough to include in their book. (By the way, later manuscripts may actually be later copies of earlier manuscripts that have been lost to us, so I don’t think we can base much on their date.) Anyway, when teaching the Bible, we can follow the authors’ example, and try to pass on the truth that we think is important enough to share with our audience, whoever they are. A unique genius of the Bible is the innovation of doing theology by telling stories.
I happen to think that the flight to Egypt might encode some connection with the Therapeutae, an Essene community in Alexandria’s very large Hebrew population. Did the family actually go there? Or is Matthew using the story to encode Essene influence on Jesus’ development? Or is he just trying to make another association between Jesus and Moses, which he makes explicit in Matthew 2:15, and which is a major theme throughout the gospels? This latter point is for sure and offers the opportunity to read chapters one and two of Exodus alongside the story of the flight to Egypt, and to talk about Jesus as a prophet.
Poetic truths are truths of the Spirit. The Biblical canon is still being written (See the American psalmist, Emily Dickinson for one example out of millions). I see the Bible in this way. I recommend the new translation of the Gospels by Quaker classicist Sarah Ruden. Her introduction, glossary, and footnotes are helpful as is her translation from a pure scholarly, non theological viewpoint. It gives new insights into our ho hum readings throughout our lives.
I do not believe there is a problem of integrity when a FDS teacher refrains from giving their personal opinion as to the literal veracity of a Bible story. In fact, the teacher’s opinion is unimportant. There is a considerable body of “higher criticism” work that the teacher can refer to if this is considered an important issue.
You say that there is not “a problem of integrity when a FDS teacher refrains from giving their personal opinion as to the literal veracity of a Bible story. In fact, the teacher’s opinion is unimportant.”
I think we disagree about this. I believe that the teacher’s opinion is important when it comes to their spiritual integrity. If I’m teaching a story that asserts that certain things happened (for example, that Jesus was crucified by the Romans) and my opinion is that they did actually happen, then I am acting with integrity.
However, if I’m teaching about the Jesus walking on water and I say, “Jesus walked on the water,” I’m communicating that this is the case. If my personal opinion is that he didn’t walk on the water and I refrain from saying so, I’m giving a false impression. I’m not being honest. Honesty is one of the pillars of integrity and I believe in this situation the teacher’s opinion is important when it comes to their spiritual integrity.
You and your opinion (and anyone else’s) is not important. It’s not about you and your integrity. It’s about teaching the Bible to children. How can you, with probably little or no background in Higher Criticism, elect yourself spokesperson as to which parts of the Bible are true, and which not? Even if you were well grounded in these studies, I would hope that you would be humble enough to preface your pronunciamentos with you are one
This isn’t about your judgment as to your spiritual integrity. This is about teaching the children the Bible, not your interpretation of the Bible. I hope you have the humility to preface your pronunciamentos to the children with the fact that there is a considerable body of knowledge developed over the centuries, including the so-called “Higher Criticism” of the past century, with scholars who disagree with you, and also, that you, of course were not there. lol
Reading others’ comments, I found myself hoping to see some reference to what I call the Early Quaker Hermeneutic, which I wish could be taught in all First-Day Schools: “Does the Holy Spirit (or ‘Christ our Inward Teacher’) ‘open’ this scripture for us today? How?” George Fox explained it in 1652 at a court appearance:
“That which I was moved to declare, was this: ‘That the holy scriptures were given forth by the spirit of God; and all people must first come to the spirit of God in themselves, by which they might know God and Christ, of whom the prophets and apostles learned; and by the same spirit know the holy scriptures; for as the spirit of God was in them that gave forth the scriptures, so the same spirit must be in all them that come to know and understand the scriptures. By which spirit they might have fellowship with the Father, with the son, with the scriptures, and with one another; and without this spirit they can know neither God, Christ, nor the scriptures, nor have a right fellowship one with another.’ I had no sooner spoken these words, but about half a dozen priests, that stood behind me, burst into a passion. One…said, that the spirit and the letter were inseparable. I replied, ‘Then every one that hath the letter, hath the spirit; and they might buy the spirit with the letter of the scriptures.'” (George Fox, Works, 1:158 (1831 ed.), = p. 136 (Nickalls ed.)
Thank you for these words of George Fox. This article has gone far afield.
If we are literalist we are literally believing everything that is written in the bible as a historical document. However, it was not a daily account nor was it written by historians. It was never written in circumspect but rather in retrospect. It is essentially a book of faith not a book of facts . It uses poetic and metaphoric literary technics to communicate truths about the human condition and our need to experience profound relationships through the eyes of faith . This does not mean historical references are diluted or misrepresented, rather, I suggest they were recontextualised in the Light of Faith.
It is important to remind ourselves that all theology, philosophy and written scriptures was and is preceded by human experience. For example, the Christ event evoked a new and unfamiliar experience both individually but more importantly collectively among the first community of faith and they were confronted with the challenge of putting into language something they had never experienced before. After years of reflection and sharing their experiences among themselves, a common theme started to emerge. A good example is the four churches (Communities) presented in the four gospels articulate very different and sometimes contradictory experiences of the Christ event. Does this mean that some gospels are incorrect or indeed wrong? The reality is that the Semitic mind was very comfortable with apparent contradictions and embraced paradox much better that our Western minds do. In the West we have been trapped in dualistic ways of thinking and have lost our capacity to sit in and embrace paradox and not knowing. We cannot teach scriptures or do good therapy without a wholesome understanding of the dynamics of paradox.
It was explained to me by a scripture scholar this way. “All scripture is a projection of a reflection on a past historical event”
In my humble opinion I do believe that Literal fundamentalism is the enemy of Faith and the consort of Ignorance. For example, did Jesus walk on water? Of course he didn’t. So what is the point of the Story? In the Semitic mind chaos resides in the deep so by telling a story of Jesus walking on water is a literary device used to explain that chaos is real and not to be avoided, rather, like Jesus we are invited to confront it and walk through it with Love and Light and in so doing give chaos the meaning it deserves. This is also true regarding the the story oy the Flood in the Hebrew scriptures. The Hebrews were taken captive by many dominant cultures and were influenced by their cosmologies. If they found a story they liked, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, they simply reformulated the flood part and placed YHWH at the centre of the story, it was their way of reinforcing their unique relationship with YHWH. It is the same with the creation stories especially the creation of Adam and Eve. There are two very different stories describing this event, if we are literalist then one needs to be wrong . Were they created from the mud or was Eve created from the rib of Adam? The dualistic mind can’t cope with this contradiction. For the Semitic mind it does not matter, what matters is that YHWH is the loving creator bringing us into the fullness of His Being.
We need to remind ourselves that the Bible is a Book of Faith that attempts and invites us into the ground of transcendence by anchoring us in the here and now. Being poetic, paradoxical or metaphorical does not mean the content is false, it suggests a dynamic aliveness that transforms the present moment into eternal significance.
For me, faith is the invitation to sit in the stillness and silence of ‘not knowing’ and accepting I am unconditionally Loved just as I am, here and now. “Be not afraid, I am with you always”
While this was a very interesting point of view, it seems to me as though we may be finding a “solution” to a problem that does not exist. Why in fact do any of the stories from the Bible or any other source NEED to be true? As many are aware, there are many pieces of fiction that we have been exposed to in our lives that have touched our hearts, our nerves, or our lives. We have all been sculpted by the lessons we have learned through perhaps reading Aesop’s fables to the self awareness we might have garnered from watching a great movie. While I am quite certain that Luke Skywalker, Winnie the Pooh, Atticus Finch, Huck and Jim, and Hermione Granger were the brainchildren of some very talented writers, they nevertheless have imparted some lasting impact on those who went along for the ride. It is for this reason I ask again, where is it written that stories about morality, kindness, sacrifice, honor, turmoil, and most of all love need to be true stories? The lesson that stays with us after having heard the tale is what is important. And while it is true that many who read any particular tale, parable, or story may come away with differing viewpoints; isn’t that basically what being a Quaker is about. We do not need (nor want) someone to tell us what we should “get” from any particular selection we may read, movie we may watch or above all, experience we may have with what we may perceive as a higher power.
The writer, Neil Gaiman, sums it up better than I can; “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
“Why in fact do any of the stories from the Bible or any other source NEED to be true? As many are aware, there are many pieces of fiction that we have been exposed to in our lives that have touched our hearts, our nerves, or our lives.” Good point! The stories we teach do not need to be true. They can still be meaningful and be important parts of religious education. If we want to teach a story that we know or believe didn’t happen, we can say it didn’t happen and also say why we’re teaching it.
I was raised in an “Evangelical Friends” parsonage, so I had years of Sunday School perfect attendance pins hanging from my lapel. (A friend of mine refers to them a pious pins, which is so true.) I received hours and hours of indoctrination in stories that I just had to take by faith or burn in hell. Dr. Ehrman has a wealth of knowledge about the reality of scripture, but my experience was the personal effect of these teachings. As a small child I was entertained by stories of all kinds, but as I grew older and wiser, I became aware that there were a lot of stories from “The Word of God” that just didn’t add up. This laid the foundation for a general understanding that I was being told to live my life by a book that did not match reality and life was difficult enough without the burden of unrealistic expectations. Constantly falling short of being perfect is a major attack on the forming of a healthy personality. When I left home to attend College, the last thing that I wanted to do was drag God along so the he could continue the onslaught of retribution. I have since witnessed a lot of folks who suffer under the burden of unfounded guilt and they are certainly not happy Christians. I suggest teaching useful lessons rather than lies.
“Now I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching Bible stories.”
How generous of you! I am furious with this article! How dare you! So many concerns—immigration, our southern border, climate change, The Voting Lie, Belarus and the plane hijacked with that young man, Russia—Putin poisoning and imprisoning Navalny, Palestine/Israel, the prison situation in our own country, lack of mass transit, mental health concerns, etc. etc. etc.
And what do you focus on? Lying to little children—telling them the most beautiful story in the whole world that has ever been written is not true! IT IS TRUE! You’re accusing the writers of lying? And you know NOTHING about the anointing. The beautiful hymns. My husband, who passed, was born on Christmas Eve and every Christmas Eve he would play, O Holy Night.
O Holy Night
A little girl, Claire Crosby, age 7 sings it. Tell her the story isn’t true. Oh, you want to be so honest. You are dishonest. Scholars? There are plenty of scholars who believe. And who wants to read stories that are told as truth but aren’t? And you’re out to prove those shepherds didn’t hear and see angels?
O Little Town of Bethlehem
How silently, how silently the wonderous gift is given. . .
O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in.
Be born in us today,
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.
The text was written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), an Episcopal priest, then rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia and later of Trinity Church, Boston. He was inspired by visiting the village of Bethlehem in the Sanjak of Jerusalem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church, and his organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) added the music.
Redner’s tune, simply titled “St. Louis”, is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States. Redner recounted the story of his composition:
As Christmas of 1868 approached, Mr. Brooks told me that he had written a simple little carol for the Christmas Sunday-school service, and he asked me to write the tune to it. The simple music was written in great haste and under great pressure. We were to practice it on the following Sunday. Mr. Brooks came to me on Friday, and said, “Redner, have you ground out that music yet to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’?” I replied, “No”, but that he should have it by Sunday. On the Saturday night previous my brain was all confused about the tune. I thought more about my Sunday-school lesson than I did about the music. But I was roused from sleep late in the night hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it, and on Sunday morning before going to church I filled in the harmony. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.
My recollection is that Richard McCauley, who then had a bookstore on Chestnut Street west of Thirteenth Street, printed it on leaflets for sale. Rev. Dr. Huntington, rector of All Saints’ Church, Worcester, Mass., asked permission to print it in his Sunday-school hymn and tune book, called The Church Porch, and it was he who christened the music “Saint Louis”.
Have you ever listened to Handel’s Messiah? That was inspired by a lie?
Oh, you’re so inclusive! You could have fooled me. No, the average Quaker meeting—what I have experienced through the years—I’ve been to Tallahassee, 15th Street in New York, Lake Wales, Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Cherry Street, Philadelphia. Tallahassee and 15th Street on a regular basis. They have all their “Quaker” rules. You can’t speak twice, etc.
Quakers—why was The Society of Friends called “Quakers.”? Because of The Holy Spirit.
If any person speak. let her speak as the oracles of God
. I Peter 4:11
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Sheilah, your passionate fury about the article is striking. Am I right in understanding that you are angry that I wrote about whether Quakers should lie when they teach First Day School and in other religious education settings, when there are many other more important issues to write about? I’m not sure how familiar you are with Quakerism or whether you are a Quaker, but we Quakers have always regarded honesty and integrity to be important values. Integrity is one of our testimonies.
I want to make clear that the main point I was trying to make was about honesty, not whether this or that story from the Bible was objectively true. I’m trying to suggest that if you are teaching something, like a story from the Bible, and you don’t believe it is true, that you should be honest and say so, so you don’t convey a false impression . The flip side of this is also true. If you are teaching something, like a story from the Bible, you imply or say it is true, and you believe it is true, then you are being honest. You aren’t giving a false impression to the people you are teaching. You are teaching in a way that is in accord with the Quaker testimony of integrity.
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