Why I Won’t Teach Bible Stories in First-day School

(c) Peter Landau

After meeting for worship last week, a clipboard was passed around for volunteers to sign up to teach the children in First-day school. When it reached me, I swung my arms in an exaggerated pantomime of an umpire calling an out. To further emphasis my comic disgust, I shook my head violently and frowned. I was still given the clipboard—for that’s the Quaker way—but I didn’t sign it. That’s my way.

Not long after first attending Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., ten years ago, I joined its Children’s Education Committee. It was a way for me to better know the meeting, but I also wanted to have a say in the religious instruction of the young children in First-day school. When someone brought up in a committee meeting the idea of having a curriculum in which Bible stories were read to the kids, I was adamantly opposed.

I thought there was a lot of Christianity at the Quaker meeting, but in time I realized that although the spiritual practice comes from a Christian tradition, its unprogrammed worship breaks from that lineage to create a wholly new religious society. I’m Jewish and there are other Jews at the meeting, some observant; there are also Buddhists and even atheists mixed in with the more formal Christian element. This truly was the diverse and open-minded contemplative community I had been looking for.

The Bible came back recently and ironically just as I left the Children’s Education Committee to sit on the Pastoral Care Committee. The upcoming curriculum was Bible stories, which elicited my hyperbolic response to the sign-up 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 pre-pubescent even know what a rebuttal is? I’m being serious. This is the root of my argument against the study of the Bible for an immature class.

True, I have been dismissive of the Bible in the past for any age group. I saw no value in stories that I never for a moment believed came from the mouth of God or thought 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 wisdom embedded in these stories. I see that now. Whatever one may learn from the Bible, however, takes a level of maturity and experience that our children—by very definition of being children—are incapable of understanding. They are not equipped to deal with symbolism and nuance. The Bible is not a blunt 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 now 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.

There are, however, no adolescents attending our meeting. Doesn’t that tell us 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, he probably would not have grown into an evangelist. Like me, however, he might have rejected the sacred texts of Jews and Christians, mocked them as bogus, and held onto that prejudice for his whole life, instead of using his critical thinking to see where there was value for him and where there was not.

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 is not meant for children. If I did teach a class, how would I communicate this to children? How would 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 to be non-canonical and rejected? How would I explain translation and the way moving from one language to another creates subtly different and new material? Do you really think that would hold their attention, let alone edify them in any way?

No, I will not teach the Bible to First-day school. If I’m asked, I’ll help and 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 in most of my instruction. 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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