How much do you remember of your third-grade reader? Could you quote it authoritatively? Could you use the stories' moral lessons to guide your life? I can't even remember the title of my third-grade reader, much less the storylines. I wouldn't dare quote it or make assertions about what it said.
We are surrounded by people whose awareness of the Bible is similarly vague. They heard Bible stories as young children, perhaps had a picture Bible when a little older, and can dimly recall declaiming the Second Shepherd's lines in the Christmas play. As they got older they found Sunday school boring. By high-school graduation, if not before, they had stopped attending church. Their biblical education ground to a halt when they lost interest at about age 8 or 10.
But that has no effect on their confidence. In an essay for the glossy highbrow, Harper's, a writer asserted that the Bible ranks hope along with faith and love (good so far) in Psalm 23 (uh oh). It's a dumb mistake, but it wasn't hers alone; editors, proofreaders, even fact-checkers comb every word in a magazine of this stature. No doubt everyone had a dim memory of something like this being in the Bible, and so it was rubber-stamped into print.
My clipping file includes an urging from the Washington Post to make Christmas special by "reading Mark or Luke's narrative at home." (Mark has a birth narrative? Gee, I can't find one.) Newsweek describes Jesse Jackson holding hands with the Clintons and reciting "the fifty-first Psalm, David's prayer for mercy after he had been seduced by Bathsheba." (Oh, so that's how it happened!)My favorite is a line from that 1980s anthem, "We Are the World": "As our God has shown us by turning stones to bread." I picture the songwriters Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson thinking, Hey, we're singing to raise money for hunger relief and there's something in the Bible about bread and stones—Cool! The Bible describes Jesus being tempted, but refusing to turn stones to bread. The composers, the instrumentalists, singers, and technicians must each have read over these lyrics at least once. Nobody said, "Hmm, is that right? I'd better check a Bible."
A wit might well develop a humorous bestseller: a version of the Bible including only the parts the average unchurched person remembers and in just the twisted way he remembers them. ("I'm sure of it! In my Wee Tots Bible, there was a picture of Jesus turning the stones into bread!")The charming humor classic, 1066 and All That, was based on a similar idea. Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman attempted to write, as the 1930 book's subtitle says, "A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember." It is a very short book."
Histories have previously been written with the object of exalting the reader. The object of this History is to console the reader," Sellar and Yeatman begin. The book contains only two dates. "
[T]wo out of the four Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are not memorable." Sellar and Yeatman conclude the preface with a salute to their countrymen, "whose historical intuitions and opinions this work enshrines."
English, and even American, readers enjoyed 1066 and All That because they knew their memory was faulty and they could laugh at themselves. Such humility is less likely among contemporary unchurched people. Conversation about faith or morals is often blocked by the other's misunderstanding of what the Bible says or what the Christian faith teaches. (Secular America is nearly unanimous in agreeing that what Christians worry about most are sexual sins because the only way to get to heaven is by doing good deeds.) In no other field of study would people lean so much on impressions they had not updated since childhood. But here unwarranted confidence abounds.
It doesn't occur to people that when they were children they were indeed taught as a child—spoonfed the oatmeal version. The true depth of faith is likely to be something they've never encountered. When, as adults, they encounter the great world religions, they perceive depth and complexity and treat them with respect. Yet they reflexively think about Christianity like children, because they haven't had a fresh thought about it since childhood.
Otherwise mature people can reject Christianity for silly reasons ("God can't be all-powerful because he didn't make Fluffy get better when she was hit by a car"). These unexamined conclusions act as an inoculation against further thought. Truly educated people would be embarrassed to misquote Shakespeare or Proust as they do the Bible. Perhaps when they were children they put away childish things. Now that they're grownups, they should go back and read the adult version.
Boston Globe's language columnist, Jan Freeman, published a similar article in the December 19, 1999 issue of the newspaper. The article, "Bible Quotes that Miss the Boat," is still online, but you will have topay to read it ($2.95 between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST weekdays, and $1.50 at all other times).
Be sure to also read "The Greatest Story Never Read | Recovering biblical literacy in the church." The article, by Gary M. Burge, appeared in the August 9, 1999 issue of our print magazine.
Visit Frederica Mathewes-Green's Web site at www.frederica.comEarlier "Your World" columns by Frederica Mathewes-Green columns include:
- The Abortion Debate Is Over (Dec. 28, 1999)
- The Thrill of Naughtiness, September 6, 1999
- Escape from Fantasy Island, July 12, 1999
- Men Need Church, Too, May 24, 1999
- My Spice Girl Moment, January 11, 1999
- Moms in the Crossfire, October 26, 1998
- Gagging on Shiny, Happy People, September 7, 1998
- Whatever Happened to Middle-Class Hypocrisy?, July 13, 1998
- I Didn't Mean to be Rude, May 18, 1998
- So I'm Sorry Already, April 6, 1998
- Don't Blame the Publishers!, February 9, 1998
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