March 10, 2020

Bible yes, Bible bill no

My late mother was something of a militant member of the Episcopal Church ... to the extent that’s even possible.

She wasn’t a literalist and was tolerant of people with different faiths or none at all, but she was fierce in her religious affiliation. In fact, that’s probably the main reason she married my father, who was the son of the first priest at St. Andrew’s in Oak Hill.

The marriage was kind of a bust, which indicates that this might not be the best criterion for mate selection.

Among the things that resulted from that union was my existence and the experience of being dragged to church, usually involuntarily, by my mother.

(There’s a vicious rumor that Episcopalians never read the Bible, one which I must now quash: we sometimes do, just in case we make it to “Jeopardy!”)

But seriously, getting brought up in that kind of environment is kind of like being marinated in Bible sauce. Most Episcopalians aren’t fundamentalist and don’t read the Bible as a science book or guide to criminal justice when it comes to stoning people to death for minor offenses, but the book comes with the territory.

A typical service consists of readings from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, a psalm, a reading from a New Testament epistle and a passage from the gospels. Most of the language of The Book of Common Prayer — which is one of the places the English language goes to show off — is biblical.

If you get dragged there enough, it just kind of seeps in, whether you want it to or not.

I noticed growing up that a lot of people I knew seemed to worship the Bible as if it was a divinity but had pretty vague ideas of what was actually in it.

This reminds me of the Bible story in Acts, where St. Paul chides the Athenians for worshiping “a god unknown.”

Eventually, I began reading it voluntarily, regardless of where I was in terms of religious belief. I’ve read it during the times I’ve been observant and during the times it seemed like the universe was random and purposeless. But I always read it.

The stories, sayings and metaphors stuck. I find myself using them all the time (almost as much as references to Bob Dylan lyrics or lines from “The Big Lebowski,” not that I’m suggesting equivalency). They have influenced my life to a great degree.

Biblical literacy is a key to understanding our culture and traditions. The book, or rather books, is/are treasure troves of words and images.

It’s impossible to understand the great speeches or writings of our tradition without a basic knowledge of it, from William Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Still, I have problems with the recently passed legislation that puts biblical instruction in public schools. It still must be signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice.

To state the obvious, not all students are Christian. But it goes beyond that. The interpretations likely to be presented will probably reflect only a pretty thin slice of diverse biblical traditions.

It’s likely to be tilted toward a nationalistic, white, Protestant, evangelical interpretation. There probably won’t be a lot of discussion of the more ancient biblical interpretations from Coptic, Orthodox or Catholic Christianity. I doubt there will be a lot of the freedom and justice-loving interpretations from African American church traditions or those from Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa or the island nations. There probably won’t be a lot of biblical commentary from the Talmud or Mishnah of Judaism.

And it’s a safe bet that classes won’t resemble those in nonsectarian universities, where the Bible is treated the same as any ancient document, with comparisons with contemporary texts, the historical record, anthropological research, archaeology, textual criticism, etc.

In fairness, it might be good if there was a space for students to learn, without recruitment, about the great texts of world religions.

My life has been enriched not just by the Bible, but by other traditions as well.

I’ve learned much about tradition, education and social order from the Analects of Confucius; about following nature from the Tao Te Ching; about compassion and mindfulness from Buddhist sutras; about the vast nature of divinity from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita; about mercy and justice from the extra-biblical teachings of rabbinical Judaism and the Islamic tradition; etc.

Learning about other faiths takes nothing away from one’s own.

Alas, that was the road not taken.

If I may echo ideas often expressed by my conservative friends (I actually have some), some things should be left to the private sector. This includes religious instruction.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that religions of all kinds flourish without state support in the U.S., while they have declined in industrially advanced nations with established churches.

While it’s good when we bring the values of our beliefs to the public sphere, the marriage of religion and government doesn’t usually result in better government. It results in bad religion.

All of which is to suggest that, if we’re not going to expose students to the varieties of religious experiences, we should leave religious instruction to families and communities.

Or just let ’em get it the old-fashioned way, by being dragged against their will to religious services by their elders.

It worked for me.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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