Friday, November 16, 2012

Childhood Bible Studies

A few years ago, on a winter day, my daughter and I thought we saw blue lights in the leafless willow tree behind our house.  I thought of Annie Dillard's image in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek of the tree with lights in it. We realized that our Christmas tree, which stood in a direct line from the dining room, reflected in the window, so that the tree lights seemed to hang, in a ghostly way, around the willow branches.

Down beside that tree, Canada geese waddled in a nearly perfect line across the ice-covered lake.(1) A few weeks later, I watched a blue heron chase off a pair of gulls. When Christmas day arrived, we saw a red-tailed hawk in the backyard maple tree. Shortly it flew low toward another tree. We assumed it, too, was waiting for lunch.

Christmas wasn’t “white” that year—the yearly expectation, thanks to Irving Berlin’s song—but we had snow, bitter cold, and wind. Emily’s childhood interest in sledding had long since waned, sadly for me. Our house sat on the side of a hill, and the slope beside the garage was perfect for sledding, as Emily and I did several times in previous years. We never quite got the momentum to get all the way to the trees beside the lake behind our property, but maybe within fifteen feet.

Sledding makes me think of my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, which has wonderful hills for sledding. Another hometown holiday memory is the sight of Christmas decorations downtown. Vandalia’s business district is no longer as busy as it once was, but when I was little, a person could do significant shopping there. I loved to see the silver, red, and green holiday decorations hung upon the downtown street lights, and the feeling of snow and cold on my face as we walked among the stores: Don’s Camera Shop, Merriman’s Flowers, Cain’s Drug Store, Greer’s Hardware, Fidelity Clothiers, G. C. Murphy, Craycroft’s, and others. At the time, I’m sure, I was impatient to go home rather than to shop, but one’s memory selects and interprets happy images from childhood.  That old song “Silver Bells” inevitably reminds me of Vandalia—hardly the “city” of the lyrics, but it seemed so to me, though. My daughter’s childhood has been more urban.

As I read my old Bible, I encounter the verses that I associate with childhood. These verses and passages form a kind of personal “canon” that reflect my early explorations of faith. A Bible reader can look back and recall times and occasions associated with different passages. The book’s words, promises, warnings, and stories can provide a structure for your life.

A show of hands: who has unused or seldom used Bibles tucked around the house?  That’s not necessarily a bad thing: my family and I have several. My wife’s childhood Bible, from Lutheran catechism, sits upon the shelves; these days she prefers the newer Serendipity Bible. Our daughter’s Beginner’s Bible, with well known Bible stories rendered in appealing cartoon form, also sits on the shelves, a nice reminder of her childhood. Now she has an edition formatted for teens. We also have the childhood Bible of Beth’s first husband, who died young from leukemia; a leather-bound Vulgate New Testament that I picked up at a sale and used for a time; an old Bible that belonged to my dad’s stepfather, and a loose-leaf NIV that I studied during the 1980s.

Perhaps you’re like me; you associate stages and times of your life with particular Bibles. Whatever happened to the Bible you received when you entered high school? Or the one Aunt Rose of Sharon gave you? Bibles, like everything else, have a way of being misplaced, disappearing. Others sit unused on shelves, and a few are still cherished. You hate to relinquish Bibles with personal associations.

My old Bible Harper RSV is third in a line of “favorite” Bibles. The second is a paperback Good News for Modern Man, which I got in Sunday school when I was 13, and the first is an old KJV which also sits, a keepsake, upon my shelves.  One day, when I was in second or third grade, my father and I were shopping in our hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, when he declared, “Paul, it’s time you had your own Bible!”

That was an unexpected announcement because Dad wasn’t yet a churchgoer. On family vacations, Mom and I visited churches while he sat in the car, reading Westerns. Yet he dearly loved George Beverly Shea, the singer on Billy Graham’s crusades. Unless he was prompted by my mother, purchasing me a bible must’ve been his way of finding a role in my religious development.  Amid Vandalia’s several clothing stores, groceries, restaurants, and other businesses that once lined the “main drag” Gallatin Street and its adjoining streets, one of our favorite stores was the G. C. Murphy, near Fourth and Gallatin.2  The store sold all manners of items from fabric and notions to LP records, candy, games, school supplies, kitchen utensils, books, and Bibles. My mother had worked at “the dime store,” as we called it, until she became pregnant with me. That was the store where Dad purchased for me that King James Version.  

I was proud of it and carried it to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Innocently I wrote Dad’s and my names on the title page, “Presented to… From …” and marked my parents’ and grandparents’ names in the center page for family information. Once or twice I tried to read the book, and I underlined a few verses. But the language was too archaic and lofty for a young person, and the two-column formatting was tough-going. Each sentence was its own little paragraph. Who ever sees books printed like that?  You’d chuck even your favorite novel across the room.

Thus, one of my earliest impressions of the Bible was ambivalent. The Bible is wonderful to own and critically important—as everyone I knew said—so important, in fact, your eternal destiny depended upon its contents. And yet the book’s contents seemed highly resistant to being read as you could another, compelling book.

At some level that concerned me; the Bible just wasn’t as easy to understand as pious folks implied.  But I just did what everyone else did, which was to assimilate some basic Bible knowledge from church, to which my mom made me go.  For most of my childhood and youth, Mom and I went to church together.

I turn in my old Bible to the earliest verse I remember learning, Acts 10:38: … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

For years it was the only one I knew from memory (other than the gloriously brief John 11:35).  I had to memorize that verse in a childhood Sunday school class, when we were studying the ministry of Peter; the teachers had written the verse on a chalkboard. (This verse represents a “primitive Christology,” that is, the divinity of Jesus isn’t stressed but rather his prophetic activity. I knew nothing about all that, however, until I got to seminary.) The citation had a nice “beat” to it: Dah, Dah, dah-dah Dah. 

Mom and I attended a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation in Vandalia. My grandma, Grace Crawford, had a friend, Chester Griffith of Brownstown, Illinois, who had achieved 50 years of perfect Sunday school attendance. I thought that was cool and so for ten years I only missed Sunday school because of illness. The teachers at my hometown church were very good. I also attended VBS in the summer months.

As I think about the rooms of our small town church, I think of all the “basic” Bible characters that I learned. Noah, for instance, was not simply as a story about a big boat and animals.  God is holy, and his patience is long but not unlimited. Noah, though, was faithful, and he and his family were chosen by God to save.  There was a not-so-subtle moral lesson: we, too, can be faithful people whom God may choose for some great thing.

I learned about Jacob and Esau, and that dreamy, melancholy song “Jacob’s Ladder.” As I recall, our teachers used little, cartoon-like figures attached to a flannel board, so I’ve an indelible image of the two brothers looking like a small man and a big hairy man. David and Goliath were depicted similarly, even more like Popeye and Bluto than Isaac’s twin boys. David seemed smarter than Popeye, however, because he counted on God’s initiative without first becoming victimized by the giant opponent. Popeye always had to be defeated before he realized he needed his spinach…

“Tell me the stories of Jesus,” goes that old hymn, and another one, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his mercy, of Jesus and his love.” In Sunday school and VBS, I learned stories like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—stories of God’s love, and the love we’re bidden to show others. I wasn’t sure how, exactly, to show such love; how, for instance, do you “turn the other cheek” without getting a sissy reputation on the playground?

We children learned about the many faux pas of the eternally appealing disciple, Peter, who messed up, misunderstood, tried again, stumbled, but Jesus loved him all the more. Paul had the zeal and tenacity, but we don’t hear so much about Paul’s process of learning, starting again, regretting his mistakes, and so on. I don’t think Paul emerged with his faith full-grown; after all, he says that he, too, had to learn, take time, and grow (Gal. 1:17, Phil. 3:12-16). As an unlikely apostle, Paul had to defend and validate his ministry, and thus, even when he admits his struggles, he sounds self-important.  Because we have stories of his efforts, Peter seemed more approachable. Plus, Peter was a working man, like the fathers of us small-town kids. If a man close to Jesus couldn’t “get it together” and was loved anyway, we all have hope!

Some of our Sunday school material was in comic-book format. We learned about Adam and Eve, whom to this day I picture as pale, cartoon-y figures standing in a wooded area where bushes and branches conceal the couple’s private areas.  I also remember the artist’s version of the story of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21), and Naboth’s look of horror and confusion as people seized him to be executed.  I learned the story of Stephen the same way: his figure kneeling in prayer for forgiveness as men raise large stones.

In one curricular series, two young men were Christians struggling to maintain their faith in the face of Roman persecution. I forget the name of characters and the series, but I remember that one of the men was forced by the villainous Romans to test his faith by holding onto a red-hot iron sphere with only leaves to protect his hands. If his hands were not burned, his faith would be deemed true and he’d be spared. Don’t try this at home, kids. The young man was rescued by his friends before the test, which made me a little disappointed; I wanted to know what would happen. I had a feeling that his hands would’ve been burned—and yet that wouldn’t have disapproved his faith.  But that’s a difficult issue to teach little kids—God is still faithful, even though we don’t always see “results.” Still, I felt let down.    

Bible stories are toned down a bit for children’s Sunday school; the rapes, killings, mutilations, and other more fierce passages of the Bible come a little later in one’s religious education. I learned about Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, but not his furious depictions of a Lord nearly insane with jealous vengeance against his people (chapters 16 and 23).(3) But I did learn about the plagues on Egypt----I mean, really, you can’t have serious Bible study without the plagues!----and I learned the story of Jezebel, whose death appealed to my boyish appreciation for the gruesome. “Oh, cool, wild dogs!”

I learned about Moses, Solomon, and other characters: the venerable approach to Bible study through the examples of faithful but fallible Bible people.(4)  Fortunately I don’t recall much Sunday school memorization. I had to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm (my mother helped me a little, though her coaching make the assignment more nerve-raking), and we children learned the biblical books in order, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me …You shall not make for yourself an idol…

Truthfully, I would’ve had negative memories of Sunday school if there had been more memorization, but that’s my personal preference.
Churches often measure their success and effectiveness in quantitative terms: “oh, we had 100 in our Vacation Bible School this year; we’re praying for 15,000 next year!” We must be careful not to forget that the Holy Spirit is the real grower and nurturer of faith and the Spirit is not so easy to measure quantitatively. The denominational statisticians of the time never learned that those classes laid for me a lifelong religious foundation.

Recently, in my present Sunday school class, an interesting point was raised about Stephen. Did Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:59) lead to the conversion of the persecutor Saul?  The text doesn’t say explicitly.  But it’s interesting to speculate.  How did the prayers of my church school teachers make a long-range difference for me? Perhaps you and I have faith in God today—even if it’s just a small bit of faith—because some adult prayed for us during our childhoods.

I know for sure that the Spirit was able to use my church teachers, and that simple little verse from Acts.


1.  Speaking of geese, I like this quote from Martin Luther: “Troubled consciences are like geese. When hawks pursue them, they try to escape by flying, though they could do it better by running. On the other hand, when the wolves threaten them, they try to escape by running, though they could do it safely by flying. So when their consciences are oppressed, men run first here, then there; they try first this, then that work … the one true and sure way of healing the conscience is what David [in Psalm 51:8] calls “sprinkling,” by which the Word [that is, the free justification of sinners through God’s grace alone, not our good deeds] is heard and received.” Luther’s Works, Selected Psalms 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Volume 12, page 368.

2  A history of this chain store is For the Love of Murphy’s: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer by Jason Togyer (University Park: Penn State Press, 2008). Vandalia’s was store #449.

3  My classmate Julie Galambush has written an excellent study of these disturbing scriptures: Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992).

4  Graeme Goldsworthy points out a common defect in preaching: moralizing about Bible events and using Bible characters, including Jesus, as “pious examples to imitate” (page 3). For instance, he heard a speaker preach that Elijah teaches us to “walk close to the Lord.” But, Goldsworthy notes, Elijah’s closeness to God entailed the slaughter of the Baal prophets! Even “the imitation of Jesus” is not the focus of the New Testament, for the most important thing about Jesus is not his moral teachings (important as those are) but Jesus’ saving work on our behalf in his death, resurrection, and ascension.  See Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pages 3-4 and passim. I’m not implying any judgment about my Sunday school teachers, since at this point I can only remember my general impressions and memories rather than their specific content.  But it’s very much worth remembering the fact that we all do tend to view Bible characters in terms of moral lessons and godly examples, without putting them in the context of God’s overall saving history and the Bible’s focus upon Christ’s redeeming work.
Another interesting work (which I studied elsewhere on this blog) focuses upon the moral teachings of particular Old Testament stories: Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically by Gordon J. Wenham (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).

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