Parenting, the Bible, and Faith-Transitions

My experience as a Religious Studies Instructor who teaches high schoolers, and conversations I’ve had with friends who are rethinking how they may or may not teach the Bible to their own children, led me to ponder whether some parts of the Bible are more appropriate for others depending on the age of a child. See “Rating the Bible”. Now I see Jared Byas of “The Bible for Normal People” fame has released a podcast episode titled “Parenting in a Faith Transition” with his wife, Sarah Byas, where they discuss this topic, so I thought I’d share but also document so that I remember it as I continue to think on this topic.

Rating the Bible

I teach the Bible in a high school setting. It’s a college preparatory school. It’s not a Sunday School. But it’s a high school, so even if I’m trying to give them a near-college experience, there are many ways that I have to teach that remain age-appropriate.

For example, if I show a film, some R-rated films are never going to be acceptable. Other R-rated films are acceptable with parent permission. PG-13 and below are fine.

So, what of the Bible then? There have been years where I’ve avoid the Song of Songs and years when I’ve taught it. When I’ve taught it, it was the equivalent to blurring out the sensitive parts in a picture. I tell them it’s about romance and sexuality. Like many translators of the Bible into English, I choose to soften the language. But is Song of Songs best left alone when teaching adolescents or left only to certain teachers—kind of like sex ed isn’t a topic taught by all teachers?

What about graphic violence? Children hear the story of the Great Flood (a.k.a. “Noah’s Flood”) at a very young age…but the Creator literally drowns almost all of humanity. This is worse than genocide. Do smiling giraffes on a boat really soften the narrative? Should children learn about that story at all?

Should there be a form of trigger warnings? I feel that it’s important to discussed King David’s abuse/rape of Bathsheba to understand the full depiction of the man in the Bible but that’s a tough topic to cover. On the other hand, I don’t want students becoming young adults and thinking the Bible is a squeaky clean book. I’ve heard too many young Christians dismiss the Quran because of content that’s in their own Holy Book but due to biblical illiteracy among the faithful their prejudice goes unchecked.

If the Bible were to receive film ratings for chapters, what rating would each chapter receive. Filmratings.com gives basic explanations of how films are judged. Here’s a visual from their webpage:

If you go to pp. 6-7 of their “Classification and Ratings Rule” you’ll see how they determine what label to give and what content should be mentioned in the warning box.

If we were to rate Genesis 1, what rating would it receive? What about Revelation 12?

Common Sense Media has their own rating system for movies that helps parents decide based on criteria such as:

  1. “What age is the movie aimed at?”
  2. Quality
  3. Educational value
  4. Messages and role models
  5. Violence, sex, and language
  6. Consumerism
  7. Drinking, drugs, and smoking
  8. User reviews

Would “user reviews” be how people have experienced the Bible? I don’t jest here. For some, the Bible is extremely live-giving. For others, frankly, it’s been used to traumatize them and they’re best off if they spend some time away from a book that has been weaponized against them.

For kicks, it would be fun to rate the Bible using a rating system created by conservative Christians, such as movieguide. If I just gave you the plot of the Samson narrative, where would it rate using this scale?

Does a literary narration of Samson’s violence and sexual exploits differ from a visual presentation? Would you read a story from the Bible that you wouldn’t show if it were depicted as a movie, cartoon, anime, etc.? I find this line of inquiry to be pretty fascinating and I wonder how this relates to how publishers package the Bible for teens.

Reflections on Holy Week

Christianity is my home tradition, so this week is an important one. I’ve written short reflections on social media that I’ll share in bulk here.

Palm Sunday

When for Christians our King rides in on a humble donkey and chooses to use his temporary fame to call out the injustices of his own religion exhibiting how real power works on the behalf of others even if it’s costly.

Mural by Domingo de Ramos, José Inoa

Maundy Thursday

Always appreciate He Qi’s art. Here’s his Maundy Thursday piece with Jesus washing Peter’s feet.

Good Friday

Jesus’ death can be one of the most confusing parts of the Gospel, especially when it’s presented dogmatically through the lens of a single atonement theory. Some of the ideas that have helped me rethink the meaning of Good Friday so that it’s richer and more textured include:

– Some of what I’ve heard about David M. Moffitt’s work on resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which emphasizes the resurrected Jesus’ role as a human who has experienced death and who mediates for us as a priest in the divine presence

– Chris Haw’s proposal that we can look at the crucifixion not primarily as an offering from humans to a wrathful, violent god that needs to be satisfied but from a god seeking reconciliation with a wrathful, violent humanity who didn’t know what to do with Jesus other than kill him and people like him

– James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” which repositions the crucifixion as an example of what majority violence and empire does to the oppressed and marginalized—by comparing crucifixions and the lynching of Black Americans—showing god as being on the side of the latter

– Run the Jewel’s “a few words for the firing squad”which has these lines that I can’t help but hear through Cone’s theology, which make me think of Good Friday every time I hear them from Killer Mike: “This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused/For the truth tellers tied to the whippin’ post, left beaten, battered, bruised/For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit”

Holy Saturday

There’s no day on the ecclesial calendar more inviting to those of us with skeptical dispositions. Even the most confident apologists are asked to pause and reflect on the possibility that the crucifixion was the last word. On this day, St. Peter had no more confidence than St. Thomas. Death wins again. And the disappointment of the disciples on the road to Emmaus become the disappointment of all Christians, at least for one day: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Icon: The Harrowing of Hell

Passover, Holi, and Palm Sunday

Chag sameach to all those who have started celebrating Passover. And happy Holi to all those who will be celebrating the “festival of colors”. May we always overcome the tyranny of our Pharoahs and recognize the beauty found in the days when our good overcomes our evil.

And for those in my tradition, it’s Palm Sunday, when we’re shown that true power isn’t what we’d imagined or what we’ve been taught.

Recently read: Brown Taylor’s “Holy Envy”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, (Harper One, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others is a beautiful reflection from someone who has spent many years educating students in comparative religion while wrestling with implications of what she has learned from the process. As a Christian, Taylor admits that studying and teaching other religions can become a challenge to your confidence in your own tradition. She writes about how teaching a course on comparative religion has been enriching but also:

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 208

Yet Brown Taylor has decided that the answer is not to abandon her own tradition of Christianity. She comments:

In the first place, no one can speak all the religious languages in the world, and there is no spiritual Esperanto. None of us can speak “language.” We have to speak a language before we can learn anyone else’s, and the carefulness with which we speak our own can make us better listeners to others. In the second place, my religious language is quite excellent at speaking of what it means to be authentically human.

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 193.

Brown Taylor balances honest epistemology with authentic belief. On the one hand, there’s no need to try to create a brand new blend of religions. The blend creates something new—it doesn’t necessarily honor other religions. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to admit doubt about your own tradition. Christianity often has been a religion that demands triumphalism. Brown Taylor provides a path that allows the Christian to be Christian without posturing triumphalistically against other religions.

This is where the main theme of her book should be highlighted. Holy envy is a concept Brown Taylor derived from the great scholar of religion, Krister Stendahl, who had three rules for religious understanding (quoted here from p. 65):

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

Holy envy is when you learn to love and respect the traditions of other religions but in a way that doesn’t try to create a colonialist museum out of them (an analogy she uses on p. 70). You may go to another well when the well of your tradition seems dry (p. 5) but that’s not the same as collecting and objectifying the religious beliefs and practices of others.

Brown Taylor sees her role as a Christian educating others about the world’s various religions as her “Christian duty”. She says (p. 25), “I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do.” But it’s also nourishing for the self. It’s a way to see things from a new perspective and learn new ways of speaking about the world and our humanity in it.

As an educator who teaches students comparative religion from as objective and fair a place as possible, but for someone who also identifies as Christian, I found great joy in reading this book. It’s worth your time if you’ve ever wondered how being a Christian should shape your approach to/posture toward religious others. It’s a book of wisdom written in humility that’s worth your time.

The Origins of Satan

Satan has received a lot of attention on this blog:

So, unsurprisingly, I’ve got to share Andrew Mark Henry’s new “Religion for Breakfast” video, “The Origins of Satan”:

Recently read: Du Mez’s “Jesus and John Wayne”

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Wow! But also, duh!

Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne simultaneously made me say “wow!” as she articulated the development of an Evangelicalism centered on white patriarchy as the unifying doctrine and “duh!” as she made a wide-array of connections that seem so obvious in retrospect.

For anyone who sat shocked on the night of November 8th, 2016, as Donald J. Trump was elected as the next President of the United States, and for those wondered how the “Moral Majority,” “Family Values” Evangelicals could serve as the electoral engine who made that happen, there’s an answer—at least with regards to Evangelicalism’s obsession with rigidly hierarchical patriarchy, 1950s gender-roles, and macho masculinity. As someone who is what has been called an “Ex-Evangelical,” I was both shocked and completely unsurprised by the level of support Trump received from Evangelicals. (I know, sounds contradictory, but its a real experience.) When I left Evangelicalism, I had concluded that many of their Shibboleths—inerrancy, complementarianism, anti-LGBTQIA+ exclusion, Islamophobia, etc.—had little to do with a “plain reading of the Bible” (a ridiculous notion) but instead was an effort by some to retain cultural hegemony in an increasingly pluralistic American—a white, patriarchal hegemony at that. If Jesus is the Jesus of white Evangelicalism, then it’s easy to see how “Jesus” and Trump are compatible.

Du Mez puts all the loose stands together in one place. As she writes toward the end of the book,

Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. He was the reincarnation of John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle, a man who wasn’t afraid to resort to violence to bring order, who protected those he deemed worthy of protection, who wouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of saying what had to be said or the norms of democratic society keep him from doing what needed to be done.

Jesus and John Wayne, p. 271

While we’ve become accustom to Evangelicals claiming the moral high-ground, the reality is that Evangelicals have drunk deep from the wells of Dominionism as the real motivation for their thirst for power. Their Christian Nationalism is a patriarchal one—a white patriarchal one. In other words, Christianity means maintaining the status quo of white, male superiority and privilege with an American Jesus who is a muscular, patriotic man just like them.

As I said, Du Mez ties together the loose strands together showing how American views of masculinity, modeled by figures like John Wayne, informed the key orthodoxies of American Evangelicalism. Coalitions were built that could overlook different interpretations of predestination, baptism, etc., etc., as long as they could coalesce around a shared conviction that civilization—Christian civilization—demanded male headship and strength. Along the way, politicians like Ronald Reagan (more “masculine” than Jimmy Carter) and eventually Donald Trump became darlings to Evangelicals who were shaped by people like Chuck Colson, James Dobson, Mark Driscoll, John Eldredge, Jerry Falwell, Mel Gibson, Wayne Grudem, Tim LaHaye, Al Mohler, Oliver North, Paige Patterson, Doug Wilson, et al.

For those trying to make sense of recent developments in Evangelicalism ranging from the popularity Duck Dynasty and 19 Kids and Counting; to the collapse of Driscoll’s Mars Hill amidst a variety of abuse scandals, the downfall of Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels amidst a variety of sex scandals; to the rise of The Gospel Coalition as evidence that unity has hardly anything to do with traditional doctrines, there’s something new to learn. As I said, you’ll say “wow!’ and you’ll think to yourself “duh! this all makes so much sense”. For a succinct review of the book, see the Kirkus Review or listen to Du Mez’s NPR interview with Steve Inskeep, “‘Jesus and John Wayne’ Explores Christian Manhood—And How Belief Can Bolster Trump”. But more importantly, read this book if you want to make sense of modern, American Evangelicalism and its connection to Trumpism.

A 2003 response to the Popular Mechanics Jesus

This morning I was doing a bit of reading on the so-called “Popular Mechanics Jesus” (see Mike Fillon, “The Real Face of Jesus: Advances in Forensic Science Reveal the Most Famous Face in History,” Popular Mechanics, December 2002, pp. 68-71) and I ran across a comment from a reader in the February 2003 issue that made me laugh a bit:

Apparently, Josh Johns of Stafford, VA, wanted more separation of church and, eh, power tools.