I don’t always allow my daughter, who is seven, to read during church service. Technically, it’s Mass, as we are Roman Catholic. But I grew up in an Evangelical charismatic church, and sometimes it still feels funny to use the “M” word.
Mass is a one-hour period each week during which I want my daughter, who loves all things horses and Harry Potter, to concentrate on the components of worship: confession, creed, hymns, Scripture readings, homily, Eucharist. It’s a survivable sacrifice.
Yet whenever we attend one particular church, I let my daughter bring a Children’s Bible or sometimes one of Tommie dePaolo’s religion-themed books. I don’t let her read the real Bible yet. She is an amazing reader for her age, and although she’s quite the horse enthusiast, I’m not quite ready to explain to her certain passages in Ezekiel about equine issuance.
While the sanctuary of this church is beautiful, the acoustics are, unfortunately, godawful. Anyone who stands at the ambo (pulpit) produces words that bounce around the curved architectural features and invariably sound as foreign to my ears as Tamil. It’s like listening to folks order pizza during Pentecost. I sometimes tell my daughter to bring more than one book so that I can flip through dePaolo’s Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi during the homily.
During one recent Mass, my daughter repeatedly tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at a picture in her Children’s Bible. This was during the Presentation of the Gifts—that moment during the service when every adult’s attention is transfixed upon the offertory plate. There is a ridiculous pressure upon parishioners to keep the flow of that wicker basket constant—it reminds me of roller skating rinks, minus the unrequited middle school love pangs. Must. Keep. Eye. On. Basket!I batted away my daughter’s repeated calls for attention.
Listen, child, if I don’t put this 20-spot in the basket at just the right velocity, we might not ever make it out of Purgatory!
My daughter refused to be snubbed. Finally, I paid her heed. She was pointing at an illustration of the crumbling walls of Jericho. The bricks, the clouds of dust, it was all so cartoony innocent—all that was missing was Humpty Dumpty. And you could hardly tell that Yahweh was in a punitive mood that day—except apparently by the paraphrased text from the Book of Joshua: “The city was burnt to the ground. This was the first of Joshua’s victories in Canaan.”
My daughter asked in a voice just loud enough for everyone within a five-pew perimeter to hear, “Papa, if God wants to bring us peace and light, why did he help the Israelites destroy a city and kill people?”
That moment when your child exposes an entire congregation to the harsh realities of Theodicy. Man, kid, all we wanted to do was grab our wafers and wine and head home to watch the playoffs! Thanks a lot.
I whispered to her that we would discuss the question later in the car. I flipped back a few pages just out of curiosity and realized that the illustration of pre-collapse Jericho showed walls that were taller than the Empire State Building. Total horseshit—and I suppose Rahab made her living selling Lee Press-On Nails.
As I said, my daughter is a voracious reader. While the priest droned on in something resembling Basque or Slovenian, she made it all the way to the story of Jonah. Oh great, I thought, now I’ve got to explain how Tarshish was a six-hour jet plane ride across the Mediterranean from Nineveh—not to mention the fact that the Hebrew translation of “dag” is more accurately translated “fish.”
On the way home from Mass, my daughter and I discussed several possibilities about the story of Joshua and the city of Jericho. We narrowed it down quickly (perhaps too quickly) to the fact that God is in fact the God of light and peace we think God is. The problem—which isn’t so much “a problem,” but a way to understand the story (as I described hermeneutics to her)—is that the story then either didn’t happen at all, or happened sort of that way but later had some tall tales attached to it. We also admitted that it’s entirely possible that back in those days people believed God helps armies win battles—the way that people today think God helps athletes win Super Bowls.
We also talked about how Bible stories can have really important meanings even if they aren’t “history.” For example, Jonah and the Whale is a myth about a person listening to God and being willing to forgive people, even people who do not seem to deserve forgiving. My daughter also pointed out “a note of hermeneusticals” that living in a whale’s stomach—or a fish’s stomach, for that matter—would expose a human being to “some pretty mean acids.” Excellent point.
I grew up without the benefit of a parent who had studied the Bible in college. In my home, the Bible was unquestionably true, a word-for-word historical transcript of the Universe (never mind Evolution and Micronesia and those pesky New World Olmecs), not to mention a Joy of Cooking recipe book for living right. To believe otherwise was sacrilege and an invitation of satanic doubt. And of course we swore by the New International Version. Why? Well, because it was new, not to mention international—practically the American Express of Bibles!
That day, my child’s faith wasn’t destroyed by approaching the super-duper-hard questions of Theodicy with critical thinking and honest confrontation of the biblical text. For what it’s worth, on the way home, we also talked about the possibility that some of the stories might be true—definitely are true. Also, that we should leave the door open that it’s entirely possible miracles may have happened. Also-also, that we should respect people who do believe all of the stories in the Bible happened “just that way”—but that people who believe that way don’t have a right to control our own minds and lives. That’s called fundamentalism.
Most important of all, I made clear to my daughter that our conversation wasn’t an open-and-shut case. It was an important first conversation, with others surely to follow. For faith is a journey.
Later, when my daughter was being tucked into bed that night, she concluded, “What matters most is that we follow Jesus. And we don’t need the story of Jericho for that.”
Certainly an interesting thought—and another opportunity for conversation.
Arik Bjorn is a writer who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. His latest book is Why Bad Things Happen To Good Parrots. Arik’s educational background includes archaeology, ancient languages, and biblical studies. He has run the gamut of Christian experience, from Evangelical to Orthodox catechumen to live-in Episcopalian sexton to Roman Catholic. Follow Arik on Twitter @arikbjorn and on Facebook. And check out his website, Viking Word.