Ask me what to tell your children – Presenting the Issue – teaching children religion

Ask me what to tell your children – Presenting the Issue – teaching children religion – Editorial

David M. Bossman

“The role of a religion teacher in grade school ought to be to patrol the corridors to make sure no one is teaching religion,” asserted one experienced religious educator. The reason for this seemingly iconoclastic position may lie in the impact upon future lives of religion acquired in immaturity yet later applied to adult issues. Many children learn about religion and morality at a time when they simply do not and cannot grasp the larger issues that balance judgments by their relative proportion and impact. When you put God behind a simplistic judgment, without allowing for balance and discretion, religion serves a foolish end and thus becomes absurd. When people ask–with feigned innocence, perhaps–what they are to tell their children, do they really expect that such reduction works? Or is their very question a symptom of a naive–or even manipulative–reading of religion?

There are many complexities in human existence that simply do not reduce to a recipe for clarity and certitude. Some issues require pondering, debate, time to digest, grasp, and correct. The Holocaust is one such happening that defies facile explanation: if God is ruler of the universe and covenant partner with Israel, how could he have permitted such a horrendous chain of events? Why would the Catholic Church succumb to the kinds of prejudices that found expression in such long-used terms as “perfidious Jews,” now at long last extricated from the Good Friday service? Well-intentioned religionists have often applied their zeal and enthusiasm to what later ages came to recognize as fanaticism–all in the name of religion, truly believed and faithfully practiced. Religious zeal is no excuse for abuse.

Biblical scholars today have a commanding mission to foster a better use of biblical religion than that plied by sincere yet fanatical religionists. Much of their fanaticism stems from a simplistic reading and application of texts much as a child would read and understand according to a limited perspective on meanings and life. The religion children learn seems to be the standard by which these adults judge morality, authority, values, and punishments. They may have left their moral development at the school doors they long since passed through in their early youth. If this is not to be the case, who can instruct on how to read ancient texts in a modern world context?

Sophistication implies experience in learning and wisdom derived from critical reflection. The sophisticated student of the Bible is one whose learning began, perhaps, as a child but has continued into the adult realms of serious study. How often have biblicists heard the sophomoric question, “Doesn’t the Bible mean just what it says?” Or, “Is there anything left to study after so many centuries?” I have never ceased to admire the wisdom of the seasoned scholar, one who can honestly attest that “if it weren’t for the free-thinkers among us we would all be fanatics!” Critical study requires free-thinking, an open mind, the recognition that easy answers seldom are true. Isn’t it clear that the “Jews” killed Jesus, literalist thinking might proceed, and those present when he died cried, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”? Then Jews should expect divine retribution and their children should not be surprised when Holocausts happen! To the child, there may be some primitive logic here, but an adult should know more than to cast so facile a net. Indeed, it has taken millenia for a theology to emerge that recognizes the legitimacy of other religions. And, it has taken generations of critical biblical scholarship to arrive at an awareness of how great is the gap between “our world” and “the world of the Bible” in terms of values, beliefs, and practices. That recognition comes not from reducing biblical stories to Bible lessons for today. It comes from exploring meanings within distant contexts.

Biblical theology means much more than catechism classes in Bible History, where heroes and villains are aptly labeled. It means more than finding hypothetical links between a series of texts, all leading to the set of truths we want most to believe. It may even mean that we find disconnects between ourselves and those foreign people, living in a world radically different from the one we so romantically imagine from biblical tales. After all, how can we assume that God wills us to relive events that had meaning in a given set of circumstances without those circumstances having any possible replication today? What they praised, we may now deplore; what they condemned, we may see in an entirely new light.

Biblical theologians must be equipped today to grasp these differences and draw conclusions from them. Exegetes may find it sufficient to dwell on the texts with little sense of the need to draw conclusions about their application today, but biblical theologians must see their way to the implications of the results of critical study. This will no doubt require establishing clear contrasts and comparisons in values and morals. But isn’t this precisely the goal of critical scholarship within a religious tradition?

The current issue of BTB provides three perspectives on this challenging yet fruitful enterprise. First, Dennis C. Duling excavates the in-group/out-group processes of Matthew’s social world of “fictive kin” relationships in Matthew 18:15-17: Conflict, Confrontation, and Conflict Resolution in a “Fictive Kin” Association. The rules that emerge from this study may not appeal to a pluralistic social world in which group boundaries are seen as obstructions to harmonious societal interaction. Second, Richard E. DeMaris explores the world of Mediterranean rituals in Funerals and Baptisms, Ordinary and Otherwise: Ritual Criticism and Corinthian Rites. Finding that a critical cross-cultural study of rituals suggests meanings that to moderns may appear peculiar, the study concludes that a significant reconstruction of the life and behavior of followers in the Jesus movement is a necessity today for accurate understanding of biblical rituals in texts and practices. Finally, James A. Sanders re-articulates his seasoned understanding of biblical texts and traditions today in Intertextuality and Dialogue. As a dialogical literature, the Bible turns upon itself even to radically reinterpret events and meanings in a manner that continues today among many preachers who never recognize the dynamics of adaptation and change.

That biblical study is not a child’s task must become clear from the depth-analysis that these studies achieve. Their implications must not be lost by simply allowing that this is what academics do, while true believers “know instinctively what God means” in the Bible. These are challenging findings that require rethinking, reassessing, and revaluing in ways that only a wise learner can achieve personally and with fellow open-learners. Weighing their impact upon biblical theology is the demanding task of the judicious readers. Maybe this is what parents can tell their children.

David M. Bossman


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