January 5, 2009

People and Deities Behaving Badly

Ralf has been grumbling that I've digressed from writing interesting - albeit ignorant and misguided - social commentary to ‘Poor me, I’m so sick’ postings punctuated by German doctor bashing. So in recognition of his support for this essential social service I provide, today's challenge is to try to get my groove back.

Since I don't want to offend anyone, I thought I'd take on a nice, safe topic like Christianity.

Me and Christianity go way back. My grandmother, a Presbyterian minister’s wife, used to read me Bible stories by the hour. She got a lot of babysitting mileage out of the Holy Book - not only is it chock full of short, action-packed stories, you can also make a game out of reciting the chapters: ‘Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1st and 2nd Samuel. . . ‘ and so forth.

And we didn’t just study Christian literature together, she also read me hundreds of stories from Greek and Norse mythology, and I was engaged to a Jewish guy who converted from Catholicism before I married a religiously lax German Protestant, and we meditate with a Buddhist Sangha, so although there are a few gaps in my knowledge of mainstream religions I feel like I have a pretty good grounding in comparative religious studies.

I recently acquired a Young Reader’s Bible for my kids and was looking forward to sharing the same special memories with my girls but I just can’t seem to get started. As an adult I find that many of the Bible stories are difficult to tell children because they tend to ask all those why questions that are so inconvenient when you’re trying to find your faith.

There's still some magic - I mean, when Moses parts the Red Sea that totally rocks.

But I have issues with God, at least as He is depicted in the Bible. He is inconsistent, vengeful and not above wiping out entire cities or playing petty pranks on his most devoted worshippers. Not that he never comes through - I mean, he saved Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace and Daniel got a break with that lion but he didn’t lift a finger to save his son and don’t even get me started about Job.

And the Garden of Eden, what was that all about? ‘See this tree full of delicious looking apples right in the middle of the garden? Don't eat any or I will be eternally pissed. Just enjoy the garden, worship me and don’t look at the apples. Have an apricot or a grape instead…. Did you just eat that apple? I can’t BELIEVE you ate that apple!!! I will SMITE your sorry ass for this!!!!’ And so on.

I realize that many people have found a loving, merciful God in the Bible and that's the kind of God I want, too. I'm looking for the God the Harlem Gospel Singers sing about, the ‘Rock of My Salvation’. I just can't find him in the Bible.

And I don’t like how Eve got blamed for everything, either. Adam's a spineless yutz and this is Eve's fault?

I also don’t care for the author’s note at the back of the Young Reader’s Bible that God personally oversaw the writing of the Bible. Is it just me or does it seem unlikely that someone who doesn’t lift a finger to fight AIDS, war or famine has time for, or interest in, authoring a book? Even a spectacularly popular book like the Bible.

I sometimes wonder why the Bible is so popular. God isn’t a very sympathetic hero, with all his ranting and city destroying. It isn’t particularly well-written, either, all that boring Ezrah son of Abraham stuff at the beginning of each chapter and mediocre character development. I mean, the God in the Old Testement has a completely different personality than the God in the New Testament.

But like The Devil Wears Prada (another poorly written book with an unsympathetic, badly developed main character that was amazingly popular), it has a few things going for it:

It has a catchy title. ‘The Bible’ has gravitas, dignity, authority. If they called it ‘People and Deities Behaving Badly’ instead it would lose much of its mass appeal and moral authority. Ditto ‘The Devil Wears Prada’- I mean, say it was called ‘The Really Mean Boss’ instead, would you read it?

It’s available in English, thus making it instantly more accessible than other viable religious texts with equally cool names like the Torah and the Quran. Ditto TDWP.

It has an appealing concept: Super powerful being offers perfect after life if you go to church and do what the priests tell you in this life. Ditto TDWP: Mean boss bullies plain mousy girl until she develops a fashion sense and stops being such a total weanie. People like to read stuff like that because it's reassuringly easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Church backing also hasn’t hurt the Bible's popularity, given that the Church has more money than God (heh heh heh).

Incidentally, it just has occured to me that blaspheming right after a bad bout of bronchitis might not be such a hot idea. . .

I still pray to God when my kids are sick or I can’t find my keys. And I say 'God bless' when someone sneezes or as a gesture of support. But it doesn’t feel like I'm calling on the God from the Bible, more like something greater and less… uptight middle-aged white guy.

I'd like to leave you with this thought: Most mainstream religions have been adapted to fit personal agendas over the years - usually for the sake of fomenting violence, sometimes just for money - and Christianity is no exception. But if we boil them all down to their most basic tenets I think they are all trying to tell us the same thing:

We are all connected.
Love is more empowering than hate.
There is a higher purpose.
Live in this moment.
Do no harm.
Be helpful.


  1. A debate I have had often! I almost feel that there is a "Spiritual God" and then the "Religious God" as depicted by the Church and the Bible. One of my Christmas stocking pressies was "God Explained in a Taxi Ride" by Paul Arden. It is a quick read and I really enjoyed his take on things.

  2. all great points that put me to a similar situation of not relating any kind of religion to my children. I keep hoping I can put it off until they are in college and I can have a more holistic conversation about it.

    This holiday was full of questions like "Is Jesus God?", so far my answer was "some people think so".

  3. I love that you choose topics we'll all agree on - what's next?

    We've got a LOT of these conversations going on at our house right now. 7th grade social studies is World History, with emphasis on the history of religions. I'm quite impressed with the curriculum as it introduces the religions within a historical context and encourages comparisons rather than criticism. It helps that the teacher is doing more simulations and experiential learning than lecture style. In any case, I'd much rather raise a child who questions and discusses than one who blindly accepts, and this class is really filling that need.

  4. Also remember the five virtues that all religions agree upon -- STRONG, CALM, KIND, HUMBLE, and CAPABLE (or so said some guy on NPR). Staying on this path instead of veering down the road of guilt is certainly more meaningful to me. And interestingly, these qualities certainly don't feel like religion...just basic goodness.

  5. You do know that your Bible (which is mine with an addition) is written in the same language as mine (Aramaic)? So if you would like to share the Torah or Quran with your kids, it's easy. For the Torah, stop reading after the 5 books of the Pentateuch. For the Quran, buy an English translation, even one for kids. I love this one for my kids (Torah):(Below this I have listed info for a Quran for little ones- I may check it out myself)

    The Illustrated Jewish Bible for Children with Story CD:

    Stories retold by Laaren Brown and Lenny Hort
    Illustrated by Eric Thomas

    In this revised edition of DK's Illustrated Jewish Bible for Children, all the best-loved stories from the Bible are retold for young readers with new text in a fluent, lively style by Jewish author, Laaren Brown. Colorful and finely detailed illustrations by Eric Thomas bring the people and places in the stories vividly to life.
    192 pages. 10 1/4: h x 8" w x 3/4" d. Ages 8-15. Story CD included.


  6. Thanks everyone for sharing your own experiences and thanks G for the good info. I realize that in this day and age you can get pretty much anything in English but you have to allow me a little creative license. ;-) It would have been more accurate to say that the Bible was one of the early books to be translated into the more well-known languages, which (I think) helped contribute to its early mass adoption. Of course, I could be full of it, too. Thanks for the book recommendations!

  7. This is an excellent post and shows what a deep thinker you are! And I agree, good values are something we should all have in common.

    I'm not gonna post my recommendations of what religious/christian/biblical books to read, I'm just gonna post it straight to you if you care to email your address to me bluemags"at"gmail.com

    I have been told that the German version of the King James Bible is more correct than the English simply because German more accurately conveys the meaning of the original words. Is this true d'ya think?

  8. Thank you. :-) I've only read about a page of the German translation but would not surprise me if it is more accurate. Many's the time when I've had to use a whole English phrase to translate a single precise German word.

  9. I'm a little late coming to this I see, but what the hey, here's my 2 cents because I think this was a thoughtful post.
    I think all the old testament stuff with the wrath and smiting is for contrast and as symbolic prophecy. e.g. Job's suffering points to Jesus. King David points to Jesus. etc etc.
    And also, IMHO, the way I look at it, it's a spiritual book (spooky, I know. ha!) and it can't all be divined with our logical human minds. When Jesus said you have to be childlike, he meant it.
    And don't be afraid to be a fool. It says something like that too. It's chock full of goodies. Can't figure it out in a humanistic way though, in other words. But I can still get through most of the kids' questions by making them seek out their own answers.
    I think I do anyway! I want them to have their own faith, not mine.
    And I used to have a view of God as this far away person who couldn't be bothered with someone as unimportant as me. I always wished to be one of the people from those bible stories the he picked out for special treatment, but I felt pretty invisible. Now I feel like his special princess daughter.
    Gah! How embarassing to say! But I'm gonna roll with it.
    Good post!


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