My “What’s your Earliest Memory of a Bible Story?” poll has been up for 6 weeks. As of today 75 people voted. Thanks for all who joined in.
Since I’m not a trained poll-crafter, I’m not sure if the results really provide fresh data or are skewed by my selection of stories. But the winners of the poll didn’t surprise me.
The story with the most votes was Noah and the Ark (25%), followed closely by Jesus’ birth (23%). Adam and Eve (19%) barely surpassed David and Goliath (17%).
Other stories got a smattering of votes: Jonah (5%), Daniel (4%), Other (4%), and the Prodigal Son (3%).
I’ve asked this same question of adults when I’ve offered a day-long workshop entitled “Reading the Bible as an Adult.” I ask participants to draw a picture (with crayons) of their earliest biblical memory and to capture as faithfully as they can the way the story looked to them when they were children. We’ve always wound up with the most pictures of Noah and the Ark, a few David and Goliaths, and assorted other stories. In the workshop, I haven’t gotten as many nativity scenes as in the poll.
After the artistic activity is completed, I ask adults what they were told about the story. Was it presented as moral tale? Were children supposed to imitate the characters? Almost all adults report that stories were presented as lessons, as illustrations of a behavior they were expected to imitate in order to be a good Christian.
This was my own experience of religious education as a child. The point of a Bible story was always to be good. The flannel board scene of David slaying a giant was to encourage me to stand up to evil; I was enjoined to be brave like Daniel in the lion’s den and self-sacrificing like Ruth.
The first biblical passage that I remember was the parable of the sheep and goats.
I remember sitting in the pew listening to Matthew’s harsh insistence that the only people who would be saved from eternal torment were those who had been good to others while they thought no one was looking. At eight or nine, I was terrified to learn that because I hadn’t been visiting prisons and feeding starving children I may have snubbed Jesus himself. I could be doomed without having known any better! Like every other Bible story from my childhood, this one impressed upon me the need to be good–all the time. The definition of “be good” was that of the liberal variety: feed people, fight injustice, stand up to racism.
I still hold these values. I am glad I learned them early.
But, I also am sad that Bible stories were never allowed to feed my imagination, that they were never places to do the serious work of play.
Most of the energy for my Reading the Bible as an Adult project probably comes from this sadness. I’m convinced Bible stories can be more than platforms for moral injunctions. When a story is reduced to a simple moral (be good), it’s sapped of its power to work in complex ways on our imaginations–including our moral imaginations.
Most adults who’ve spent any time in counseling and/or paid attention to their dreams can affirm that the greatest insight into ourselves often sneaks up on us. The stories or songs or images that loop through our heads can provide a more reliable path into our deepest selves than the road beaten down by “what I’m supposed to believe.”
I hope that my Reading the Bible as an Adult project offers questions to raise that kind of exploration for adults. I hope that others have found and will continue to find ways to offer the equivalent for children.