Monday, October 30, 2006

Asking the Wrong Questions

If you're looking for another reason to waste time online, you'll want to visit the newish Yahoo! Answers feature. You can register, ask a question -- any question at all -- and then sit back and wait for people to answer your question. Be advised that the experts weighing in seem to be mostly 14 years old, or drunk, or crazy, or a combination of these things; but every once in awhile you'll get a serious response from a grownup. I asked a question about interesting things to do with an underused bottle of garam masala in my pantry, and actually got some useful advice.
And you too can be a question answerer.

I went over to the Spirituality and Religion section to see if I could be a question answerer. It's an interesting experience, reading all the questions. While some of them fall squarely within the parameters of 14-years-old/drunk/crazy, others are worth answering. But sadly, the lion's share of questions directed toward Christians seem to be on the same theme -- the Book of Genesis. They're questions about issues like Adam and Eve, and talking snakes with legs, and how all the animal species fit on the Ark, and the linguistic implications of the Tower of Babel story.

I don't think that all of these questions are being asked by 14-year-olds. But even if the are -- to me, these questions speak to a real deficit in the biblical education we give older kids and adults in our churches. We don't teach people how to read the Bible. We don't give them the tools to understand the when and who and to whom and why of biblical texts. We don't talk to them about things like genre and context...and in so doing, we don't give them a context in which to understand these stories.

I don't think that middle school is too young an age to start moving beyond the "Bible story" model of religious education, and start educating kids about how to read the Bible in a contextual way. For that matter, I think that such stuff should be addressed in adult religious education as well.

My sense is that it very often is not, because it might make some people angry -- people invested in ideas like the factuality of the talking snake with legs. With all due respect to deference to the weak in faith -- I'm not sure why the least academically or emotionally equipped people in a faith community should be the people driving its religious education program. And I think that for every person who has to believe in the talking snake with legs, because to doubt its existence is to begin to dangerously tip the applecart of faith, there is another person who, given some academic insight into the story and allowed some space to ponder it creatively and even playfully, will say, "Thank God -- now I can take this seriously."


Tom in Ontario said...

You describe the thin line we have to walk very well. I remember confirmation students asking whether Adam and Eve's kids had to marry each other and how gross that is. I was then able to discuss how our biblical mythology is not meant to be taken literally.

But then we have adult studies and forums where someone starts talking about some of those Genesis stories and taking them literally and to get into a big discussion about how to read/understand/interpret those stories would derail the discussion and lose the point of what we want to be studying at the time.

Our bishop encouraged all the congregations in our synod to offer a course called "Opening the Bible." An outline was given on the synod website. I offered the course, it was well attended (an average of a dozen people) but I could tell that people either weren't getting it or refusing to get it because I'd get questions back from them that made it plain to me that they were still taking some of these stories literally.

An aside: One pastor I know says that a fundamentalist is someone who doesn't/can't understand metaphor.

Jody said...

Not to mention, the lack of adult education in old-testament stuff (the three churches I've attended have all focused overwhelmingly on new-testament books in their bible study programs, which raises all sorts of its own problems but at least makes discussions about authorship and canonization more transparent) leaves all the Sunday school teachers dependent on curriculum, themselves.

Even just assigning everyone a good Bible dictionary from a non-literalist publisher would be a huge step forward.

It's not actually any easier to answer these types of questions when the query comes from an eight-year old. And I took it upon myself to get some tools!

sirjonofarc said...

I don't think that people who "believe in the snake with legs" are necessarily fundamentalists or weak in their faith. Was Genesis not written as an historical book?

Of course we shouldn't take everything in the Bible literally. Some books were written with the intention of being symbolic like Revelation and Daniel. It's also true that Bible stories can have more than one meaning, but the author of Genesis was writing an historical narrative. The point is not to convey a scientific account of the creation of the universe, but why should we doubt some of the things recorded in the Old Testament? If everything had to be "scientifically" proven, Christianity wouldn't exist at all. There would be no need for faith if we had absolute certainty.

I'll leave you with this to think about: If Adam and Eve were not real people, where did sin come from?

(I am an LCMS Lutheran, so maybe it shouldn't surprise me that we have differences here...I know it's a major thing that divides our churches. BUT at least we can wish each other a Merry Christmas and celebrate the same Advent of the Prince of Peace among us!)