Ban The Bible Among Quakers? Maybe Not.
A lengthy thread on the ‘Quakers” Facebook group went one more round on the Bible, kicked off by a liberal California Friend’s insistence that reading/teaching Bible stories to kids in First Day School was awful and shouldn’t happen. The reasons were the usual, about fundamentalist literalism, oppressive notions, and so forth. Nothing new really.
But I couldn’t let the subject alone. After all, the bible, for better & worse, is woven into western history, culture & law, through & through. One can hate it, with reason; parts of it are dangerous. But one can’t escape it, only pretend to. And Quakerism emerged from a particular piece of this context, which was largely dominated by struggles over the bible, its meaning & role.
Some of the outcomes of those struggles among Quakers (opposition to slavery, equality for women) I think are good; others not so much. And Quaker struggles over the bible continue, quite intensely in many places. (Hello, North Carolina, Northwest, Indiana, etc.) Ignoring all this, or pretending it never happened (or isn’t happening now) is possible, but mistaken & a disservice to Friends, especially our youth.
Why? The idea that Quakers can do their work fully in today’s western culture without taking serious account of this preponderant influence seems to me both naive & irresponsible. And to treat it & the Judaism & Christianity which shaped it as of no more importance than any other religion, like two different brands of peanut butter on a supermarket shelf, alongside 57 other brands, all of equal (in)significance, is in my view just plain mistaken.
(& don’t worry, Quaker parents: kids will STILL make their own religious choices as they mature, even if they’re told, accurately if shockingly to some, that Fox et al brought Quakerism to life in a biblical-Christian context, and took both seriously, if not in the same way today’s fundamentalists do.)
For many years, I conducted Quaker workshops on “The Basics of Bible Study.” They were intended for adults (& teens) who were either unfamiliar with or hostile to the bible (but still willing to join the workshop), and aimed, among other goals, to “detoxify” it, so participants could study it with sufficient dispassion to see what (if anything) they could learn from it.
The workshops went well. They were not intended to “convert” anyone to my religious notions (tho admittedly I hoped they would find that the bible could be “useful” to them in some way other than for raising hackles & blood pressure; and many seemed to).
Also, once past the venting of old prejudices about it, there was no need to insist on the texts’ current relevance; the stories themselves did that quite well enough, and still left plenty of room for diverse views & interpretations (as, it turns out, they have for a few thousand years).
I don’t know how to do this with children, as I worked with adults, but I believe something like it is needed. It’s needed not least for self-defense: in our culture kids (& adults too) are surrounded by insistent, intrusive stories (such as: “Getting rich via multiple bankruptcies & hating immigrants, like a certain comb-over candidate does, is GOOD!”); stories which are repeated constantly. So if Quakers don’t tell our kids other/better stories, these intrusive ones (“Bright American-Muslim kids who build their own clocks are TERRORISTS who should be arrested!”) will have a clear path to shaping their beliefs.
In this connection, I’ve also been alarmed by many of the “Children’s Bibles” that I’ve seen. That’s not so much because of the (original) stories, gory as some are, but rather by the way they are typically turned into innocuously sentimental falsifications of the actual stories — pious LIES, in short.
And after all, there are numerous stories in the bible that are incontestably STORIES — the parables of Jesus, for instance (“parable” = a story); many of the psalms & proverbs too. Start with those; worry about Jonah’s whale, and Balaam’s talking jackass, later.
I don’t think this subject is really as difficult as some think. But it’s still an important one for Friends. Quakers, especially liberals: we “ban the bible” from our community at our peril.