Ban The Bible Among Quakers? Maybe Not.

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.

How about we take THIS piece of the Bible “literally”? Who’s with me?

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. 

You’re never too old for an infantilized, arrested development view of the Bible. And there’s an army of hucksters ready to sell such to you. Or your kids.”Don’t teach our children lies,” about the bible or anything else, seems like a good principle for Quaker religious education. (And “the bible is irrelevant and better ignored” is one of those untruths.) So when bringing bible stories to kids, bring them straight, or wait til you think they (& you) are ready to deal with them that way.

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.

Yes, the Bible really does teach slavery. But then, HOW did Quakers (& others) base their OPPOSITION to slavery on the Bible? And why did so many of the enslaved look to the Bible for images of liberation and the encouragement to act to gain it? Because, believe it or not, they did. (Homework time.)

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.






9 thoughts on “Ban The Bible Among Quakers? Maybe Not.”

  1. One of my favorite moments in the Quaker Testimonies class I’ve taught at Guilford for many years is when I pass out the free Bibles from the Bible Assn. of Friends in America. Some liberal Friends in the class literally recoil, having heard stories of the evils of the book!

    Two such students later began a Bible study that lasted all four years they were in college. Another became so enthralled with the Bible that she transferred to Bryn Mawr so she could study biblical archaeology!

    These students did not become inerrantists or literalists; they didn’t suddenly start enslaving people or marrying 700 wives. They understood myth, parable, culture, and context. And the Bible enriched their lives as they recognized its impact on Quakerism and gave them a vocabulary of human experience.

  2. Perhaps it is because I am old and my early study of the Bible and of Quakerism was decades ago, but I have found studying both to be fruitful.
    Straight from Bible class on Old Testament at Westtown: I discovered that the so-called Old Testament was a wonderful story of the evolution (dare I use that word?) of a people’s search to understand the nature of God and their relationship to that God. Ultimately, we have the story of men (and women, sort of) creating God in their own image. New Testament? Once you strip away the myths that many Christians cling to tightly, there is a phenomenally powerful lesson in how to love each other and care for each other. There’s a lot just in the 5th chapter of Matthew. Of course, I am just a geographer and probably don’t know enough to join a conversation between Max Carter and Chuck Fager.

  3. After we ban the Bible, what shall we ban next in our holy crusade for political correctness? The writings of that horrid sword wearing imperialist Penn? Those of misogynist writers who wanted women seated separately from men? Books printed on WHITE paper using BLACK ink instead of rainbow colors? Don’t misunderstand, I like rainbows even tho I have some doubts about the explanation in Genesis. But banning books reminds me of some other unpleasant things that happened in Nazi Germany in the last century. A former clerk of Atlanta Meeting once wrote a letter to Friends Journal accusing a Friend of antisemitism. The evidence of the crime was a statement he made in business meeting during discussion of whether to approve wedding under care of the Meeting of 2 Friends who did not want to get a license from the State. The words quoted were from the writings of George Fox. How do we understand who we are if we do not know about steps & stumbling blocks along the way?

    1. Don’t forget the epithet “slaveholder” when thee heaps scorn on Friend William Penn. And I must admit, I’m a friend of varying the colors of blocks of text on the blog; hadn’t thought of it as seeking political correctness, tho. I still have much to learn, it seems!

  4. As one who grew up in an avowedly agnostic family, and only found Quakers in my 40’s, I often feel gratitude that I dodged what seems to be a trap for many with regard to the Bible: either an unthinking loyalty to its “inerrancy” (difficult in light of the many contradictions it comprises), or an almost panicked rejection of the Good Book in its entirety.

    I read the book as an amazing compilation of the efforts of many people throughout history to divine the will of God. Those who would ignore those stories are missing a rich trove of human thought, and others who read without thinking and discerning the meaning are fooling themselves. This work is hard, and not surprisingly so.

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