Teaching an X-rated Book


Teaching an X-rated Book to a G Audience

Marsha Abelman is an author in my upcoming book on women’s personal journeys away from religion. Here she recounts teaching an utterly violent Bible story to nine-year-olds. Karen Garst

As a former evangelical Christian, I have regrets about the time and energy I devoted to that worldview. But like others whose lives were circumscribed by religious families and cultures, I have to cut myself a little slack about my early years. I’ve written elsewhere how I longed to go to Sunday school as a small child, because the Sunday schools I visited with my grandmother and cousins were so much fun. Once my parents resolved their denominational differences and we attended church, I began a lifetime of learning and teaching the Bible in Sunday school. But one day, a Bible story I taught would be key to my leaving religion.

From my teens, I taught Sunday school. When our church began deaf and minority programs, I taught Sunday school in sign language and sang Cristo me ama; in college I taught disabled residents at the state home; as young marrieds, my husband and I held home Bible studies and both taught Sunday school. Hardly a year went by in my Christian life that I wasn’t teaching Bible classes to children.

It was easy to teach the Bible to kids using innocuous verses like “love one another” or stories like Noah’s ark. After all, cute animals being saved from a terrible flood – what’s not to like about that story? And there are pleasant tales of Jesus doing cool things like riding a donkey into town or feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. These stories naturally lend themselves to flannel board storytelling, coloring-book pages, and handcrafts like making arks from Popsicle sticks. And singing! Bible teachers utilize music, which imprints knowledge in children’s brains (as we all know from the annoying commercial jingles that float around in our heads). “The B-i-b-l-e (yes, that’s the book for me!),” Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” were songs that got children excited and engaged. “Father Abraham Had Many Sons” or “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man” were songs that taught children Bible facts.

As I sat in the soup of Christianity, I believed that everything I was taught, and subsequently taught to children, was divinely-inspired. I believed humans were sinners who needed fixing and hell was a real place humans could only escape hell by believing in Jesus. Therefore, I felt an urgency to teach everyone, including children, that they were sinful and had to obey God’s words, as found in the Good Book.

I was uneducated about the Bible’s origins and compilation. I supposed that it came to us in the format I saw, from cover to black leatherette cover, and was to be believed without question. I was many years into my Christian life before I heard any information about when the individual books were written, who authored them, who discovered them, or that people had actually questioned their authenticity.

Just as learning takes effort, unlearning can be a tough process. For some, disbelieving and leaving religion is gradual, some have blinding moments of clarity, and some (like me) need a combination of both. Small nagging doubts did not prevent me from ardently teaching the Good Book for years, but it was during a Bible lesson that my qualms about the good of the book came to a head.

I had joined a group of women in our church to team teach third grade Sunday school classes. As close friends with kids the same ages, we enjoyed getting together and collaborating.

And then it happened. We taught a lesson that became an “ah-ha” moment for me. Looking out at the trusting, upturned faces of the 9-year-olds, including my own child, I taught them a story from Judges, “a Levite and his concubine.” In a nutshell, a man in Ephraim gave overnight shelter to a traveler, when some guys in town knocked on his door and yelled, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” The homeowner was horrified and said, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing.  Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

And he did send the concubine outside. The townsmen raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn she fell dead on the doorstep. Her master (the man who had been saved from rape and mutilation) took her dead body home and cut it into 12 pieces, and sent the pieces around to the parts of Israel…

[insert sound of needle scratching across a vinyl record] Wait. WHAT?

Yes, I knew the story symbolically described the 12 tribes of Israel. Yes, I already knew the Bible had tales of rape, incest, adultery, and stories about women’s inherent uncleanness and unworthiness. But here I stood, trying to create a relevant moral tale from a story of rape and abuse of women, from a book that considered women flawed and expendable. I was teaching this to 9-year-olds, including my own child. Even as illustration the story was vile and outrageous (to use the Bible’s own words)!

I could no longer cut myself any slack. I realized there was no logical reason to teach this X-rated book to children. I was finished teaching Sunday school. I soon cast the antiquated book aside as my adult instruction book, too. I wanted my child’s view of women to be informed by his feminist parents and by humanist writings, not by superstitious, misogynist stories.

A recent Facebook meme contrasted a mother saying to her child, “If you disobey me, I will take you underground, torture you, and burn you” with the same mother saying, “If you disobey me, GOD will take you underground, torture you, and burn you.” We view one threat as child abuse, but the other threat as a godly incentive, because it comes from the Bible. Does it matter why parents threaten their kids, or is it wrong for any reason? Does it matter why the Bible allows rape and murder of women, or is it revolting even in a sacred text? Shouldn’t we put this ancient book on the shelf of history where it belongs, and no longer teach its X-rated stories as ethics?

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be the one NOT teaching the Bible to children any longer.


About the Author Karen Garst


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