Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bible Stories

Last year, while visiting the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, my daughter and I came upon a painting that depicts Abraham on the verge of slitting the throat of his son, Isaac. When you find yourself gazing at such a scene with your own child, you feel compelled to explain it. 

“Ah, this is Abraham sacrificing his son,” I said. Or something to that effect. The look I received from my daughter in response to this bit of fine art commentary told me she had no idea what I was talking about.

The Sacrifice of Issac, by Caravaggio.
It was an epiphany of sorts. I realized that my teenage daughter didn’t know very much about Bible stories, those well-worn tales I grew up hearing about over and over.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Because my wife and I don’t belong to any official church, or any church for that matter, our children aren’t required to take religion classes in Finnish public schools. (They have studied ethics, instead.) Hence, they haven’t been routinely exposed to the 3500-year-old folktales of a pastoral civilization inhabiting the far end of the Mediterranean  much in the same way they haven’t exactly been steeped in the verses of the Bhagavad Gita.   

Since the incident between Abraham and Isaac didn’t ring a bell with my daughter, I was curious to know what other Biblical references were unfamiliar to her.

By the way, I’ve always found this particular Bible story to be particularly horrific. What young child isn’t comforted by the fact that if God commands a father to murder his child – or the father thinks that little voice he hears in his head is God speaking – then the only righteous thing to do is step up to the plate and commit filicide? Or, should we find comfort in the fact that God actually stopped Abraham at the last moment? No harm, no foul. And all this time you thought it was only the Greek gods who toyed around with puny mortals.

Anyway, that evening back at the hotel, I cycled through various other classic Bible stories to see whether my daughter knew them:  Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the Parting of the Red Sea, Jonah and the Whale. Some were familiar to her, others not at all.

This seemed kind of a shame to me. At first. Even if you don’t believe the stories in the Bible, they are so interwoven into western civilization and culture that I couldn’t help feeling my daughter was lacking some basic knowledge.

Just think of all the music and art inspired by this or that tale from the Bible. There are countless references in books or songs (or even the Simpsons) based on something some ancient Israelite did in some hamlet that only Indiana Jones would have ever heard of. Yikes, without the Bible, there would have been no premise to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the first place.

An angel staying Abraham's hand in a
14th-century Icelandic illuminated manuscript.
As I thought about it more, though, I began to wonder if it really was such a loss not to be well versed in Bible verses. How crucial is it for someone in Finland in the year 2012 not to know that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they envied the favorite-son status that had earned him a very colorful coat?

I know, I know. For Jewish people, such stories are an important part of their heritage. It’s less clear to me why Christians should care, even if they have adopted, more or less, the sacred texts of Judaism as a kind of elaborate back-story to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (And I realize that the parts of the Old Testament that have been adopted and those that are ignored raise all kinds of doctrinal questions that are way above my pay grade, and besides I could care less about.)

It’s hard see why these old traditions should be relevant to modern everyday life, even for believers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m one of those nerdy types who think it’s good to know about all kinds of legends and myths, the stories of Hercules, King Arthur, Romulus and Remus, the Valkyries, so on and so forth. At least on a superficial level.

I’m not saying it’s all useful information, but I still think in many ways it’s more important to know that Venus was born on a half-shell, or that Jesus was born in a manger, than to know that Kim Kardashian is currently doing, well, whatever it is that Kim Kardashian does.   

At the same time, I think the Cassandras who might lament the decline of western society because no one reads Plato anymore are overreacting. That goes double for all the Jeremiahs who gnash their teeth over the fear that your average American has not been sufficiently indoctrination by  stories from the Bible. Which brings us to Arizona – and the topic for the next post. 

1 comment:

  1. That's a great story! I was not exposed to religion at all as a kid. Until I was eight years old and was required to read The Holy Bible in school in the third grade in Atlanta. It took me about two weeks to figure out that not only was it a pack of lies, it was an evil pack of lies.

    If you're not exposed to (and indoctrinated into) religion continually at a young age, then it's all horrible when you finally see it. For at that point, you see it for what it is.