I do not know exactly when my love affair with the Bible began. Perhaps its first seeds were planted when I was a child and began to notice that the family Bible was displayed prominently on the coffee table in our modest living room. I do not recall my parents ever reading it, but there was no question that it was revered. I did see it used to record the family's history in a special section that bore titles like "births," "deaths," and "marriages." Nothing was ever to be placed on top of that holy volume-not another book, not a glass or a bottle, not even a piece of mail. This sanctified book could brook no cover, nor could it be seen as secondary in any way to any other entity. This attitude was certainly encouraged, and my passion for this book was enhanced by the schools, both weekday and Sunday, that I attended eagerly as a young pupil.
Yes, as hard as it is for citizens of the 21st century to imagine this scenario, stories from the Bible were read or told to the children of my generation in both church school and public school with regularity. I suspect that if one had to compare the two places, it would be the public schools in my region that were even more fervent about revering the Bible than were my church's Sunday school sessions. There is a sense in which the public schools in the southern part of the United States where I grew up were, in an earlier day, little more than Protestant parochial schools. Every public school day in my childhood began with both a Bible story and a prayer, most often the Lord's Prayer, led by a teacher. I suppose that a sense of awe was communicated to me during this daily opening exercise, for inattentiveness was said to be "rude to God." Following these opening religious rituals we recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Devotion to both God and my nation were regularly placed saide by side with God always coming first. Indeed, my nation was said to be the instrument through which God worked in this world. These sentiments were not far from a concept of America being a divinely chosen people.
The intensity of these public school religious exercises depended to some degree on the piety of the particular teacher. To this day I can bring to mind indelible memories of the public school teacher I had when I was 10 years old. Her name was Mrs. Owens-Claire Yates Owens, to be specific. She started our class each day by reading a chapter from a children's Bible storybook. These tales were not unlike radio soap operas in that they left the listener hanging in anticipation of what the next episode would reveal. Most of us could not wait to see what was going to happen to Moses in the midst of the Red Sea or to Joshua in the battle of Jericho. We hung on Paul's every adventure and reveled in his most recent shipwreck or snakebite. The stories from this book were so natural to our lives and so deeply a part of our culture that none of us could imagine a time when the Supreme Court of our land would declare this activity to be unconstitutional. Mrs. Owens even required us to memorize the Ten Commandments in the long form directly from the book of Exodus. None of those Reader's Digest shortened versions would do for her! That meant that we had to repeat all of those intimate details found in the second commandment about how the "sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation."
Yet from even that early date as I perused the sacred text I would come across a narrative from time to time that was brutal or insensitive. Still, no matter what I discovered on those hallowed pages, the fact that it was in the Bible surrounded each passage with an aura that was designed to reaffirm my trust in the ultimate goodness of all its words. I recall even in this early part of my life asking questions about the Bible. Those questions, however, were still relatively safe. "Why," I wondered, "was the language of the Bible different from all of the other books we read?" By "language" I really meant "English," since that was the only language I knew. "Why was this book filled with words like 'thee' and 'thou' or verbs like 'shalt' and 'beseecheth'?? "Why was it that in the Bible when Jesus wanted to make an important pronouncement, he would introduce it by saying: 'Verily, verily I say unto you.'?" I could not imagine anyone else saying such stilted, silly-sounding words in any other setting.