2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission from The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love by John Shelby Spong, copyright 2005, HarperSanFrancisco.

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."

We all hoped our great-grandparents had been virtuous people lest we be forced to pay the price of their evildoing. There was also that long list of both people and creates that the fourth commandment ordered to refrain from labor on the Sabbath. Memorizing these convoluted and intricate passages was worth the reward of special public commendation that Mrs. Owens both promised and delivered. If one wanted extra credit in this class, or at least the satisfaction if impressing our demanding teacher and being recognized as extraordinary by our peers, we were encouraged, although no required, to memorize in order all of the 66 books in our King James Protestant version of the scriptures. I passed that that test then and I can still recite them to this day.

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.

These unusual words and phrases communicated to me that this book was somehow profoundly different from all others. I had not yet confronted the Elizabethan English of William Shakespeare and knew nothing about how my native tongue had developed. I suppose my classmates and I made lots of unconscious assumptions. I know I identified this holy-sounding language of the Bible with the language of God. Perhaps, I reasoned, God ws so old that the divine language was the classical English of long ago. The idea that God or Jesus had spoken anything other than English had not yet dawned on me. I was told this book revealed God's language and that assumption was reinforced in my mind every time someone referred to this book as the "Word of God."

There were other issues about this book that were different, but I did not yet even wonder, much less ask, about them. For instance, why was this book typically printed with two columns of type on each page? Sometimes these columns were separated by a simple line, but on other occasions by a narrow center section that rand down the entire page and was filled with small, italicized type and other strange hieroglyphics. No other books that I knew of except dictionaries and encyclopedias were printed this way.

This was a particularly interesting insight when it finally dawned on me that no one was ever supposed to sit down and read a dictionary or an encyclopedia. These were, rather, resource books to which one turned to get specific answers to particular queries. Was the Bible printed this way to encourage me to think of it as a kind of holy dictionary or sacred encyclopedia that possessed all the answers to all the questions that I might ever ask? Even now when I raise these possibilities they sound a bit sinister, so you may be sure they were not allowed to enter my mind as a child. But I still wonder if this was a conscious or an unconscious decision. Did the layout reflect the position of the hierarchy in the Western Catholic tradition? Was that part of the church leaders' campaign to keep the bible from being read, at least not by the uneducated masses? Does that printed style itself reflect their need to guard the Bible's secrets in order to protect their authority?

I suspect it does, and that even then I was being trained, quite unconsciously, to view the Bible as a resource book to which I would turn only to get the final answers to my questions, and thus to accustom myself to think of the Bible as an ultimate, undebatable authority from which there was no further appeal in the quest for truth. That is certainly consistent with the way the Bible has been used in Western history. Whatever the motives were which produced these realities, conscious or unconscious, they surely worked on me. The Bible was different from every other book in its ultimate power.

I approached this book and its holiness rather tangentially as a child. Children's Bible storybooks were my absolute favorites. The more graphic the pictures, the better I liked them. I am sure that both this affinity and my affection for Bible stories were noticed and encouraged by my mother, for on the Christmas following my 12th birthday-perhaps not coincidentally it was also the Christmas following the death of my father-I received as my primary present, my "Santa gift" as our family called it, my very own personal copy of the Holy Bible.

I was thrilled with this gift. Nothing could have pleased me more. This particular Bible was large in size with gilt-edged, tissue-thin pages and a cross on its leather cover. That cover was both thin and pliable, so that my Bible could be held in one hand with its cover and pages flopping down on each side of the hand of the holder just as they did when preachers held the Bible while expounding on its various texts at revivals and from church pulpits. This Bible also had a concordance in the back that would guide me to places where particular words or characters might be located. It possessed all kinds of introductory material and page after page of notes. Included in its appendix were colored maps of the Holy Land. On one of those maps I could see visually the boundaries of each of the 12 tribes of Israel and could even locate the little-known lands of Naphtali, Dan and Benjamin. On another map I could follow in minute detail both the journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and the travels of Paul, first into the desert of Arabia and later across the lands contiguous to the Mediterranean Sea.

Most special of all to me was the fact that this Bible was a "red letter edition," in which all the words believed to have been spoken by Jesus were printed in red, so that these words literally leaped off the pages in importance. I am sure that part of my excitement over this Christmas gift was contained in the realization that it was in some sense an acknowledgement on my mother's part that I was growing up and that the time had come for me to give up childish things like children's Bible storybooks and to start feeding my soul on the "red meat" of the Bible's own words. Whatever motives were operating in my psyche or even my mother's psyche, I took to this book like a duck to water and immediately began to immerse myself in its content. I cannot image my grandchildren today responding in a similar fashion.

When the excitement of Christmas Day was over that year, I placed my treasured new gift on the table beside my bed and began that night a regular practice of reading it, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. That was more than 60 years ago. There have been few days in my life since that Christmas that I have not intentionally and intensely read and studied these words. I suppose I have worked through this sacred text from cover to cover some 20 to 25 times. Some individual books, like the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and Genesis, I have read many more times than that. Because I loved this book so much and because I read it so carefully, I could not fail to notice its gory passages that did not jibe with what I had been told about either God or religion. I met in its pages things that were disturbing, malevolent, and evil. That was how the dark side of the Bible first began to dawn on my consciousness.

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