My Child, the Bible Thumper
When I was a child, my parents nurtured my siblings’ and my spiritual curiosity by reading a few bedtime Bible stories, and letting us decide whether we wanted to stay in our warm beds on Sunday mornings or hitch a ride to church with friends. Having been burned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses before we were born, Mom and Dad preferred to stay home: doing crosswords and chopping wood, generally avoiding the overt religious life. My older sister showed little interest in religion, but my brother and I — looking for a place to belong after moving to a new community at 14- and 9-years-old — fell in easily with the fundamentalist Christian crowds that were more than willing to welcome us.
Now that I have children of my own, now that sleep is something I don’t just appreciate but actually covet and hoard, I find it hard to believe that I didn’t greedily snatch up every wink I could. I wish I could go back in time, whisper in the ear of the girl I once was: Be lazy while you can. Curl up with your dog and a book. Skip church, at least for now. It will only make you hurt and angry and bitter and jaded.
And it did. I like to think that if I was having my first church experiences now, as a grown, thirty-something woman, I’d have the discernment, experience, and wisdom to take in all the information, filter it appropriately, and utilize those elements that would cause me to grow spiritually while rejecting the rest. But I was young and trusting, absurdly so. I took it all so seriously, of course it eventually broke my heart.
“The LORD now speaks to Moses!” my daughter Eugenia cries out, waving my children’s Bible in the air. She found it in the shelves of old kids’ books, and she loves it, with its color illustrations of Jesus and the little children, Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah’s ark and the rainbow. She is just learning to read, and this sentence is the only one in the Bible she’s bothered to sound out. But she proclaims it loudly, to anyone who will listen.
“I can read my Bible!” she announces during drop-off at her brothers’ preschool, to the Christian and Muslim and Jewish and atheist parents slipping in and out of the doors, to anyone who will listen. “Do you want to hear? The LORD now speaks to Moses!” Some moms and dads look amused, others slightly alarmed. I smile at them, as if a recitation of Leviticus 1:1 is a developmental stage every six-year-old goes through.
“Come on, little Bible thumper,” I say, attempting to nudge her down the hall. “You’re going to be late to school.”
“The LORD now speaks to Moses!” she hollers, holding her ground.
“Don’t make me take that Bible away from you,” I say through gritted teeth.
My parents’ approach, of trusting us to make our own spiritual decisions, was an admirable one. I’ve tried to use similar tactics with my own children, participating in a progressive spiritual community and, beyond that, letting their own curiosity lead the way. But I cringe when religious language comes out of their little mouths. Is it because this reminds me of all that has previously hurt me in the church, or because it makes me think of all the hurts that lie ahead for them?
Eugenia and the boys are playing with brooms.
“Look!” Eugenia says, holding up two child-sized brooms perpendicular to one another. “I’ve made a cross! Oh, Jesus! Jesus, I love you!”
My husband and I exchange glances. “Yes, I love you so much, Jesus,” he mutters under his breath, “I’ve built you a cross.” It’s funny, but the truth behind his words worries me: doctrine is confusing even for adults. Will my daughter be hurt by this misunderstanding of doctrine? “There’s nothing loving about killing someone on a cross,” I want to say. But I know she’ll ask questions, and I don’t have many answers.
My daughter has learned about Jesus in Sunday school. I knew that she knew who Jesus was, but I hadn’t realized that her class had covered his death. I realize now that I should have taught her more about Jesus, myself, first. But I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure what I believe, exactly, these days about things like atonement and resurrection; hell and heaven; how can I teach her what to believe? Yet how can I leave her spiritual education up to other people, no matter how good-hearted they are? Would it have been better not to have started going to church again? For her not to have been taught anything yet at all? One minute I think perhaps only people who are sure about what they believe should try to teach their children about religion. In the next, I think those who are certain may well be the most dangerous of all.
Despite the real affection I feel for my Quaker community, I worry about exposing my children to religious life in a society where the voices most commonly associated with Jesus are Dr. James Dobson’s and George W. Bush’s, Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s and Ted Haggard’s. Where Christians are known not for feeding the poor and caring for the widows and orphans, but for obsessing about other people’s morality. Where Christians are taught that their leaders have a truth that no one else has.
As for me, I don’t have a lot of hard-core doctrine to pass on to my children. I don’t “know” anything, really. But there are a few things I’m pretty sure I believe.
I believe there’s value in participating in community — spiritual and otherwise.
I believe in asking questions.
I believe it’s important to take a risk and put oneself out there.
I believe in following the footsteps of those who are loving, of surrounding oneself with people who are fighting the good fight, trying to make the world a better place.
I believe that it’s okay to be uncertain. I believe it’s fine, even good, not to know exactly what one believes.
“Do you want to hear it backwards?” my daughter calls out from the back seat of our van. “Moses. To. Speaks. Now. The Lord.”
I smile. Because the little Bible thumper put words to one other thing I believe. That the spiritual life isn’t about knowing what God says, so much as it is about being open and connected, about allowing ourselves to be known by one another and by “God”: whatever that means to each of us.
8 replies on “My Child, the Bible Thumper”
It is wonderful to see your wrestlings, Shari. I think dogmatic Christians actually take their children out of their most significant wonderings and wanderings of their spiritual journeys. Think of the spiritual profundity we all might enjoy if an entire generation of children were allowed the freedom you’ve given your children, as well as your questions. Who knows what we might all learn? Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for calming some of my anxiety about my own children’s spiritual upbringing. It feels good to not be alone in this. And your daughter (and your description of her!) truly made me laugh out loud. I’ll carry that picture of her shouting in the preschool with me. I don’t know what I find more disruptive, my son’s word’s “I don’t believe in God, Mom” or your daughter’s proclamation of love for Jesus! I guess they both make me smile because their feelings are coming out of them, and not out of what we are telling them. Thanks again!
Shari, you crack me up everytime. Thanks for making motherhood a little less lonely and a lot more funny. Checkout the documentary “Jesus Camp”- I think you’d like/ be very frightened by it. Much love to you and yours-
Having grown up in a Christian household, attending Christian schools and church three times per week and pro-life rallies and Baptist Summer Camps, etc… I was steered in the “Way I should go.” My parents, like all of us, were trying to do the right thing, setting our feet firmly on the corner stone. Meanwhile, the youth pastor at our church was sexually assaulting the girls he was “spriritually mentoring”; and the teenage girls at the school I attended who were “harlot” enough to get pregnant were expelled without question, consideration, or explanation, while their male counter parts continued their education judgement-free. I came into adulthood questioning all of it…every theology I had ever been force fed. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that God is the only God, despite the many people that try to be Him and the many attrocities that are done in His name. I think it’s best to let our children figure out who He is for themselves. I, too, wish I could whisper in the little girl’s ear and tell her to just be a child…childhood is where we get the clearest picture of who God is, painted by His own hand. Seen with our own eyes.
This is wonderful. I too have an almost-6-year-old girl who has gone through phases of loving the children’s Bible from my childhood and singing loudly in her bedroom, “Oh Jesus Chriiiiiiiist, how I looooooove you.” She attributes this behavior to Grandma’s church, where “they sing and you get a donut.” Conflicting feelings all around, to be sure — nice to know we aren’t alone.
My husband was a deeply religious Catholic growing up. His parents used to chuckle at him as they dropped him off at Sunday school. Then he started reading philosophy and re-thinking his beliefs. Now James considers himself a Buddhist and his parents, as they get older, have gone back to religion. I loved this column, Shari. I can see your little Bible thumper vividly as you are walking her into school. Raising kids isn’t easy, is it?
I can appreciate the efforts of parents who want to let children make decision about their own spiritual lives. I am in firm in my beliefs and my faith BECAUSE I have asked questions, worked through doubts and taken the things I have learned through study, prayer and meditation and put them to task in the the everyday stuff of life. I would want my kids to do the same. However, to set them adrift into the ocean of the spiritual world without guidance and structure doesn’t seem to me to be the best way to ensure that they avoid the hurts that come from false righteousness, judgment and Pharisaical teachings (law instead of grace). I wouldn’t just hand my child a book and say, “OK – you should be able to figure out reading. Good luck with that and I’ll respect whatever method you choose to use to learn this skill.” We guide and teach them with what we know and we adapt to take into account their personality, their strengths, their interests, etc. I think the same is true for their spiritual lives. And who says anyone needs to be an expert? Last I checked, even the most devout and acclaimed followers of God in the Bible would be poster children for “Misfits Anonymous” who struggled with issues of faith, obedience and understanding the ways of God. I don’t think they are in there by accident. God left us many examples and even direct exhortations in the Bible that there are many things about God that we (humanity) just won’t understand this side of heaven. I have taken “figure out all the answers” off of my eternal to-do list and my perfect parenting guidelines. It’s done wonders for my self esteem and let’s me sleep at night!
If your daughter is interested in Moses – teach her about Moses. What does the Bible say about him. Let her do the interpreting. How has history, art and culture portrayed him? When my daughter was 4 years old she watched the entire “Ten Commandments” video with Charleton Heston. We talked about what parts came from the Bible and what parts very imaginative writers and directors and actors interpreted (“made up or pretended” to a six year old). Moses is a GREAT character to study because of how he grew as a leader through hard circumstances. What great life lessons to start teaching a child!
Thanks for writing this and sharing your thoughts on the subject! I really appreciate your spirit of humility and wanting to encourage your kids.
Love this article! My child goes to a Christian preschool and sometimes it frightens me what he may be hearing. In my opinion, at his age, all he needs to know is “God loves me.” Come to think of it, that’s all any of us really needs to know.