“They actually believed that?!” guffawed one incredulous student, rolling his eyes as the rest of his ninth-grade peers giggled.
“Yep, they actually believed that the sky had a giant ocean on top of it.” I explained, pointing at my crudely drawn map of Biblical cosmology. “Where else does rain come from?”
A studious girl raised her hand and explained the water cycle, proving that you don’t need an ocean in the sky to create rain.
Bowing to science, I decided to move on with my attack on the divinity of the Bible. It seems that the class had not found Biblical cosmology convincing.
* * *
I did not start out with the intention of schooling dozens of ninth-graders on why the Bible should not be considered divine. There is really only one reason I found myself being the poor-man’s Richard Dawkins, and her name is Margaret.
A teacher in a parochial school in Boston, and an attendee of our church, Margaret had taken on a beast of a task: teaching ninth-graders about the Old Testament. Going above and beyond, however, Margaret was intent on not just teaching the kids to memorize verses; she wanted them to understand the importance and the controversies that continue to surround the Bible today.
So, she decided to show her students four different views of the Bible by inviting speakers from different perspectives: Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Humanism.
There was only one snag in this beautifully nuanced approach. It turns out there is not a very large overlap in the Venn diagram of “Non-religious People who Study the Bible” and “People who Have Time to Speak to High Schoolers.”
So, knowing that I was pursuing a doctorate in theology, she asked me if I could do it.
It was an immediate, “Yes.”
After accepting, the “Apostate!” siren began going off somewhere in the back of my head. Eight years of theology and church history instills a deep knowledge of what exactly is done to heretics. Yet, as the day approached I became more and more convinced that this perspective had to be offered, and I was happy to be the one to offer it. It wasn’t like they weren’t going to face these questions one day, why shouldn’t they have a “pastor” tell them?
So, I strapped on my secular shoes and got to work.
On class day, I began with a heads down, hands up style poll on their religious beliefs. I’d make a statement and they’d raise their hand if they agreed. Unsurprisingly, most of them thought the Bible was divine, and no one dared raise a hand to say it wasn’t.
Despite my hostile audience, I continued to provide them historical, scientific, and ethical reasons for why one should not consider the Bible divine. They got a ten minute crash course in Historical-Criticism, a ten minute explanation of Biblical cosmology, and finally a ten minute diatribe on the unfairness of Biblical violence and patriarchy. In short, they got all the angst seminary can provide in 30 minutes.
Of course, we broke for class discussions at various intervals, awarded candy to groups with the best answers, and careened into the bell as Hamurabi’s law code flashed on the screen.
Four blocks later, my secular evangelism was done. I got in my car, and headed to a nearby coffee shop to read some Athansius, possibly to cleanse my soul, but mostly as preparation for teaching a class.
* * *
Spending time with ninth-graders can teach you some things:
First, it is an axiomatically true statement that teachers are vastly underpaid. Give me a teacher’s salary, and I will show you a salary that deserves to be larger. After teaching four blocks straight, I was wiped. People do this everyday for your kids! Seriously, write your representative about immediate pay increases.
Second, I learned that kids aren’t as scared as you are to take on big questions about the Bible. In the course of 30 minutes, I argued repeatedly for a secular reading of the Bible, and at almost every turn the kids were both resilient and flexible. They understood historical critiques, but embraced the mystery of God’s involvement. They saw that the Bible disagreed with science on some points, but they recognized that science and the Bible sometimes speak two different languages. They recognized the Bible had bad stuff in it, but they still believed it had something to offer the world. My questions about the Bible didn’t scare them, and they were ready to engage them critically.
The question is: why aren’t we?
Most Christians don’t get a good education on the Bible on Sunday mornings. We are taught things like the Bible is an “Owner’s Manuel” or a “Divine Contract” or a book of promises or a “love letter” from God. We are told the Bible is the inerrant, divinely inspired, infallible, perfectly good, true from beginning to end, historically accurate Word of God. These are nice preaching points, but they don’t actually help us understand how to read the Bible, and more importantly they don’t tell us what to do with people who disagree with those claims.
Because secularists, humanists, and atheists have good reason to disagree about what we are claiming. Historically accurate you say? Well, there are tons of events in the Bible where the archaeological evidence doesn’t add up. Early biblical manuscripts often disagree. Even the Gospels record differing facts about Jesus. Perfectly good you say? All you need to do is read the book of Joshua and you’ll see that the God of the Bible is a homicidal maniac. True you say? Well, let me know when you discover that species of talking snakes and have a convincing scientific explanation for why the universe is only 6,000 years old.
These are real and serious questions, but there are good answers and ways to deal with them that go beyond sticking our fingers in our ears (or building Ark museums), but we’ll never find the answers unless we actually allow ourselves to hear and understand the questions. The Bible is a complicated book at times, and we don’t need to pretend it isn’t.
For those of us who follow Jesus, the Bible will remain our book. It is something we cannot get away from. It connects us to Jesus, hold us together as a community, allows us to wrestle with the big questions, and, yes, find answers. Is it difficult sometimes? Sure. Is it amazingly beautiful other times? You bet.
We don’t do the Bible any favors pulling punches, or pretending it is something it isn’t. The Holy Bible, being God’s prerogative, doesn’t need our “help.” But more importantly, we don’t do people favors by disallowing them to ask questions. Strong faith isn’t afraid of questions, it invites them in the belief that God will show up where people seek truth.
And at the end of the day, helping religious kids think through a secular worldview might be the best thing we can do for them because there is no doubt that these questions will come. If we refuse to even consider them, then our kids will be forced to face them alone.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.