I remember my first Bible. The book had a fragrance to it, not like paper from a mill, but something like perfumed parchment. That set it apart as holy. ‘The Poky Little Puppy’, after all, did not have fragrant red-dyed pages. On the inside of the front cover was a drawing of a man with a long beard and horn-like shafts coming from or penetrating into his forehead. The man was climbing down a mountain. He was carrying big tablets of stone, that began “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before Me”. I did have an inkling, even then, of what that meant: a childlike intimation of the Being beyond beings, of the God who made all and rules all, who Himself was strange because He was God, while all the ‘strange gods’ were not gods at all, as strange as they might be. On the inside of the back cover was a similar drawing of Jesus standing on a hillside, preaching to people below. This time the caption began “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” . I’m still working on that one.
There were special laminated pages set between the Old Testament and New Testament, illuminated with small drawings and red letters, for recording births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths. My name is there, in my father’s handwriting, as are the names of my brother and sisters. That alone gave me an idea as to the importance of the book. Here was something that had to do with what for me were, and still are, the mysteries of birth and death, not to mention the marriage between a particular woman and a particular man, without whom I would not have come to be.
That such love and reverence should be accorded a book, a family Bible, isn’t surprising. Perhaps it should be. Nobody would think of recording births, marriages, and deaths in laminated insets of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species, or Marx’s ‘Das Capital’.
I remember reading “In the beginning God created heaven and earth, and the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters”. I didn’t even know what “waters” meant. I imagined darkness like a sea, and God brooding upon the sea. I found it strange that the “earth” was there but wasn’t there. But the words that fixed their wonder in my mind were those first three: “In the beginning.” Then came the words that flooded my mind, strange words that no storyteller I’ve known would conceive: “Then God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light”.
I didn’t stop there. I read on. I read about Adam and Eve and the serpent. I read about Cain and Abel. My eyes were dazed by the great lists of begats, of unpronounceable names, living prodigiously long lives, and occasionally inventing metalwork or settling in the land of Edom, named after a cheese. My child’s mind was fascinated. I read about Abram and Sara, and how hard it was for her to get a child, though I had no idea why she couldn’t get one from the same place where other people got them. I read about concubines, and had no clue what they were, though they all seemed to be women, like secretaries. I read about Lot and Mrs. Lot, and their visitors, and the rain of fire from heaven. Moses in the wicker basket, the burning bush, the staff of Aaron, the gnats and locusts and boils (what are boils?), the frogs and the angel of death – then the ten commandments, the golden calf … finally I stalled at the law of purity in Leviticus. “What does the word is-sue mean?” I asked my mother. “Let me see” she said, taking the book and considering. She paused, and gave me an odd look. “I don’t know” She said.
After that I stopped reading in order, but bounced around the book – reading about Gideon, about Samson and the honeycomb in the carcass of the lion (the business with Delilah I found pretty dull and incomprehensible but a lion carcass and a honeycomb, that was another story entirely), about Tobias and the fish and I remember how sad I felt when the prophet Elisha was mocked by a gang of rotten boys and he cursed them and they were eaten up by some bears.
What was so exciting about the stories? Not the things I could imagine already, but the mystery of it all. They were not Disney tales easily understood, and easily forgotten. These stories were rooted in the heart of our humanity. The imagination of a child opens out to the half hidden, the unsearchable.
It is therefore a grave mistake, even if only for the sake of education, to suppose that schools should be neutral with regard to the being of God. An even worse mistake is to provide for our children, though with good intent, “children’s Bibles” and “children’s liturgies” that end up starving the imagination and stifling the faith.
A child will be aware from church, from family life and from his reading, of the tremendous mystery of that Father who is utterly different from us, yet Who knows our inmost thoughts. But the child for whom God has been reduced to a googly-eyed cartoon of a smiling old man will reject the cartoon as he grows older, believe me, just as he rejects dressing up as Batman and running around the house in his shorts.
So please, please, let’s not throw Baltimore out and let Sesame Street in – not with our Bibles, not with the catechism, not in our Churches, not in our Liturgy.