The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: My Bible

In the religious education of Charlie Johnson, the Bible was, and in many ways still is, everything. I was raised a “biblicist,” a term I will try to describe rather than define, at least at first. Even the qualification “religious education” is somewhat misleading here, because for a fundamentalist, all education is religious education. The Bible is authoritative, not in a limited sphere marked “spiritual,” but for all of life. It speaks clearly and authoritatively to hard sciences, social sciences, politics, and daily choices as much as it does to God, Jesus, or morality.

For a biblicist, the Bible is understood primarily as a collection of verses, that is, fairly self-contained sentence-length authoritative units. (The verse structure of the Bible is not part of the original text, but was developed later to facilitate advanced study and public reading.) Children learn the Bible by memorizing verses, lots of verses, sometimes arranged thematically and sometimes with no seeming order at all. I remember the first (partial) Bible verse I memorized, with my kindergarten teacher off of a flashcard: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). I think I remember this verse because the kid in front of me couldn’t get it right. He kept saying, “God loves us.” The teacher would say, “No, God is love.” “God loves us.” “Listen, I’ll say it slowly: God…is…love.” “God loves us.” Wow, kid, I know you’re new at this, but really? Three words. Yet, was he so wrong? Often in my religious education, familiarity with exact wording was stressed over meaningful appropriation. Later in my education, I had teacher who insisted that I memorize the punctuation perfectly and follow sometimes strange capitalization rules. I realize now that part of this was driven by a stance my Christian school held, that the King James Bible was God’s perfectly preserved Word in the English language. (Not even touching that. Yet.)

I loved memorizing the Bible. It helped that there were Bible memory competitions, because I also loved to win, or at least hated to lose. I would spend hours memorizing them out of my gigantic hardback Ryrie Study Bible. One summer, in Neighborhood Bible Time (think Vacation Bible School on Holy Ghost steroids), my friend Jeremy and I were neck and neck for first place. I studied all day and unleashed a slew of Bible verses on my teacher. He failed to show up that night, rendering my victory a bit hollow. My prize for winning? A cheap gift Bible signed by the pastor and NBT evangelist. Because obviously the kid who memorized the most Bible verses needs a Bible. In fact, I have never stopped memorizing the Bible. In high school it turned from verses to chapters, in college to whole books. I also began to memorize from the Greek New Testament. As I became less attached to biblicism and to a single Bible version, though, my Bible memory efforts lessened to make room for other ways of studying the Bible. That’s for later.

Memorization was a means to an end. One of the purposes of memorizing Bible verses was to resist temptation. The rationale for this was the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Three times Satan came to Jesus with a temptation, and three times Jesus responded with a quotation from the Old Testament. Foiled, Satan left. Also, there was Psalm 119:11, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Thus, I was taught “silver bullet” Christianity. When the Devil came whispering a temptation in my ear, I was supposed to dredge up the appropriate Bible verse and dispel the temptation. Tempted to lie to a teacher? “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Steal a candy bar? “Thou shalt not steal.” Disobey parents? “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Sometimes I used the silver bullets to resist temptation. Sometimes it worked. But this superstitious, incantational use of the Bible can’t function over the long term. The Bible isn’t a spell book, and it’s one thing to know what’s right, another thing to do it.

My education stressed not only memorization, but meditation. I was taught to read my Bible by myself every day. Usually, I would pray before or after, or both. I was supposed to think about how to “apply the words to my life,” an exercise for which no real instructions were given, and seemed to be easier with verses such as, “Be ye kind, one to another” than with, “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). Application note: when buying a field with the reward of iniquity, watch my step.

I did these daily devotions, as they’re called by some, sporadically as a child, but with ardent fervor as a teenager. From 8th grade through college, I doubt I missed more than a handful of days. Sometimes I tried reading programs, such as reading through the Bible in a year. Sometimes I concentrated on specific books. Sometimes I “let the Spirit lead” by reading randomly. Psalms are good for that, by the way, except for imprecatory Psalms, where the Psalmist calls down divine judgment on God’s (his) enemies. They don’t quite deliver that warm fuzzy that one looks for in devotions. For years I prayed two verses during my devotions, John 17:17 “Sanctify them by thy truth; thy word is truth,” and James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” I believed then and still do now that God answered those prayers.

I have been confused, frustrated, and even angered by the Bible. I have been enraged and mortified by the ways Christians, including myself, have used the Bible. Some of those uses, as I encountered them, I will try to explain in my next installment. But I have always loved the Bible. I consider the greatest advantage of my religious education my thorough knowledge of and deep reverence for Scripture. So deeply ingrained is it in me that I simply cannot imagine God, myself, or the world in terms other than those provided by the Bible.

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Published in: on October 19, 2012 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)