Some brief and poorly thought-out considerations about religious education

I went looking, and this was the most heinous Sunday School graphic I could find. I’m sure there are worse ones out there, but this is good enough for me.

Some background, before I get to the actual reason I’m writing this: I am, if such a thing actually exists, biologically Catholic. What I mean by that is that my family on both sides is Catholic, and while I was not raised to be religious (and have, in fact, considered myself to be an atheist since about 2nd grade) the type of religion I am most familiar with is Catholicism, and I actually taught at a Catholic school for three years with no particular problems. I can fake Catholicism to a degree that I can’t with other religions, to say nothing of other forms of Christianity.

I also have undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, and a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, with a concentration in the Old Testament.

This means that I don’t believe a single thing about your religion or your holy book and I know more about it than you do. Which is a dangerous combination, frankly.

My wife attended a Catholic school until high school, and went through all of the traditional accoutrements of growing up Catholic. We got married in a greenhouse with my best friend using her Universal Life Church ministry credential to officiate, so it … uh, didn’t stick? And honestly by now she might be more anti-Catholic than I am, to be honest. I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older, which seems weird to say but is actually true.

On the way home from his birthday shopping trip yesterday, the boy pipes up that he has a question for us. We agree to hear said question.

“What’s the name of the guy from the Bible again?”

I avoided having a stroke while driving out of sheer willpower, folks. My wife cracked up so hard she could barely breathe.

He meant Jesus, of course.

Christians (and I assume members of other religions, but I live in America, so it’s mostly Christian sources that I see this from) love to pretend that kids are somehow naturally religious and can sort of intuit the existence of God on their own, and my kid has been the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a pure refutation of that idea. He knows nothing about religion. We don’t go to church, we didn’t have him baptized (I was strapped, packed, and ready for that fight with my mother-in-law, and it never happened) and no one in the family is the type to pray before meals. He’s been to a couple of funerals, and I’m pretty sure that’s been his whole and entire exposure to religion, whether Christianity, Judaism or anything else. I think he has a vague conception that Jesus was generally a pretty nice guy but beyond that? He thinks Easter is a bunny holiday (my Mom always got him a basket, but that’s fallen away since she died) and Christmas is when your parents buy you presents. That’s it.

(For the record, if forced at gunpoint to join a religion, I would be a Muslim, but that’s an entire separate conversation.)

Anyway, a long lead-in to a pretty basic question: all of this has me wondering where exactly my responsibilities lie to at least give the kid a basic familiarity with at least some of the beliefs that nearly everyone he encounters throughout his day holds. Like, I’m not religious, and I don’t especially want him to be religious, but I’m also not entirely sure that I want him living in a pit of ignorance about what religion is, at least well enough that he can recognize some of the more culturally relevant Bible stories and maybe sketch out some of the differences between some of the major world religions. And that he doesn’t refer to Jesus as “the guy from the Bible” again. I was fervently hoping that he meant Moses; I don’t think he’s ever even heard of Moses.

(I also don’t want him to get a little bit older and get sucked into some sort of fundamentalist horseshit somehow because he doesn’t have any inoculation against it.)

I’ve always said my parents’ big mistake was throwing dinosaur books and Greek mythology at me before my grandmother got me a book of Bible stories; I couldn’t see why the Bible didn’t mention dinosaurs or why I should take these myths any more seriously than those myths, and absent any parental pressure to the contrary that was it for religion for me. Maybe I should toss a book of Bible stories at him to see how he reacts. I mean, other than ducking and getting out of the way.

REVIEW: The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

Every so often, a book scratches an itch that you didn’t even know was there, and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink is such a book. Those of you who have either been around for a minute or know me in the real world are aware that an earlier version of me wanted to be a college professor. I triple majored at IU, in Religious Studies, Jewish Studies, and Psychology, and then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, which is where I hit a wall when I realized that I liked being in class a hell of a lot more than I liked independent research. But I still have a couple of bookshelves about religion, and along with that is a fair number of volumes about Jewish history.

The Weight of Ink tells two parallel stories about two women scholars, a young, unmarried Jewish woman in the mid-1600s, when women knowing how to read and write much less participate at the highest levels of scholarship was forbidden, and a modern-day scholar of seventeenth-century Judaism, suffering from Parkinson’s and nearing retirement. A cache of documents is found in a seventeenth-century home, and the owner calls his former professor in to look at them, and the book takes off from there. Ester and Helen’s stories are interwoven throughout the book, along with Helen’s assistant Aaron, a postgraduate who she more or less grabs at random because he is able to read the right languages to help her with her research.

Mix in some Shakespeare, some Spinoza, a blind rabbi, the Inquisition, Sabbatai Zevi, and a little bit of fire and plague and you’ve got yourself a hell of a book. I’m making this sound a bit more like a detective novel than I probably should; this is indisputably capital-F Fiction, and may indeed be a litratcher, as (I hope) Hilary Custance Greene described it when she recommended it to me. But … yeah, if you’re going to drag me away from nonfiction and genre fiction, writing a book about seventeenth-century Jewry, making translation a bigger part of the action than one might expect, and making the two modern-day figures scholars is a key with a very specific shape that nonetheless opens one of my locks.

Or something; that may be too overwrought of a figure of speech, I’m not sure. At any rate, while it’s a bit slow-moving, which may not be surprising to those of you who just read the description, and it’s a bit on the dense side– it took me over a week to read, which is really rare for a 560-page book– I loved this book a whole lot. Kadish writes about seventeenth-century London like she lived there, and everything about this really worked for me. I hope to hell it actually was Hilary who recommended I read it, because I can’t find the comment anywhere, but I owe her one.

I wasn’t going to post tonight

My vision’s been fucked up all day, for no reason I can identify, and I really need to avoid staring at screens, but then I came across this and I’m at least 50% more Jewish than I was ten minutes ago and what with it being the first day of Hanukkah if I don’t share it now I can’t ever do it.

So.  Watch this:

#WeekendCoffeeShare: Guess Who’s Back edition

weekend-coffee-share

If we were having coffee … well, I’d be really confused, because it’s 7:15, and what the hell are we having coffee for at 7:15 on a Sunday night when I have to be back at work tomorrow?  But I was gonna write this post this morning, and it was going to be my probably-not-actually-long-awaited return to Weekend Coffee Share, which I haven’t participated in in forever.  So it’s still a WCS post and to hell with making sense.

So.  If we were having coffee, first I’d tell you about this book I started yesterday, and the reason I didn’t get a post up this morning is that I couldn’t put the damn book down until I was finished with it.  Do you like Sherlock Holmes?  Of course you do.  So you need to check out A Study in Honor, by Claire O’Dell, which is a Sherlock Holmes story, only it’s set in the future after the Second Civil War (Watson is still a veteran, and in fact has pretty bad PTSD) and Holmes and Watson are both queer black women.

I read it in about three hours– maybe an hour before bed last night and another two this morning, and I’m already reloading Amazon over and over again waiting for a sequel.  Go check it out, it’s great.

After that we might get into talking about religion a bit, believe it or not.  One of my oldest friends was in town this weekend with her three kids– her oldest daughter is twelve, her middle child (the only boy) is eight, putting him more or less at my son’s age, and her youngest, another daughter, is five.  We went to the zoo the first day they were in town and took them over to look around on Notre Dame’s campus the next day which, believe it or not, was the first time I’d ever seen the Grotto or the inside of the Basilica despite having lived in South Bend for 2/3 of my life or so.  The Basilica is absolutely amazing even if you have my, uh, somewhat unorthodox views on Christianity and religion in general– I may be a mean old atheist with a couple of degrees in religious studies, which, believe me, is the worst kind of mean old atheist, but I sure as hell can appreciate me some architecture.

It turns out that they keep docents around to give impromptu tours to the people who randomly wander into the place, and once ours determined that the oldest of the four kids was interested in being an architect she got real interesting real fast.  And then we got to the reliquary, which contains something like sixteen hundred relics of saints, and … man, it has been a minute since I have been around seriously religious people in a context where their serious-religiousness had a chance of playing a major role in the conversation.  And I’m not enough of an asshole to start a fight about this stuff, but I’ll admit it threw me for a hell of a loop when she pointed at one particular ornate cross and stated that it contained all of the following:

  • A piece of Jesus’ manger
  • A piece of the table the Last Supper was eaten at
  • A piece of Jesus’ burial shroud and
  • A fragment of the True Cross

And I had this moment of oh, holy shit, you genuinely believe every word you just said is true, and knew myself to be wholly in the presence of someone who does not view any part of the world the way I do.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is fine.  I don’t care.  She’s explaining her faith to me and my family and my friends and she’s being very very nice about it and frankly I’m in her house and I’m not about to start being a dick about her believing stuff I don’t believe.  You do you, nice lady.  There’s no problem here.

And then my son started talking, and as it turns out Daddy’s Little Empiricist has had absolutely no religious training of any kind at all, and, well, there’s some stuff that we kinda just assumed the wider culture would take care of for us?  I mean, we didn’t tell him about Santa Claus, and he knows all about that, and …

… well, as it turns out my son doesn’t know a god damn thing about Jesus.  And I think this lady has probably been doing her job for a good long time and she’s probably been asked a bunch of stuff and she’s probably had a handful of argumentative old atheists in that basilica on a couple of occasions and she was nonetheless not prepared for my son and his we-stole-him-from-a-South-American-jungle level of Don’t Know Nothin’ Bout Jesus.

He can tell you anything about the Avengers, though.

So yeah.  That happened.  How’s the coffee?

Woo Saturday!

scary-easter-bunny-6I sold nearly sixteen thousand moneydollars worth of furniture and furniture-related services and accessories at work today.  The boy is at his grandparents’ so that he can do an egg hunt in the morning, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow any pagan bunny nonsense in my house.  I am watching Into the Badlands with my wife and sipping on a very small bottle of moscato.

Yes, I am drinking the alcohols.  Not many of them!  But I never drink the alcohols so this is a bit of an event.

Happy Easter, if that’s your thing.  I don’t have to work tomorrow, so … thanks, Jesus, I guess?