Monday, February 19, 2018

I Learn to Read and Am Given a Bible-Story Book: A Southern Baptist Boy in 1950s Arkansas Learns the Facts of Life

I am six years old. I have just learned to read. It is 1956. Television has come on the scene. But we read, tell each other stories, rather than watch it. T.v. is too new to hold much interest for us. Books are more reliable for entertainment and education.

My parents give me a bible-story book to read. It summarizes bible stories and accompanies them with brightly colored pictures that illustrate the text with lurid exaggeration. Moses leads the people to the promised land, but cannot enter it, because he's done something that displeased Almighty God. He kneels on a precipice weeping as his people, the people he has led and tended as a flock, march into the verdant, riverine beauty of their new land, leaving him to die at the rocky edge of the torridly hot desert.

When the Israelites prevail in battle over their enemies the Amalekites while Moses' arms are raised, Aaron and Hur hold his arms when his strength fails. Uzzah touches the ark of the covenant and Almighty God strikes him dead. On the spot. No warning. It just happens. There are pictures of all of these bible scenes in my little book with its bright illustrations.

Abraham prepares an altar of sacrifice on which he intends to slaughter his son Isaac, who is bound and waiting to be knifed. Abraham thinks this will please the Almighty. Isaac looks frightened and pitiful in the lurid picture beside the text. But it's Uzzah's story that moves me more than this one. I cry when Uzzah dies. It seems rather unfair for the Almighty to do that to him. He was only touching the ark to steady it as it was about to tumble from its cart, after all.

There's little David holding the bloody head of huge Goliath. David has slain the giant because the Almighty was on David's side. Where Almighty God is, there is blood. There are foes and there's punishing and conquering.

The religion instilled in me as a child was from the Old Testament. Jesus was not even in my bible-story book, as far as I can recall. I hear about him in Sunday School when we sing about red and yellow black and white, and learn that the Easter bunny has nothing to do with Jesus, who is the Son of the Almighty God who smites His enemies.

It's rather confusing to discover that there's some story about a tomb and angels and clothes left behind when Jesus comes back alive. What does this have to do, really, with the colored eggs I'll go home from Sunday School to find after the Easter bunny has hidden them? Or with the chocolate candies wrapped in bright tinfoil and the marshmallow baby chickens in all their bright pastel shades arranged in a pretty basket with many-colored shreds of paper lining it?

Where Jesus fits in is not very clear.

My brothers (Philip, middle; Simpson, right) and I, Easter 1956-7, with neighbor/babysitter Carol H.

The religion of my childhood is about a God who hates sin and keeps a ledger book in the sky in which every bad thing I have ever done is marked down in indelible black ink. And I will be punished for these sins, as surely as Uzzah was struck dead for touching the ark or Goliath lost his head because Almighty God was on the side of little David.

The bible-lesson book has a photo of Moses looking very much like Charlton Heston with his long hair blown back by a wind-blower, coming down Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law held in the crook of his arm. Moses looks angry and frazzled after encountering Almighty God.

I am expected to memorize what's written on the tablets. All those little indelible black notations in that ledger book Almighty God keeps in the sky hinge on what's traced in the stone of those tablets by the finger of Almighty God. 

"There's an all-seeing eye watching you," my mother heard Pentecostal neighbors sing when she was a child, and she sings the catchy song to us to remind us that Almighty God doesn't like picture shows and will write down in His ledger that we have gone to the pictures — though she surely does not really believe this, because she herself takes us to the movies, where I almost faint with delight at the Disney movies that make me feel I have entered a world in which colors and songs and infinite possibilities have come alive as they do when I go to sleep and dream.

It's a world different from the one I actually inhabit, with that ledger full of black marks and Almighty God who strikes whom He will for what reason He will when He will . . . . 

Because I'm told to do it, I memorize what is written on those tablets by God's finger. Though I do not know all of the words and what they mean. I have no clue about Thou shalt not commit adultery.

I go to my mother to ask her to explain that strange word "adultery." My question flusters her. I have been told I ask far too many questions and God's all-seeing eye notes this. A note is being made in the Almighty's ledger book. Well-behaved little boys listen to what Mommy and Daddy tell them. They don't question.

Finally, my mother explains Thou shalt not commit adultery to me: "Well, it means when mommies or daddies do bad things." I ask what that means, exactly. I am not given any answer.

I go away unenlightened. I'm sure, somehow, that "bad things" have to do with not ever taking off my clothes except for baths or touching myself down there except to pee, or what happened that time I went to my parents' bedroom in the night when I was frightened of the thunder and I saw them lying without clothes on top of their sheets, and I returned to the bedroom I shared with my brothers to tell them what I had seen.

But that's a story for another day.

The picture of Uzzah struck dead by God is from the Free Bible Images site; I see no indication at that site of an original source for it — but it's very much like the picture I recall from my bible-story book of childhood.

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