It’s the Advent and Christmas seasons, with the texts of the birth of Christ and accompanying lectionary lessons read on Sundays and incorporated into sermons and liturgies. Beneath our Christmas trees, which project ghostly lights onto the trees outside, our household crèches conflate the Christmas accounts, for the Magi only appear in Matthew and the shepherds and angels in Luke, but in our household displays, all the characters huddle together around the baby Jesus.
Advent begins the Christian year, and even apart from Christmas nostalgia, the season invites retrospection and new beginnings. Amid the busy season and beyond, I decided to spend some time underlining in my new Bible the verses and passages—-already highlighted in my old book—-that had been important to me as I began in faith. Around such verses, we could construct our personal journeys.
A show of hands: who has unused or seldom used Bibles tucked around the house? That’s not necessarily a bad thing: my family and I have several. My wife’s childhood Bible, from Lutheran catechism, sits upon the shelves; these days she prefers the newer Serendipity Bible. Our daughter’s Beginner’s Bible, with well-known Bible stories rendered in appealing cartoon form, also sits on the shelves, a nice reminder of her childhood. Then she had an edition formatted for teens. We also have the childhood Bible of Beth’s first husband, who died young from leukemia; a leather-bound Vulgate New Testament that I picked up at a sale and used for a time; an old Bible that belonged to my dad’s stepfather, and my loose-leaf NIV.
But I think of my faith journey in terms of three Bibles—-a nicely Trinitarian number—a King James Version, from my childhood, a Good News for Modern Man paperback, and my old Harper’s Study Bible that is the subject of these reflections. That journey followed a typical pattern: rudimentary understanding, despair, joy at the Good News, dryness, and discovery of a personal path.
My childhood church was a congregation, within a 1920s building with a steep roof and prominent steeple, just a few blocks from the small and homey business district of my hometown. Crossing Randolph Street put you on the sidewalk, including a footbridge across the winding town branch, and in no time you’d be in the heart of the downtown, which sentimentally mixes in my mind with our church. A standout religious event for me did happen downtown, when I was in second or third grace, my father and I were shopping in our hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, when he declared, “Paul, it’s time you had your own Bible!”
That was an unexpected announcement because Dad wasn’t yet a churchgoer. On family vacations, Mom and I visited churches while he sat in the car, reading Westerns. He could be stubborn and demanding, and hold grudges forever. Yet he dearly loved George Beverly Shea, the singer on Billy Graham’s crusades, and a veteran himself, he grew misty at the story of the Four Chaplains, heroes of World War II. Unless Mom prompted him, he must’ve thought that purchasing me a Bible was a way he could contribute to my religious development. Amid Vandalia’s several clothing stores, groceries, restaurants, and other businesses that once lined the “main drag” Gallatin Street and its adjoining street—-Don’s Camera Shop, Merriman’s Flowers, Cain’s Drug Store, Greer’s Hardware, Fidelity Clothiers, G. C. Murphy, Craycroft’s, and others—-one of our favorite stores was the G. C. Murphy (formerly the Morris 5 & 10), near Fourth and Gallatin. The store sold all manners of items from fabric and notions to LP records, candy, games, school supplies, kitchen utensils, books, and Bibles. My mother had worked at “the dime store,” as we called it, until she became pregnant with me. That was the store where Dad purchased for me a KJV.
I was proud of that Bible and carried it to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Innocently I wrote Dad’s and my names on the title page, “Presented to… From …” and marked my parents’ and grandparents’ names in the center page for family information. Once or twice I tried to read the book, and I underlined a few verses. But the language was too archaic and lofty for a young person, and the two-column formatting was tough going. Each sentence was its own little paragraph. Who ever sees books printed like that? You’d chuck even your favorite novel across the room.
Thus, one of my earliest impressions of the Bible was ambivalent. The Bible is critically important to own—as everyone I knew said—so important, in fact, your eternal destiny depended upon its contents. And yet the book’s contents seemed highly resistant to being read as you could another, compelling book.
At some level that concerned me; the Bible just wasn’t as easy to understand as pious folks implied: that you could open the book and receive blessing from its clear words. But I just did what everyone else did, which was to assimilate some basic Bible knowledge from church, to which my mom made me go. I count myself very fortunate that my religious upbringing being neither liberal nor very conservative but, like the Baby Bear’s food and furniture, “just right,” at least to me.
I turn in my old RSV to the earliest verse I remember learning, Acts 10:38:
… how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
For years it was the only one I knew from memory (other than the gloriously brief John 11:35). I had to memorize that verse in a childhood Sunday school class, when we were studying the ministry of Peter; the teachers had written the verse on a chalkboard. (This verse represents a “primitive Christology,” that is, the divinity of Jesus isn’t stressed but rather his prophetic activity. I knew nothing about all that, however, until I got to seminary.) The citation had a nice “beat”: Dah, Dah, dah-dah Dah.
Our church was the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation in Vandalia. Grandma Grace had a friend, Chester Griffith of Brownstown, Illinois, who had achieved 50 years of perfect Sunday school attendance. I thought that was cool and so for ten years I only missed Sunday school because of illness. The teachers at my hometown church were very good. I also attended VBS in the summer months. As I think about the rooms of our small town church, I think of all the “basic” Bible characters that I learned. Noah, for instance, was not simply as a story about a big boat and animals. God is holy, and his patience is long but not unlimited. Noah, though, was faithful, and he and his family were chosen by God to save. I learned about Abraham and his intrepid family, the patriarchs, Joshua and Jericho, Gideon, and later in the Bible, Daniel and his brave friends.
I learned about Jacob and Esau, and that dreamy, melancholy song “Jacob’s Ladder.” As I recall, our teachers used little, cartoon-like figures attached to a flannel board, so I’ve an indelible image of the two brothers looking like a small man and a big hairy man. David and Goliath were depicted similarly, even more like Popeye and Bluto than Isaac’s twin boys. David seemed smarter than Popeye, however, because he counted on God’s initiative without first becoming victimized by the giant opponent. Popeye always had to be defeated before he realized he had a can of spinach down his shirt…
“Tell me the stories of Jesus,” goes that old hymn, and another one, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his mercy, of Jesus and his love.” In Sunday school and VBS (Mom was one of the VBS teachers), I learned stories like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—stories of God’s love, and the love we’re bidden to show others. I wasn’t sure how, exactly, to show such love. For instance, how do you “turn the other cheek” without getting a sissy reputation on the playground?
We children learned about the many faux pas of the appealing disciple Peter, who messed up, misunderstood, tried again, stumbled, but Jesus loved him all the more. Paul had the zeal and tenacity, but we don’t hear so much about Paul’s process of learning, starting again, regretting his mistakes, and so on. I don’t think Paul emerged with his faith full-grown; after all, he says that he, too, had to learn, take time, and grow (Gal. 1:17, Phil. 3:12-16). As an unlikely apostle, Paul had to defend and validate his ministry, and thus, even when he admits his inner struggles, he sounds self-important (which, I later learned, is partly the result of the epistolary rhetorical style of the time). Because we have stories of his efforts, Peter seemed more approachable. Plus, Peter was a working man, like the fathers of us small-town kids. If a man close to Jesus couldn’t “get it together” and was loved anyway, we all have hope!
Some of our Sunday school material was in comic-book format. We thus learned about Adam and Eve, whom to this day I sometimes picture as pale, cartoon figures standing among deciduous trees, where bushes and branches conceal the couple’s private areas. I also remember the artist’s version of the story of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21), and Naboth’s look of horror and confusion as people seized him to be executed. I learned the story of Stephen the same way: his figure kneeling in prayer for forgiveness as men raise large stones.
In one curricular series, two young men were Christians struggling to maintain their faith in the face of Roman persecution. I forget the name of characters and the series, but I remember that one of the men was forced by the villainous Romans to test his faith by holding onto a red-hot iron sphere with only leaves to protect his hands. If his hands were not burned, his faith would be deemed true and he’d be spared. Don’t try this at home, kids. The young man’s friends rescued him before the test, but that made me feel disappointed. I wanted to know what would happen. I had a feeling that his hands would’ve been burned—and yet that wouldn’t have disapproved his faith. But that’s a difficult issue to teach little kids—God is still faithful, even though we don’t always see the evidence. Still, I felt let down.
Bible stories are toned down a bit for children’s Sunday school; the rapes, killings, mutilations, and other more fierce passages of the Bible come a little later in one’s religious education. I learned about Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ez. 37), but not his furious depictions of a Lord nearly insane with jealous vengeance against his people (chapters 16 and 23). But I did learn about the plagues on Egypt—-I mean, really, you can’t have serious Bible study without the plagues!—-and I learned the story of Jezebel, whose death (2 Kings 9:30-37) appealed to my boyish appreciation for the gruesome. “Oh, cool, wild dogs!”
I learned about Moses, Solomon, and other characters: the venerable approach to Bible study through the examples of faithful but fallible Bible people. Fortunately I don’t recall much Sunday school memorization. I had to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm (my mother helped me a little, though her coaching make the assignment more nerve-raking), and we children learned the biblical books in order, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me …You shall not make for yourself an idol…(Ex. 20:2-3)
Truthfully, I would’ve had negative memories of Sunday school if there had been more memorization, but that’s my personal preference. As it turned out, I retained positive memories of our small town church—-playing in the shady grass in the lawn beside Fifth Street with its Victorian homes, sitting on the fire escape steps and watching the 1960s cars pass on Randolph Street, the comfortable classrooms upstairs and downstairs, containing colorful religious posters, blackboards, and tiny chairs—that I can never disconnect in my mind from specific Bible stories. I remember our Advent and Christmas and Easter programs; for instance, at Christmas skits I’d wear my “biblical” robe and struggle to remember my lines amid the red and green drapery: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night….At Halloween, we’d trick-or-treat for UNICEF, and at Easter, there would be an Easter egg hunt on the church lawn. Never underestimate the power of a nostalgic memory to plant a seed of faith, especially if it includes chocolate…
Churches often measure their success and effectiveness in quantitative terms: “oh, we had 100 in our Vacation Bible School this year; we’re praying for 200 next year!” But the Holy Spirit is the grower and nurturer of faith and the Spirit is not so easy to measure quantitatively. The denominational statisticians of the time never learned that those classes laid for me a lifelong religious foundation.
Recently, in my present Sunday school class, an interesting point was raised about Stephen. Did Stephen’s prayer (Acts 7:59) lead to the conversion of the persecutor Saul? The text doesn’t say explicitly. But it’s interesting to speculate. How did the prayers of my church teachers make a long-range difference for me? Perhaps you and I have faith in God today—even if it’s just a small bit of faith—because some adult prayed for us during our childhoods.
The Spirit was certainly able to use my church teachers, and that simple little verse from Acts.
 A history of this chain store is Jason Togyer, For the Love of Murphy’s: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer (University Park: Penn State Press, 2008).
 Although I barely knew him personally, my grandma’s cousin, Dr. C. C. Crawford of El Paso (1893-1976), was a Disciples of Christ minister, religion teacher and author of several Bible study and theological books. He influenced my faith because I was intrigued, as a kid, that a relative of ours wrote books about the Bible. I’ve collected most of his books, beginning with those that Grandma owned. See my blog post: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/01/my-cousin-c-c-crawford.html
 An excellent study of Ezekiel is Julie Galambush, Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992).
 Graeme Goldsworthy points out a common defect in preaching: moralizing about Bible events and using Bible characters, including Jesus, as “pious examples to imitate” (3). For instance, he heard a speaker preach that Elijah teaches us to “walk close to the Lord.” But, Goldsworthy notes, Elijah’s closeness to God entailed the slaughter of the Baal prophets! Even “the imitation of Jesus” is not the focus of the New Testament, for the most important thing about Jesus is not his moral teachings (important as those are) but Jesus’ saving work on our behalf in his death, resurrection, and ascension. See Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 3-4 and passim. I’m not implying any judgment about my Sunday school teachers, since I can only remember my general memories rather than the specific ways they taught. But it’s very much worth remembering the fact that we all do tend to view Bible characters in terms of moral lessons and godly examples, without putting them in the context of God’s overall saving history and the Bible’s focus upon Christ’s redeeming work.
Another interesting work that focuses upon the moral teachings of particular Old Testament stories is Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
 I reminisce about my childhood church, and the influence of “place” upon one’s faith, in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006).