On the Dangers of Reading the Bible as a Kid

Boy Reads Bible

Other than regular Sunday readings and occasional rumblings heard as an altar boy, I first began to read the Scriptures at age 12 in the spring of 1963.  It was Lent.  Our teacher, a formidable Dominican nun in full white regalia, laid it down as a project for 7th grade religion that all students should memorize St. Matthew’s Passion!  Every day we practiced with the student sitting next to us, going over the latest new paragraph and then trying to string it all together from the beginning—the chain getting longer and longer.  In the end, during Holy Week, each student had to get up in front of the whole class and attempt to recite it.  Only two of us made it—myself and one pretty girl, whose name (surprisingly) I forget.  As a reward, we got an extra chocolate milk at lunch on Easter Monday.  I was proud and satisfied.

Having gotten acquainted with the Bible perforce, I decided to look around a bit on my own.  Naturally, as a 12-year-old boy, I went straight to the Apocalypse, having heard rumors of strange things in the final book!  I was delighted to find it had monsters in it!  A dragon with seven heads and 10 horns, no less!  Doing fierce battle for the human race—and eventually chained in the depths of Hell by my namesake, St. Michael!  It was great.

Reading Revelation was one of my earliest “goosebump” experiences of the “numinous,” Rudolph Otto’s term for the unique religious experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.  I think I can remember only three other times in elementary school when I was (at least somewhat) “touched” by the awesome and other-worldly in this way: learning the Missa de Angelis in the elementary school choir, serving mass at 6:15am in the side chapel of a shadowy cathedral church when the priest hauntingly chanted the Pater Noster, and receiving the blow on the cheek from the Bishop—dubbing me a soldier of Christ—during Confirmation.  I remember this last more vividly, for some reason, even than going into the dark for my first Confession or receiving my first Holy Communion.  Unfortunately, the “smiting” is no longer part of the ceremony, and Latin is little to be found anymore—though with some signs of a “second spring.”

Incidentally, when I first heard about the “smiting” during preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation, I was already mightily impressed!  “The Bishop is going to smack me in the face with his fist!” I couldn’t wait!  In Church, no less!  In front of the whole congregation!  This was good stuff!  Maybe the Church wasn’t just made for women after all….

It made me feel grown-up and important.  I wondered how hard he would hit me and whether it would hurt.  I wondered if he would hit the girls as hard as the boys. I secretly wondered whether anyone had ever been so crazy as to hit him back!  Etc., etc.  (My young male imagination was again embellishing reality in ways I found supremely interesting).  But the whole thing did confirm to me that I was indeed a Soldier of Christ!

However—back to the Bible—next, while perusing through the Old Testament, I was suddenly brought up short!  I happened upon 1 Kings 11:1-2, part of the history of Solomon’s reign.  Unfortunately, it read:

SOLOMON LOVED MANY STRANGE WOMEN….

I was stunned.  Confused.  Intrigued.  Curious.  Slightly repulsed.  How could the wisest man in the world fall in love with weird women?  And what was it about them that made them weird?  What did they look like?  A seven headed, ten-horned dragon I could handle, but strange women?  I searched for illustrations on the neighboring pages.  Nothing.  I tried to picture “strange” women and wonder why someone would love them so much.  Were their faces structured differently from the rest of us?  Their arms?  Legs?  Bodies?  Or was their something strange about their personalities?  Were they psychos?  Did they hallucinate?  Did they walk in their sleep?  Were they from another planet?  Were they secretly of another species?  My 12-year-old male imagination was working overtime, spiced up by every scary movie I’d ever seen.  What did it all mean?

Yet it was not the kind of thing I felt I could bring to a parent, priest, or teacher for clarification.  I just couldn’t picture myself sidling up to my father and asking, “Hey, dad, tell me about strange women, will ya?'”  Much less a priest or teacher!  No, I was really on my own on this one.

Then, of course, as the bible verse goes on, Yahweh Himself warns Solomon against these “strange women,” yet the king goes ahead anyway even though “they will most certainly turn away your heart to follow their gods.”  So what kind of hold did these weirdos have on the poor guy—the greatest King of all time, the wisest man who ever lived? Then the next verse:

AND TO THESE WAS SOLOMON JOINED WITH A MOST ARDENT LOVE.

But if you are ardently united with what is strange and weird, don’t you become strange and weird yourself?  So how did Solomon look near the end?  I pictured him as terribly misshapen—perhaps like Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant.  I began to have a slight fear of women in general (and the kind of power they had already demonstrated more than once over my lonely teenage heart)—even though I didn’t know any “strange” ones, certainly not the kind Solomon fell for.  And he had 700 wives and 300 concubines.  Not being quite sure what concubines were, I figured they were probably the weird ones.

It was scary.

It was also two more years before I found out that “strange” here just meant “foreign,” i.e., non-Israelite.  I was relieved!  But also rather disappointed.  It seemed so mundane compared to what my imagination had done with it!  After a bit more reflection, I just felt really silly.  I’m afraid it was quite awhile before I picked up the bible again….

I tell you, parents don’t know the half of what goes on in their kids’ brains!  It’s a wonder we ever made it to adulthood!

This column first appeared August 1, 2012 on The Personalist Project website and is reprinted with permission.

Michael J. Healy

By

Michael J. Healy is Professor of Philosophy and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I recall an Oxford Divinity Professor, a kindly Anglican cleric, who was told that one of his former students was working on a commentary on the Apocalypse.

    “Oh dear! And such a promising young man and with a young family, too. How sad, how very sad!”

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  • Other Joe

    Growing up around farm equipment, I thought that concubines were Bronze Age threshing machines.

  • http://www.facebook.com/catriona.mackirnan Catriona M Mac Kirnan

    Worried about the credibility of this professor who doesn’t know that the last book of the New Testament, if it is not called Apocalypse, is called Revelation, NOT Revelations.

  • Dora

    That’s a really good “answer” for my websearch. For years i thought i was the only strange kid who actually did this, since i’ve never heard anyone talking about reading the “apocalypse” as a kid. But my story is a little bit different… I didn’t know how to read well yet and i used to ask my mom to read the apocalypse so i could sleep, i was really young, around 5 year old… When i learned to read one of the first things i’ve done was reading it again. A kid’s imagination has no limits.

    • GrantM

      I read the Apocalypse about the age of 10. Our non-practising Anglican household had a copy of the New English Bible NT lying around, and I was intrigued to find that the last book contained extended scenes set in heaven. I had asked my parents what heaven was like but had only received vague replies. I was delighted to find a presumably authoritative text in the Bible itself full of vivid images. Some of it was confusing. An angel talks about a lion, but instead we see a lamb with seven eyes…the throne surrounded by a man, an ox, an eagle and a lion all full of eyes…I don’t know what I made of it all. A text with a good commentary would have helped. But it certainly made heaven seem a lot more interesting than I had thought. When I was a teenager I went on to Dante’s Paradiso, and thereafter became impatient with people who associated Dante only with Hell.

      (I’m currently reading Maccabees 4 in the Oxford RSV which contains all the books of the Septuagint. Apparently it is sometimes included in Greek Orthodox Bibles as an appendix. I hope there are no curious Greek children reading it: it gives a very graphic expansion of the tortures of Eleazar and the seven brothers found in Maccabees 2 ch 6-7.)

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