Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sunday school Morality

“In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach”

Bob Dylan, My back pages, 1964

I am not a parent and I certainly do not envy those who are. Raising a child must be incredibly stressful. After all, if you screw up someone’s childhood, you pretty much screw up their life. For better or for worse, the influences we receive in our formative years will continue to have an effect on us in some way for as long as we live. That is why I understand why parents can be so anal about the content of movies, cartoons, advertisement, etc. I don’t always agree with them but I can understand why they feel that way. I don’t take Christian media review sites like Plugged in Online too seriously (though I do read it for entertainment sometimes) but I think that maybe if I were responsible for the mental wellbeing of children I would be taking it a lot more seriously. I get why Christian parents feel so strongly about not exposing their children to things that may warp their still developing moral code. It’s because of this I have to wonder why these very same parents care so little about what is taught to their children in Sunday school?

Take for instance the Sunday school favourite of Joshua’s siege of (and subsequent slaughter of every man woman and child in) Jericho in Joshua 6. In 1966 and 1973, Israeli psychologist George Tamarin a study on the effect of this story on the morality of children. As a control group, Tamarin tested 168 children who were read Joshua 6:20-21 with “General Lin” substituted for Joshua and a “Chinese Kingdom 3000 years ago” substituted for Israel – the vast majority considered the actions of “General Lin” to be completely wrong and immoral. However when groups of children were presented with the unchanged story of Joshua from the Bible the vast majority would say that Joshua and the children of Israel acted rightly. Even those who disagreed sometimes did so more because they were concerned with the destruction of property and the killing of animals rather than from concern about the slaughter of babies. The disturbing part is that in a follow up question nearly half of the children who gave total approval to Joshua's behavior also gave total approval to the hypothetical question: “Suppose that the Israeli Army conquers an Arab village in battle. Do you think it would be good or bad to act towards the inhabitants as Joshua did towards the people of Jericho?”

Does it make sense to shield children from violence in movies and sex on TV while at the same time exposing them to mixed messages about the morality of genocide at church? How is teaching children that genocide is wrong except when the “good guys” are doing it any different from the morally questionable messages in the media? Is it not doublethink to teach children that Islamic suicide bombers are wrong but that Samson’s murder-suicide death is heroic?

If we are going to carefully monitor the influences on our children, should that not also include the Bible? After all, if the Bible was turned into a realistic movie you would probably not show it to your children. In fact Focus on the Family would probably be telling adults to avoid it due to all the sex, violence and bad behavior!

Now, I’m not suggesting we pretend these stories are not in the Bible. I certainly don’t suggest that we go the Scientology route in church and wait until members reach a certain “level” before we let them in on our actual beliefs. There is a big difference between hiding the truth and not sharing a morally complex tale with someone who cannot yet grasp its complexity. Let’s face it, we pretty much do this allready. In Sunday school, children are taught the story of Sodom and Gomorrah but we don’t teach them what happens with Lot and his daughters right after. We tell the cool stories from the book of Judges but we do not include the mass abduction and rape of young girls at the end of the book. My suggestion is that we apply this principle to all the stories we tell our children. Doesn’t it make sense to always take a honest look at the message a certain story sends? Maybe the problem is not so much with the “what” as with the “how” of the telling. For instance in the case of Jericho, the problem is not so much the facts of what happened but rather the approving, heroic way in which we present it. After all the mixed moral message is not in telling that bad things happened but rather in our proud endorsement thereof. Any overly simplistic, black and white retelling of history can be questionable. If we want to be vigilant about the messages our children get in their formative years, shouldn’t we make sure we include every aspect of their lives. Isn’t it only fair to expect that if you are raising your children to believe that violence is not the answer that you shouldn’t at the same time be teaching them that violence for God is glorious?

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1670

[Dr Tamarin's paper "The Israeli dilemma; essays on a warfare state" doesn't seem to be available online but discussions with extracts from it can be found here and here. ]