Last Sunday (2/24) at the Presbyterian church I attend, a group of kids, grades 4-6 I’d say, gave a brief performance on the “fruit of the Spirit” (based on Galatians 5:22-23). The adult leaders of the group did a very nice job making the presentation creative and interesting. They had set up a slide show to accompany the various recitations done by the kids. My favorite slide showed a still image of the “wait” symbol that you often see on a computer – a series of lines flashing around in a circle. I, and others I’m pretty sure, thought that something had malfunctioned with the slide show. But, no, it was just a graphic to go with the virtue of “patience” that one of the kids was talking about.
For the virtue of “peace,” a boy quoted Leviticus 26:6 – “And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid.” Well, that’s the first half of the verse. The second half says, “I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land.” I suppose I have to admit that the statement goes with the idea of peace, after a fashion. What bothered me is that this is all recorded in Leviticus as a speech from God (i.e., Yahweh) to the Israelites. The gist of the speech is that if they obey all of God’s laws, they’ll have peace and prosperity, etc. If they disobey, a lot of really terrible things will happen, including this gem from verse 29: (You will be so hungry that) “you will eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.” There’s a lot more bad stuff listed for disobedience than there is good stuff for obedience. As I see it, God comes off as more than a tad vindictive and controlling in this part of Leviticus.
So, was it a good idea to have the kids use this verse in their presentation during the service? Of course, I’m going to say “no.” The idea behind the “fruit of the Spirit” is that if we live by “the Spirit” (whatever that is – and I don’t claim to know), then our lives will be characterized by “love, joy, peace,” and so on. The point of chapter 26 of Leviticus is that if you shape up and get super obedient, then your lives will be characterized by plenty of food, healthy children, military victory, and the like. If you don’t, then you’ll be sick, oppressed, attacked by wild animals, and so hungry that you’ll end up eating . . . well, you know. I think that it would have made just about as much sense to have whoever was to recite something about peace say, “I will make sure that you won’t get so hungry that you have to eat . . .” um, see above.
If we were to apply MPAA ratings to biblical texts, I’d say that Leviticus 26 gets an R rating. Okay, maybe PG-13, but I’m still leaning toward R. I’m concerned that we’re teaching our kids, in my respectable and very well-meaning church, to read the Bible naively, and one day many of them will figure out that it doesn’t make very good sense to read it this way. Then what will they think about us – the adults who were supposed to be teaching them how we do things in our tradition? I think that we should keep kids away from the Bible – at least the PG-13, R, and NC-17 parts – until they are old enough to understand the nature of this kind of literature. When they’re able to understand and appreciate how ancient literature like this, even if it’s considered “sacred” within our tradition, was written and read and perceived in its ancient context, then a more complex explanation can be given that does much more justice to the text and the tradition than the more naive approach that seems to be standard procedure as of now. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea?