Why Do We Teach About the Bible?

Note:  This is an article written for our monthly congregational newsletter in November of 2014.  A parent asked our DRE, Jennifer Rehbein, the question, "Why is my child learning about the Bible, in a UU classroom?"  This article was in response to that question, which is a common concern our families have.

UUFLB's Primary Religious Exploration class is the foundation class for a UU religious education. The class is based on five pillars: UU Identity, World Religions, the Judeo-Christian heritage, Peace and Justice, and The Web of Life. These pillars were chosen to fulfill the goals the RE team established in 2013.

This fall, the Primary class has been exploring stories about Jesus of Nazareth. Why the Bible, in a Unitarian Universalist program? Why do we give this special place to the Judeo-Christian heritage, separately from other faith traditions?

The Bible, and Christianity itself, are very difficult subject for a lot of adult UUs, many of whom have chosen to leave the religions in which they were raised. A lot of us were very badly hurt by our religious pasts, or see that a lot of damage and harm in the world have been caused by people who identify as Christian. Many of us became UU in part to find a safe place from Christianity.

The decision to teach our children and youth about the Christian heritage of our own Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, is not made lightly. We explore the Bible carefully and soberly, with respect for the differing backgrounds of our children, and with a solidly UU frame of understanding. We begin with some of the most well-known stories from the Bible, in the Primary years, and then we return again to Christianity and Judaism in the middle-school years, as part of the Coming of Age program.

I believe that learning about the contents of the Jewish and Christian scriptures is an important component of a UU education, and I am glad the RE team has agreed to continue to make those topics an integral part of our program. I supported and encouraged this decision, for many reasons.

The most important reason is our fourth Principle, which states that we covenant to uphold a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our children are provided with accurate information about the world's religions, including Christianity, and encouraged to form their own opinions about what meaning those religions hold for them.

The second reason is our stated goal to provide an understanding of the historical movements of Unitarianism and Universalism. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors before the twentieth century largely identified as Christian, and so we want children to be informed about that Christian heritage, so that they can understand our roots.

The third reason I support the teaching of Bible stories is because of how foundational those stories are in our culture. The stories we choose to focus on in the Primary years are the most well-known ones, the ones that are frequently referenced in books and movies and on television. Our children may already have encountered people who want to talk to them about their own religious dogmas, and we want them to be prepared for those encounters. We want our children to understand what other people mean when they talk about the Bible. As they grow and mature, children will begin to learn about the role Christianity has played in the history of the world, and the role it plays in our national landscape today. The exposure they receive in the Primary years is intended to be a foundation for that learning.

Finally, in the Sources part of our Principles and Purposes, we state that we look to Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” While not all of us personally look to those teachings for inspiration, a UU education is built on those Principles and Purposes, and therefore includes learning about those Sources. Many UUs today identify as Christian. Many UUs who don't identify as Christian still find inspiration or guidance in the stories that have been handed down from the Christian heritage. Others do not. Those stories belong to all of us, not just those who claim a specific identity or espouse a specific dogma. We are all free to interpret them in a way that is meaningful to us, or to decide that they hold no meaning for us. We want to offer our children that freedom.

The books we use to teach about the Bible are available for anyone to view. They are published by UUs and intended specifically for UU religious education classrooms. The practice of setting aside time in the elementary years to learn about the Bible is common in UU congregations throughout the country; this is not something that is only done at UUFLB. We are not teaching children to be Christian or believe in Christianity; we are teaching our children to know what Christianity is, and to be familiar with the contents of the Bible. Lessons focus on encouraging children to form their own opinions about whether those stories have personal meaning, and on using those stories as a basis for teaching specifically UU values.

This is what we teach:

We teach the children that a man named Jesus probably lived about 2000 years ago, and that a set of stories called the Gospels has been handed down that record what he is said to have done and taught. Some of the details of those stories may be factual; many are likely myths that were told after Jesus had died. Many UU believe Jesus was a wise teacher, and the stories about him are important in our culture. Christians believe that Jesus was God or somehow related to God, and many Christians believe that these stories are completely factual. As UUs we are free to decide for ourselves what we think about that.

Some examples of recent lessons:

  • We read the story of Mary Magdalene, and how Jesus of Nazareth showed her mercy when the rest of the community had condemned her. We used that story to talk about the meaning of mercy and forgiveness, and touched briefly on how the role of women in Jesus' time meant that what he did was really unexpected and controversial.

  • We read the story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod's persecution. We used that story to talk about the experience of being a refugee and fleeing persecution, and encouraged them to think about people today who might be fleeing oppression or injustice.

  • We read some of the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount; these are sayings that have traditionally been attributed to Jesus. We encouraged the children to decide whether those sayings hold personal meaning for them today, and to see how some of those sayings fit our UU principles.

Sources for further reading:

More about Unitarian Universalist Christians: the website of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, at http://www.uuchristian.org/R_Welcome.html.

Other perspectives on Unitarian Universalism and Christianity: the UUA website's page on the topic, at http://www.uua.org/beliefs/welcome/christianity/151242.shtml.

You can learn more about the book we are using to teach the Primary class this spring, which is called Timeless Themes, by visiting this page: http://uufsm.org/d7/content/curriculum-timeless-themes-stories-hebrew-and-christian-bibles. This page is kindly provided by my colleague at the Unitarian Univeralist Fellowship of Southern Maryland.

Another perspective on UU children the the Bible: http://www.eruuf.org/files/youth/The_Importance_of_Bible_Literacy_for_UU_Children.pdf