5 Reasons to 'Design Your Own Deity'

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

FridgeWhen I first found this "Design Your Own Deity" magnetic play set, I was a little pissed at you. Yes, you. All 15 of you.

Because if you guys would have just TOLD me that this existed, I would not have been forced to find it, completely randomly, behind a bunch of other cheese-ball stuff at a warehouse-sized gift emporium in Palm Springs this weekend.

"Seriously," I thought, holding this priceless* item in my hands and trying to conjure each of your 15 faces. "Do you guys even know me anymore? There is literally nothing I want more in this world than to make a house of worship on my refrigerator."

Then  it occurred to me that maybe you guys weren't fuckwits at all.

Maybe — just maybe — YOU didn't know this existed, either. It's a theory that was reinforced once I got up to the counter and even the store clerk acted shocked about my purchase. "That's great!" he said, turning it over to inspect the back. "Where did you find it?"

Anyway, I'm really sorry about the fuckwits thing. That was wrong. I love you guys more than you know.

Warning

Now, a little about the magnets: Made by the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild, the set includes the following deities (I've linked to their Wiki definitions): Ganesha, Jehovah, Paleolithic Goddess, Cocijo, Tlingit Eagle,  Jesus, Medusa, Yeshe Khandro, Xenu (Xenu!), Isis, Zeus, Buddha, Satan, Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Burning Bush, and a bunch of "divine paraphernalia." Now, please, go buy one for yourself.

Here's why:

1. Diversity. "God" is not the only god in town. Humanity in general is very fond of deities, and has been for a long time. All of us — particularly Americans, and even more particularly, Americans with children —would do well to be reminded of that once in a while.

DYI Deity2.  Tolerance. I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this, but we parents need to be looking everywhere for chances to inject religious literacy into our kids' lives. Children are far more likely to show tolerance/ kindness/compassion for those who believe differently than they do, if  they're exposed in a genuinely interesting way to what others believe.

3. Culture. Whether deities exist or not, the stories behind them are born of people who live in a specific time and place. The look and feel of each deity reflects the culture of those who created them. Showing interest in religion is a way to show interest in other people's cultures — always a good thing.

DYI Deities

4. Independence. According to a survey I conducted for my book, 90 percent of secular parents truly do want their children to make up their own minds about what to believe. But how can kids be expected to do that unless they know what the options are? What core beliefs do each of these deities represent? And what's stopping our kids from mashing these deities together — or inventing their own? It's terrific food for thought.

5. Humor. Religion needs to lighten up a little; it always has. And there are few better ways to force that issue than to put a Jesus head onto a Flying Spaghetti Monster torso with Zeus legs. Period. 

I'd imagine that, in my home at least, some of these little magnets will soon fall and get lost behind the fridge — or get taken down because they're ugly or creepy. (Medusa and Satan are not long for this world, I'm afraid.) But I am determined to keep most around long enough to explain to my daughter what they are and what they represent.

And at least one deity will stay for even longer... Paleolithic Buddha Goddess.

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

She's all mine.

*$14.95

It's a Gift from God, Y'all

God is Disappointed in YouWant to know what the Bible says but don't want to read the damn thing? Yeah, you're not alone. But Good News!

In his newly published book, God is Disappointed in You, author Mark Russell has managed to rewrite the Bible—in all its crazy glory—the way you and I and, frankly, anyone under age 80 would rather read it. While completely accurate, Russell uses layman's terms, contemporary metaphors, well-appointed slang and plenty of profanity to liven things up. And the best part? It's short. Like short-short. Like, the entire 2,000-page Bible is condensed into 192 pages. And that includes a whole bunch of illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.

My husband, WHO IS AWESOME (and reads BoingBoing religiously), had God is Disappointed in You delivered to my iPad yesterday. It was like a gift from God. Here's the beginning of Genesis:

In the beginning, God was lonely. He made the same mistake as a lot of men who live alone, he decided to go out and meet people. Only there weren’t any people, so he had to make his own. God created Adam and Eve to be his friends.

God built a beautiful garden in Iraq for Adam and Eve to live in. Adam and Eve spent their days running around naked and playing frisbee. They ate a lot of fruit. It was a lot like living at a Grateful Dead concert. God’s one rule was that they couldn’t eat the fruit from this magical tree he’d planted in the center of the garden. I don’t know why he put it there. It just tied the whole garden together.

"God built a beautiful garden in Iraq for Adam and Eve to live in." I mean, come on, people. That's a fine piece of comedy.

Anyhow, you can wait unit Christmas to get this sucker for yourselves. But I can't think of one single reason why you would. 

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"Mommy, What's an Angel?"

From Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks AngelShortly before Christmas, I got a text from a friend: "What's an angel?" she wrote. How do I explain this to a 3yo from an agnostic POV? I told him I had to get back to him!

In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.

"According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes."

Um, like, no.

At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.

That's why, beginning this week, I'll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.

Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they'll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.

In each segment, I'll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend's three-year-old. Then I'll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)

Sistine Madonna, detail

"What's An Angel?"

The Short Answer:

An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.

The Long Answer:

Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only "good" things. That's why people might use the word "angel" when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children "little angels.") Some stories say God has special angels, called "guardian angels," who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die. 

Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don't really exist. 

 

Everything You Need to Know About Islam to Get Your Kids Up to Speed (Okay, Maybe Not EVERYTHING)

Islamic girlYou know what my life is missing? A Muslim kid. There's no doubt that if I had Muslim friends with a Muslim child, I would be telling my 8-year-old a lot more about Islam than I do — not just because I would want her understand her friends' beliefs, but because it would naturally just "come up" more often.

Having a living, breathing religious person in our midst really is the perfect invitation for religious literacy I've ever found. And vice versa! That's part of the reason I'm glad some of my friend's children know about my lack of religious beliefs; it gives those families an opening to talk about atheism and agnosticism in a compassionate way.

That Muslims so far have been given short shrift in my household is particularly disappointing given that Islam is one of the most widely misunderstood of the world's religions. So, starting today, which happens to be Muhammad's Birthday, I'm determined to find a few new ways to work Islam into our conversations. Anyone want to join me? If so, here are the basics:

Islam

Founded: 610

Deity: Allah (“The God” in Arabic)

Famous Dogma: There is only one true Allah, and this Allah neither begets nor is begotten. (This is  different from Hinduism, which encourages the worship of many gods, and Christianity, which encourages the worship of Jesus as Allah’s "only begotten son." Muslims revere Muhammad, but they do not worship him.)

Prayer rugs

Methods of Worship: Prayer (required five times a day, using prayer mats that face a building called the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca), reciting/singing the Qur'an, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Formal services occur at mosques every Friday at noon.

Symbol: Star and the crescent

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Major Sects: Sunni and Shia

Sacred Texts: The Qur'an and the Hadith

Life-Cycle Celebrations: Naming ceremonies, marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca  — which are called Hajj.

Traditional Views of Afterlife: Righteous believers — those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur'an and believe in one true Allah — are said to go to Paradise, a garden-like place of pleasure. Hell is depicted as a fiery place where those who do not conform to the teachings of the Qur'an will be banished forever.

BurkasClothing: The Qur'an encourages all Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but some Muslims have interpreted parts of the Qu'ran in a way that requires women to wear hijab (pronounced hee-JOB), clothing that covers the head and/or body. Most American Muslim women wear only head coverings as their hijab, while more devout Muslim women may be seen in face veils and abayas — long cloaks worn over their clothing. Only in very strict countries (such as Afghanistan) do women wear hijab in the form of full burkas, which cover their entire bodies, head to toe, including their eyes.

MuhammadMajor Narrative: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was orphaned at age 6 and placed with family members — first his grandmother and then his uncle. He was a merchant and a shepherd and was known around Mecca as a man of high character. As an adult, Muhammad regularly took a few weeks off to meditate by himself in a nearby cave. During one visit, made when he was 40, Muhammad said he heard a voice speak to him. It was, he later learned, the angel Gabriel (yes, the same Gabriel from Christianity) acting as a sort of liaison to Allah and delivering messages intended just for him. Allah, Muhammad said, told him that there was only one true Allah, and that Muhammad should call himself a prophet and deliver messages about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. Muhammad did as he was told, and was said to receive messages from God throughout the next two decades. Those messages eventually were compiled into the Qua'ran.

Interesting Fact: Depicting the prophet Muhammad is expressly forbidden in Islam, which is why Arabic calligraphy is such a popular art form in Islamic countries.

Important Holidays: Ramadan (a month of fasting celebrating Allah’s first contacted Muhammad), Eid ul-Fitr (a feast celebrating the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah), and Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday.)

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Recommended Reading: My First Ramadan by Karen Katz (ages 3-5); The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (5 and up); Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (6 and up); Celebrating Ramadan by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (7 and up); , Muhammad by Demi (8 and up)

Recommended Viewing: Muhammad: The Last Prophet, an animated film about Muhammad’s life, is intended for small children. For slightly older children, there’s Koran by Hearta touching HBO documentary that follows three 10-year-old Muslim children.

Middle Eastern foodRecommended Eating: "Haram" refers to foods not permitted under Islamic law (alcohol and pork being the main prohibitions) "Halal" refers to foods that are permitted — including any meat which has been slaughtered according to Sharia law (for example, the animal must be treated well, must not suffer during death, and must face Mecca at the time of slaughter). Other good stuff: hummus, Baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, kebabs, chicken shawarma...

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After writing this post, I realized that I do know a Muslim child. In a way, we all do. Malala Yousafzai, who is fighting for the rights of all children to receive an education in Afghanistan, could well be considered the new face of Islam. Non-Muslims may not agree with her religious beliefs, but her actions as a human being transcend all of that. What we hold in common is far more powerful than what what sets us apart. Let's make sure we let our children know that.

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A Book American Kids Aren't Reading — But Should

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed British philosopher and author Julian Baggini, who wrote a fantastic book for kids called Really, Really, Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion (2011, Kingfisher). While I found it at my public library, it's not one you're likely to run across in major book stores. While very well-received in Britain, the book has flown largely under the radar here in the U.S. And that's too bad for us — because it's a great starting point for kids ready to explore religious issues. Each section of the book seeks to answer a question that could easily come from a child. The questions include: What is religion? Can we criticize religion? Should we fear God? Why do people worship? What if there is no God? Does religion cause wars? Do I have a soul? and What should I believe?

Great questions, right?

Big Questions

The answers are equally compelling, mostly because Baggini — himself an atheist — writes from a perspective that is, as he puts it, "basically, genuinely open-minded." The book, which I included in this years' holiday gift guide for secular families, differs from faith-based books of its ilk in two main ways. First, Baggini constantly urges children to make up their own minds about how to answer these questions and what to believe. And, second, he makes clear those who don't believe in any religious notions live perfectly happy, fulfilling lives.

It's that second point that makes this book so special — and so important. It's also the reason that the British have embraced it more than Americans; the British are far more secularized as a nation than we are.

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion is part of a series and, therefore, was not conceived by Baggini, who has no children himself. Still, the straightforward tone and broad knowledge he brings to the project is perfect for kids.

One of the more interesting aspects of our conversations centered on the notion of interfaith dialogue. Although the idea that people of varying religious backgrounds can come together and cooperate with each other is a lovely and refreshing and progressive in many ways, "interfaith" repeatedly fails atheists and agnostics. Sometimes there is an illusion that we secularists are involved in these dialogues, but we're not. Not really.

Julian Baggini"Multi-faith isn’t really open-minded," Baggini says, "because the (central focus) is that we should be religious in some way.”

Make no mistake: Baggini's book is not exclusively for nonreligious kids. It's appropriate for all kids and all families. There is no bias against faith, just as there is no bias against non-faith. The book takes an approach of true compassion for all. And that, Baggini says, is because there is still so much mystery in the universe. Why paint a picture of "truth" when some truths cannot be known.

"Some of us are going to turn out to be wrong," he says, "and some of us are going to turn out to be right.”

In the meantime, let's be nice to each other.

While some parents stumble through those first conversations about religion, it's the basic questions — Who is God? What is religion? — that may require the most attention. Baggini theorizes that Culture Wars could be tamped down considerably if  people would simply stop defining certain concepts so narrowly.  The term religion, for example, means so many different things to different people, he says. "Part of the reason atheist-vs.-religious debates aren't very fruitful is because there is too narrow of a view about what religion is."

In making it clear that these terms are wishy-washy at best, then we leave plenty of ideas open to interpretation by the children who are exploring them for the first time.

"You’re too young to settle on the view that you’ll have when you're an adult," Baggini says, "but that's no reason not to start thinking about this."

Baggini is the author of many books on philosophy, including The Pig that Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (2006) and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers' Magazine. His new book, just out, is called The Shrink & The Sage: A Guide to Modern Dilemmas. You can follow him on Twitter at @microphilosophy.

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Giveaway #3In other news, many congratulations to the winner of Relax, It's Just God's final holiday giveaway. A subscriber named "John" — highly suspicious, I know — will be receiving a bag full of good stuff just in time for the winter solstice. Thanks for your support, John! And thanks, too, to everyone who participated in all the giveaways this month. Great things will be coming in the new year, so I do hope you'll stick around.

Back When We Were Funny: 10 Religious Costumes for Kids

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il_570xN.302185289When you've been blogging for a while, you run the risk of becoming lame. I might be there, I'm not sure. Would someone tell me if I were? The truth is, I don't have the time I once did to dedicate to each and every blogpost, and sometimes in my quest to JUST GET IT DONE AND GET IT POSTED, certain things get sacrificed. One of those things? My sense of humor.

And it really is a damn shame. Because I have a glorious sense of humor! You should hear me be funny. I'm a riot.

The thing is: When I started out, I really believed that if one of you folks could get through my posts without laughing  — and by "laughing," of course, I mean "thinking about smiling" — that was a failure. But so often these days I feel like my sense of humor gets left on the cutting-room floor — or doesn't make it onto the reel at all. What has happened to me?

I notice it most when I re-read old stuff — like the one I wrote a couple years ago about Halloween costumes. That's some good shit right there! Let's take a look, shall we? Oh, and Happy Halloween!

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Top 10 Religious Costumes for Kids Originally appeared in October 2011.

I don't blame the Jesus Ween people for declaring war on Halloween. Little kids dressing up in cute costumes, going door to door to get candy from their neighbors...well, it's just so insidious. But you'll be glad to know that where there's conflict, there's a potential for a happy medium. And clearly — CUH-LEAR-LEE — this year's happy medium resides squarely in religious costuming for kids. Because the staff here at Relax, it's Just God aim to be helpful, above all else, we have amassed the 10 best religious costumes based on factors much too complicated and nonexistent to enumerate here.

1. Jesus of Nazareth

Christianity still reigns supreme here in the United States. According to the Association for Religious Data Archives, 76 percent of the population ascribe to one of literally hundreds of Christian denominations — making Jesus the top choice in faithwear. Who needs Jesus Ween when you can dress as Jesus for Halloween? Oh, and also: How cute are those shoes? (Amazon, $22.67)

2. Nun

When asked "What Would Jesus Wear?" (for Halloween), nine out of 10 Catholics with a sense of humor said "Nun." Also, there's nothing risqué about this little number, making it a crowd favorite among dads. Get one while supplies last. (BrandsOnSale, $29.99)

3. Torah Boy

We were sorry not to see this guy rank higher on the list. I mean, it’s a kid dressed as a Torah, people. A Torah. There is literally nothing in the history of time cuter than this costume. Unfortunately, Judaism carries a much smaller percentage of the vote than Christians (1.7 percent), and Little Torah Boy's ranking reflected that. (Amazon, $31.84)

4. Islamic Girl

Maybe it's the hot weather in the Middle East, but Muslims have the comfort thing down pat. If you've got one of those kids who just wants to trick-or-treat in her pajamas, this costume may be the ticket. Check out the Islamic Boy outfit, too. Just as cute, and well-worth the extra shipping to have it sent from the UK. Happy Allaween! (Pretend to Bee, 12.95 British Pounds)

5. Buddha.

Technically, Buddhists are more prevalent than Muslims in the United States. But this Gold Buddha Costume got docked some points because it only comes in adult sizes. I know, we were shocked and outraged, as well. The CEO of Go4Costumes ought to know that when Gold Buddha isn't offered in toddler sizes, children suffer. (Go4Costumes, $88)

6. Hindu Girl

Unfortunately, the controversy over supermodel Heidi Klum's Shiva costume a couple years back has sent children's shops retreating from Hindu god and goddess costumes. So this year we we're limited to regular Hindu wear. Luckily for us, saris tend to be pretty spectacular, and this Bollywood Princess costume is no exception.(Amazon, $24.89)

7. Atheist

We'd hate to leave would-be atheists out in the cold on Halloween, so here's the closest we could come to dressing as, well, Nothing. It's not a bad likeness as likenesses go, really. And morphsuits have great reuse potential. Outline the whole thing with purple cord and you've got one half of a fantastic Harold and the Purple Crayon costume for next year. (Party City, $29.99)

8. Scientologist

Sure, most kids would rather go as Nothing, but we're all about offering options. FYI, Scientologist costumes are best pulled off by strikingly handsome little boys with great hair and big teeth. Not saying it's easy, but with the right look, it's crazy cool. Don't forget your Dianetics book and E-Meter!

9. Moses

You had me at the 10 Commandments. It's all about the accoutrement, and Moses always did have the best stuff. In addition to the commandments, kids also might consider carrying a burning bush, a brass serpent or just a shitload of stone. (That guy loved him some stone.) If you're looking for group-costumes, you might consider going as the 10 plagues. Incredibly, plague masks are easy to find. Just be sure that no matter who joins Little Moses in trick-or-treating, he gets to lead the way. Ha ha. (Costume Discounters, $16.97)

10. The Virgin Mary

Originally, the Confucius facial hair was on the list at No. 10, but we just couldn't do it. It was so flippin' lame. And there was something offensive about the whole thing, too. (Shut up. Don't say it.) So we settled on Little Mary with her baby Jesus. Again, perfectly acceptable for Jesus Ween, and heart-meltingly sweet. I just want to scoop this little girl up in my arms right now and bring her home. It would totally be worth having Jesus call me Grandma.

So there you go. Hope you all have a swell holiday. Just remember, no matter what faith you're representing, keep it clean out there, okay? Halloween is supposed to be scary, but not, like, religious-war scary. And if you live in my neighborhood, don’t forget to knock on my door. I’ll be the one dressed as the Irreverent Blogger in Danger of Being Shot By a Fundamentalist.

6 Things about Seventh-Day Adventists

7th-dayWelcome to my new series! At least once a week for the next couple of months, I'll be bringing you brisk overviews of popular, but widely misunderstood, religious groups operating within the United States. As always, the point here is to give parents just enough information that you can — at some point, when the time is right — pass on a little religious literacy to your kids. Because, seriously guys, your kids won't get it elsewhere else, and knowledge is our best weapon against so many bad things — including discrimination, intolerance, ignorance and just plain assholeishness.

Today, we tackle Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination of the Christian faith with about 17.2 million adherents worldwide. Like all faiths, there are liberal and conservative sects. In all of them, the “d” is lowercase; don’t ask me why.

1. They believe Jesus is coming… and soon. 

Okay, so here’s the deal: Seventh-day Adventism grew out of Millerism, a movement founded by William Miller in 1833 and based on the belief that Jesus was returning to Earth somewhere in the 1843-1844 vicinity. Okay, so yeah, Miller had to move the exact date of Jesus’ arrival a couple of times — Biblical math is hard to get right, okay?! — but EVENTUALLY he settled on Oct. 22, 1844. The problem was that — and this is going to totally shock you — nothing happened on that day either. Millerites called it “The Big Disappointment.” After that, the movement split up. The few folks who stayed changed their name to Adventists and found a way to save face: Actually, they reasoned, something DID go down on Oct. 22, 1844; just not the something Miller predicted. Instead, they said, Oct. 22 was the day Jesus moved into a certain sanctuary within heaven and began his process of “investigative judgement” — that is, judging human beings and deciding who deserves to go to heaven. Jesus is definitely still planning to come VERY SOON, they say, but this time no one claims to know just when. Smart.

2. The Jews are right: The Sabbath is Saturday.

According to Adventists, the seventh day of the week — Saturday — is the REAL Sabbath. (Not on Sunday, as other Christians maintain.) It goes back to creation times, when God worked his ass off for six days then rested on the seventh. Secular work and entertainment is discouraged on the Sabbath. If you want to work, people, do it when God did: Days 1 through 6. Also like the Jews, the Adventists don’t eat pork or any other “unclean” meats.

Ellen White3. They have a prophet, and she’s a woman.

Ellen G. White, co-founder the Adventists, was a prolific writer. But she also claimed to have lots of religious “visions” — which made her something of an SDA superstar. Today, many of White’s writings are given near-scripture status, and considered second only to the Bible in terms of credibility. Many have noted White’s “spiritual gift of prophecy.”

4. They want you to eat your Wheaties.

The Adventists are a religion very keen on health and diet. And, in a very real sense, they are the reason we have breakfast cereal. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg — who basically invented cereal along with his brother, William — was an early SDA leader who pushed the church to make health a major tenant. Sadly, Kellogg was eventually excommunicated after publishing a book in which he made some pantheistic statements: “God is in everything.” The Adventists, as it turns out, don’t go in for all that hippie stuff. There’s only one way to see God, and that's through Jesus. Still, health is uber-important, and many are vegetarians.

5. There is no hell. 

This is sort of unusual for Christians. Adventists believe that until the Second Coming, all dead people enter a deep sleep — a state of complete unconsciousness. As the story goes, upon Jesus’ return, he will bring all those suitable to heaven, while those who have been judged unworthy will simply be destroyed for eternity. See? No hell.

6.  They're cool with other religions.

Although Seventh-day Adventists could be considered evangelical, they also have a long history (100 years!) of advocating for the religious freedom for all people, regardless of faith.  In 1893 its leaders founded the International Religious Liberty Association, which is universal and non-sectarian.

Can the Bible Help Kids Think Critically?

max-bibleOnce upon a time, I would have choked on my own vomit at the idea of buying a children's Bible for my daughter. The way I saw it, the Bible was an indoctrination tool. I no more wanted to crack that book open than I wanted to get her baptized or plan her Bat Mitzvah or teach her to pray toward Mecca five times a day. It was all the same to me. In my mind, only religious people read the Bible. But, times have changed.

Today, I don't equate the Bible to religion; I equate it with religious literacy. It is the quickest and most effective way to expose kids to Western belief systems. When it comes to knowledge of Judaism and Christianity and — to a slightly lesser extent — Islam, you can't do better than to read some key Bible passages. Judaism relies heavily on Moses and the book of Exodus. Christianity revolves around the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Islam loves it some Genesis-bred Abraham.

Of course, kids are too young to understand the language in the Bible, so it's definitely best to go with a children's version. Yes, they over-simplify things. Yes, they white wash. Yes, they take out all the language that makes the Bible at all enjoyable to read, frankly. But the greater good is that the kids will understand the stories and be drawn into them enough to actually remember them. And memory is sort of key in the education business.

My daughter has had her children's Bible for almost three years now. She's been known to take it out and look at the pictures, but lately — within the last year — she has taken to reading it in the car. She skips around a bit, but is always fascinated most by the moral aspects of each tale. I think this is the age where kids really start to think more about "right" and "wrong" and Biblical stories are larger-than-life tales with big-name characters, and so the degrees of rightness and wrongness are heightened.

The shocking thing about it all is that — contrary to the common assumption — reading the Bible seems to be helping to hone her ability to think for herself. She reads the stories with genuine interest and serious consideration — but without the reverence, deference and praise associated with faith-based Bible classes. It's remarkable, really, especially when I think back on the pure lack of critical thinking I employed when I heard the same stories as a kid.

The other day, for example, while reading in the car, she got to the 10th of the 10 Commandments and read (aloud): "Never want what belongs to others." Then she stopped and corrected Moses. "Well, you can WANT what belongs to others," she said. "You just can't HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself."

In the story about Joseph's dream coat, the passage read: "Joseph was one of Jacob's twelve sons. Jacob loved him more than all of his other sons..."

Maxine looked up at me: "THAT'S SO MEAN!" she said.

When Jacob is thrown in jail, and one of the other prisoners asks Jacob — quite out of the blue — to decipher the guy's dream, Maxine was all: "Well how would HE know what that means?!" And when a father (I can't recall who) tells his son that he must marry who the father chooses, Maxine declared that to be "dumb" and explained to me that, of course, the son can marry whoever he wants.

But my favorite bit was when her Bible told her that "goodly people" would go to live in heaven.

"I am a goodly person," Maxine said, "but I don't want to live in heaven."

And then she added: "Where do all the BADLY people live, that's what I want to know..."