"Mommy, What's Catechism?"

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This segment of "Mommy, What's That?" — a series where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in non-religious ways — comes courtesy of a reader, Chris. Chris told me that some of his daughter's friends are in CCD — short for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine AKA "Catechism" — and he is having a little trouble coming up with the language to explain it to his little one.

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If you don't know already, CCD is basically Catholic instruction for kids who attend secular schools. It's meant to 1) teach about the Catholic faith and 2) ready children to become Catholics. In a sense, it's indoctrination in its most classic form: Teaching children to believe, through "classes" — because, you know, it's educational! Like school! — to adopt one, single perspective to the exclusion of all other perspectives. I'm not a big fan.

BUT, hey, other people I like and admire see it as a harmless way to introduce kids to the Catholic culture. And if balanced out at home with other perspectives and the assurance that Catholicism is a choice, like any other choice, then I think it's just fine. My aim is not to keep secular children away from religion — or from people who wish to indoctrinate them! — but rather to teach kids to think critically, value science, and to take charge of their own belief systems.

Now back to Chris' question. How can you explain Catechism in your secular home?

The short answer:

CCD is a school that teaches kids how to be a part of a religion called Catholicism.

The long answer:

Many people think it's important for their children to grow up to know about and believe they way they believe, so they will send their children to special schools to learn these things. Jewish kids might go to Hebrew School, Catholic kids might go to Catholic School, etc. CCD is a special type of Catholic school that is only held on weekends and week nights, and where kids can learn all about Catholic beliefs and what it takes to be a Catholic.* Any child can take CCD classes — including you! — but the kids who take them usually feel pressured to believe what they learn there. And we want you to learn about lots of different religious — rather than just one — and make up your own mind about what to believe. If you want to know more about the classes, though, why not ask your friends what they are learning? I bet they'd love to share that with you."

* If you want to take a minor tangent, Chris, you might tell your daughter that Catholics have sacraments, which means that they believe God wants them to take part in certain activities — and then give her an example or two. I'll touch on some of them — baptism, confession and communion — in the coming days. So look for that!

And let me know in the comments if this answers your question!

Quick! What the Hell is Ash Wednesday?

So much of religion centers on food. The faithful, it seems, are constantly feasting or fasting. Indulging or holding back. In Christianity, this feasting-fasting cycle is never more apparent than during the Easter season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras (feasting!), followed by Lent (fasting!), which finally — and mercifully — culminates in Easter (feasting again!)

Yesterday was Mardi Gras (AKA Fat Tuesday) — which means New Orleans had one hell of a street party. Many Catholics were getting their  ya-ya's out because today is the beginning of Lent (AKA Ash Wednesday) — the day that millions of people around the world stop buying Starbucks, swearing like sailors, gossiping about their co-workers, and eating entire sticks of butter while watching porn.

Poor bastards. What happened to everything in moderation?

Anyway, here's the low-down on Ash Wednesday.

Holiday: Ash Wednesday

Religion represented: Christianity

Date: Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter Sunday. This year, it's March 5. In 2015, it will be Feb. 18.

Celebrates: The first day of Lent.

What is Lent? The 40-day “fasting” period leading up to Easter. (Observers are afforded six built-in “breaks” — every Sunday during Lent, which means Lent begins 46 days before Easter.)

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Maybe a 5.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: According to the Gospels, Jesus spent 40 days wandering the desert, and fasting, before beginning his ministry, which led up to his death. Ash represents the idea that people came from ash, and to ash they will return — a reminder of Christians’ mortality. Also, ash is symbolic of penance, contrition and a desire to “burn away” sins..In the early days of the church, only Christians who had committed “grave sins” were marked with ash (Think the “Scarlet Letter A”) and prohibited from reentering the church until they had recited the Seven Penitential Psalms and performed 40 days of “penance and absolution.” Now, of course, Christians partake voluntarily.

Associated Literary Passages: Mentions of ash can be found in 2 Samuel 13:19Esther 4:1Job 2:8Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21, among others.

Ash Wednesday: Observers attend worship services, where a priest or minister combines ashes with water or a little oil, dips his or her thumb into the mixture, and uses it to make the sign of the cross on parishioner’s foreheads.

The Food and Fun: Food and fun? Um, not so much, unless you include Fat Tuesday — which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday and serves as Christians’ last hurray before Lent. Traditionally, Christians are meant to “give up” something they enjoy and instead give to charity. For example, one might give up watching TV and instead donate that time to volunteer work. Or a person might give up Dr. Pepper and use the money saved to buy toys for poor children. That sort of thing. It’s actually a really beautiful idea — taking away something we love and, in a sense, giving it away to someone else. Selflessness at its best.

Conveying meaning to kids: Maybe show a picture of a person with an ashen cross on his head. Explain that, on Ash Wednesday, lots of Christians go to church to receive this symbol. (If you haven’t touched on the fact that a cross is a religious symbol, now would be a good time.) People who receive the cross, you can say, are showing their devotion to their God and their desire to turn away from sin (bad acts), so that they will be invited into heaven when they die. Then you can explain the three aspects of Lent and introduce the idea of giving up something you love and giving to someone in need. If the children are interested in giving Lent a whirl, maybe brainstorm some ideas and embark on the experiment together.

Be sure to check out other entries in Relax, It's Just God'Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

A version of this blog originally appeared in February 2012.

What's the Real Nativity Story? Kid, You Don't Want to Know

Giveaway 1Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I'll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday). The book is fun and funny, and I figured she'd love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.

“I don’t like this book,” she announced.

“You don’t like the story?” I asked.

“No," she said. "I like the story."

“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.

"No," she said. "I like LEGOs.”

"Then why don’t you like the book?”

“Because," she said. "It's not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”

I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Story

“Actually," I explained, "the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”

“No!" she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!"

Then she slammed the book shut again.

Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.

•••

Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn't rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.

In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:

1. Jesus lived. 2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist). 3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.

But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.

The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus' life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus' birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren't creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:

 Be born of a virgin: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14. 

• Preach the 'good news': "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners." Isaiah 61:1-2

• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Zechariah 9:9

• Be betrayed by a friend: "Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Psalm 41:9

• Be crucified: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads... He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." Psalm 22:1,7-8

Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus' story "matches up" to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn't fly.

Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.

In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the "People of Israel" got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."

In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.

The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus' family hadn't lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you've ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It's not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.

•••

So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn't happen.

Maxine is going to be crushed.

 

The Secularization of Christmas Isn't Just Okay — It's Great

Good Tidings Great JoyStart your engines, folks, the War on Christmas is here again! This time it's Sarah Palin leading the charge with her new book: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Released a couple of weeks ago, the book is apparently — brace yourself, this is shocking — really, really awful. The Daily Beast's Candida Moss actually read the damn thing (bless her heart) and came away with a whole lot of nothing.

"Ultimately," Moss wrote in her review, "this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories."

By way of the "half-baked theology," Moss said, the former Vice Presidential candidate at one point talks about about placing a menorah on her Christmas table every year to "acknowledge Christianity's Judeo-Christian roots." That bit made me laugh out loud. God, she's an idiot.

But back to the War on Christmas.

By my read, the War on Christmas has two main tentacles, or assumptions:

1. Christmas is becoming a secular holiday.

2. People are forcing it into secularization by killing off all mention of Christ.

Okay, first of all, Number 1? Flat-out true.

Christmas is becoming a secular holiday. Not for everyone, of course, but for some. Maybe even for many. Definitely for me. I love Christmas — the trees, the lights, the gift giving, all of it — but I took the Christ out of my Christmas a long time ago. Other than telling my daughter about the wonderful little legend of Jesus' birth in a stable in Bethlehem, my version of Christmas is a season of entirely nonreligious traditions and celebrations. Sure, those celebrations are rooted in my Christian heritage, and I wholly acknowledge that. (The same way Palin acknowledges her religion's Jewish roots with a menorah.) But do I attach some deeper personal meaning to Christmas? No, not at all. You could say I am a secular Christian in the same way some of my friends are secular Jews or secular Hindus. They'll probably always celebrate Hanukkah and Diwali, but does that mean they actually believe in God, Brahman, or that dude with the elephant head? Uh, no.

So, yes, Fox News, I'll give you No. 1. But you lose me at No. 2.

Apart from some civic-minded folks trying to make their public spaces more inclusive of other cultures by removing nativity scenes and the like, no one is forcing Christmas into secularization. Yes, mentions of Christ are dropping like flies. But that's not because of injuries sustained in any damn war. It's because more and more Americans — more than 20 percent of us — are nonreligious. Christmas is becoming more secular because we are becoming more secular.

The holiday isn't dying. It's evolving.

And isn't that a good thing? Would Fox News rather we secularists stopped celebrating Christmas altogether? I wonder how Sarah Palin would feel if a quarter of her family and friends stopped showing up to her annual Christmas party? I wonder how all those corporations and business owners and stock brokers would feel if we stopped spending millions of our dollars on colored lights, blow-up Santas and gifts for our loved ones every year?

No, Fox News, I won't be putting the Christ back into my Christmas. Ever. But if my family and friends will let me, I'll continue to lug home pine trees from the local Christmas tree lot and obscure all but the scent of those trees with a heinous number of Christmas ornaments. I'll hang the gorgeous, envy-inducing Christmas stockings my mother knitted for each member of my family. I'll listen to the Christmas carols my grandmother used to play on the piano when I was a child. With my husband, daughter, parents, in-laws, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends always on my mind, I'll wrap Christmas presents and watch Christmas movies and read Christmas books and bake Christmas cookies and attend Christmas parties. I'll do it all.

And in doing so, I will indeed "protect the heart of Christmas." It won't be Palin's exact version of Christmas, of course. But it will be Christmas just the same. And it will be great.

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!

•••

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..."

Crucifixion Story, As Told By a Freethinking 7-Year-Old

Field of Sheep 2

A couple of weeks ago, while walking along a gravel road in the French countryside (!!!), my 7-year-old daughter, Maxine, decided to tell her 4-year-old cousin the story of Jesus' death. It hadn't been a recent topic of conversation in our house or anything, but we'd just passed by a very old, very Christian cemetery, so that must have been what prompted the storytelling. The narrative was classic Maxine — relatively accurate, deliberately paced, full of distractions and incredibly amusing, with an editorial comment or two thrown in along the way. After the story was over, my nephew had A LOT of questions for his mom. I'd like to apologize for that, Jen. But what could I do? It was blogger gold! Oh, and a special thank you to the iPhone for allowing me to both record the conversation and get this shot of Maxine in a field of sheep.

Field of Sheep

Maxine: Once upon a time, Jesus... well, you know the story of Christmas. Do you know the story of Christmas?

Jack: No.

Maxine: Well, we’re not going to tell the story of Christmas. Okay, so one time there were some men. Or maybe there was one man. Or some men. I don’t know. So this man was a mean man. He wanted to kill Jesus. And he wasn’t very nice. So he went after Jesus and got Jesus and he put him in … jail? Well, I think it was in jail. And he wanted to kill him, so this is what he did:  He nailed him to the wall. Nailed him to the WALL. He nailed his hands and he nailed his feet. I would think it would be really hard. And he left him there for three days, or five days, something like that. Three days, yes. Yes, three days.

[Gets distracted by a loose-gravel sign on the road.] 

So. They nailed him to the wall. They left him there for three days. He died. Of course. Well, it’s not the end of the story yet. You THINK it’s the end of the story. Don't you think?

Jack: Yeah.

Maxine: Yeah. But it’s not. People believe in God. You believe in God. Also, even if you don’t believe in God, you believe that someone nailed him to the wall and he died. People HAVE to believe that because if they don’t believe that, they’re wrong. Okay, so whatever. Now.

[Gets distracted by a car driving by.] 

Okay. So. He, of course, he died. But some of his relatives, like his mom and...  I’m not sure if he saw his dad or not. Oh well. His mom and maybe his dad, I’m not sure, whatever, his dad, whatever, I'm not sure, and his relatives, his friends —

Jack: Or maybe Jesus didn't have a dad.

Maxine: Yeah, Jesus had a dad. Mary and Joseph. Okay, whatever.

Jack: Hey, my grandma has a toy about that!

Maxine: Oh yeah! She does! She absolutely, positutely does.

[Gets distracted by a goat tied up in someone's yard.]

Okay. So, anyway, back to the story.

Jack: Is this a true story?

Maxine: Yes, true story. But some people don’t believe this part: Everybody put Jesus in a cave.

Jack: All the mean mans?

Maxine: Yes, there were mean men. Oh, who put him in the cave? Well his mom, his friends, his relatives, or even people who believed in him. Okay, so they put Jesus in a cave and they left him there for another three days. And guess what happened?

Jack: What?

Maxine: He came back alive! Remember, Jack, some people don’t believe this part. [Whispers] It’s probably not real, just to let you know. But people do believe in it.

Jack: When he came alive, is that true?

Maxine: Jack, I just told you the answer to that question. I’m not sure. People believe that it's true. Also, people believe that it’s not true at all. My parents believe that it’s not true at all. But I believe in ghosts, so I believe it is. Maybe. I’m not sure. I still don’t believe in God, though.

Jack: My grandma has an angel in the Jesus toy.

Maxine: Yeah, uh-huh. Okay, so we’re getting to the end of the story. Jesus came back alive and — BABY COWS!

[Gets distracted by cows in a field.]

 Okay so then Jesus came back alive and said, 'I’ll be back to visit you.’ And he floated up to heaven. The end. I can't believe I memorized that whole — BULL!