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!

'Golden Rule' — Beautiful, Universal and Very, Very Old

Golden rule cover

It is a common misconception that the Golden Rule began with Jesus. In fact, it's part of the reason some Christians think of their religion as synonymous with morality. After all, to treat others the way you want to be treated is the essence of moral conduct. And it was Luke 6:31 in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Matthew 7:1-5 also addresses the topic.)

But Jesus didn't invent the ethic of reciprocity anymore than did Muhammad, who said: "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable." (circa 570-632 AD)

No, the Golden Rule existed long before Christianity or Islam. In fact, no one is quite sure when the idea was first written, much less conceived — it's that old. All we know is that the general idea is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful — having existed in virtually every culture on Earth for thousands of years.

The Golden Rule

Here's Plato: "I would have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it in the slightest way without my consent. If I am a man of reason, I must treat other's property the same way." (circa 387 BCE)

Confucius said: "What you do not like if done to yourself, do not do to others." (circa 500 BCE)

The Sutrakritanga, part of the Jain Canons, put it quite succinctly: "One should treat all being as he himself would be treated." (circa the 4th Century BCE)

Even the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit, included the passage: "The knowing person is minded to treat all being as himself." (circa 800 BCE)

Then there's the Jewish Torah, written in 1280 BCE: "Take heed to thyself, my child, in all they works, and be discreet in all thy behavior; and what thou thyself hatest, do to no man."

Undated is this charming African Bush proverb: "If your neighbor's jackal escapes into your garden, you should return the animal to its owner; that is how you would want your neighbor to treat you."

This sort of hilarious version is a Nigerian Yoruba proverb: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

And a Sioux prayer puts it this way: "Great spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Among the oldest known references appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story that dates back to The Middle Kingdom: 2040–1650 BCE (!): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."

The Golden Rule (so named sometime in the 17th Century, by the way) is arguably the greatest wisdom human beings have ever offered the world. It's universally known, pondered  and accepted. And it's a hallmark of virtually every major religion, philosophy and ethical perspective.

So... why don't we follow it?

"We have committed the golden rule to memory, let us now commit it to life." — Edwin Markham, 1852-1940.

[Most of the information in this post came from Sandra and Harold Darling, who compiled a wonderful ruler-shaped book called The Golden Rule  in 2006. It costs $7 on Amazon.]

'Jesus Gosh!': Explaining Religious Sensitivity to a 4-Year-Old

il_570xN.302185289When exactly is the right time to broach the subject of religion with children? It's a common question not easily answered. Kids are so different. The brain develops at different speeds and in different ways. What interests children at any given age runs the gamut of possibilities and is constantly in flux. So parents like me, we look for openings. We keep our ears open for conversation starters, and signs that our little ones might be ready to think a bit deeper about life and people and beliefs. We want them to be old enough to hear different perspectives and not take everything at face value; but we also want them to be young enough to listen to us. We want to make sure they'll interested in what we have to say — as opposed to what their friends have to say.

My sister, Jennifer, was driving to my house last week with her 4-year-old son in the back seat. Shortly after Jack had climbed into his car seat, he said to him mom: "I invented a new word."

"What is it?" Jennifer asked.

"Jesus Gosh!" he said proudly.

He explained that it's a word meant to be said when you're surprised by something.

Jennifer saw her opening.

"You know, Jack..." she began, "that word — Jesus — some people don't like to hear that word used in that way."

Jack seemed fascinated by that, so she went on.

She explained how Jesus was a man who lived a long time ago. She said he was an important man who many religious people believe was a prophet, but who Christians believe was the son of God. Then she talked a bit about how that distinguished Christians from other religions and about different cultures. She said Christians from Latin and South American often name their children Jesus (though it's pronounced differently), but that in the United States, the name is considered sacrosanct and is not, in Christian circles at least, to be used in any way other than to talk about or praise Jesus.

"I know Auntie Wendy uses that word sometimes," she said at one point, "but someone like Gramma would never use the word that way. And, if she heard you say 'Jesus Gosh,' she wouldn't like that."

Yeah. She threw me under the bus is what she did.

But I digress.

The point is, to Jennifer, it was breakthrough. And she felt great about it. She told Jack that it's important to understand how our words might offend some people. "We can say whatever we want," she said. "But it's good to think about how other people might feel about our words."

Later, she told me, "I know I was using some words he didn't understand, but he seemed fine with it. He seemed to be getting it. So I just went on and on."

For 10 minutes. Ten. Whole. Minutes.

Jack never said a word, but he was listening so intently, that she just knew this had been the right moment. She hadn't missed it.

Then finally, she paused. Would there be any questions, she wondered?

Just one, as it turns out.

"Mommy," came his little voice, "what did you say?"

12 Simple Differences Between Catholics and Protestants

The rapid rise of the "Nones" — those unaffiliated with religious groups — was back in the news this week, when the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its most recent study on American religiosity. Here's what Pew had to say:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling... Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

In addition, the group emphasized that, for the first time in history, there is no Protestant majority in the United States. That is, Protestants have dropped to 48 percent, whereas they comprised 53 percent of the public as recently as 2007 — a drop of 5 percent in five years. (Catholics, by comparison dropped 1 percent during the same time period — to 22 percent). As you all know, Protestants are Christians who broke off from the Catholic Church 500 years ago. Although there are more than 33,000 (!!) Protestant denominations, all of them still operate in ways that are separate and distinct from the Catholic Church. But what are the differences, really? I mean, all Christians Churches hold the same core value: Jesus Christ was the son of the God who died for our sins, arose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Isn't the rest just window-dressing?

Well, here, you decide.

Twelve Differences Between Catholics and Protestants:

1. The Pope. Catholics have a Pope, which they consider a vicar for Christ — an infallible stand-in, if you will — that heads the Church. Protestants believe no human is infallible and Jesus alone heads up the Church.

2.  Big, Fancy Cathedrals. Catholics have them; Protestants don't. Why? Well, Catholicism says that "humanity must discover its unity and salvation" within a church. Protestants say all Christians can be saved, regardless of church membership. (Ergo... shitty, abandoned storefront churches? All Protestant.)

3. Saints. Catholics pray to saints (holy dead people) in addition to God and Jesus. Protestants acknowledge saints, but don't pray to them. [Note: There is much debate about the use of the word "pray" in this context, so let me clarify: Saints are seen by Catholics as an intermediary to God or Jesus. Although Catholics do technically pray to saints, they are not praying for the saints to help them directly but to intervene on their behalf. They are asking the saints (in the form of a prayer) to pray for them. It's like praying for prayers. Hope this helps.]

4.  Holy Water. Catholics only.

5. Celibacy and Nuns. Catholics only.

6. Purgatory: Catholics only.

7. Scripture: The be-all, end-all for Protestants is "the Word of God." For Catholics, tradition is just important as scripture — maybe even more so.

8. Catechism: Protestant kids memorize the Bible. Catholic kids get catechism.

9. Authori-tay: In Catholicism, only the Roman Catholic Church has authority to interpret the Bible. Protestants hold that each individual has authority to interpret the Bible.

10. Sacraments: Catholic are the only ones to have the concept of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony). Protestants teach that salvation is attained through faith alone.

11. Holidays: Catholics have 10 Holy Days of Obligation (which mean they must go to Mass). Protestants are more like, "Just come to church on Christmas, that's all we ask."

12. Communion: In Catholicism, the bread and wine "become" the body and blood of Jesus Christ, meaning that Jesus is truly present on the altar. In Protestantism, the bread and wine are symbolic.

This post originally appeared in October 2012.

Don't Just Hang in There: It's Time to Retire Certain Myths about Grief

kitten-hang-in-there-posterIf this poster looks at all familiar, you were probably alive in the 80s. For many years, a kitten hanging from a tree branch with the tagline "Hang in there" was as ubiquitous an image as you were likely to find. The pre-Internet version of LOLCats. (What is up with Americans' weird fascination with captioned cat pictures?) Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because that poster informed how I looked at "hard times" when I was a kid. "Sometimes life sucks and you've just got to hold on," is what I took from it. And it's not bad advice — at least sometimes. After all, tomorrow usually is a new day.

But when it comes to grief, as it turns out, this poster is for the birds.

As I said last week, I've been chatting recently with Grief Recovery Institute co-founder Russell Friedman about helping children deal with grief. The guy is a wonderful resource, as is his book When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses. He and his co-writers talk a lot about common myths associated with grief, and one of them is this one: Time heals all wounds. The truth is, Friedman says, time alone is rarely enough. Grief is not like a cut on your finger. (Or a kitten hanging from a branch.) Waiting for the pain to go away will only prolong the pain.

Friedman makes clear in both his books and conversations that grief is not a byproduct of death. Grief is a byproduct of loss. People grieve numerous losses, both tangible and intangible — loss of life, love, loss dreams, faith, safety, control, addiction. The list goes on. He also makes clear that grief is cumulative. It doesn't just stick around. "It gets worse," he says. Each loss is compounded by the next. If we don't deal with our broken hearts — or, as they say in grief recovery, "complete the grief" — the first loss gets rolled into the next loss, and the next, and so on. Often, Friedman says, when people come to him, they think they're grieving a death but find they're actually grieving numerous other losses, as well. And when they leave the program? "They feel as though a weight has been lifted," he says.

Friedman likes to invoke the image of a flat tire. When you have a flat tire, he says, you don't just sit down and wait for it to mend itself. You fix the flat, or call someone in to help. Either way, you know you've got to get air into that tire if the car is going to get back on the road. "A broken heart," he says, "is remarkably like a flat tire." Recovery requires action. (I'll be discussing more of what Friedman means by "action" in the coming weeks.)

To be clear, this is not an advertisement for the Grief Recovery Institute. I've never been through the program myself. But Friedman's theory — that grief requires action, and that action lessen griefs — is one that, like all his advice, makes sense to me. It makes sense to me that that people need to be able to feel bad when bad things happen. It make sense to me that "staying busy" is not an antidote to pain. And it makes sense to me that grief is something that can be lessened, but not by itself.

What doesn't make much sense to me anymore is this whole notion of just hanging in there. Because, I mean, look at that picture. We all know how that one ends. The cat falls off the branch, breaks its little kitty legs and has to be euthanized.

And who wants to LOL about that?

Only Five Religious Books Have Won the Caldecott — Most Before 1963

Noah-s-Ark-9780385094733If you've ever perused the religion books within the children's section of your local library, you're probably aware that it can be a bit underwhelming. Whether you're going for a book about the life of Buddha, the history of Confucianism, or the holiday of Easter, so many of the books are old and outdated, clearly written for religious children, or without much literary merit. It sticks out particularly because there are so many great secular children's books — brilliant, award-winning books that will stick with our kids for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it's hard to skip over those and land on what may turn out to be infinitely forgettable ones. That's why it's fun (for me, at least) to come across religiously themed books that are also (or were once) considered great literature. Which is what happened when my daughter brought home a brochure from school the other day listing all 75 Caldecott Medal winners, dating back to 1938. This year's winner is an outstanding book called This is Not My Hat. And in 2011, the pick was A Sick Day for Amon McGee. And in 1970, it was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; and in 1964, it was Where the Wild Things Are; and in 1942, it was Make Way for Ducklings.

The point is, those Caldecott people are no dummies.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few "religious" books have appeared on the Caldecott list in the last 50 years. Other than Peter Spier's Noah's Ark in 1978 — which I can affirm is a pretty straight telling of the Christian tale and not overtly religious — the books have been almost exclusively secular. Not so, though, before 1963 — when four of the first 25 winners had religious themes, including the very first Caldecott. The first three picks appear to be overtly religious (particularly the second!) but Nine Days to Christmas — about the Mexican holiday of Posada — might be worth checking out. All five, incidentally, are Christian.

1938: Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book

RECS pic 27-61

1945: Prayer for a Child

Prayer for a Child

1960: Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico

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1961: Baboushka and the Three Kings

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I do think it's important that nonreligious parents set aside their usual standards for literature once in a while in favor of injecting some religious literacy into their kids' lives. But within reason, of course. And this is not to suggest that there aren't some GREAT books out there for those who take the time to look. For some tips on choosing religious picture books appropriate for nonreligious families, click here.

Quick! What the Hell is Holi?

I'll be writing more about some of the slightly more obscure (to mainstream America) holidays in the coming months. Again, I do this because it's a great and easy way to inject a bit of religious literacy into a child's day-to-day. I always suggest using dinnertime or car rides to talk a little bit about each holiday, its roots and its rituals. And, if you're game, you can "celebrate" the holidays yourselves with food, music and associated activities. Because, really, why not? First up: Holi, a Hindu holiday officially observed on Wednesday. Holi

Holiday: Holi

AKA: "Festival of Colors"

Religion Represented: Hinduism

Celebrates: Holi has both secular and religious meaning. First, it celebrates the beginning of spring. Second, it celebrates an ancient Hindu story ending — as so many do — with the triumph of good over evil.

Date: Full moon during the Indian month of Phalguna. In 2013, Holi falls on March 27. In 2014, it falls on March 17. The festival often goes on for days.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Religiously speaking, Holi is quite low — no higher than a 2. Culturally speaking, it's a 9.

Notable Rituals: Holi celebrants have parties and street festivals, light bonfires, and throw/rub colored powder and fragrant water on each other.

Holika and PrahladBack Story: Thousands of years ago, throughout India, bonfires would be lit on the first full moon of spring to mark the end of winter. People burned old leaves and wood to make room for new flowers and leaves. They rub their bodies with the ash. As the "religious story" of Holi goes, a demon king named Hiranyakashipu became incensed when his own son — literally a demon spawn! — became devoted to the much-venerated god Vishnu. The boy, called Prahlada, wouldn't stop praying to Vishnu. Unable to come to terms with the betrayal, the demon king tried to kill the boy using all sorts of antiquated methods. Poison was the first method, but the poison just turned to nectar in the boy's mouth. Then he ordered his son trampled by elephants and put in a room with hungry snakes. No dice. With Vishnu's help, the boy survived both attacks. Finally, the demon king recruited the help of his sister, a demoness named Holika who was immune to fire. Holika took Prahlada into the fire and sat with him, anticipating that he would burn up in her arms. Much to everyone's amazement, it was Holika who burned and Prahlada who remained unscathed. "Holi" is a shortened version of Holika.*

Associated Literary Passages: The first mention of Holi — including the use of colored powders and perfume — appears in the Ratnavali, a sanskrit drama attributed to the 7th-Century Indian emperor Harsha. Unlike the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Ratnavali is not considered a sacred text.

The Fun: Hindus and non-Hindus alike celebrate Holi, which is considered a time when enemies make friends and all social classes come together. The rich and poor unite and celebrate as one group, emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences — something of particular significance in India, where a traditional caste system reigned supreme for so long. Inhibitions also break down, and people are encouraged to break loose, drink liberally, and "openly flirt" with each other. For more fun information, you can visit holifestival.org.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Always a good idea to start out with a brief reminder of some Hindu basics. Then, if the weather fits, build a fire and tell the story of the demon king and his pious son. If you're more adventurous, you might let kids shoot each other with water guns and have a colored-powder party. You can buy the powder on Amazon here. Parents might also cook up one of these seriously delicious-looking Holi recipes and play the song Rang Barse, the unofficial anthem of Holi. Here's a video — complete with colored powder and open flirting.

*There are other legends associated with Holi, but this is the most popular.

Despite Controversy, World Religion Teacher Tells It Like It Is

religions_wheel_crimsonI may have a new BFF — or, at the very least, a great new source for my book. Jim Morrison (no, not that one) has been teaching World Religion at a high school in Red Wing, Minn., for 17 years. He's not a pious man himself (to say the least), so his classes are comparative, historical and incredibly eye-opening. His students love him. Christian fundamentalists in the community? Well, they don't. But they do tolerate him. And that's something, dammit.

Jim recently began his own blog — Teach Not Preach — which I like very much. All his posts are interesting. (This week he wrote about lesbians, so that should pique your interest.) But my favorite post is this one, in which he recalls the rather hilarious frenzy that broke out after his World Religion course was introduced in 1996. School administrators called an emergency meeting where 22 local ministers came together to debate the merits of Jim's class — and whether it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Jim writes:

About fifteen minutes into the discussion tempers started to flare. One pastor yelled “Why can’t you just tell the students what other religions believe, why do you have to make them think!?”  The room spontaneously erupted into a verbal brawl. A young pastor sitting behind me leaned forward and sarcastically whispered in my ear “It would be horrible if schools made students think, Jim.”  I smiled. It was clear he was on my side.

Despite the conservative Christian presence in Red Wing, Jim isn't afraid to urge  his students to "understand the difference between religious dogma and factual information based on physical evidence and research." For instance, he teaches that "resurrection stories and virgin birth stories are a dime a dozen in the ancient world and are not viewed as historical truth by everyone." As a result, he says, he was "accused of injecting my own ideas into the course, misinterpreting the Bible, and generally being offensive to Christians."

But, in the end, education won out. And, for 17 years, students have been thanking him for it. Check out these excerpts taken from a bunch of end-of-semester essays Jim recently received. Here's a sample. (Olivia's is my favorite.)

Coming from a Christian home with many Christian friends, many told me that taking World Religions would not be good because “all Morrison does is bash the Bible.” Well, they were wrong. In no way did I find what you said offensive toward my religion or my personal beliefs….Many fear that their little Christian boys and girls are being corrupted by exposure to other religions, but to me, that talk is just silly and is nonsense. Exposure to an idea that is different from yours isn’t corruption of the mind, it is really the expansion of the mind. Through out the semester I have learned about so many interesting ideas, and I really wish the course was a year-long class.

— Nick

The necessity of a world religion class has never been more obvious as it was the night I was studying for my Christianity test and I remarked to my mother how little I knew about Protestants despite being one. How she responded made me a little sad. “You’re not a Protestant, you’re a Lutheran,” she told me. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know that Lutherans are a Protestant sect.

— Olivia

Islam was the biggest shock to me. I thought they were all about blowing stuff up and terrorism. But learning about them made me think differently about them. I find it amazing how they can stick to such a strict prayer schedule and honor their religion every day. I will now think differently whenever I see a Muslim.

— Andy

One lesson among many that I will take from this class is how important it is to understand people and their beliefs before passing judgment on them. It is so very easy to have preconceived notions about a person/group without truly understanding them.

— Brian

I absolutely loved this class…but I’m not sure if my mom likes the fact that I took it. I think she dislikes the fact that I began to be more open about my personal beliefs, which differ from hers. Because of this I’m not allowed to talk to my little sister (eleven years old) about religion at all! I got in trouble for telling my sister “false ideas,” ideas that were not exactly pro-Christian. Despite this, I’m happy I took the class. Yeah for critical thinking!

— Sarah

Don't you wish you could clone this guy and put him in your kids' high school?