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When I was a child

18 July 2008

We’ve been having an interesting discussion on the alt.religion.christian.east-orthodox discussion forum on how our perception of the Christian faith has been shaped by our upbringing and reading.

My father was an atheist and my mother was an agnostic, and so we were not a churchgoing family when I was growing up. The first time I ever went to church was with an Anglican friend when I was 11 and she was
going on Christmas day.

The following year I went to a church school where we had a “scripture” class, and the maths teacher was responsible for it, so he got us to take turns in standing up and reading the Bible aloud, starting from Genesis 1. I got hooked on the story and began reading ahead in the bowdlerised “school bible” we were issued with. I rather surprised my mother by asking for a “proper” Bible for my birthday. So it was in my teens when I began reading Christian books, and I began with the Bible.

Not having been to church much, my idea of worship was shaped by the Bible rather than contemporary Protestant practice, so cairns of stones, holy staffs and sacred pools were more to my taste than listening to Methodist sermons. I did sing Methodist hymns though (it was a Methodist school). I joined in with some Zionists I saw baptising people in a river once, and went home with them for tea afterwards. It was real John the Baptist stuff.

And looking back, it made me think of the way people use and read the Bible. Protestants often claim to be biblical, and scriptural, and to honour the Bible. One Protestant once wrote to me that “The Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants”, and the first thing that struck me was the absence of God in that definition.

Looking back on it, however, I now realise that it wasn’t even true. Protestants are sometimes so keen to tell us what they think of the Bible that they pay very litte attention to what the Bible says about us. But as a friend of mine once said, the Bible does not depend on our opinion for its importance: either we decide about the Bible, or in the Bible Christ has decided about us.

Nearly 20 years ago our priest was baptising his younger son, and invited some of his colleagues from the theology faculty at the University of South Africa, where he taught. One was a Baptist, and remarked to me afterwards that though the Baptists prided themselves on their high view of scripture, and claimed that their practices were all based on scripture, he had never come across worship as scriptural as the Orthodox baptism service.

And so I return to my childish understanding.

I encountered both the Bible and Protestant worship at the ages of 11-14. That was when I read the Bible, and went to Methodist services in the school chapel (initially in a classroom, while the chapel was being built). By the time I was 15 I’d read the Bible through twice (the second time with the “Apocrypha”). And, as I said, my idea of worship was shaped by the Bible rather than by the Methodist “hymn-sandwich” services that were common at the time (and, as I discovered in the school holidays, the Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists were little different). They sat in the same rows in similarly shaped pews. The Methodists used a hymnbook and the Congregationalists a “hymnary”, but they sang the same cha-ka-chang metrical hymns, which were very often introspective, and not worship at all. They were all about me.

The Bible said nothing about that, but it did say things about cairns of stones, and holy pools (wash in the pool of Siloam) and holy sticks. And that was my real worship at that age. And that, I saw, was real worship to the Zionists too. Because it was the Zionists who based their religion, and especially their worship, on the Bible, far more than the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists or Congregationalists.

I’m not saying this to imply that the Zionists are childish, but rather to point out that the message of the Bible depends on the context in which one hears it, and if one really accepts “the Bible only”, then one’s worship is more likely to include cairns and sticks and holy pools than organs, pews and central pulpits.

And when, a few years ago, I was a member of a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) trying to draw up educational standards for qualifications in Christian theology and ministry, the one I felt closest to, who talked my kind of language, was a Zionist bishop.

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