Weapons training

Preparing America’s youth for spiritual warfare

Molia Dumbleton’s story Top 7 Bible Facts, called to mind my own experiences in Christian education. Not at camp, but every Sunday at church.

When I was a boy, our Sunday school classes routinely held sword drills. Like pop quizzes to insure students study, our teachers held them at random to make sure we brought our Bibles to church.[1] Being the son of the church’s music minister,[2] my teachers expected me to set the example and wield my sword with the dexterity of a knight in training.

The teacher called, “Attention.” We stood straight, heels together, hands at our side, left hands clutching the Bible. “Draw swords.” We lifted the Bibles chest high, placed our right hands on our covers, remaining otherwise at attention. The teacher announced a verse, perhaps Proverbs 23:21.[3], but we were required to continue at attention. It was only when he announced, “Charge,” that we could flip our Bibles open and push through the pages until the first of us reached the verse and read it out loud before eager challenger’s shoved us from the leadership role.[4]

The smartest kids carried those Bibles with the thumb wells for each book of the Bible, allowing them to locate the book at a glance and flip to the chapter with the flick of a thumb. I was never allowed this privilege. Being BPK (and heir to the ministry) my father and teachers expected me to best my classmates with no assistance from props or gadgets.

The metaphor of the Bible as a weapon is engrained into fundamentalist and evangelical thinking, even though none of the authors of scripture, including, I presume, God, make such a claim. Nowhere is the Bible referred to, or even compared to, a sword. Or any weapon. Paul refers to the sword of the spirit, in Ephesians 6, but only as a defense against spiritual assault, along with the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and, most importantly, the breastplate of righteousness. In other words, righteousness (in Jesus’ thinking, what’s in our hearts) trumps swords.

The sword of the spirit is a reference, not to the Bible (which hadn't been compiled at the time Paul wrote), but to discernment based on the law. The law, I might add, which the true believer writes into her heart.

And yet, the insistence on militance remained, and remains today. We were at war with Satan when I was in school, and that war has since escalated to a war between Christians and secular society. It was easy to mask militance as Biblical thinking with exercises like sword drills. After all, if you throw random scriptures at students without placing them into context, or discussing the entire passage, you make it easy to overlook their meaning.

Quite often, you make Bible reading a chore.

In other words, the best way to distract Christians from the real meaning of their faith and scriptures is to fill their heads with detritus. Like the seven facts in Molia’s story. It doesn’t matter what the middle verse of the Bible is. In the Catholic Bible, which includes the apocrypha, the middle is different. The Hebrew scriptures rearrange the order of books completely. And it certainly doesn’t help us write God’s word into our hearts.

A few years ago I did a comparison of New Testament metaphors for the International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society. I discovered the New Testament authors write with metaphors of cultivation and nurturing more than those of warfare. They weren’t concerned about a war with secular society because they expected society to be hostile to the faith. In fact, they expected to be martyred by the empire.

Today’s warriors can’t cope with being asked to pray in private or to not demand everyone pray with them. Today’s warriors can’t cope with anyone who even questions their beliefs. Even when those beliefs can’t be found in the Bible.

The final irony of sword drill? Fifty years later, the Google search engine delivers the verse faster than my page turning skills. I don’t even have a Bible anymore. I use online software so I can keep my notes in the same place.

While writing this response, I stumbled across an article by Cynthia Jeub on the Huffington Post expressing the same sentiment I wished to share. Rather than abandoning my response, I would rather simply confess to the discovery that I hold no claim to originality when I write this.

[1] The presence of a stack of Bibles on the class room bookshelves undermined that strategy.

[2] That’s right, I’m a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK). I used to blog about it on the site Righteous Indigestion.

[3] A popular verse for sword drill. Especially since we had to read it aloud: “The drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” The verse carried a great deal of irony in high school when many of us were hungover when we read it. I discovered an even greater irony when I read two verses down from another popular sword drill verse, Proverbs 31:5–6: “it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.”

Just once, I cast my eyes down and discovered the qualifier (6–7): “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” In other words, the ones who need to drink are the ones who suffer from the King’s inattention and injustice.

[4] Just out of curiosity, I looked up “Bible sword drills” on Google, and found a PDF document outlining sword drills and other class lessons. Their account differs slightly from my memory, but lessons may change from one denomination to another, evolve, or my memory could be inaccurate. It’s still fun to read about the hoops they put young Christians through to drill the Bible into their brains, only to produce an alarming level of Christians with little or no real knowledge of the Bible.[4.1]

[4.1] A Pew Center survey discovered that evangelicals correctly answer, on average, fewer than 18 out of 32 questions on religion and the Bible (slightly more than half). Atheists, agnostics, Mormons and Jews scored better. More than one study has concluded that American Christians are functionally illiterate about the Bible, despite fundamentalist and evangelical claims to be “Bible believing.”



Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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