“IF YOU have anything, beloved friends, which you wish your Charley or your Susie to be sure and read,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1859, “pack it mysteriously away at the bottom of a trunk of stimulating rubbish, in the darkest corner of your garret; — in that case . . . you may be sure that it will not only be read, but remembered to the longest day they have to live” (The Minister’s Wooing). If one were looking for a light-hearted response to the news that the Davis School District in Utah has removed copies of the Bible from its schools because passages contained “vulgarity or violence”, it would be that it would be hard to find a better way to incentivise a child’s Bible-reading.
There is a more serious response, however. The Bible seems to have been recruited into the culture wars that have accompanied the political divisions in the United States. The move follows a complaint by a parent that the Bible fell foul of a law passed in Utah last year, similar to others in Republican-led states, that has led to the removal of a range of material, including works that feature LGBTI+ characters. In the UK, this has been represented as almost entirely the work of anti-woke right-wingers, undermining the democratic freedoms that previous generations fought for at great cost — a Putin-like attempt to reform society through censorship, beginning with the people over whom they have most control. First, they came for the children. . . There are plenty of campaigners who fit this mould. But the context of a violent and sexualised society should not be underestimated. While many are proud of American liberal attitudes, the reluctance of the big internet corporations to invest in the control of online pornography has led to a frustrated backlash. A survey earlier this year suggested that the average age at which a child first sees pornography in the US is 12. The bi-partisan Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network calculates that there are about 70,000 victims of sexual assault or rape between the ages of 12 and 17 each year. Childhood innocence, US parents argue, no longer happens by default.
In such an atmosphere of moral anxiety, it is inevitable that age-old concerns about the contents of the Bible re-emerge. One commentator suggested that the proper place for reading the Bible was “round the hearth” with parents. We suspect that this is not a typical domestic scene in the United States, but it points to the need for the Bible to be mediated and explained when it is first encountered — by adults as well as children. Publishers have long helped with this task through illustrated children’s Bibles and, for older readers, Bible commentaries; and the correct presentation of scripture is, of course, a key purpose of the Church. It is, of course, insulting to have the Bible dismissed as “vulgar and violent”. But it is a reminder that scripture is something to be taught, and, if the teachers are lacking for whatever reason, then it is right to handle the Bible with caution.