I don't actually read the Christian Science Monitor that often, so it's a little weird to be blogging it two days in a row, but my brain got going while I was reading this review of a book about Abraham. It says of the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac:
The story of the offering stands as "the most celebrated" and "most combustible" episode. All three religions "have chosen to place the narrative of a father preparing to kill a son at the heart of their self-understanding," he says. Some Jews in medieval times even found courage in the story to kill themselves and their children rather than be forced to convert. Christians see the story as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Muslims see it as symbolizing total surrender to God, and commemorate it in the Feast of the Sacrifice, the final rite of the hajj.
The most sobering question, however, is whether the offering story serves most as a model for holiness or for fanaticism.Does it play a part in today's suicide bombings?
This reminds me of something my mother told me. She was born and spent the first eight or so years of her life in the Appalachians, back when the ol' church-state boundary was a lot blurrier. In the public school she attended the students were led in saying the Lord's Prayer every day, and one of her teachers occasionally read Bible stories to the class.
It was here that my mother, who was raised unchurched, first heard the Abraham/Isaac story. And it scared the crap out of her. As she saw it, it was a story about a parent who would willingly murder his child under orders from an invisible person. That pretty well put her off Christianity at an early age.
I think of this story when I hear arguments by people who want to bring prayer back into public schools or put the Ten Commandments on the walls and that sort of thing. They tend to assume that by stuffing bits of Christian theory and practice into schools, they're getting bits of morality in too. But as the case with my mother--and, for that matter, Muslims, Jews and Christians--indicates, people will interpret these things according to what they know, or don't know. Christianity is a worldview, a mega-narrative, and unless you're already inside it a lot of things don't make a darn bit of sense.
Of course, I realize the push for religion in schools isn't all about converting the heathen--a lot of it seems to be self-reinforcement within the Christian community. But I do think that if Christians are serious about evangelizing the world, they would do well to consider the kind of effects these things can have. Focusing on in-group things like collective prayer aren't really going to make their classmates feel welcome. The creepier Bible stories can downright repel them.
The Abraham/Isaac story is especially delicate because it has kind of a mixed message. It approves of being willing to kill your dearest for God, but also says God doesn't actually want you to do it. I suppose that back in the days when human sacrifice was more common, the latter stuck out more than the former, but today it's the gruesome child-killing aspect that most people notice. If suicide bombers are really inspired by this story, it would be nice if they'd take more notice of the ending.