Smile Politely

The rainbow sign

The tiny, yellow buds of roadside chamomile emit a fragrance that will dwell inside the boy’s mind forever. Before the sun reaches full glare, he pedals his sturdy 16-inch bicycle leisurely one mile, two miles, three miles through the countryside. The brick church building appears half a mile down the road, past blurring rows of corn stalks.

Once he is inside, the first pews are filled with excited boys and girls, happy for their new summer vacation, ready to play and laugh. A young woman, her hair tightly wound in a bun, explains how God made the world, as she moves bits of colored flannel to illustrate on a board.

For two weeks, there are more stories, pictures of animals, wonderful songs and snacks, games, and a celebration of all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white.

For two weeks, there are more stories, pictures of animals, wonderful songs and snacks, games, and a celebration of all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white.

Behind the story teller there is a large painting of Jesus, standing and knocking on a wooden door. There is another painting reproduction of children, a brother and a sister, crossing a rickety bridge over an abyss while a storm rages, and Jesus stands behind them in the clouds, protecting them from harm.

The Bible School study booklet shows a picture of Adam and Eve playing peacefully with the lions and tigers and lambs and in the garden.

A childhood flourishes in such a world of harmonious beauty, nature, love, peace, and promise. There is no reason one would ever want to doubt, disbelieve, or leave even the expectation that such a world might exist.

And many cling to the old stories, long past their childhood. Many continue to believe it is a historical fact that a man named Jonah lived in the belly of a large fish for three days. Many believe that a man named Methuselah topped the age of 900 years.

Many are convinced that God created the world 6000 years ago and that science is wrong, that evolution is a false theory. A now yellowed, moldy paperback, “Evolution, Fact or Theory?” written by Cora Reno and published by Moody Bible Institute in 1953, contains many of the same arguments used today to debunk evolution, including a final section denouncing eleven high school biology textbooks.
Biblical literalists are a strange breed, twisting all manner of sense and perception to adhere to a text that has been translated and re-translated over centuries, interpreted and reinterpreted, and hazardously edited. Three of last year’s Republican presidential hopefuls – Tancredo, Brownback, and Huckabee – raised their hands during the debates to claim that they did not believe in evolution.

Despite the impossible contortions imposed upon this book, Biblical literalists – haunted by the imagery of that white, shining garden – continue to point to this verse or that as proof positive of whatever it is they want to support.

“If you don’t believe any one part of it,” they claim, never understanding that they are the ones making the interpretations they choose, because they see themselves as the chosen, the sanctified, “then you have nothing left, nothing to believe.”

Literalism turns the Bible from a spiritual text into a menu of laws, and badly defined laws at that. There are countless ways to rationalize ignoring parts in the Bible. We eat animals with the wrong kinds of hooves; we find anecdotes to counter the claim that the rich won’t enter heaven or to posit that turning the other cheek refers to tradition rather than nonviolence.

Ok, then. If you want to believe that God personally plunked down people 6000 years ago, that’s fine.

But what about the rainbow?

One of the stories back there in Bible School – one of the very best stories, with the most animals – is about Noah and the Ark. And after the Flood, God painted the rainbow in the sky as a sign of his covenant with humans. Just a few chapters after the Bible describes how God made Adam and Eve – which the literalists accept as fact – it tells in Genesis, Chapter Nine, over and over again, how God painted that rainbow.

Why have the literalists dropped the rainbow from their litany of magic? They have given up on the rainbow. Just as they accept that the earth isn’t flat or that the sun doesn’t rise, they accept that the rainbow is a natural occurrence. Their literalism only goes so far, it seems.

They have given the rainbow away to the rational, to humanism, to explanation, to rain droplets and the sun and refracted light.

The presidential hopefuls would not have raised their hands in agreement if the question had been, “How many of you believe God’s finger paints the rainbows?” Rightly, and maybe with a little understandable regret, they would have taken the grownup perspective. They would have invoked science.

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