Are We Divorcing The American Heart and Mind?
American Butterfly 18: The Old Testament…Not The “Good News” Bible
In 7th grade I entered Academy School of Memphis, an all-boys school founded in 1893 and re-started in 1955.
Memphis thrived in the post-war economic boom of the fifties. The new ASM would deliver an excellent education, strong athletics, and a firm moral foundation based upon the honor code of the University of Virginia. Early graduates founded prominent Fortune 500 companies. The school was not affiliated directly with any religion but focused on a strong sense of right and wrong, the morality of the ancients and Judeo-Christian traditions.
In 2020, two-thirds of all private secondary schools in America had a religious orientation.
Academy School was demanding. My first night, despairing over the load of homework, I asked Mom if I could eat in my room. Years later I learned the school recommended that its teachers immediately establish control in their classrooms. Piles of homework and a serious, even dour, demeanor would dampen the excesses of youth. Most teachers lightened up over time.
The middle school curriculum was traditional: English literature, math, art/music, science, social studies, gym, and Latin. One semester included a religion class.
Ours was delivered by a teacher new to the school. He taught the Old Testament using teacher-behind-the-podium lectures, detailed tests, and occasional essays. He placed the first books of the Old Testament in their historical context and then walked us through the evolving interpretation of deity. The class was bracing because of its rigor and, I think, its idea of God.
I remember Mom talking about the two parent-teacher conferences that semester. In front of all the parents Mr. Sproles said what many wanted to hear: we were great students, as good as any he had ever had before. He revealed that he had sought guidance from our principal on how far to push because everyone seemed so capable. The principal had urged him to keep pressing forward.
That is not what any of us students wanted to hear because the exams were already some of the hardest we had seen. Mom had curious feedback, too, around a more subtle topic. She shared that a few parents had complained that their children were disturbed by the lectures on God.
She guessed that the parents were concerned Mr. Sproles was teaching about God through the lens of the Old Testament, focusing on the often wrathful, often jealous aspects of God. It may be, she thought, that many Christian families, at least their children, were used to hearing more about the New Testament God of Love.
I suspect that many of us were surprised even more by the intellectual analysis of God and the possibility that God had changed over time. Mr. Sproles was an extremely devout Christian. He wasn’t afraid, though, of looking at the Old Testament as writings inspired by God but created by men. They were subject to discussion and analysis in historical and religious contexts.
He taught about how the Old Testament God evolved…or how man’s understanding of God evolved through the times of the Old Testament.
- At the most ancient of moments, the Israelites spoke of many deities, but they came to celebrate one God above all others.
- Eventually they thought of God as a single and only God.
- A God who could be loving but also quite vengeful, even demanding the deaths of the people of Canaan.
- Not to mention the near human sacrifice of Isaac by his own dad, Abraham.
No wonder Isaac was never reported to have done much as an adult!
Though we certainly had heard references to some of these concepts in the occasional church sermon, most of us had never tackled them in such a thoughtful environment, one that demanded our feedback.
Church is largely about listening, right?
These can be troubling concepts for anyone to balance with the simple New Testament idea that Jesus Saves.
It was challenging from a religious and intellectual perspective.
Academy School of Memphis at the time thought it important for us to become educated, moral thinkers who bridged the gap between the mind and heart, logic and faith.
Today, in 2022, Academy School of Memphis cares far more about pure faith than it did forty years ago. The bridge to the other side is not nearly as important.
Some can balance both sides. Some can embrace one while still showing respect for the other.
Many more today can accept only one:
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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.