Reading Time: 4 minutes

New Year’s resolutions are a big deal around our house. Everybody writes them down, reads them aloud on New Year’s Eve, and posts them for the Mid-February Shaming.

The night before New Year’s Eve, Becca told me that one of her resolutions is to read the Bible this year. Though now a secular humanist, she was raised Baptipiscobyterian, and like most BPBs her scriptural knowledge was pretty much limited to pre-masticated pastoral nuggets, Fortified with Vitamin J and 99.7% Atrocity Free.

Reading the actual thing on your own is a good idea — if not the whole actual thing, then a few key parts. I managed the whole thing, with difficulty, over the course of about a year and a half when I was 13 and 14. And by the time I was done accompanying John of Patmos on his chemical field trip, I had a much more solid foundation under the feet of my growing skepticism.

One of the hopes I’ve had for my kids is that they get some unmediated experience with the Bible. But I didn’t want to lead them there by the nose, and my one early attempt to do so by reading Genesis aloud to them about eight years ago (“Gather ’round, children!”) ended mercifully around Genesis 2 in a hail of rolled eyes and groans of agony. It was clearly not the way, but I’ve wondered ever since how we would get to that deeper level of literacy.

So I was (quietly) thrilled when Connor, now a high school junior, announced his own resolution to read the Bible straight through this year. After years as an apatheist, Connor has begun engaging more actively, often expressing a baffled, how-can-anyone-believe-this-stuff consternation at the religious assumptions of everyone from presidential candidates to rapture predictors to kneeling QBs. I take it as a really good sign that his response to bafflement is not just a dismissive snort but a desire to figure it out by learning more about the baffling thing.

On New Year’s Day, Erin (14) said she’d like to give it a try as well. Holy smokes.

I doubt that many people who pledge to read the Bible get past the begats, and a fraction of those ever finish the whole thing. And no wonder — for every verse that’s poetic, dramatic, or horrific, the Bible has half a dozen that are tedious lists of names or numbers, or instructions for washing pots or getting your Bronze-Age business done. So without being heavy-handed, I wanted to improve the chances that my kids would actually stick with it — if not to the last Amen, at least to the point where their religious literacy would get a serious boost.

The first question is version. King James is poetic, but the archaic translation won’t keep those pages turning. On the other end of the scale are efforts like the NRSV Children’s Bible (loaded with silly, happy cartoons) and The Message, which puts accessibility ahead of pretty much everything else.

To get a sense of this spectrum, here’s the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13) in King James:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

…and in The Message:

Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.

If you can read that without mentally inserting “dude” every few words, you’re a better person than I.

Then there’s accuracy. Some translations simply rewrite the ineffable word of God to suit their preferences. This is important to know for critical reading but not my biggest concern in this case. Such translations end up pasting over little inconsistencies and leaving enormous, rancid horrors in place.

I’m more concerned with the use of euphemisms to help readers gloss over uncomfortable moments. Take Genesis 19:4-8:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

That’s the New International Version with one of the great jawdroppers of Western lit. Instead of “have sex with them,” King James says “so we may know them,” while The Message says, “Bring them out so we can have our sport with them!” Erin, who has a more than a hint of Amelia Bedelia in her, couldn’t be blamed for reading those last two as respective requests for conversation and tennis.

In the end, I gave Erin an NIV/Message Parallel Bible. Each page has the NIV running down the left column and The Message running down the right. She asked what the difference was, and I told her, suggesting she read the left column and use the right if she ever gets stuck. Comparing the two will keep her engaged and occasionally amused. I gave Connor the NIV Study Bible, the one I use most for reference. The translation is clear and readable, and every page is full of footnotes on historical context, alternate interpretations, and etymology.

I also gave them both a suggestion that I think is the real key to success: Start by reading Genesis and Matthew, just those two, then keep going if you want. Takes about five hours. And as Stephen Prothero points out, a good 80 percent of the religious references in our culture and politics can be found in those two books.

Now I plan to butt out completely.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.