Saturday, 25 February 2012

Teaching Religious Mythology 1: Noah's Ark

Some background. My son is two years old and I'm already interested in different age-appropriate ways of exposing him to as many religious mythologies and beliefs as possible.  I would love him to investigate, compare and independently ask questions about religious claims.

I need things to be entertaining, so cartoons or at least movies are good.  I'm also interested in printable lesson plans from websites.  I'd like to share me reactions to what I discover over a series of upcoming posts beginning with this one.

Firstly, a few words about why I want to expose my kid to all this religious stuff.

'Inoculate' Your Children
Daniel Dennett is correct that the best way to foster healthy scepticism in our children is to educate them as best we can about as many religious beliefs as possible.  It acts like a sort of inoculation against fundamentalism.  Nothing breeds out fundamentalism faster than full and early exposure to as many different points of view as possible.

Strive for 'Culturally-Literate' Children
It is beneficial for children to at least understand at an intellectual level their personal cultural heritage, that of their community and the shared global heritage as much as possible.  This not only helps them know where they came from, so to speak, but it also helps them interact with others.  They will also find it easier to understand assumed-to-be-understood cultural references in literature.  Much of literature is rife with deep religious and mythological metaphors. It would be tragic to deprive them of the ability to see these.

Education versus Indoctrination of Children
For me information becomes indoctrination when all competing points of view are either withheld wholesale or the child is warned that serious consideration these other points of view is sinful or dangerous and to be avoided.  I don't see anything wrong with telling a child that you agree with A but you do not believe B,C or D to be true.  I have a problem with telling the child they should believe A or else. The child should always be encouraged to have their own opinions based on their own explorations and thinking.

The Research Begins
I didn't want people to accuse me of deliberately missing the good stuff.  So in the interest of engaging "the other side" I  tried reaching out at and to ask them about good resources and how they teach these stories to their kids.  I say tried because after registering over a week ago, I have yet to actually be approved.  I'll admit, I used the username lucretius, but I was expecting them to be okay with this. I mean, I didn't choose iburnyobible666 or yumbacononkoran or anything.  The Muslim board won't even let me read posts unless I'm registered.

Those Scary Christian Myths
There's no shortage of
scary non-Christian
While watching the biblical stories with "fresh atheist eyes", I became keenly aware for the first time just how ghoulish and frightening they can be.  I think anyone outside of the Abrahamic religion would be hard pressed not to find some them them as scary as Kronos devouring his son in Greek mythology.

When and How?
So when's a good time to start exposing my son to these myths and how should I go about this?  This is a question that I'll need to answer on a per myth basis.  Often the content of these stories can carry an R rating.  Like Lot's incest with his daughters.

Understandably, vital information is often left out when presenting these stories to children.  But this lying by omission often seems to continue moving forward into adulthood.  Why didn't I ask the obvious questions?  Because by the time my brain was developed enough to do so these myths had already been drilled into it as demonstrating a loving god.

Although as  a parent I can understand why details are left out, I guess I have a problem with whitewashing the stuff and then never bothering to fill in the horrific blanks.  It all smells like a PR campaign that leaves out details to better move product. This wouldn't be so bad if we were talking about irrelevant old myths from the Hittites, Greeks or Romans, but real people out there base their world views on them. They believe these myths to be true, use them to inform day to day decisions that sometimes affect me, and all the while believe they demonstrate an all-good god.  My brain, it hurts.

So, without further ado, the first in the series...

Noah and the Ark
It's interesting how I've always known this story but never actually sat down and thought about the ethical ramifications seriously. It's like it was spoon-fed to me as a very small child as being a cute little ditty that involved a big cool boat, a scary storm and a whole lot of cute fuzzy animals.

When I see this picture I can't help but think
of  WWII pictures of countless corpses - 
Jewish, gypsy and others - who were 
starved and killed in German concentration 
camps.  Millions of them.  The stench must
have been unbearable.
It wasn't until I started drifting away from Catholicism that I began to see this story differently. First the complete implausibility hit me.  But I believe most Christians probably don't really believe this story actually happened the way it's told in the Bible anyway.  After this initial shock, I began to question what it was saying about God.  How could every person on the planet become so corrupt?

I mean, it's kind of like scoring 5 million wrong answers on a multiple choice exam.  Nobody can do this unless they try really hard.  You'd need to know a fair bit to make sure you don't make single mistake and get something right by accident. And why hasn't this problem repeated itself?  If God did something differently the second time then why not just get it right the first time?  And why the hell does he need the rainbow to remember his promise not to exterminate the entire human race?  I mean, isn't this supposed to be God?  And who would need a rainbow Post-It to remind them not to commit global genocide? Finally, the real crazy for me is how some people can believe this myth to be literally true and still hold God to be an all-good god of love.  How's that possible?
It all seems rather cultish to me.  A single family with a pipeline to God against the whole outside world who ridicule them.  Well, after all that persecution and ridicule, who's laughing now, eh?  I guess Noah's god taught everyone a darn good lesson.  You're dead!  Ha ha ha! Don't mess with Yaweh, fool.  These are the hopes and fantasies of a downtrodden and persecuted people.

This Youtube by the MtlRedAtheist pretty much sums up a few of my key problems with the myth.  I have a problem with people who believe that a god that would do this is good and deserving of our praise.  It really really boggles my mind and drives me a bit nuts.

A Funny Atheist Perspective
Quite a bit more upbeat is the Thinking Atheist's
Noah's Ark-God, Giraffes & Genocide.  I highly recommend it.

The Best
Out of all the Youtube movies I watched, the best and most accurate portrayal of the myth I could find is admittedly not as entertaining as the others.  This is Moody Institutes' 1955 Noah and the Ark.  Although it doesn't dwell on the fate of the non-believers, at least it tactfully includes it.  It clearly and completely describes the myth in a way that would serve as appropriate discussion material for a even a child.  Even the Bible verses at the end and obvious appeal to be saved would make for fertile discussions.

Moody Institute's 1955 production
Noah and the Ark
A close second is the somewhat psychedelic but mostly rather dated Noah's Ark, a 1960 Mel-O-Tune.  (I love the name "Mel-O-Tune".)  The animation is only slightly worse than the old and beloved 1960s Mighty Hercules television series.  The eyes on the characters are a little scary.

The Worst!
I'm not really sure who made Arky Ark Noah.  I put it here because it's about the worst one I found.  It's a pretty annoying tune. But it's really It's the kind of glee they attach to the whole thing that really throws me off.

Adding the "y" at the end of the word "ark" puts a particularly sour taste in my mouth and makes me a little ill - you know, sort of like "Auschy Auschwitz".  

The Mediocre
These weren't all that bad.  In fact some of them are fun or visually stunning.  I would definitely show these to my kid as supplemental material.  Who doesn't like watching Mr Magoo and Donald Duck?

The 1933 Silly Symphony production Noah's Ark is a fun little ditty that seems to stray rather far from the original story.  Although it's entertaining,  it's a pretty lame representation of how things supposedly went down.

While trolling the Youtube I ran into quite a few Mr Magoo cartoons and they all look very fun and moderately entertaining.  The ark myth is treated in Mr Magoo - Noah's ArkIt's interesting how they seem to go out of their way to portray Noah as a kind bumbling old gentleman who really wants to save everyone.  No other movie I saw played this angle.  I don't believe this is in the Bible but it does apparently figure in Jewish tradition.  It seems like this version is composed of a hodgepodge of different traditions' interpretations of the myth.

Still on the Magoo cartoon. I can see how Noah's son would think he was completely bonkers. (This seems to be referenced in Islamic interpretations of the myth.) Without 20/20 hindsight, who wouldn't react this way?  When anyone says god spoke to them and told them to do some crazy thing, admit it, you think their crackers, right (unless they have a nice suit and really good hair)?  It's the logical deduction and I'm glad they put it in.

Finally there's the stunning Donald Duck - Noah's Ark which is really a beautiful piece.  It fails to mention what the ark was for or what was happening to those on the outside.

Songs, Crafts and Exercises
At the time of writing I haven't had a chance to really look deeply into this site called DLTK Printable Crafts for Kids, but it looks like a very good resource for Christian Parents wishing to expose their toddlers and children to Christian myth (as historical fact).  The section on Noah's ark is here.  I found the "message" section of their  Teaching Guides to be a illuminating.  They never even touch upon the dying of people and animals - I guess that's just not what it's about.
The message: Noah was an obedient man. God saved Noah. The message of God as our loving Creator is reinforced in the Noah story. The people before the flood disobeyed God time and time again. Noah was obedient -- he did as God asked. God saved Noah and the animals. ( Teacher's Guide I )

Or in other words "Do what I say and don't ask questions or I'll whack ya!"  This parenting technique seems familiar to me somehow.  I could do a whole other post on loving parents corporally punishing their children in the name of the lord.

So How Will I Present the Myth?
I'll leave out the gory genocidal details.  I don't want him to have nightmares at night like so many other children.  But I won't whitewash it to the point of turning it into happy songs and jokes praising the Lord.  He'll be taught the Flood myth but I won't gloss over the many deaths.  Around 4 or 5 years old I guess.

Of course I can expose him to the same myth according to Judaism, Islam and many other parallel Deluge stories.  Not only will it be fun to read other takes on the story like the flood in Gilgamesh  or Manu, I hope to strip these stories of their power so he'll see them as being what they are - poetry, exciting sagas, rich sources of metaphor, archetypes, cultural expressions but most of all: myths.

Next In This Series
In my next instalment of this series I'll discuss the Battle of Jericho.

Editor's Note: I've added the label teaching religious mythology to all of the posts in this series to make it easier for you to read them all, should you choose.

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