A Failure to Communicate
I've been committing the classic teacher's mistake lately, on the subject of secret history and forbidden lore: I keep forgetting that not everybody knows the stuff that I know. Which reminds me of the funniest time that ever happened to me, before, on an entirely different topic.
In 1974, when I was 14, my parents became increasingly worried about the amount of drug dealing and racial violence in the Hazelwood School District and, without consulting me, yanked me out and put me in the only non-Catholic private school they could afford. It was a Baptist-run, theoretically non-denominational, far-right fundamentalist K-12 school called Faith Christian Academy. At the time, I hadn't darkened the doors of a church even once in 10 years. And not wanting to be the proverbial pink monkey in a cage full of brown monkeys, I set out the summer before to acquire some protective coloration by learning the cultural customs and language of regular church-goers before my freshman year of high school began.
The only person I knew who attended church regularly was my best friend growing up, my same-age next-door neighbor. His mom was still dragging him every Sunday up to a tiny little inter-denominational church called West Alton Community Church, which was (unsurprisingly) in the very, very tiny rural farming town of West Alton, Missouri, at the very far north edge of the St. Louis metro area. Ironically, West Alton isn't west of Alton, Illinois; it's actually south. But it is on the opposite, west, bank of the river, more or less right across from Alton, so there you have it. It's the actual town on the Missouri side that's exactly at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, a narrow little spit of flood plain. Unsurprisingly, it went completely under water in 1993, and I was operating under the impression that they bulldozed and abandoned it afterwards. But the 2000 census says otherwise, and so does Google Earth. Go figure. But even 20 years before the flood, West Alton was a tiny and mostly dead little town. It was one of those places like the ones that H.P. Lovecraft and then later Stephen King wrote so much about, rural farming towns where the best and the brightest of each generation have been steadily leaving for over a hundred years, and where nobody ever moves to there from anywhere else. Spooky, really. The people weren't actively unpleasant, usually, but something always seemed kind of "off" about many of them. I didn't find out how "off" until later.
A few months later, I started school at Faith Christian Academy, including my first theology course. And I was hooked. I'm told that the same thing happens to many people who study Catholic catechism under the Jesuits, which is that even though I didn't believe word one of it when I started studying it, and I don't believe word one of it any more, it's still one of my favorite "games" to debate Christian theology from a Biblical basis. The system has an almost mathematical elegance to it, and like the best mathematical systems, it's a closed, therefore finite, and therefore comprehensible system. Being pathologically unable to play dumb, this lead to me asking smarter questions than the teen-class Sunday School teacher was used to, which brought me to the church's more or less favorable (at first) attention. Which is why, scant months later, the Christian Education director came to me one morning. You see, the pastor was ill, and not going to make it in that day. They could schedule a song service for the morning worship service, but somebody had to handle his adult Sunday School class. And she wanted me to do it.
I was boggled. Other than a little bit of tutoring in grade school, I'd never taught anything before. (And I was squirmishly uncomfortable, because I still didn't believe a word of it.) But she handed me the lesson plan and told me to just get up in front of them and read it. They were an undemanding audience, I'd do fine as long as there even was an adult Sunday School class. So I did. I took my own Bible up there with me to read the indicated passages. I anticipated some trouble, because my Bible was the (then) newest and most state of the art (and to my taste, still the best) translation from the original Hebrew and Greek that was available, Zondervan Press's New International Version. (I do not feel the same way about the newer, more politically correct second edition, which takes enough liberties with the text to be, unlike its predecessor, completely useless to serious students.) So before I started reading, I apologized for the fact that what I was going to be reading wasn't going to match word-for-word what they had in their KJVs or RSVs; they could either listen to me or read their own texts when we got to that point. And as I went through the class, there was a core group of adults, aged roughly 30 to 90, maybe six or seven out of the twenty five or so of them, who were getting increasingly uncomfortable themselves. But they didn't interrupt me. Instead, they sent a committee, after class, to Deal With Me. Three ambulatory adults and a 90-something in a wheel-chair. They let wheel-chair do most of the talking.
They were almost speechlessly angry that I had substituted a different book for the Real Bible. So I went back over, more slowly, the point of the new NIV translation, why it existed and why I was using it instead of the KJV. And to my confusion, they couldn't follow a word of what I'd said. Not one word of what I'd said made any sense to them. So I backed up and tried again, one concept at a time, trying to figure out where the mental block was, what concept I'd failed to get across. They were getting increasingly impatient with my inability to give them a comprehensible, straight-forward answer as to why I wasn't using the Real Bible, but they gave me (I think) 3 tries. And at the end of the 3rd try, I finally spotted what the problem was -- and was instantly struck dumb. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I tried to convince myself that I had to be wrong, so I took the key concept and paraphrased it very carefully: were they under the impression that both Moses and Jesus Christ spoke English? Yes, of course, everybody speaks English. What? Sure, that's what "language" means: English. I tried to find out if it was really true that none of them had ever heard of the concept that people in other countries, let alone in earlier times, spoke other languages. But that was so obviously patently false and stupid an idea that they all four lost their temper at once and started shouting at me. When they finally settled who was going to be talking first, it was the youngest of them, a guy of maybe 35 or 40, who said to me (and I'll never forget a word of it): "If the King James Bible was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it's good enough for you!"
That left me with nothing useful to say, other than to reassure them that their usual teacher would be back next week and it would never happen again.