Never talk about religion or politics, my mother always told me. But Booklist talks about religion every November, in print and online, so here—with some trepidation—I go.
For me, religion has always been, at least in part, an invitation to nostalgia, an opportunity to fondly remember my childhood, when my mother would read to me and my sister from the pages of a book called Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. Though I didn’t know it then, it was a best-seller. At the time of the death of its author, Elsie E. Egermeier, in 1986 at the venerable age of 96, the book had sold two million copies. Still in print these 29 years later, the book—published by the Warner Press of Anderson, Indiana, where Egermeier worked as an editor when the company was still called Trumpet—has now sold a whopping three million copies.
I’ve just pulled my dust-jacketed copy—yes, I still have it—off the shelf and see that it is the “new and revised edition of 1947,” the year when I was six. As for its contents, it contains 234 stories culled from the Bible and rewritten, in sometimes saccharine but straightforward prose, by Egermeier herself, who writes in a preface: “In the writing of the Bible Story Book the author has endeavored to familiarize herself with the viewpoint of children and to adapt her language accordingly. With vivid recollections of the capacity of the child-mind to grasp and retain Scripture truths, she has labored prayerfully and conscientiously to present these stories in such a simple, direct manner that her youthful readers will have no difficulty in comprehending their teaching.” (In case they do, understanding is aided by the 200, full-page illustrations the book contains by the artist Clive Uptton, who is oddly unbilled.)
I don’t know what my grandfather was doing while we were
sitting there in the sanctuary of St. James Lutheran Church
at 9th and Spear Streets—probably reading westerns and
smoking a cigar.
Speaking of contents and nostalgia, I find tucked into the book a Sunday church bulletin for the fifth Sunday after Trinity, July 17, 1960. I don’t know who put it there, probably my mother, though maybe I did it myself since there’s an ad on the back page for a book called This Faith Is Mine, by R. Z. Meyer. The ad is headlined “Give Your Teen the Help He Needs and Wants.” I was 19 then and needed all the help I could get, thank you very much! At any rate, Egermeier’s is not the only childhood book I equate with religion. The other is, of course, the Bible itself. Every Sunday when my sister and I were taken (dragged might be a better word) to church, I heard readings from the Good Book intoned by our pastor, the Reverend Alfred C. Gerni.
What goes around comes around, since these nearly 70 years later, I’m still in church, but now I’m the one doing the reading. As one of the lectors at church, this is my occasional responsibility. It’s a welcome one because (a.) I love reading aloud—I always have, even when I was a kid and read aloud to my sixth-grade class at Columbia Elementary School—and (b.) because I love the language of the Bible, even though we use a newfangled translation that pales in comparison with the richness of the majestic—though sometimes incomprehensible—language of the King James Version. Hearing Pastor Gerni read those words excited my love of language and maybe even of writing. The King James Version is now more than 400 years old, but its sounds are still stirring and have a special place in my heart, since they invoke more childhood memories, these of sitting in an unpadded church pew with my sister, mother, grandmother, and uncle. Neither my father nor my grandfather went to church. I don’t know what my grandfather was doing while we were sitting there in the sanctuary of St. James Lutheran Church at 9th and Spear Streets—probably reading westerns and smoking a cigar—but my welder father was doubtless out back in his shop building scaffolding or cleaning car radiators, work that he did on the weekends to supplement our family’s modest income.
Perhaps because of my early exposure to religion, I’ve always had an academic interest in the subject and have read many books about it over the years, few of them young adult titles, though I’ve recently enjoyed such religion-themed novels as This Side of Salvation, by Jeri Smith-Ready; All the Major Constellations, by Pratima Cranse; Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle; The Gospel of Winter, by Brendan Kiely, and—most of all—The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, by the great David Almond. I’ve even enjoyed David Seidman’s What If I’m an Atheist?—arguably the only YA book to address this tender topic.
Speaking of tender topics: there are arguably no YA books about Gnosticism, though there should be (warning: here comes the controversial part of this column). Gnosticism is an early, heretical form of Christianity that—to oversimplify—posits the notion that this world is created by a lesser, imperfect deity (I said it’s controversial), which explains the vexing question of why there is evil in the world. Before I move briskly along, I might note that Gnosticism—though it horrified my mother (“Why are you interested in that?”)—has excited the interest of distinguished theologians such as Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels), Karen L. King (What Is Gnosticism?), and Marvin Meyer (The Gnostic Discoveries). For those with an open mind, it’s fascinating stuff.
In retrospect, I seem to have focused my attention in this column on Christianity. Because it’s the religion of my youth, it’s the one that excites my nostalgia. But it’s important to note that books about the other great religions of the world are also essential staples of every library’s collection. An excellent book about them is Huston Smith’s classic The World’s Religions. And despite my mother’s admonition, it’s important that we talk about all of them.