Interview: Shirlee Babson of Real Bible Stories
I recently got the chance to chat with Shirlee Babson, creator of RealBibleStories.com, which she refers to as “Bible stories for atheists”. Shirlee explains why she thinks atheists need to read Bible stories . . . and it may not be what you expect.
MD: First, I’d like to congratulate you on finally completing Genesis.
SB: Thank you, Mike. I appreciate that. It has taken a while to get that far.
MD: Yes, three years is definitely “a while”. Why so long?
SB: There are just so many stories in Genesis! Plus, I got sidetracked with a couple of stories from the New Testament and a piece about Karma. But really, it’s just one of many things on my plate, and I’m just making excuses.
I have picked up the pace in the last few months, though, and started to make it a priority.
MD: I can’t help but notice two distinct styles in the stories. Some are written as a third-person narrative, with you teaching class and students asking questions. Others look like they belong in a homeschool workbook. What’s that about?
SB: Maybe it’d be best to start by explaining the point of the site.
MD: Right. “Bible stories for atheists” is how you advertise it, but the site itself says “What the Bible REALLY says”. Which is it? And why would atheists need Bible stories?
SB: It’s both.
Bible stories for kids are notoriously whitewashed, and enhanced, and softened, and touched up. They’re made to all be happy and lovey-dovey. For example, not one version of Noah’s Ark that I read explained that Noah spent an entire century building the Ark, or that he sacrificed animals (killed them and burned the bodies) after getting off the Ark because God liked the smell of burning flesh. The closest I ever saw was one version that said Noah “used some of the animals to worship God”, but I don’t want to think about what that might mean.
Most of the versions also claimed Noah had talked to all his neighbors, and they laughed at him . . . the Bible says no such thing. Noah didn’t appear to have neighbors, or talk to anybody except his own family.
So, that’s what I mean by “What the Bible REALLY says”. I do paraphrase the text, but I don’t add to it or remove from it. And I link to each section I’ve paraphrased, so readers can click on the link and review it themselves.
The other part, why do atheists need to read Bible stories? In my experience, the average atheist generally knows the Bible better than the average Christian, especially when it comes to Americans. But let’s face it, that’s not saying much.
The average American Christian knows about half a dozen cherry-picked verses about love and not judging others, and can name maybe four of the Ten Commandments.
By the way, there are eleven. That’ll be a story unto itself.
MD: So, why do atheists need to know the Bible?
SB: For those who might still be somewhat on the fence, reading the Bible and considering it critically is a surefire way to get off the fence. But those who’ve already got both feet firmly on the ground? If you’re going to get pulled into a discussion about the Bible, you’ll have a much better time of it if you’ve read and understand it. Telling people what you think the Bible would say, if only it said what you wanted it to say, won’t win any debates.
If you’re educated on the Bible, chances are you’ll be ahead of your opponent. That means you’ll be able to introduce those seeds of critical thinking that lead to examination of beliefs.
MD: Why would atheists get ‘pulled in’ to such discussions?
SB: Do you read the news, Mike? (laughs) In a day and age when the GOP of Texas is actively fighting against critical thinking in schools, and when the religious right is trying to push David Barton’s “Christian nation” hooey, and school districts across the country are targeted by the “Good News Club” (an after-school indoctrination program), everything but the most liberal urban areas are bound to run into zealots pushing their religion on kids and adults alike.
And it doesn’t hurt to have some answers for Auntie Bertha at Thanksgiving, or the door-to-door Jesus salesmen.
MD: And saleswomen.
SB: Never seen one of those, unless you include Jehovah Witnesses.
MD: I have. They exist.
SB: Prove it.
MD: What, it’s true. A woman and a sasquatch were going around my neighborhood, knocking on doors trying to convert people last Christmas Eve. Or was that Halloween?
Anyway, you were going to explain the two writing styles.
SB: Yes! The workbook style was first. It consisted of the King James text, with perhaps some explanatory text when meanings weren’t clear, interjected with questions to spur critical thinking. It’s generally the format you see for Bible stories for children, only RBS has the actual Bible text instead of a narrative.
There are a few stories left that remain in that style. One of my favorites is one of the New Testament stories I’ve tackled, Jesus and the Dog-Woman.
I realized that style was kind of dry, and really not that exciting for readers. So, I switched to the dialogue style, making myself the “straight (wo)man” for the kids. Like in Burn Her at the Stake, the story of Tamar, Onan’s widow.
MD: How open are you to feedback?
SB: Very. I want it to be a useful resource. If people think that one style is better than another and want to say so, I want to hear it. And if they have other ideas to improve the site, fire away.
I’d love to hear some good ideas about improving the navigation. There’s a Table of Contents, but I don’t think it’s cutting it.
MD: What do you do in preparing a story?
SB: I start by reading it, though I expect that’s obvious. Then it depends on the complexity of the story and the volume of apologia on it. I read up on CARM and other Christian apologetics sites, and often check particular words and phrases in Strong’s Concordance.
MD: So when the kids ask their questions . . .
SB: They’re written to expose not just the story, but the apologetics as well.
I’ve never really had respect for apologetics. If you have to do all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain your religion, how can it possibly be true?
MD: But the point is to expose readers to the apologists’ arguments.
SB: Or apolo-gits, as I like to call them. Yes. More of an inoculation. Keeps the apolo-gits from catching folks off guard with some half-baked idea that dinosaurs were buried in the sediments of the Flood.
MD: Are there really people who believe that?
SB: They exist. It’s true.
MD: What does the future hold for Real Bible Stories?
MD: What are you going to do with books like Numbers, that are mostly genealogies?
SB: Oh, there are some stories in Numbers, Mike. The Midianites, now there’s a great story that they never put in children’s books!
I guess genocide isn’t that popular a subject.
MD: When do you think the site will be complete?
SB: Based on my current schedule? About the 12th of Never!
But seriously, there are the “stories”, which is far from the whole Bible, and then there are prophecy books, and Psalms and Proverbs. Those will take a different approach, I think.
And I hope the site will continue to grow and evolve over time to better serve the readers.
MD: I can’t wait to read Exodus. Keep up the good work!
If you’d like to leave comments for Shirlee, you can leave them here (she’s promised to check back) or at RealBibleStories.com. Be sure to check it out!