I discovered my children’s astounding ignorance of Judeo-Christian stories while my daughter was giving me the chin of death. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Myron, Penny, and I were wrestling on the living-room carpet. The chin of death involves someone using the point of the chin to dig into the sensitive back muscles. It is excruciating even when the perpetrator is an angelic-looking five-year-old girl and the victim is her much larger and much older father. “Ow—okay, you win, you win,” I said, finally wriggling free. “This is like David and Goliath.”
The two kids stared at me blankly. “You know: the giant Goliath?” I said. “I’m like Goliath and Penny is like David.” More blank stares. “Don’t you guys know the story of David and Goliath?” I asked. “Goliath was a giant. He was as tall as the ceiling in here.”
“That’s not a giant,” Myron said. “Giants are bigger.”
“Do you know who Noah was?”
“The boy in my class?” my son ventured.
“No, Noah built an ark to save all the animals. What about Jesus?”
My daughter’s face went serious. “Jesus was the son of god,” she said, her voice a little hushed.
One out of three. So my kids got a failing grade in the Judeo-Christian canon—whereas I was raised about as Christian as you can get. I went to Sunday school at an Anglican church, became an altar boy, and went to both a Christian youth group and a Christian summer camp, where I eventually worked as the camp’s first skateboard instructor. And then sometime around my last year in high school, I decided I no longer believed.
Fast-forward two decades and I’m a dad living in the multicultural milieu of downtown Toronto. My kids have friends of all colours and creeds. They know a little about a lot of different cultures. But I’m troubled that they lack any kind of in-depth knowledge of what I regard as my own cultural heritage.
The argument used to be that Toronto’s WASPy white kids didn’t require any specific cultural education, because all education in Toronto was founded on precepts that were WASPy and white. Years ago, primary-school curricula included special units on the origins of Christmas and Easter. In December, every kid laboured over reading exercises about Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph. But these days, public schools have attempted to scrub such religious hegemony out of their curriculum. They’ve been right to do that: Your garden-variety public school should avoid favouring any single religion or culture. They’ve done such a good job of it, though, that they’ve placed secular WASP non-believers like me in a strange position.
What my church called “Sunday school” provided me with a remarkable education in Old and New Testament stories—stories that have informed Western art and literature and music for more than a millennium. Earlier this spring, I visited Westminster Abbey in London, and the Sunday-school sessions of my youth helped me to appreciate the west window of the abbey’s nave, a stained-glass artwork depicting Abraham and Isaac. Earlier this week, the family and I went to a store called the Toy Terminal, where a display featured a collection of animals gathered around an enormous wooden boat. Of course, I recognized a diorama of Noah’s Ark—but my kids had no idea.
Years ago, when I turned my back on my religion, it never occurred to me that I would be depriving my kids of anything. Now I fear that, by raising them secularly, by not sending them to church or Sunday school, my kids are missing out on something—a valuable cultural heritage that connects us to the way my parents, their parents, and our ancestors all understood the world.
Perhaps I should send them off for a religious education. Maybe someone in Toronto could found a secular Sunday school for formerly religious Christian parents like me. But while I wait for that, I’ve placed an Amazon order for a children’s book about Bible stories. Then the next time that my daughter gives me the chin of death, I’ll tell her she’s going down like that army Samson dispatched with the jawbone of an ass—and she’ll understand what I mean.