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David and Goliath (detail)

A lie, or just editing?

How much can you alter a story before it’s not itself any more?
By Meg Barnhouse

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My mother spent summers being a camp counselor, and you could tell by the songs she sang to us: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Farmer in the Dell,” “There is a Tavern in the Town.”

She’d sing:

There is a tavern in the town
And there my true love sits him down
and drinks his Coke mid laughter gay and free . . .

She came from a teetotal household, so to sing “he drinks his wine” would have felt a little wicked, so she cleaned it up for us. When we would be shaken by an involuntary shudder, she’d say “A goose just walked over your grave!” I was in my thirties before I knew most people said “ghost.” “A ghost walked over your grave.” Her staunchly Presbyterian missionary family didn’t believe in ghosts, I guess. I’m used to things being “cleaned up” to protect me from the wicked world, but what happened last month shocked me.

The “Story for All Ages” was David and Goliath. I listened with half an ear. Having been raised on those stories, I’ve heard them all hundreds of times. At the end of this version, though, David the shepherd boy knocked the giant down with the stone from his slingshot, leading Goliath to decide never to come back and bother the Israelites again. In the Grimm’s version of the Bible stories my siblings and I heard at breakfast every morning, the shepherd boy cut off the unconscious giant’s head. Yeah, it was bloody, but that’s the Bible story.

I remember training a group of teachers who were about to embark on a “Judaism and Christianity” year with the kids. I was planning to run through the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael, Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar being thrown out due to Sarah’s jealousy, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, their sons Jacob and Esau, all the way to King Solomon, just so they would feel the sweep of the story. One of the teachers raised her hand. She’d had a bit of a stunned look since the part of the story where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son. “Yes?” I asked her.

“You want us to . . . I mean . . . you want us to tell these stories to . . . the children?”

I don’t know why, in my childhood, ghosts and wine were made to disappear, but our favorite Bible stories were the bloodiest: Absalom hanging in the branches of a tree, caught by his long thick hair. Jezebel falling from the tower, eaten by the dogs, all but the palms of her hands. We weren’t traumatized or shaken by these stories. We heard about Jesus being nailed on the cross. We were told he did this so that his (our) loving father would forgive our sins. The Jewish scriptures and the Christian scriptures have some violent and disturbing stories, but they didn’t disturb me until I was grown.

Is it okay to clean up the ancient stories? The one who read the story of David and Goliath said she understood wanting to protect the children, and she endorsed the change. I wondered aloud about when they will find out how the real story goes. Will they be in high school when someone lets it slip that the shepherd boy cut off the giant’s head? Will they be able to pretend they knew that all along so they can save face? Will it hurt their trust in their religious education? Will they find themselves wondering what else we left out to protect them? Is that really protecting them? If we leave the Shadow out of children’s stories, will they feel monstrous and strange when they have hot violent thoughts and feelings, having never heard those reflected in stories?

We wrap our babies in smooth fabrics, but they’re now saying that babies should crawl on burlap and feel textures, and that if we protect them too much they don’t develop as well. We use antibacterial soap and spray every germ in our homes, and now they say that’s not necessarily the best thing for us. Obviously we shouldn’t let babies play with knives, though, or crawl around on the floor in gas station restrooms. There’s a line. There are certainly things I would not talk to children about. Where you draw the line is my question, I suppose. Is it really just that? That sounds like a dull question, I’m afraid.

Before seminary I would have said that the difference between Red Riding Hood and David and Goliath is that the Bible story presents itself as history, and therefore should be respected as such. Now I know how much liberty was taken by the various rulers and their scribes in the editing of the stories over the centuries, and that what presents itself as the political history of a people is rarely to be counted on for accuracy. Is the effectiveness of the David and Goliath story affected by leaving out the beheading? It is still a story of how the small, nimble, accurate guy beats the big powerful guy. It’s still an interesting story about an ancient “slinger,” who could hurl a small stone at such velocity and accuracy that it almost became the equivalent of a bullet. Slingers were highly effective against slow-moving armored soldiers, as they were accurate enough to land the stones in any unarmored places. It’s an interesting story, and possibly insight-producing. How much does it matter whether your telling of it matches the original source exactly?

Now that I’m grown I know that people change non-biblical history all the time too. Much is left out, much is erased. Much is bowdlerized. It’s a truism that history is written by those in power at the time. Disney has a way of presenting U.S. history without mentioning slavery. Is that appropriate? Is that nice? Is it good? (Should we talk sometime about the difference between the nice and the good?)

Should we just save the Bible stories until the kids are in middle school, the way we do with the stories of slavery? If we want our littler children to hear only kind and gentle stories, we are free to read only those or to write some originals of our own, but is it arrogant, thoughtless, or tacky to change well-known stories which are deeply embedded in our culture? These stories are part of our cultural wealth. They have all of the variety of human behavior and feeling in their texture.

If I were pushed to make a decision myself, I would say that we should tell the big cultural stories so they are as close to the sources as possible. If they’re too rough, tell other stories until the kids are ready. I think it’s misguided to tell things the way we wish they were instead of the way they are.

I’m often invited to do workshops for my colleagues on humor and truth-telling. We use commonly told folk tales in the workshop as sermon texts, and I wish you could hear some of the masterful riffs on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs. We have kinder, gentler versions of these tales than the Grimm ones. Lots of people since those two lawyers took down the stories from Huguenot maids have scurried to take the sex and gore out of them. The Greek myths, too, evolved over the centuries. Once in a while in these workshops, though, I’m surprised when, at the end of a sermon, the three little pigs sit down with the wolf to a delicious vegetable stew. What is up with that? Again, a lie, or just editing? The story has never presented itself as history, yet it still shocks me when the “real” story is altered.

How much can you alter a story before it’s not itself any more? Should we take out the nasty war in the Bible story and say the Philistine team was coming to play football with the Israelite team, and their big man on the team wanted to wrestle a man from the other team first? Should we imagine there were women on the team too, the way we’d want there to be today? Women might make awesome slingers. So maybe the kid is a shepherd girl, and she wants to take on the big man with her slingshot. Okay, so she knocks him down and they call off the game because someone else might get hurt, and then they all sit down to a steaming bowl of delicious vegetable stew.

Help me out here.

Illustration (above): David and Goliath (detail), panel of the Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 15th century; Baptistery of St. John in Florence, Italy (photograph © Wiesław Jarek/123rf.com).

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