Title: Bible Object Lessons for Boys and Girls
Author: Bettie Stubbs
Publisher: The Standard Publishing Company (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Notes: No information on print runs. Illustrations not credited in book.
The scene is a Sunday school classroom – 1950s, rural America – where, somehow, Bettie Stubbs’ outrageously modern teaching methods have taken root. Rows of well-fed, well-indoctrinated American children look on in nervous silence as their teacher empties a tote bag full of kitchen implements across her desk: a potato masher, a butcher knife, a tea strainer, a large wooden rolling pin, still faintly speckled with flour.
‘This is Mr Butcher Knife…’ the elderly teacher begins, picking up the knife and waving it around accusingly.
A back-row chuckle is shoved back down an oesophagus by one of her famous glares.
‘…and this is Mrs Rolling Pin. Mr Butcher Knife and Mrs Rolling Pin are kitchen tool helpers, as are their other friends. Each one of them has its own duty to perform. For instance, we do not strain tea with a potato masher, nor slice the roast with a can opener. Neither do we pick our teeth with the ice pick. Now open up your Bibles at Judges 7.’
Today’s show-and-tell article, the first installment in Salon Cesspool’s series Dog-eared hauls, concerns itself with a curious little volume called Bible Object Lessons for Boys and Girls. The concept behind this 1954 teaching manual is simple: a variety of foodstuffs and household items are proposed as tools for religious instruction. During each lesson, one or several of such objects are to be displayed to students – usually in a bit of scripted performance – accompanied by a fitting Bible quote and a moral. The bit about not picking your teeth with an ice pick is lifted straight from the book. I like that line. It has a biblical ring to it.
Before cracking open this time capsule from Cold-War era Christian America, I will provide some historical background information. But before that, I would like to request some input on a certain question that has been preoccupying my mind. Which of the following suitcases would you, dear reader, prefer to take with you on a weekend trip? I will get back to this matter towards the end of the article.
About a book
The copy of the book pictured above, with its yellowed pages and sun-bleached spine, has been kindly loaned out to Salon Cesspool by Sydney-based artist Nina Baker, who herself received it as a quirky gift. How it crossed the Pacific and came into the possession of the gift-giver is not known.
It’s certainly an attractive booklet; the linework of the cover image is somehow immediately evocative of the 1950s. At first glance, it conveys a playful mood – one that is, as we shall see, at times at odds with its rather foreboding message of sin and salvation.
The whitened spine I just mentioned, is not a mere detail. Taken together with the pristine condition of the book’s insides, it suggests that this copy did not accomplish its ambitious aim of being used in ‘opening exercises, Sunday-school classes, Primary and Junior church services, Sunday morning and Sunday evening church services, youth groups, vacation Bible schools, Christian Service Camps, and weekday Bible schools’. One might rather suspect that it spent most of its life sitting on a shelf.
Bible Object Lessons’ publisher, Standard Publishing, is a very old Ohio-based company. It was founded in 1886 by a few prominent US citizens associated with the Restoration Movement, which aimed to restore the faith’s original values – or what it imagined these to be. Standard Publishing’s original raison d’être was a journal called the Christian Standard, but before long, forays were made into book publishing. For almost a century and a half, the publishing house has been producing vast amounts of material related to Bible study, catering to several denominations. These days, it is part of the large Christian publisher David C Cook.
Not much information is available on Ms Stubbs herself, except that she remained a long-time proponent of object-based teaching; in 1978, two decades after Bible Object Lessons for Boys and Girls, she published Easy Bible Talks from Common Objects, again with Standard Publishing. The internet provides a 2005 obituary for someone of her name, a member of Ohio’s Presbyterian Church, but the brief necrology lists no accomplishments as an educational reformer. Our author must therefore remain, to borrow a title once accorded to Carlos Castaneda, an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
Object lessons: through the everyday to the beyond
The concept of the object lesson was not dreamed up by Ms Stubbs. In a voluminous PhD thesis, which can be accessed here, Melanie Keene traces the technique back to the Victorian Era, a time when it enjoyed great popularity, both in schools and in the domestic sphere. Its inventor, or perhaps its modern popularizer, for precedents are to be found all throughout history, is identified as Swiss pedagogue Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827). Keene links the emergence of the object lesson to that of the modern natural sciences; Victorian object lessons served to inspire children’s curiosity about the world that surrounded them, in order to prepare their young minds for a scientific education.
Many of the phenomena the nineteenth-century natural sciences concerned themselves with manifested on such a cosmic or microscopic scale that they could not be perceived directly – think celestial bodies and microbes – or over vast periods of time that far exceeded the human life span – think geological processes. A rounded pebble might therefore illustrate the slow process of erosion that shaped it; an orange could convey the spherical shape and uneven surface of celestial bodies, and a cup of tea could be used to either demonstrate the chemical process of infusion or to prompt a discussion about the system of political economy that brought the tea leaves halfway across the globe.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the number of things people owned had vastly increased, and these possessions both required an explanation and could be conveniently used as metaphors for matters that were not easily grasped by the senses and the mind. Employing the familiar to explain the unfamiliar, object lessons tended to incorporate items that could be found in the typical Victorian household.
Ms Stubbs’ apples, salt shakers and crime novels – more on that last one later – also convey information about a reality that transcends the everyday, but there is an important difference between the Stubbsian object lesson and its Victorian counterpart. Putting a distinctly Christian bent on the approach, Bible Object Lessons deals in religious and moral knowledge. It’s all about repenting from sin and accepting Jesus Christ as your saviour.
It’s not difficult to see why the object lesson might appeal specifically to Christians. The technique of using the visible and the known to explain the invisible kingdom of God goes all the way back to the (Son of) Man himself. In the New Testament, Christ conveys many of his teachings through parables, short allegorical narratives drawn from daily life. I’m sure we’ve all come across these at some point. There’s the one about the sower sowing his seed in a variety of soil types, not all of which prove equally conductive to its germination. There’s the one about the lost sheep. The one about the prodigal son’s return.
In 1900, American pioneer and religious writer Ellen G. White published a book called Christ’s Object Lessons, which, curiously, employs no actual physical objects, but rather discusses the aforementioned body of parables from the New Testament – ‘object’ is apparently understood in a broad and general fashion as something concrete that stands for something Godly. However, with its use of the term ‘object lesson’ and its insistence that ‘rightly understood, nature speaks of her Creator’, White’s influential text may have set the scene for Bettie Stubbs’ Christian object lessons half a century later.
Beans and brimstone: a look inside the book
The time has come to add a few cracks to the spine of our book.
From the pages of Bible Object Lessons for Boys and Girls, with its many black and white drawings, a touching image emerges of the domestic universe that American children in the 1950s would have inhabited. Potatoes, matches, packages of baking soda, gumdrops, salt shakers, pieces of soap – the homely selection of items conjures up images of some archetypal late grandmother’s supply closet.
The book doesn’t just evoke a physical environment, but also an ideological one. Published a decade after American ideas about child-raising were transformed by Dr Spock’s revolutionary suggestions (try considering kids’ needs and capabilities every once in a while), it makes a modern-minded effort to approach children in a way that makes sense to them – by engaging the senses, creating activities and performances, and injecting some fun into learning. Bible Object Lessons, however, seems lodged between such modern playfulness – banana parades, anthropomorphic potatoes – and the stern views on sin and damnation that are so prevalent in much of Protestant Christianity.
In the lesson called ‘Fiery Darts’, to give an example of the latter fire-and-brimstone tendency, balloons representing unruly children are punctured with hat pins that stand for the fiery darts of Satan. ‘Teaching thread’ establishes a similarly sinister undertone by having the teacher tie a child up in front of the class with black thread, which is supposed to symbolize bad habits such as drinking. Luckily, deliverance arrives in the form of a pair of scissors onto which a cut-out picture of Christ has been taped.
There is definitely a bit of bigotry sprinkled throughout the book, as when a dead tree is presented to young pupils with the words: ‘We are going to call this tree a man. This man is not a Christian. See how dead the branches are?’ Later, a stinkweed is used to symbolize such unsavoury heathens. The accompanying moral reads: ‘Many people who do not have Christ living within are always stirring up things they shouldn’t.’
The more sympathetic ‘Bean Bowl’ again accords an important role to a cut-out Christ. In a striking image, this paper messiah emerges from a bowl of beans. The different types of beans represent the races of the earth, driving home the message that Christ has died for all of them. Bible Object Lessons is at its most Cold-War era topical in its treatment of the small lima bean, which stands for the Chinese: ‘Here are China’s millions who have closed the doors to missionaries. Although we can’t go to them, we can still pray for them.’
One of the lessons’ recurring devices is juxtaposition. For example, in ‘How shall I live?’ teachers are prompted to display two beautiful pictures of a landscape, and then smear one of them with dirt to illustrate the marks a sinful walk of life leaves on the soul, thus reproducing the old misconception that good means beautiful, while evil means ugly. (Ms Stubbs, Baudelaire would like a word with you.)
Let us end our examination of Bible Object Lessons for Boys and Girls with another such either/or proposition; to be precise, the one about the two suitcases I asked you about earlier. ‘Two roads’, my personal favourite among the lessons, is based on the old biblical quote about the narrow road leading to kingdom of heaven, and the broad road… well, you know. To the bad place. In this lesson, two traveling suitcases are assembled, each bearing a large tag that reads LIFE, to drive home the point that we are most definitely not dealing with ordinary suitcases here.
The good Christian suitcase, as you will recall, contains a Bible, a Sunday school quarterly, a city map (symbolizing the guidance God’s flock receives) and a Bible storybook (‘one about Biblical heroes’). The bad suitcase contains a cheap novel (its cover lugubriously adorned with the word CRIME), a beer bottle or a picture of one (an escape clause presumably meant to save the teacher a trip to some local den of sin) and a cigarette pack. During the lesson, the pupils are instructed in the merits and dangers of the suitcases’ respective contents.
I find myself pondering the line that is to be uttered when the ‘cheap book’ is held up: ‘We are what we read. If we read low, evil books, we will become the same.’ What does that mean for my own soul, I wonder, given my predilection for the disreputable back alleys of the literary cannon?
I know which suitcase I picked. And statistically, I now know which one you picked too. Our celestial prospects may be doubtful, dear readers. And that’s the object lesson to be drawn from this quaint and curious volume of perhaps not quite forgotten lore.
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