Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Bible Quizzing: Pretty Weird, But I'm Glad I Did It

Here's what bible quizzing looks like. Image source.
Back when I was in middle school and high school, I was on my church's bible quizzing team, and, you guys, I was awesome at it.

So what is bible quizzing, you ask. Well here's how it works: Every year, a different book [or group of books] of the bible is selected, and the quizzers (students in grades 6-12) study that. For example, one year we did the book of John. One year we did both Romans and James. Once a month there's a tournament, with many rounds of competition. Each round has 6 quizzers- either two teams of 3, or 6 people competing individually. The quizmaster is the adult who reads the questions and decides if the quizzers' answers are right or wrong. All the quizzers sit on electronic pads which are connected to a box with LEDs. The quizmaster reads the question, and then the quizzers all jump. The LEDs indicate who jumped first, and that person answers the question. If they get it wrong, the 2nd person gets a chance, etc.

There were several types of quiz seats- they all had the same function (sensing who jumped and in what order), but the technology might be different. The oldest ones were these huge, puffy, square pads we all hated. When I was a quizzer 10 years ago, the newest quiz seats were tiny little pads that allowed you to feel the *click* of the sensor under your butt, and stay completely motionless at exactly that position, right on the edge of triggering the sensor, until the moment you jumped. Those ones were niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice. Probably nowadays they have even better technology.

But what kind of questions would be asked in a quiz competition? Well that's where it starts getting a little weird. They were questions that were made directly from individual sentences in the bible. To get the question right, you just had to recite whatever that verse said- just memorize and parrot it back, you don't have to actually understand anything. For example, the beginning of the book of Hebrews says this: "In that past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets, at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe." So one possible question in a quiz tournament could be "How did God speak to our forefathers in the past?" and the answer would be "through the prophets, at many times and in various ways."

It's not really about actually answering the question- wow, imagine if you were trying to give a real answer to "How did God speak to our forefathers in the past?" The bible is full of answers to that question, and you'd have to sort of sum it up somehow, and different Christians would have different views on how to sum it up. But no, that's not what we do in quizzing. It's not about actually understanding and giving well-thought-out answers. It's about googling your brain to find where the exact phrase "in the past God spoke to our forefathers" appears, and then spitting out the rest of the sentence. (Lol, one time a pastor told me how it was so amazing we were studying Hebrews for bible quizzing, because it's such a hard book to understand, and I didn't get it- what's hard to understand? Jesus is our high priest. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. Just remember it and parrot it back. Nothing hard about that.)

Every question came directly from a specific verse- to write the questions and answers, all you would need is an understanding of how English grammar works when converting a statement to a question. And every single verse was equally important, equally likely to come up in the competition. Well, except the quote verses, which were more important. See, in addition to the regular questions (the ones I just explained) there were "quote questions" which required the quizzer to quote a verse, word-for-word, and give the reference for it. Every year, there were about 40 quotes that were selected out of the material we were studying. Verses like John 3:16, you know, the typical cross-stitch-it-on-a-pillow verses that Christians really like. (A quote might be one verse or two together.) For the quote questions, if you got a single word wrong, it was wrong. For regular questions, it was okay to have a few words wrong, but you at least had to have the basic idea. The quizmaster would judge if it was close enough.

It's pretty weird that, to do well in quizzing, you didn't have to actually understand anything (beyond a basic grasp of English grammar) or care what the bible passages meant. It's the kind of thing that a computer would be REALLY GOOD AT. Just find a specific word or phrase, in the whole book of Matthew or whatever, and recite the other half of the sentence it came from.

But really, if you're going to make the bible into a competition, it has to be this way. It has to be based on something that can immediately be judged as right or wrong. If you bring interpretation into it, how would that work? There are many different interpretations. How can you judge if they deserve points or not? So that's the way it worked: just the exact words of the bible, no interpretation, and all verses are equally important.

Maybe this was good, because it forced us to really learn what the bible actually said, and keep that separate from what Christian culture believes the bible says. (Though nobody really questioned the typical conservative Christian interpretations- we were aware that the bible didn't explicitly say that, but OBVIOUSLY that's what it meant.)

I guess this whole concept fits in well with certain evangelical assumptions about the bible. The bible is a magic book. Getting kids to read it is always a good thing. Memorizing the exact words is an intrinsically good thing. Every single word is valuable. Even if you don't totally understand them, God will somehow use them for good in your life. And also, the bible is a book of answers. It's not a book that raises tough questions that nobody has answers for.

(To be clear, though, the leaders of bible quizzing would VERY MUCH deny the idea that it's good to just recite the bible without understanding it. But that's how the competition was structured, so that's what we focused on the most in bible quizzing. Nobody wins trophies for grappling with deep concepts like atonement.)

And sometimes it was worse...

One year we studied 1-2 Corinthians, including that "women should be silent in church" passage, and we just memorized it and spit it back out when a quiz question came up about it. I remember my mom told me that it doesn't apply to us, it was just about their culture back then, but other than that, I don't remember any of the adults- the coaches or quizmasters- addressing it. There were times when a woman quizmaster read out a question on that verse, and a girl quizzer was the first to jump, and she quoted the verse- about how women must be silent in church- was awarded points, and then we all moved on to the next question. AND ALL OUR COMPETITIONS TOOK PLACE AT LOCAL CHURCHES, BY THE WAY.

In quizzing, there were no restrictions based on gender. The top quizzers who were amazing at it and won awards included both boys and girls. The coaches and quizmasters included both men and women. Obviously, the leaders of the entire bible quiz program didn't believe that women should be silent in church. But there it was, right there in 1 Corinthians 14, and we recited it when we were prompted, got the points for it, and nobody really said much about it.

Personally, I didn't see anything in that passage that suggested it was "just for their culture and doesn't apply to us." I kind of got the impression that, maybe someday when I was a stronger Christian, I would obey God and never speak in church. (And also cover my head, because 1 Corinthians 11.)

Or the time we were studying 1 Peter 4, so I asked my mom, "What are orgies? What is debauchery?" and she told me the basic definitions, and I was pretty freaked out so I just tried not to think about it, just remember how those words are pronounced and not really think about the meaning. When the question came up at a quiz tournament, I recited the verse, didn't understand it, got the points, and moved on. ... Seriously, is that passage appropriate for children?

And there were a lot of bizarre passages like that. We studied the whole thing- we didn't just pick out the nice parts like they do in Sunday school. So we were memorizing verses directly, without anyone really explaining how to read the bible or what to do with the WTF bits.

Sure, we had "devotional time" at our weekly practices, where we would talk about what the passage meant, and at our monthly tournaments someone would give a little talk in the morning, before the competiton started, but it wasn't enough to really address all the weirdness of the verses we were expected to just remember and then recite on cue. The majority of our energy went into just memorizing them and practicing answering sample questions. Figuring out what it all meant was an afterthought- and definitely not necessary for winning.

And I don't really blame the adults- most of the coaches and quizmasters were just parents of quizzers. Except for the occasional youth pastor, all of them were volunteers. They can't really be expected to know what every single weird bible verse means.

And let's talk about the competitive aspect. Some quizzers, like me, were super-competitive. We would get into long arguments about how "my answer is right because I know for a fact that the word 'instead' only appears one time in that chapter." One time, my team was quizzing against a team from another church, and the score was tied and it was time for the last question. The quizmaster read it, and we all jumped- and both me and a girl from the other team knew it was an easy question, we knew that both of us knew the answer. I was probably in 7th grade, and this other girl was older than me, taller than me. I had jumped first, so she got in my face and told me "SIT DOWN!" I did not. I got the answer right and my team won.

We talked strategy. We discussed which quizmasters were more strict, and which would let you get away with breaking the rules a little bit. There were long rants about how this guy on the other team had totally said the wrong word but the quizmaster gave him the points and it was so unfair.

If you think it's a little weird to get in fights over the specific words in the bible, let me tell you, what's even weirder is how we had to pretend we didn't really care about winning. People would talk about the "reasons" for participating in quizzing. Obviously, the best reason was getting closer to God. You know, we just love God so much so we totally want to study the bible. That whole thing. That was the correct motivation that a bible quizzer should have. Reason number 2 was to make friends. And yeah, the fun, social part was really important for a lot of the kids. We were goofy, we had fun, we helped each other study. We traveled to lots of different churches- big churches we could run around and explore ("DID YOU SEE THE PAINTING IN THE NURSERY? Oh my goodness you have to go see it, it is ridiculous!"), and small churches which didn't really have enough rooms, so some quizmasters had to conduct their rounds in large closets or tiny pastor's offices. Reason number 3 was winning. We weren't supposed to *really* be interested in winning. There was talk of people who did quizzing "for the wrong reasons"- which meant they cared more about winning than about getting closer to God.

But. You guys. If your primary motivation is getting closer to God (as understood by evangelicals), you won't put your time and energy into studying in the way that will help you win more. The whole "for the wrong reasons" thing makes it sound like a quizzer who just wanted to win and a quizzer who just loved God so much would do the same actions, only their motivations would be different. As if the first-place winner just loves the bible so much, they just happened to know all the answers without really meaning to. But that's so not true.

If you want to win, if you're really competitive, you start studying things like where the word "natural" appears in the book of John. You make a big deal over whether a quote verse included the words "Jesus answered" or "Jesus replied" or "he answered"- man it was tough to keep those all straight. You memorize the geneology of Jesus in Matthew 1. All those names. Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel. If you know that, and the question comes up, you will get those points, because ain't nobody else going to know it. But I don't see any way it helps you "get closer to God" (in the evangelical sense of that term).

Furthermore, we intentionally avoided reading things that might "screw us up"- if we thought we might confuse them with the material we were studying for quizzing. If we were studying Matthew, the most serious quizzers WOULD NOT READ the similar passages in Luke. Because what if we accidentally remembered something from Luke, which was different from the way Matthew wrote it, and we said the Luke version in a quiz competition, and got the answer wrong? Also, Matthew has 28 chapters, but only 24 of them were used for quizzing that year- they picked 4 chapters to omit because Matthew is just too long. I DID NOT READ those 4 chapters until after that year of quizzing was officially over. Because what if I remembered something from those chapters, and used it as an answer during a quiz? It would be the wrong answer. I couldn't take that risk. (I also avoided the footnotes.)

And how about reading the same passage in a different version of the bible, in order to understand it better? Ha. You're joking, right? That's the WORST thing you can read, as a quizzer.

The things you focus on if your primary goal is winning are very different from the things you focus on if your primary goal is "getting closer to God."

But in my case, my first goal was winning. And I remember, on at least a few occasions, I was honest with myself about that. I was like, I'm doing quizzing for "the wrong reasons", and I'm okay with that.

To be sure, I was also a good little church girl who wanted to obey God with all her heart. But like I said, if your main goal is loving God, you don't really study in the way that people study if they WANT TO WIN. You don't really put a ton of energy into memorizing the list of churches that 1 Peter is addressed to.

I wanted to win. And win I did.

I loved the feeling of getting questions right, of beating everyone else. The trophies, the applause. I loved jumping faster than the other kids. I loved quoting several verses when answering a question that really only required a few words. Showing off. I loved those few times I made it to semi-finals at a national level- it was held in an auditorium, with a real audience and a microphone we had to use. I loved talking strategy- giving advice to my teammates. I loved how kids from other churches all knew who I was, and they were intimidated. There were rumors going around that I have a photographic memory. (I don't.) Pastors told me it was so amazing how I worked so hard to memorize the bible.

But. In the Christian culture I come from, ambition is essentially a sin. I couldn't really be honest about wanting to win- sometimes I couldn't even be honest with myself. (That previous paragraph there? SCANDALOUS. If I had ever said that stuff out loud, there would have been SO MUCH gossip about how I was just greedy and using the bible for my own glory, not because I loved God.) Maybe that was the biggest contradiction in bible quizzing- we were so competitive, but at the same time we had to pretend winning didn't really matter.

There were times when I didn't win, and I was sad. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I wanted to cry. But I had to hide it. We weren't allowed to be "sore losers." We weren't allowed to care about the competition so much that we had feelings when we didn't do well. Occasionally, a quizzer would be so angry upon losing, they would storm out the room- and the adults openly criticized them for it. We all understood that that behavior was bad. But what were we supposed to do with those feelings? The adults never taught us. Those feelings shouldn't exist in the first place- after all, we're really just here because we love the bible so much, and winning is just an incidental side perk, right? We weren't supposed to really care about winning. We weren't supposed to want fame and glory and applause. We weren't supposed to show anger or sadness when we lost. We weren't supposed to cry.

And like I said, it was so contradictory, because the way we studied was SO driven by wanting to win. For those of us who were the best quizzers, who studied the most, who won the most, our study methods were VERY MUCH tailored to the specific style of questions we would encounter in bible quizzing. It's not the way you read the bible if you're only motivated by "loving God." We made detailed lists of all mentions of "Pharisees", "teachers of the law", "elders", and "scribes", so that we could remember which term was used in which passage, and say the right one and get the question right. All the while, we never asked if those different terms actually referred to different groups. We didn't care what the actual meaning was, we just needed to say the right one when it was time to score points. Tell me, is that how you study the bible if winning doesn't really matter to you, if all that matters is "getting closer to God"?

I remember being very confused by the concept of pride. If I'm good at something, am I allowed to say "I'm good at this", or what that be sinful pride? (It's just honesty, right?) And there were times we thought we should have won but the quizmaster made a bad call- and I always got the impression that the adults didn't want us to talk about that and have feelings about it- we were being "sore losers."

There was the time I told myself, "oh I'm not that good, I probably didn't place in the top 5" and then I didn't place in the top 5, and I was sad and I wanted to cry... I didn't know how to handle it. It didn't make sense. We weren't supposed to really care about winning and trophies, so I couldn't be honest with myself about how I did want those things, and why I wanted them. We were supposed to just pretend it was all fine- really it's all about studying the bible and getting closer to God, right? Who needs trophies?

Overall, though, I'm really glad I did quizzing. Because I was so good at it. Because, if there are trophies to be won for being a huge bible nerd, well I'm the one who should be winning them. (Uh, you can see I'm not worried about that whole "is pride a sin?" thing anymore.) I no longer think there's anyting intrinsically valuable about memorizing the bible- but it feels good to win, to be successful, to be admired by other people, and that's an experience I'm glad I had. At the time, I thought I was morally superior to the kids who won trophies for sports- oooh, my trophies were for the bible. I don't believe that anymore- I don't think that having a talent for memorizing the bible is any better or worse than other talents people have.

Earlier I said that studying the bible in a way that helps you win at quizzing isn't how you would study if your goal was "getting closer to God" in the evangelical sense. However, I now have a very different understanding of the concept of "getting closer to God", and yes, it can include winning at quizzing. It feels good to work hard and have a sense of accomplishment. It feels good to know that you did your best. It feels good to be recognized and rewarded. And I now believe that God wants people to experience pleasure like that. We are made in God's image, and so we have abilities and creativity and freedom and, yes, ambition- and we should use them. So in that sense, being really good at anything can be a way of "getting closer to God."

When I was a quizzer, I memorized entire books of the bible. Memorized. As in, can recite the entire thing without prompting. (At the national competition, people would talk about how fast certain star quizzers could recite the entire book. They would talk so fast that you couldn't even understand what they were saying, unless you also had your bible open to that exact passage and could read along.) I memorized Hebrews. 24 chapters of Matthew. And a few others- I mean, it's been 10 years, I don't remember which ones I memorized and which ones I just knew really well without necessarily being able to quote them straight from beginning to end.

Even now, I don't have them memorized anymore, but I can quote pretty big chunks, and I'm usually able to at least come up with a chapter number when somebody asks "where is that one verse about [whatever topic]?"

Now I use my bible quizzing experience to argue with evangelicals. People say "the bible says" this or that, well I can build a counter argument and find 3 verses to support it. You wanna have a bible verse arms race? BRING IT ON. I WILL PWN YOU. But I don't really think knowing the bible is a good thing in and of itself.

I'm not a good evangelical anymore, but I will always be a bible nerd. Nobody can take that away from me.

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