I had two Bibles as a child, that is, Children’s Bibles, selected stories from the Old and New Testaments with illustrations. I remember one of them as having a mostly white cover and a lot of white space on the pages, with simple, cheerful drawings that looked like they were done in crayon by a very clever child. I think that Bible contained mostly nice stories about Jesus retold in simple language.
The other Bible I remember was for older, more sophisticated readers, with more nearly “Biblical” language, if I’m remembering correctly. There was little white space; every page had both text and pictures, and the illustrations were rather like 19th-century paintings of Bible scenes, or of Cecil B. DeMille Bible movies. It had judicious selections from the whole of the Old Testament, even the portions that aren’t stories, such as the Psalms and the prophets. I don’t remember, however, whether it had selections from the individual Gospels, or just a Story of Jesus, with a few bits of Paul’s letters and Revelations for completeness.
What I do remember vividly were the paintings of Jesus. Jesus, quite frankly, would not have been out of place in an episode of Xena or Hercules. He was depicted as a Hollywood-handsome blond with intensely blue eyes, having fairly long hair and a short beard. In the large illustration of his baptism by John, he was standing thigh-deep in the water, bare to the waist with his white robe gathered around his loins (to use the Biblical expression), and displaying a fairly impressive set of abs. Yes, I am saying that to a girl of eight or ten years old, Jesus in her “children’s Bible” was a hottie. (And then came the miniseries of Jesus of Nazareth and the hottie Jesus played by a skinny Welshman with intense, dazzling blue-green eyes.)
There was another book that came into my hands around the same time, although it may have come from the library rather than being something bought for me. It was a collection of myths and legends retold, and I believe that it was either The Iliad & the Odyssey adapted by Jane Werner or else The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, both of which were illustrated by Martin and Alice Provensen. Unlike the better-known retellings by Edgar and Ingrid D’Aulaire, the Provensen books are no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon.
It was in this book that I came across the story of Prometheus, who brought man a gift the gods had not intended to give him and was punished in a cruel and grisly way. As you probably know, Prometheus was bound to a great rock, and every day a bird, in some versions an eagle, but in others a vulture, came and ate out his liver, causing him great pain. But Prometheus, being an immortal Titan, did not die of this, but instead grew back his liver every night, only to face the same attack the next day.
I have a distinct memory of lying in bed as a fairly small child, looking toward my closet in the dark, and fearing that a vulture might come out of the closet and eat my liver. I am quite sure that I didn’t know where my liver was in my body, or what kind of bird a vulture is. But I remember that something about the combination of the story and the illustrations frightened me deeply. Unlike the D’Aulaire’s books, unlike my children’s Bibles, I did not read that book a second time.
My children’s Bibles, the Bible readings in church, and the many books of mythology I read as a child all offered me stories. Not all of those stories were comforting and safe, like the Sunday school stories of Jesus healing people and welcoming little children and telling curious stories about lost sheep and wayward sons. I’m not sure that my mind made a distinction between the stories of Jesus and the stories of Prometheus, or Athena punishing Arachne, or Odin binding Loki, as true vs. false. The Episcopal Church did not then insist on a literal understanding of the Bible any more than it does now, and nobody was telling me that Jesus was real but Prometheus wasn’t. What the Church seemed to be telling me was to pay attention to stories, and to language, to how stories are told, and whether they are true to our experience, whether they provide some kind of wisdom. I learned that lesson, learned to tell stories, and have continued to pay attention to them ever since.