The Bronze Bow and bias

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The Bronze Bow and bias

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Oct 19, 2009, 12:31 pm

I am currently reading The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, of Witch of Blackbird Pond fame. It's a Newbery award winner, and is well written. However, the book has had quite a lot of criticism over the years due to its heavily religious nature, bias in favor of Christianity, and pretty hostile portrayal of Judaism. Reading the book, I have to say the critics are right. Not a lot of historical content is covered in depth, so it's not very useful for history study. It's an exciting book, very thought provoking, but I understand the objections against it.

I am a new school library media specialist. So I'd like to ask- while this is a Newbery award winning book, does it violate policies of religious neutrality in school collections, or promote bigotry? Would you have this on your shelves?

Oct 19, 2009, 1:37 pm

I recently reread this childhood favorite. I'm probably not a good person to discuss the bias of the book because I'm a Christian myself. However, for whatever they're worth, here are my thoughts.

• Kids aren't stupid. We don't need to be afraid that if they are exposed to religious elements in stories (religious elements from ANY faith, note) that they will instantly emulate those things. It isn't realistic or frankly healthy to sterilize everything they read to make sure it hasn't a hint of religious/spiritual themes to it. Real life doesn't work that way.

• I don't think the portrayal of Judaism is particularly hostile. What are the specific issues/examples of that? Allegations that a book "promotes bigotry" would have to be VERY well substantiated to merit pulling a book off the shelf, if you ask me... and especially such a well-respected work as this. And I just don't see that here. Maybe I missed something in my recent reread, though.

If there *are* hints of such problems, they should be used as starting points for discussion, not instantly squashed like we're afraid of even mentioning them. Again, kids (or most kids, anyways) are not stupid.

Oct 19, 2009, 3:04 pm

"Kids aren't stupid. We don't need to be afraid that if they are exposed to religious elements in stories (religious elements from ANY faith, note) that they will instantly emulate those things."

I thought the issue with The Bronze Bow was the misrepresentation of a religion (Judaism). So this wouldn't be the fear of religious exposure, but rather false or misleading religious exposure. The two issues seem rather different...

Oct 19, 2009, 3:20 pm

I think it *is* two separate issues, actually. In the original post the problems are listed as 1.) "bias in favor of Christianity" and 2.) "pretty hostile portrayal of Judaism." Two separate (though related) things in the same book.

As for Judaism being misrepresented, I'd be interested to hear specific examples to support that contention. I reread the book recently and don't remember anything striking on that score. But I wasn't reading solely to search out such things, either, and it's quite possible I missed something. Are you familiar with the book?

Oct 19, 2009, 3:37 pm

I haven't read the book, but I am familiar with Judaism so I was interested and Googled this book a while back the last time this book came up in a discussion of censorship on LT... This website I encountered was the most informative about the anti-Judaism stuff: although since I haven't read the book it's difficult to say if the quotes are taken out of context. The one that stuck out at me was the quote of a Jewish person saying "They are unclean from the moment they are born" as though Judaism believe in original sin, which it doesn't. Some of the others quotes were more open to interpretation, but that was pretty clearly false and bluntly stated.

It seems like that site was designed to get the Bronze Bow off of a reading list. I'd say its legitimate to want off a reading list, but keeping books on shelves in general is rarely bad. I mean I'd probably want a copy at the library so that I could read it and judge for myself.

Oct 19, 2009, 4:02 pm

I read that entire article and I have to say, whoever wrote it was certainly scratching hard for evidence. All of the main characters in the book are Jewish, and there are both heroes and villains among them.

Most of the proof seems to consist of the person saying "this is deeply offensive." Some things, yeah, I can see how they *might* be construed that way (if you're really trying to make them). But others, I honestly looked at from all perspectives and really couldn't see what the problem was.

And Jesus does not raise Daniel's sister from the dead, as the article claims! That's a pretty blatant error to make (and not something really open to interpretation; either the story says Christ does it or He doesn't).

As for the "unclean from birth" comment, it isn't talking about original sin. It's talking about ceremonial uncleanness, and all Gentiles were by default ceremonially unclean according to Jewish tradition (or at least that is my understanding). Trying to make that comment mean that Jews believe in original sin is, I believe, intentionally misleading.

Oct 20, 2009, 9:50 am

I agree that kids aren't stupid and literature shouldn't be sterilized. I have read some other articles, and opponents are accurate in saying that the book portrays Judaism as a religion of "Law" contrasting it with Christianity as a religion of "compassion and kindness." The rabbis aren't as harshly portrayed as some of the opponents state- indeed, one is kind to Daniel, and correct in saying that the zealots were ineffective and harmful to Jewish civilians. Overall, though, the theme of the book is a simplified and inaccurate portrayal of Judaism. Backgrounds of Jewish traditions are not explained. I don't mind some of the accurate, relevant issues of ancient Jewish society being addressed. Classism did exist then as it does everywhere still. People believed that illnesses were caused by demons. (This was hardly unique to Judaism, most cultures at the time did). Where I feel opponents have a case is that different viewpoints are not explained- it is assumed that Christianity was right and Judaism was wrong.

Edited: Nov 12, 2009, 6:22 pm

I was one of the parents that challenged this book in San Rafael, CA. Every now and then I google “The Bronze Bow” to see if our efforts sparked discussion anywhere else and I was happy to this thread. I also created the website which has much more on it than the “selected passages” mentioned above including letters of support and detailed discussion of the book as well as our effort in the school.

I can say at the outset that we didn’t take questioning this book lightly. We did a great deal of research and invited discussion with the community, teachers, administration and academic experts. To our dismay none of the teachers involved were willing to sit down personally and discuss the issues in detail.

In our public school’s 7th grade the book was studied as a historical novel in tandem with an ancient history unit, not as a “Christian perspective” and not simply on a reading list. (I believe this is common.) While I don’t think kids are “stupid” either, it quickly became clear that the historical and religious issues were very complicated, little understood and highly charged for many adults let alone 12 year olds. Discussion in a classroom would have inevitably required probing historical accuracy and bias in the Gospels - something I feel is inappropriate for that age.

Our group had remarkable support from local Christian clergy, teachers within the school, academic experts and probably the most respected national leader on religion in the schools - Charles Haynes of the "First Amendment Center" . Despite a very public controversy no expert opinion was ever brought to defend it. We were successful in removing the book from required reading but were happy to have it remain in the library. Personally I liked it very much, thought it was a lovely introduction to Jesus, and was sad to conclude that its flaws were too difficult to reconcile for a public school classrooom.

I’d like to specifically respond to some of the points in the discussion above. The quote "unclean from birth" referred to poor people in a presumably a Jewish marketplace. Regarding Daniel’s sister, rereading it just now I guess it is unclear. She has either just expired or is about to when Jesus arrives and she suddenly awakens “as from a deep sleep” and starts talking while the room is filled with light. Its pretty darn close to raising her from death, but maybe I did take a stretch - I’ll tone it down. I don’t think there is any question that rabbis are depicted negatively. Though one does eventually show Daniel some compassion, his initial introduction is extremely negative and there is not a single Jewish religious figure who has anything positive to offer except Jesus of course. We don't object to raising problems of class, poverty and ritual purity within Jewish society at the time, but this portrait was entirely one sided.

It’s a rich book and I'm sure the author had no ill intentions, but its view of the period comes directly from the Gospels which were written when Christianity was divorcing itself form Judiasm. We felt that it didn’t belong in a middle school classroom. Whether it belongs in the library is a more complex question. We didn't want to prohibit a child from reading it, but I don't know that I would suggest adding it either.