The problem with Bible stories for children

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The problem with many Bible stories that we share with children on Sundays is that they’re not really for children.

I mean, the ones we share on Sundays are for children…but the ones found in Scripture aren’t.  These are stories for adults.  And if you made a movie out of them, they’d probably be rated R.

Take, for example, Noah and the flood.  We like to share it with children because it has animals in it.  And animals are cute.  And kids like boats.  But you know what really happened?

God killed the entire human race.

We also like to share the story of Moses, and the parting of the Red Sea.  Pretty cool thinking about Pharaoh charging after Moses and the Israelites, Moses stretching his staff out, the waters parting, and the Israelites walking across on dry ground.  Until we realize that thousands upon thousands of Egyptians died that day in the Red Sea.  “Ok, kids…color that picture!”

Speaking of Moses, it sounds like a good idea to make a movie (or two or three) about the events leading up to the 10 commandments, right?  Pretty cool to see the magicians trying to perform the plagues that Moses uses his staff to accomplish.  Cute, no?  Try ending your bedtime story with your children with, “And then all of the firstborn children died…”  “Goodnight, my firstborn son…sleep tight!”

And it’s not that we shouldn’t tell our children the stories of the Bible.  It’s just that we often rip out the parts that make the story what it is.  I’m not all for sharing the gory details of these stories with my 2 year old.  But the problem comes in when we as adults forget that there’s more to these stories.

Instead of engaging and true stories, we can easily equate them with the realm of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.  Great, well-told stories, but ultimately no more than a fantasy novel for children.  And if we use that logic with Noah and Moses, what’s to stop us from using the same logic with the rest of Scripture?  The adventures of Paul and the early church seem pretty far-fetched…speaking in tongues, healing people, the church growing by thousands when Peter and John would preach.  The resurrection of Jesus?  Fairy tale stuff.  Jesus coming back to Earth to claim His Church?  Nah…

I’m not against telling children the stories of the Bible.  But I am against crafting a god that is safe, tame, half-hearted, and weak.

Let’s not let The Children’s Bible lull us, as adults, into sleep, thinking the Bible is full of fairy tales for children.  The Bible is an intellectually robust, compelling story of God’s relentless pursuit of you.

Not just a fantasy novel.

 

Christ follower, husband, father, writer, small groups pastor at Saddleback Community Church. Communications director for the Small Group Network.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://twitter.com/noelbagwell Noel Bagwell

    “But the problem comes in when we as adults forget that there’s more to these stories.”I agree that is one of the several problems with “Bible stories.” Another, and this is just my personal opinion, is the problem of placing too much importance on the “knowledge” that every single one of these stories is literally true. Let me pause for just a moment, while heads explode in rage. I like the sound. It’s like popcorn. Now, after the audience has a chance to take a deep breath, calm down and remember that I have not yet made my point, I will continue. …While many, if not most, of the stories in the Bible very well may be literally true, historically speaking, there is a problem with placing a lot of importance on the idea that they are, and there is an even bigger problem with claiming to “know” that they are. Bible stories, I believe, communicate truths to us. These truths are what are what are really important. Getting hung up on whether there were literally 2 animals of every species; or whether God literally crafted the rainbow as a promise never again to wipe out humanity with a flood; or whether Jonah was swallowed by a whale or a big fish; or whether there was really an “Adam” and an “Eve” or if there were more people, etc., etc. is missing the point. Here is my first point: It is relatively MUCH LESS important that the Bible is literally true than that the Bible communicates truth. Now, you may object that I am splitting hairs and that the distinction is meaningless, but I respectfully dissent from that view.My second point regards the second problem I mentioned, that of placing too much importance on the “knowledge” that every single one of these stories is literally true. From an epistemological (epistemology is the branch of philosophy that examines knowledge, what knowledge is, how things can be known, how much can be known, etc.) standpoint, we understand knowledge to be a “true, justified belief.” That’s what knowledge is, by definition. Everyone has beliefs. Everyone has justifications for their beliefs, and those justifications vary in number and quality. For example, the belief that I exist has a lot more justification to me than it does to anyone else, because I constantly experience my existence, whereas others only experience it when they are confronted with my presence or tangential evidence thereof (this blog comment, for example). The real “stinker” is the qualification of the “justified belief” as “true,” because we humans don’t have a “truth sense,” like the fictional Bene Gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Even our most reliable experiences can turn out to be deceptions. You may not like the fact that you very well may be plugged into The Matrix, but how would you know the difference? It seems unlikely, sure; but it’s possible, and therefore subject to doubt. If it is subject to doubt, it cannot be unequivocally true, and, therefore, it does not count as “Knowledge.” This is the classical skeptic position (widely disfavored among modern philosophers, because most of them are stuffy and arrogant and like to claim to know things). Applying this to the topic under consideration, we must consider the fact that while we may have beliefs about the Bible – even justified beliefs – there is not really anything we can actually claim to “know” about it, in the strictest sense.The basic argument against this is some sort of transcendental experience, like a direct, Divine impartation of knowledge; but that’s a whole different can o’ worms I’m not going to get into. I think it’s a problem to say things like, “I know, X, Y or Z is true, in the Bible,” or “I know I’m saved!” It may make you feel really good, but it’s not unequivocally true to say those things. It is much more honest, and much more powerful to say, “I believe X, Y or Z is true, in the Bible,” or “I believe I’m saved,” especially when you consider the skeptic’s position. According to the skeptic, all of life, outside of tautologies (things that are true by definition; i.e., “a chair is a chair” or “I am me.”) and mathematics, is understood in the context of belief, rather than knowledge. If belief is the primary filter through which we see our world, if we then understand our faith purely in the same way – through belief, not “knowledge” – it becomes, essentially, more real and more powerful by increasing our connection to it through a merging of the context of our spiritual life and our physical life.

    • http://www.benreed.net Ben Reed

      1. In response to your statement that the Bible isn’t necessarily true, but speaks truth to us, I’d say that if that were the case, then I’d have a hard time staking my life on the Bible. And if part isn’t true, then that calls into question the whole, right? If I were to lie to you on a small thing, that could cause you to question everything I say, and your trust in my small details and my big issues is called into question. If there are some true things and some things that were just put in there to communicate truth to us, then I see the Bible as no different than Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings…fantasy novels, well-written, good stories, communicate some moral truths, but not worth staking my life on. Accepting the Bible as true is a step of faith.

      2. I believe that those who are saved (*I’m not calling into question your salvation, Noel…just go along with me) would say that God is as real to them as the chair they’re sitting in. And these aren’t dumb people who are blindly following Christ. And though I don’t get your “Dune” reference, I think we do have a truth sense. That explains why there are certain laws (general in nature) that all cultures from all times hold true. We all know, generally, right from wrong. It’s just that that truth sense has been distorted by sin.

      Seems like what you were driving at is the idea that the Bible doesn’t have to be historically accurate to still be the Word of God. And I just see that as a slippery slope.

      • http://twitter.com/noelbagwell Noel Bagwell

        ====================================================
        QUOTE:
        “1. In response to your statement that the Bible isn’t necessarily true, but speaks truth to us, I’d say that if that were the case, then I’d have a hard time staking my life on the Bible. And if part isn’t true, then that calls into question the whole, right? If I were to lie to you on a small thing, that could cause you to question everything I say, and your trust in my small details and my big issues is called into question. If there are some true things and some things that were just put in there to communicate truth to us, then I see the Bible as no different than Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings…fantasy novels, well-written, good stories, communicate some moral truths, but not worth staking my life on. Accepting the Bible as true is a step of faith.”
        ====================================================

        This is – more or less – a Christian variant of the standard argument for foundationalism. It is the root of fundamentalism or whatever label is the flavor of the month, right now, for what I grew up calling “fundamentalism.” There’s so much marketing in modern “Christianity” today, I can’t keep up, and don’t care to try. The important question, above, is, “[i]f a part (of the Bible) isn’t true, then that calls into question the whole, right?” That’s what I want to address, because I think that question exposes some problems with which fundamentalist evangelicals in particular struggle.The short answer is, “No,” but the better answer is, “Well, not really, because…”1. We should already question the Bible. So, some part of the Bible being inaccurate (as some parts demonstrably are) does not necessarily call into question the validity of the whole – at least, not any more than it already is “in question.” Thomas Jefferson said, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” Galileo Galilei said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” So, the Bible is something that Christians should, as an exercise of faith, be willing to question, intellectually, even while wholeheartedly believing (having faith) in the basic tenets of the teachings of the Bible.2. An “error” is different from a “lie.” Laziness often results in conflation of these two concepts, and I have often heard the point made – as you made it – that if one part is in error, the whole Bible might be “a lie.” That’s just not so. There may be several, even many, minor historical or factual errors in the Bible that pose absolutely no threat to the metaphysical and otherwise spiritual truths the Bible communicates. I submit to you this is the case. If you are absolutely committed to the point of view that if one part of the Bible is inaccurate in even the slightest respect, then the whole thing falls apart, I submit to you that you cannot be a Christian, because I can demonstrate to you minor inaccuracies in Scripture with ease. In other words, the doctrine of inerrancy, actually undermines the faith, counter-intuitive as this may seem (especially to Baptists, and other fundamentalist evangelicals, who cling to inerrancy as if their eternal salvation depended upon it).3. You are correct, I believe, in saying, “Accepting the Bible as true is a step of faith,” because the experience of truth requires faith. This is the case, because we have no sense for truth. You see with your eyes, smell with your nose, hear with your ears, taste with your tongue, feel with your hands; but with what sense do you measure truth? You have none. Experiencing truth – beyond tautologies and mathematics – requires faith (and, I would argue, Divine Revelation; but that’s a whole other bucket o’ worms). Your statement is accurate insofar as accepting any part of what we perceive to be reality is a step of faith. Am I typing, right now? I believe (have faith that) I am. Am I sitting down? I believe so. All of our non-tautological, non-mathematical experiences come to us in the context of our belief system, and have almost nothing to do with what we “know.” Does my wife love me? I believe so. Does the United States exist? I believe so. Is there a planet Earth? I believe so… and so on. You get the idea. Everything is a belief, and beliefs have varying degrees of justification. We may have strong justifications for believing that the teachings of the Bible accurately reflect (or comprise) reality, but without a sense for truth, which all of us inherently lack, we cannot “know” that it is “true,” in a strict sense.4. The Bible is separate from and unique in relation to the other books you mentioned – and even great works of literature or “scripture” – in that it is the book that we each, as Christians, have come to believe is the Word of God. The path to that belief is different for and unique to each of us. There is no objective standard a non-believer could use to separate the Bible from the Talmud or the Vedas or the Upanishads or the Sutras or the Qur’an. Any standards or attempts at categorization would be relatively arbitrary. It is our experience of God’s drawing of us through the Holy Spirit that makes the Bible special to followers of Christ. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, KJV) The Bible is the same as the sabbath, in this regard: it was made for us; we were not made for it. Saving faith in the Creator God predates the Bible and Christianity, “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (Romans 4:3, KJV) How could this be, if the historical inerrancy (or even the existence) of the Bible is prerequisite to the grace through faith that leads to salvation? Worshiping the Bible, itself, is just as much worship of a false god as worshipping a golden calf. Christians could learn a lot from Zen Buddhism, which is described as “A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence on words and letters…” The second half of Bodhidharma’s description is “Direct pointing to the mind of man; Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.” Christians would take a different tack, saying that Christianity is direct pointing to the heart of God, seeing into God’s nature and attaining salvation from our sin. The point remains, however, that Christianity – or, more accurately, Biblical Theism, only tangentially “requires,” for lack of a better word, the Bible. Again, for illustration of my point, I turn to Zen. “Zen does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems,” writes D.T. Suzuki in his Zen Buddhism, Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, “By personal experience it is meant to get at the fact at first hand and not through any intermediary, whatever this may be. Its favourite analogy is: to point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon; a basket is welcome to carry our fish home, but when the fish are safely on the table why should we eternally bother ourselves with the basket?” The finger and the basket are the Bible. The Bible is a pointing device, a tool for carrying our spiritual food to us. To “eternally bother ourselves with the basket” is to “take the finger for the moon” or, in less metaphorical terms, to miss the point.I do not have a “hard time staking my life on the Bible,” even though I do not believe that every single “iota” and “keraia” (http://bit.ly/c3nRFn) is literally true in the factual, historical sense. I will venture to make another nerdy, obscure reference. There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called, “Chain of Command, Part 2,” in which a Cardassian interrogator attempts to break Captain Picard, but rather than asking him for strategic or secret information, he asks Picard to identify the number of lights shining behind him. Although there are four lights, Madred insists that there are five and inflicts pain on Picard when he answers that there are four. (This is in reference to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell where Winston Smith’s torturer, O’Brien, holds up four fingers and wishes Winston to believe that he is holding up five.) Picard never relents. He answers, at each opportunity, “There are four lights!” Though tortured and threatened with imminent death and pain, and even when offered a life of safety, peace, comfort and happiness if he would only “admit” there are five lights, instead of four, Picard answers, “There are four lights.” (http://bit.ly/BT7Lm) Picard succeeds where Orwell’s protagonist failed. The message is that the loss of what we perceive to be true is the loss of all reality, and if we trade our perception of the truth (based on our beliefs, no matter how faulty they may be) for anything else, our lives lose all meaning, value and purpose. I, therefore, have no trouble staking my life on the Bible, because I believe it to be true, though I know I may be wrong, though I remain open to questioning it, though I even hope, from time to time (for the sake of the unsaved) that I am wrong. This rational understanding gives me an unassailable strength in my faith, for I see it as the key to everything that means anything in my life.

        ====================================================
        QUOTE:
        “2. I believe that those who are saved (*I’m not calling into question your salvation, Noel…just go along with me) would say that God is as real to them as the chair they’re sitting in. And these aren’t dumb people who are blindly following Christ. And though I don’t get your ‘Dune’ reference, I think we do have a truth sense. That explains why there are certain laws (general in nature) that all cultures from all times hold true. We all know, generally, right from wrong. It’s just that that truth sense has been distorted by sin.Seems like what you were driving at is the idea that the Bible doesn’t have to be historically accurate to still be the Word of God. And I just see that as a slippery slope.”
        ====================================================

        This first sentence may be right insofar as those who are “saved” would say that God is as real to them as the chair they’re sitting in, BECAUSE they understand, even if only intuitively or subconsciously, that their entire interface with reality is through their beliefs (again, excluding tautologies and mathematics, which hold no existential value).I challenge your second sentence, however, on the grounds that no sense – beyond reason, intuition, etc. – exists. Reason, intuition, etc. can be tricked, fooled, deceived, beguiled, subverted, etc. They are the flawed abilities of finite creatures. They are all we have, but they are far from foolproof. No “truth sense” exists. I am a skeptic for all practical purposes, but I see the merit of Theological Perspectivalism. The Theological Perspectivalism approach can be summarized as follows. Theologically, the ideal epistemic perspective is that of God (“God’s point of view”). From this perspective, a proposition is true if and only if it agrees with the thoughts of God. The trick is checking a proposition against the perspective of God without engaging in circular reasoning. The only real solution is Divine Revelation (there’s that bucket o’ worms, again), which is only valuable to the individual who receives it, as it is not verifiable by others in the absence of their own individual experience of Divine Revelation.My “bottom line” point is, essentially, this: There can be minor factual, historical errors in the Bible that in no way affect the truth value of the Bible as the Word of God, because the Bible (as a book) is merely a pointing device, a basket for carrying to us the Word of God, which is, itself, a special transmission outside the scriptures, no dependence on words and letters, direct pointing to the heart of God, seeing into God’s nature and attaining salvation from our sin by grace through faith in the LORD Jesus Christ. I haven’t made this point, before, because this discussion is really about the Bible, not prayer, but I think it should be explicitly stated that prayer is the vehicle for the “special transmission outside the scriptures,” for Christians. I do not see how this view would lead to or comprise a “slippery slope,” from which the logical conclusion that must be drawn is that the Bible is not true or does not accurately communicate Divine truths.I understand that this is a bold challenge to “orthodox Christianity,” which is a hilarious term when you think about it, given the purpose, structure, nature and history of “Christianity.” Honestly, I wish I could say, “but I know I’m right.” The truth is, I don’t; I believe I am right. This is just where I believe my journey with God has brought me. These are the insights and this is the understanding I have after years and years of extensive Biblical education, study of philosophy and religion, prayer and genuine, good faith (in the legal sense) searching and knocking. (Luke 11:9-10)Given that additional perspective (and, hopefully, due consideration thereof), do you still feel compelled to cling to the historical, factual inerrancy of the Bible as a prerequisite to “Christian faith?”

  • Jen N

    I’m 37 and have attended church regularly all my life. I just completed a study of Exodus and yes, I’d already heard many of the stories contained there. But God used that study to show me things about himself that I’d never realized before. Things that have deepened my relationship with Him.

    This is why continued study of the Bible is crucial for adults. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that “the word of God is living and active.” If we adopt an attitude that we’ve already read those stories, or already heard a particular passage of Scripture, we are closing our hearts and minds to the truths that God has for us right now, today.

    • http://www.benreed.net Ben Reed

      You’re so right, Jen! When we become familiar with a passage, we can sometimes assume that God doesn’t have anything new to teach us there. Which is a dangerous place for our hearts.

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