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Teaching My Children the Bible

2012 July 17

As a mother who is also a follower of Christ, I want my children to learn the stories of the faith I follow. Having grown up in the church and having been a children’s pastor, I also know that there are some pretty messed up ways that churches and families often go about teaching the Bible to kids. From the Aesop fablization of the Bible where gory stories like Noah’s Ark become just about cute animals and instructing kids to obey their parents and teachers to sword drills and programs that encourage binge memorization of verses in order to earn plastic jewels in a crown, children are rarely encouraged to enter into scripture and understand its larger story.

But it’s a story I want my children to know – with all its complexities and overarching narratives intact. While the superbly done The Action Bible has helped my comic-book obsessed daughter become more familiar with the stories, I knew that I needed to find other ways to help expose her to more than just the same dozen “safe for kids” Bible stories Sunday schools seem to favor. So when I saw all over Pinterest a pin about a Child Training Bible, I clicked on it out of curiosity. Something in me hoped it was an accessible way for young readers to piece together the complex history that is the Bible so they could better understand the story of God’s relationship with creation. It couldn’t have been further from that.

No, the Child Training Bible is a color-coded system (patent pending) that makes it easy for a child or parent to look up a verse when a child needs discipline. Asserting that the Bible is the answer book for everything in life, the system is described as – “All the things you work on to train your children tabbed and highlighted with a key in the front. Training topics include: anger, complaining, defiance, lying, laziness, and wrong friendships! So when you need the verses you can grab the actual Word and be able to quickly flip to whatever you need!!” I read that and had one of those fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul moments. The whole system was nauseating enough for how it disrespected the entire purpose of the Bible (and ignored the fact that only Jesus is called the Word of God), but then I started reading the reviews on mommy blogs online. Dozens of mothers were lauding the product as the perfect way to discipline and get their children into the word. I only found one single response that questioned using the Bible in such a negative way and then immediately read all the responses accusing that woman of hating the Bible and not truly being a Christian. It was heartbreaking.

Like I said, I think it is important to know the Bible and I desire for my kids to know it as well. I honestly find it disturbing that more and more these days committed Christians (even many of the classmates my husband and I encountered at our seminaries) have no sense of what is actually in the Bible. But systems like this that cherry-pick verses out of context for the purpose of using guilt to manipulate children into a certain set of middle-class American behaviors don’t help the problem. Neither do many of the other popular suggestions for “immersing oneself in the word” that I am seeing these days. Like the suggestions for the “25 (or 50 or 70) essential verses” one should put on post-it notes around the house if one desires ones family (or husband) to be transformed. Bible verses are not magical incantations that through exposure and repetition will change a person. Even daily reminders that one must delight oneself in the Lord or that God grants rest to the weary while possibly useful in helping one feel better about oneself don’t actually enter one into the story of the Bible or the more difficult way of living it calls people to live. And, unsurprisingly, I’ve yet to read one of those essential verse lists that acknowledge the communal (rather than individualistic) nature of being part of the body of Christ or that include anything about seeking justice for the poor and the oppressed.

I have nothing against memorizing scripture or finding encouragement from a saying or two from the Bible. I teach my children passages like the Beatitudes and expose them to music full of scripture. But I harbor no illusion that reading a daily devotion of two or three verses that deliver personal spiritual warm-fuzzies is in any form or fashion “being in the word.” Nor is seeing a verse on a post-it on your mirror, finding a warning verse attached to a TV or computer, or even doing a fill-in-the-blank “Bible” study. Using the Bible in such ways cheapens it and turns it into the Christian equivalent of a Magic Eight ball. The Bible is not an answer book, or a guide to raising children, or even primarily instructions for how to have a personal relationship with God. Yes, the Bible gives testimony to the way of life God desires, but a handful of out-of-context verses can never encapsulate the message of a story that the faithful have been trying to figure out for thousands of years. I want my kids to wrestle with that story, to understand the competing voices and ideologies within the Bible, and learn to work out their faith with fear and trembling as they respect the narrative enough to not reduce it to sound bites.

I know this post is a bit of a rant. And I am sure there are readers who will call me a heretic and hater of the Bible for writing this. But as a frustrated mom, it is hard to find resources that help me encourage my kids to engage the Bible but that also don’t turn it into a shallow shadow of what it is meant to be.

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28 Responses leave one →
  1. July 17, 2012

    YES! Although, I’m actually quite disappointed. I was hoping you were going to say all that, and then be all ‘but I found this product and it’s amazing!’…but no. Which is frustrating, because it’s not just me not being able to find something :/

    I take that back a little bit. I have found 2 things…but I just haven’t really followed through that much on using them. This fall I am going to use them though, because I am finally getting fed up enough, and my kids are old enough, that I’m running out of time to start teaching them what I want to teach them, if I don’t actually sit down and do it. Pete Enns has a great curriculum out, that I’ve used parts of, and I’ve really liked it. He starts with Jesus, and I understand why, but I really can’t wait until next year (I think) when the Creation/OT part of the curriculum comes out. http://www.welltrainedmind.com/store/religion-curriculum.html

    The other thing we’re going to do is read through Story of God, Story of Us, and use some of the verses in the back to read along with. I don’t know how well that will go, since there isn’t a discussion guide or anything with it, but I hope it will at least give me a jumping off point for them to get the big picture of the Bible.

    • Sean Gladding permalink
      July 17, 2012

      Hi Caris,

      I’m delighted you’re going to read my book with your children – I hope you’ll do so aloud. There is a ‘User’s Guide’ in later print runs of the book, which may or may not be what you’re looking for. When we’ve read the story with groups (large and small) we’ve used art to interact with it (drawing, painting, sculpting, pipe cleaners etc). We simply ask people to use their piece of art to illustrate something that struck them while hearing the story, and then used the art as a springboard for group discussion. You may find it as helpful and fruitful as we have.

      All the best,
      Sean

    • Mike permalink
      October 27, 2014

      I would strongly encourage anyone looking to Peter Enns to write curricula on Genesis consider his views on the narrative of Genesis being in part, fabrication on the part of its Author and when considered in light of contemporary scientific discoveries is not historically accurate. Consider the following:
      https://answersingenesis.org/creationism/a-response-to-peter-ennss-attack-on-biblical-creationism/

  2. July 17, 2012

    It may be a bit of a rant, but it’s an excellent and true one.

    One possible resource you might check out is the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones. I haven’t sat down and read the whole thing, but a friend showed it to me and I loved the parts I read. It’s all about how Jesus is the center of all the other stories in the Bible. It’s geared toward younger children, but my pastor actually uses it on a regular basis, so it’s not just for kids.

  3. Sheila permalink
    July 17, 2012

    Oh my, I agree completely! I loved what you said about wanting your kids to “wrestle with that story, to understand the competing voices and ideologies within the Bible.” I find that I need to try to teach the kids what complexity looks like. They want to know the black and white picture, and what they should think, with hard, straight lines. Sunday Schools they have been to are all too often eager to hand them that simplicity. But Verity is now getting old enough to be unsatisfied with some of the answers she’s being handed. Or at least to ask questions about them. I, too, want them to wrestle. To realize people have many, many ideas about these things.

    I worry that my own spiritual journey has left me unequipped to handle their questions. I feel that all I can usual do is say, “I don’t know.” Certainty was comforting as a child, even if it was a false certainty. I wish I knew how to give them that comfort without the falseness. So, yes, I, too, wish I had resources to offer them.

    • July 20, 2012

      Hi Sheila, and anyone else whose kids are not satisfied with black and white answers. Don’t be discouraged that you feel unequipped to give them the “right” answers. I felt exactly the same way when my daughter (from about age 5 [she is now a teenager]) began questioning the oddities in the Bible that didn’t add up.

      I’m a full believer that our kids’ difficult questions are divinely arranged. Ask your kids what they think the answer is, or what they think sounds like justice and reason from a loving God. And then read the Bible for yourself and see what God reveals to you. Don’t be afraid to learn from your children; their hearts and God-given consciences are a great place to find God’s revelations.

      I credit my ever-questioning daughter as bringing me from an existential crisis to opening up my mind to the most beautiful faith journey I could have hoped for. Often times there are no pat answers… The deeper you go, the more mysterious God becomes. Better to instill a sense of wonder and admit we don’t know all the answers (and that sometimes we don’t know how to find them unless God decides it’s time, either), rather than to offer false certainties as comfort. Discerning kids can sniff those out right away.

  4. July 17, 2012

    Amen!!! Excellent article. I too have struggle with this question, which is why I have dealt with the topic briefly in my Sunday school curriculum. I’ve written a full year Sunday school curriculum (Spirit and Truth: Worshipping God through the Lutheran Liturgy) that focuses on teaching kids what it means to worship God, and how to do it through the traditional Lutheran (Episcopal, etc.) worship service. One of the lessons does deal with the Bible, and I try to do just what you are talking about, give an active way to teach students the whole story of the Bible, using the stories kids know (hopefully). There’s only so much I can fit in an hour lesson, but I’d love to tackle it as a project in and of itself, especially for my own two kids. If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to email me at g.rawn@spiritandtruthpublishing.com!

  5. July 17, 2012

    “Bible verses are not magical incantations that through exposure and repetition will change a person.”

    So true, yet so not reflected in the way much of the American Church treats them, especially the more conservative circles I’ve spent most of my time in. By treating them as magic incantations we demonstrate that what we practice is really a form of “folk Christianity” where the Bible becomes just a talisman to manipulate in order to achieve the things we want from God and the world.

  6. Maria permalink
    July 17, 2012

    Amen to you rant, Julie! We have been experimenting with a radical idea in our family — read the actual Bible! My kids are 9 and 10 and for the past year, we’ve read a chapter (or shorter section) many evenings after dinner. We read right through whole books (Exodus, Matthew, etc), try to switch off OT/NT and shorter books after we’ve plowed through a long one. We take turns reading, including Grandma and Grandpa who are part of our household. We try to keep our discussion short and do our best to answer questions that come up. It isn’t an exhaustive study, but we’re trying to expose them to the big story and build a framework for exploring Scripture on their own as they grow older.

  7. Molly permalink
    July 17, 2012

    I second the comment about the Jesus Storybook Bible. I find myself crying almost every time I read it to my son.

  8. July 17, 2012

    Yes, indeed. Don’t get me started on Romans Road.

  9. John permalink
    July 17, 2012

    I agree with the goal; but I’m unsure what the best means would be. I’m certainly not planning to use the Bible as a punishment and then expect the kid to WANT to read the Bible. (Have these people ever MET a child?)

    But: I’m unsure how to determine what’s developmentally right for the kid at a given time. I haven’t really figured out how to educate a child about the Bible effectively, without using the tools that were used to educate us in our conservative evangelical Sunday Schools.

    The fact is, humans do begin by having to hear and memorize things long before we understand them. (For instance, learning the ABC song has to happen before learning to read.) We do begin as literal, black and white thinkers who need concrete and absolute rules, before we develop to the point that we can understand why rules have exceptions sometimes and why “true” doesn’t always mean “factual”. We do begin doing what’s right because we want to get something good or avoid something bad, before we can learn to do what’s right because it IS right. And we do need repetitive reminders of what our behavior ought to look like.

    I love how you said “Bible verses are not magical incantations that through exposure and repetition will change a person”, and heartily agree. Even so: While repeating a Bible verse doesn’t change my behavior, it does remind me that my behavior needs changing. And that’s a necessary first step.

    In other words, I’ve sometimes wondered whether kids might need the kind of teaching we got as conservative evangelical Sunday School kids, until they’re old enough to see the inadequacies of that way and start asking the hard questions. But how to give young kids the certainty and simplicity they need… without instilling the arrogance that so often goes with certainty, and the lasting illusion that the simple version is the whole picture … I’ve no idea how to achieve that.

    So when you figure it out, please let me know!

  10. July 17, 2012

    Well-stated.

    I, too, want my children to “wrestle” with the story of the Bible – to ask questions, to listen deeply, to feel the breadth and the depth of it.

    I second the recommendation for the Jesus Storybook Bible: http://amzn.to/PfMDXH. It’s a good one.

    P.S. My husband and I always find it a bit ironic that the Noah’s Ark story is used as nursery decor and in baby board books. That’s a pretty heavy story – people are so wicked that God has to destroy the whole world. Not exactly “cutesy” or “fun.”

    • July 18, 2012

      Wow- what you said about Noah’s ark- that is kind of incredibly disturbing how often you see that painted on the walls in the church nursery. I remember as a little kid I totally didn’t even think about the fact that EVERYONE DIED. I mean, I knew the whole “God decided to start all over” but I didn’t ever think out the scary implications… Wow, the story of Noah’s ark is actually incredibly horrifying.

      But, you know, giraffes are cute so it makes for a good painting.

      • August 26, 2012

        When I was four years old, I *requested* a Noah’s Ark theme to my room. I too never thought about how 99.9% of the planet freaking died in that story. >.<

  11. July 18, 2012

    Good on ya, Julie!

  12. Sean Gladding permalink
    July 18, 2012

    On a related note – if your children are singing the same ‘bible songs’ as you did when you were their age, here is our favourite multi-generational musician – writing songs about scripture with sing-a-long melodies that tell stories, remind us of God’s mission and call us to seek justice. his name is Bryan Moyer Suderman, and you can find his latest album (a compilation featuring many of our favourite songs) here: http://www.smalltallmusic.com/cds/new-world-coming-compilation-album/

    enjoy!

  13. July 18, 2012

    Oh dear goodness. Reducing the bible to rules to give your kids to make them feel guilty. That’s so one-dimensional. As some of the other commenters have said, yeah that’ll TOTALLY make kids want to read the bible.

    Also I was struck by your line “gory stories like Noah’s ark become just about cute animals”- wow, I never thought of it as “gory”… but wow. Yes. Everyone died.

    There’s so much in the bible that people don’t talk about because it’s really weird or scary. I’m hoping to write about that kind of stuff on my blog- because I want to know what the bible REALLY says, not the censored version. (Here’s one I wrote a few months ago: “God kills Uzzah (2 Samuel 6)” http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/2012/05/god-kills-uzzah-2-samuel-6.html In which I basically said I wasn’t okay with what God did.)

    I don’t have any kids yet, but I wonder about how we should teach the bible/ Christianity/ the gospel to kids. Little-kid bibles reduce all the complex characters and stories down to a one-liner (Esther is about courage. Hannah is about patience. David and Jonathan is about loyalty. Abraham is about obedience.) and they only include the stories with a lot of cool imagery of a fiery furnace or talking animals. (I actually wrote a post about this too http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/2012/06/are-little-kids-in-sunday-school.html )

    I feel like people need to learn the bible/ who God is by just reading it- the whole thing!- not skipping the “weird” parts, and not necessarily needing to have answers. Not everything is going to have a simple “application lesson.” Maybe we’re meant to wrestle with it.

  14. L.W. Dickel permalink
    July 23, 2012

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, what’s this I heareth about me being a human sacrifice for your sins? May I asketh, Who in the goddamn hell came up with that Neanderthal bullshit!!!?
    Blood sacrifice!!!??? Are you all fucking insane!!?
    What are we, living in the goddamn Stone Age!!!??
    Listen brethren, you can taketh that ridiculous, pathetic, immoral, vile, wicked, evil, sadistic pile of Cro-Magnon donkey shit and shoveth it straight up thy fucking asses!!”–Jesus H. Christ, the Thinking Mans Gospel

  15. anna permalink
    July 26, 2012

    Hi Julie,
    Thankyou for your blog – it is always honest and thought provoking and very much appreciated!

    In my family and in my church here in New Zealand we are always looking for ways to make our faith meaningful to our children. It can be very challenging trying to work out our own fears and doubts while attempting to model unconditional love and grace. We live in a city which has been almost destroyed by earthquakes and this adds a whole extra dimension to our conversations about who God is and how he/she works in us and through us and in spite of us.

    We too love the jesus storybook bible.

    Recently we have been looking at a resource from Australi called ‘Welcoming Families. Communities of love and Justice’ which is ‘resources for nurturing faith at home from the gospel of Matthew’ a review of the book can be found at http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/27879.htm

    My almost ten year olds are loving the ‘whats in the bible ‘ series from Phil Visscher http://whatsinthebible.com/ Actually, we all grandparents, parents and children are loving it!

    Another resource we have just discovered that may be helpful is http://wearesparkhouse.org/ check out the childrens and pre-teens section. We have even discussed using the re-form resources in the whole church rather than letting the children have all the good stuff!

    The best thing about it all is how much it forces us as parents to reconsider our own faith and how we work that out in our lives and communities.

  16. July 27, 2012

    I have felt this frustration for years. And I, too, was hoping you would end with saying you’d found something, heh. I really want my children to know Scripture as the large, amazing, complex story it is, not a handbook or textbook. For myself, I’ve appreciated Story of God, Story of Us, and I’m looking through the NIV The Story versions to see what they are like. Keep us updated if you come across anything.

  17. Susan Park permalink
    August 4, 2012

    We have contemplated keeping our kids out of Sunday School so that they don’t hear all the simplistic renderings of Bible stories. I’d rather have them read the Bible for the first time at age 10 or so, when they are able to think more deeply about it and be impacted by them on a deeper level. But then, how do I teach them about God until then? A difficult dilemma. I do like the Jesus storybook Bible, though I worry about how it presents everything as being so understandable and pointing directly to Jesus, when it is much more subtle than that.

  18. Korri permalink
    August 22, 2012

    Amen! Well said!

  19. January 4, 2013

    Thanks for the article and hope to read from you again. You efforts putting this blog together was worth the while. Another good post Julie.

  20. January 12, 2013

    Thanks for this article! I have felt a lot of these same feelings!

    Because of this, I just launched a musical CD series for children that teaches them the Bible, book by book, if anyone wants to check it out. The series is “Word on the Street sings…”. I began with the Letter to the Ephesians. You can check it out by going to my website

    http://www.catherinemeekins.com

    I also am reading the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones to my 3 year old and love it!!

  21. mona campbell permalink
    March 2, 2013

    I understand your frustration but to blame the sunday school volunteers seems a little excessive. I am sure they would welcome your help and any advice to help them bring the gospel to your child.
    The children are in “sunday school” maybe 2 hours a week. I’m not sure they are able to do anything but “simplistic” teaching. The “job” of instructing children about who God is falls exclusively on parents. The church is there to reinforce what you are teaching them at home.
    I applaud parents who are teaching their children to love God and His word, but to expect the church to be the only place they are learning about God’s love is unrealistic.

  22. Carolynn Walters permalink
    August 21, 2013

    Check out goingthroughthebible.com. It will take your family through the Bible in five years by listening to the daily Bible reading and watching daily Bible lessons (3-5 min. long).

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