Is the Bible an R-Rated Children's Book?
- Chris Legg, Dr. Stanley J. Ward
- 2014 22 Sep
THE BIBLE IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH
In his booklet, The World as Best I Remember It, Rich Mullins observed:
The Bible is not a book for the faint hearted – it is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that befits mankind. It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice – it does not so much nibble at our shoe leather as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from the bone. It does not give us answers fitted to our small-minded questions, but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask.
The Holy Bible has some of the most adult-themed passages written anywhere. Throughout human history, the way humans have interacted with one another has regularly been brutal, abusive, tortuous, and evil, and the Bible makes no apology for keeping record of such. Because Scripture records stories of people at both their best and their worst, the Bible is not for the squeamish. That's why it includes rules about such adult-themed material as bestiality and incest. Perhaps ironically, in contrast to some Christian radio stations that market themselves as being "safe for the whole family," the content of our own Bibles is not always so.
Scripture records rape, murder, abuse, assault, deceptive sexuality, prostitution, torture, and slavery. Some biblical descriptions even manage to work many of these into a single account. And, these accounts aren't hidden. While sometimes the language has enough euphemism ("he went in to her," "Adam knew his wife," etc.) that children do not catch the meaning, such phrases are often right there in the stories of key figures – Abraham, Saul, Samson, Noah, Esther, Lot, David... and their reality-show-worthy children.
THE "HEROES" OF THE BIBLE ARE NOT ALWAYS IDEAL HEROES
While many of the Old Testament's heroes may have been the stars of the Sunday morning flannel-graph, (remember those from Sunday School, if you are over 40?), their antics would not be appropriate for Saturday morning cartoons.
Consider Samson. Certainly, there are parts of his story that are superhero worthy. He was long-haired, muscular, good looking, and powerful. He tore doors from city gates, killed hundreds of enemies with a piece of bone, set foxes on fire – all with the power of God. However, when we read Judges 14-16 closely, we also see that he was a whiny, lecherous, dishonest, brutal, homicidal, self-deluded narcissist.
Abraham's grandson Jacob also received his fair share of time in Sunday School lessons. Fortunately teachers skipped material like Genesis 34, which recounts the rape of his daughter Dinah – a rape he appears to do nothing about, until his sons take vengeance on the people of city where the rapist lives by killing all the men.
As Bible readers, we must remind ourselves that just because the Bible records something doesn't mean that God approves of it. We see stories full of death, destruction, and immorality not because God rejoices in such things, but because we live in a world full of broken people who kill, destroy, and fornicate.
All that yucky stuff reminds us about one of the Bible's miracles that frequently gets overlooked: God was able and willing to interact with such people. The very ugliness of these imperfect Bible characters reminds us that the real hero of the Bible is God.
And, while God is the true hero of the Bible, he is no fairy-tale hero. Therefore, we should ask ourselves: when we portray God as merely the God who loves generously, are we setting our kids up to be disappointed when they learn that He is more three-dimensional than they had been told? Are we lumping God in with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny when we present Him like a two-dimensional fairy-tale figure? When we completely and willfully ignore disturbing passages like the wholesale destruction of the men, women, and children of Jericho, are we missing an opportunity to admit that sometimes God allows terrible things to happen?
SO WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO WITH THESE BIBLE STORIES?
C. S. Lewis points out in his essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" that some people object to fairy stories because those stories don't portray the real world. The point is interesting because the Bible is often expressed as the same kind of literature: as a fairy story for children. If all we have is the flannel graph version of the Bible, then we miss that the Bible is shockingly violent and full of human brokenness – just like the world we live in. In other words, the Bible is full of real-world stories.
Still, some concepts are not necessary in this day-and-age for most children to wrestle with (yet), at least in the West. So, without gutting the Bible, how do we still bring the brilliance and truth of Scripture to young people without turning it into Santa Claus and fairy-tale stories? On the one hand, we must avoid the error of reducing the Bible's content to children's myths, but at the same time we also must avoid the error of overwhelming children with age-inappropriate material. Kids aren't mentally, socially, or emotionally mature enough to deal with the consequences of many adult topics addressed in the Bible.
Sadly, neither the psychologist nor the theologian in me (Chris) can come up with any hard-and-fast answers for how to always handle the adult themes in the Bible. Still, I do have some good guidelines that might be helpful.
First, and most importantly, parent with justice, mercy, and grace. By consistently modeling God's justice, mercy and grace to the best of our abilities, we give our children the tools for properly interpreting the tough biblical passages. The positive example of parents empowers what is clear about God's character in both Old and New Testaments to help both adults and children navigate the times when God's character can seem unclear. Additionally, we can discuss God's character without having to go in depth regarding circumstance in which children are not likely to find themselves.
As a therapist, I (Chris) regularly see clients who struggle with some of the tougher aspects of God's character – like his love and his justice. However, that almost always has less to do with theology and more to do with how hard it is to understand love and justice intuitively if people didn't experience it as a child. When parents model these complex and integrated traits well, it gives a child the intuitive tools for interpretation both as a child and later as an adult. Any adult can decide to believe certain things are true about God, but to experience it instinctively is a challenge without the blessing of role modeling from parents.
Second, help children to accept both truth and mystery. Truth is real. God knows all of it, but we do not. Parents can model not knowing everything, though always wanting to understand when possible. This helps children develop a healthy integration of curiosity and acceptance. This means parents must be available to answer and engage.
When children know that a parent is a safe resource for information (not over-reacting emotionally to difficult questions) then children will trust the parent to give them answers when the time is right. An acceptable answer is: "You will know more later / I will tell you more later / I will tell you more when the time is right," etc. However, if a parent defers information to a later time, it is vital that they initiate that conversation when the time is right. Remember, one key to building trust: do what you say you will do.
For example, in the Legg household, we talk about sex in three distinct intentional times across the years of 9-11 (see more detail at Talking to Kids About Sex Part I). Case in point: our regular drive takes us past a strip club. When our first son was around five, he began to ask about the club. We told him we would let him know about that building when the time was right. It wasn't until age 11 (when we talk about the broken aspects of sex) that I initiated that conversation. "Remember when you used to ask us about that?" So, know your children well enough to know where they are when addressing sensitive material.
Part of helping our children appreciate both truth and mystery includes being willing to push them a little. Don't shy away from hard questions. Know what you believe about some of the hard questions. Encourage them to ask the hard ones and research with them the questions you do not know how to answer. Show them how to engage hard questions with the confidence that there is an answer, even if we don't comprehend that answer yet. Teach your children that not knowing and understanding everything is okay, too. Some things come in time (just be trustworthy to bring them back up later).
Third, given that not all Bible stories are developmentally appropriate, it is appropriate to keep on hand various children's Bibles. The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones is one excellent example. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson (Assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg) recommends (with commentary of their limitations): The Beginner's Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories (Zonderkidz), Spark Story Bible (Augsburg Fortress), The Read and Learn Bible, from the American Bible Society (Scholastic), Picture Bible, by Iva Hoth and Andre Le Blanc (David C. Cook), and Adventure Bible for Young Readers, by Lawrence O. Richards (Zonderkidz).
Stanley J. Ward, Ph.D., is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, Texas. He is also the author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.
Publication date: September 22, 2014