How much should we teach our children about the Bible?

Essay by Cindy Wang Brandt on 10 October 2019 3 Comments

 
The Bible is one of the most dangerous texts in human history.

Some of the most egregious acts in civilization find their justification in Scripture, from genocide to slavery to deadly homophobia. History proves that the Bible, read with nefarious hermeneutics, in the hands of powerful figures can cause catastrophe. Perhaps this is why many of us are nervous about how to approach the Bible with children and teens. The stakes feel high, like handing a loaded gun to a toddler. If you have any dose of humility about our limitations with engaging the text, you know this is a weighty task.

How much should we teach our children about the Bible?
What stories should we highlight? Avoid?
When and what developmental stage do we introduce historical context? Genre? Translation?
What hermeneutical lens do we give them? In what community?
Should we even bother with it at all if the Bible isn’t a children’s book?

I think a lot of us wrestle with these questions because of our own discomfort with the Holy Text. Fundamentalists have no problems teaching the Bible to their kids, they happily institute Bible memorization routines at home and endorse sword drills at Sunday School. When you believe the Bible is written by a puppeteering God moving the hands of biblical authors to write down literal facts, you don’t teach the Bible to children with nuance.

But for those of us who desire a deeper conversation on the truth and authority of the Bible, we need clarity on our own relationship with it to help guide our children. When it comes to the Bible, just like in all other areas of faith and parenting, the best course of action isn’t to hand neat packages of certain answers to them, but to strive for as much honesty as we can. This builds trust and gives our children permission to respond with equal measure of authenticity, not only in their relationship to you but their own faith journey.

The reality is that we all land on different points along a spectrum when it comes to the amount of meaning and authority and impact we ascribe to the Bible. The Bible as we know it today was birthed by a group of believers who agreed together to confer and submit the ultimate authority to a particular set of books, thereby canonizing it.

To use a parenting metaphor, when a person adopts a child, how true is it that the child is now that person’s child? It is as true as the level of reverence one ascribes to the adoption laws of the land, as well as the amount of meaning they give to any rituals of adoption.

The Bible may not contain literal facts of say, when the earth was formed or historical genealogies, but it is as true as it can be for a mother to claim a non-biological child as her own.

As much as the Bible has the capacity to harm, it can also have the capacity to heal and to do good. The text is a “living word,” because the person and the community they are situated in, are living human beings who engage in the task of interpretation. One of the things I have learned from the rich traditions of liberation theologies is that the text can be used to set people free. Feminist readings of the Bible reveal the work of women invisibilized by the text, and empower women to “take back” the text for their own thriving. Childist readings do the same for children.

What liberation theologies teach us is that when traditionally marginalized voices join in the task of interpreting Scripture, it opens the text up to revealing biases against oppressed people groups, it gives us permission to tell biblical stories in subversive ways, and it has the tremendous power to upset the status quo, resulting in better theology, more just societies, and a more fulfilling personal transformation.

When we consider how to “teach” the Bible to children, the foremost question we should be asking is: are we inviting children, a people group whose personhood and human rights have only been recognized by the United Nations as recently as 1989, into the hermeneutical task? Are communities of faith willing to boldly give children as much power as they need when it comes to approaching the Bible?

This means making ample space for children to interrogate the text, not only in curious inquisition about the details of the stories, but to pronounce judgments of it. It’s nothing short of gaslighting to tell a child they cannot say “the Bible is wrong,” should they point out some of the blatantly violent acts of biblical characters, including God.

Including children in the hermeneutical task also means allowing them to re-tell traditional stories in ways that benefit them instead of the many ways the Bible brutalizes children. The near sacrifice of Isaac is a classic text of terror against children—that a father would treat his son the way Abraham treated Isaac is abusive and requires condemnation or a subversive re-telling.

A dialogue with a ten-year-old with their mother went like this, according to an epigraph of the book, “The Children of Israel,”

“Mom, asked the ten-year-old, “can anyone write a Bible?”
“Hmmm…that’s an interesting question. Why do you ask?”
“Because I have some important things to say about God, and I think I’d like to write a Bible.”
“Well, I suppose you could write one. The real question would be, would other people want to read it?”
“Why wouldn’t they want to read it? I know a lot about God and the way people ought to treat each other.”
“Do you think your perspective on these things would be significantly different from that of the Bible we read in church?”
“Mom, really! Just how many ten-year-olds do you think helped write that?”

If we are wanting the Bible to be authoritative in any measure for our children, we better ensure they play an equal part in the task of interpretation. In fact, given children’s position of vulnerability in the world, we would do well to afford them even more access and power in order to tip a scale heavily weighted against them.

Having established that we are willing to invite children into full engagement with the text, the question remains how we initiate that process.

The three main factors to take into consideration is:

  1. The child’s temperament,
  2. The parents in establishment of the family’s values,
  3. The various communities the child inhabits.

A child’s temperament would indicate their particular desires for exploration of faith and the texts and traditions that shape the faith. This would help determine how much and how early you want to introduce the Bible to them. It would also help the parent discern whether to introduce images and stories that may be violent. I know many people, myself included, who were traumatized by images of the crucifixion because it was exposed to us at too tender of an age. I think children have remarkable resilience for gritty stories, and we certainly should strive to be as honest as possible about hard topics like death, sacrifice, and evil. But the way we introduce these topics require sensitivity to children’s anxieties, always offering tools to provide security and belonging in addition to tackling hard issues. Protect and guide our children into the world of Scripture, as you would in gentle leadership of their other experiences of life.

How early and how often you want to incorporate Scripture into your family life depends on the parents’ relationship with the Bible. If it is part of your everyday routine or weekly/seasonal ritual, or drives your personal values as well as your hopes for your family’s values, then I imagine the Bible would very early on become part of the conversations you have with your child. As I referenced in the introduction, often we are fearful of exposing children to such a complicated text because of our own spiritual baggage of witnessing the damage it can inflict if not treated carefully. But fear is only one of many factors we consult in making parenting decisions. To keep our children from participating in something that means a lot to us feels unnatural and unnecessary.

However, sharing faith and Scripture is simply that. It is offering the children an invitation to your priorities without any coercion that it needs to be theirs. It’s fair and just to maintain a posture of both inclusion and autonomy in our family relationships. Claim however much value you ascribe to the Bible and share it honestly with your child, always with the addendum that they can grow into their own relationship with it.

Lastly, our children operate in multiple spheres of life, increasingly so as they grow and move outward beyond your family unit. And because the Bible is read in conjunction with the community we inhabit, it’s good to remember that our children will engage with the text from the influences of more than one community.

This means we can teach our children one way of reading the Bible, with lots of permission to argue with the text as I suggest, and they may go out and see a billboard proof-texting a verse threatening people to hell, and that too becomes part of our children’s hermeneutical lens. They may hear a story told a certain way at the Baptist VBS, and hear a whole other interpretation from their atheist teacher from school.

To me, that’s generally a good thing, because multiplicity of interpretations provide somewhat of a check and balance to one dogmatic way, the danger of a single story, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns. But it requires us to be aware and intentional about curating our children’s worlds. For example, I would be reticent to send my child to an interpretive community that does not allow them to question the Bible, or I would be sure to counter balance it with extra time and space to deconstruct that violation of their autonomy. Most importantly, I would want to give them the tools I have at my disposal to engage critically themselves as they begin to operate in the various arenas of their influence.

Before I conclude this article, I’d be remiss to not address people/parents who have experienced personal trauma by Scripture. I think of LGBTQ folks who have been “clobbered” by a handful of verses to extensive harm. There are many ways (& many books!) to establish a loving relationship with your children and open them up to a world of critical thinking and engagement with the world, you certainly do not need to pick up the instrument of your trauma. I hope that one day, according to your healing timeline, you’ll be able to share even this painful story of your encounter with Scripture with your children so they may know of the dark ways Scripture is wielded for harm, as well as appreciating the many ways you are breaking the cycle of your past pain for their flourishing.

Because if there is one thing I hope to impart to my own children about the Bible, it’s that nothing written on paper ever matters more than living human stories.

~ Cindy Wang Brandt

 

Question

 
One of the reasons I wanted to reread his book was to see if I could get a different viewpoint on being a Christian within the “church.” I am still flummoxed as to why Bishop Spong is a Christian. He appears to be more of a humanist (non-capitalized).

Why is the Bible sacred? It’s like a compendium of authors writing over a thousand years. And, yes, they all seem to be writing about a supernatural entity. But that’s because the only early writers tended to be either state actors or religious leaders.

The other reason I read the book was that I started out as a Billy Graham=born-again Presbyterian, moved into atheism, then pantheism, and recently back as an atheist. I am still searching. No one has the answers. If someone could assist me in explaining rationally what makes Bishop Spong a Christian, I would be very grateful. 

Answer

 
Dear Tom,

I understand your confusion around Bishop Spong’s claim to be a Christian and hope that I can help you lay the quandary aside.

You see, I am a Christian, too. But I’m also an atheist. And I have been an atheist for most of my life, though I didn’t claim the term until several years ago. Few, these days, would be comfortable hearing me identify as a Christian, and I don’t do it publicly very often. They believe there needs to be a defining line: you’re this or you’re that; you cannot be both.

But Jack and I refuse that line. I grew up in the church, too, though my belief system developed far more loosely than either yours or Jack’s. My Christian upbringing was decidedly in the camp yours would have dismissed or maligned as unChristian or heretical. My Sunday School curriculum taught me that God was love and Jesus was this cool guy who taught us that we needed to love one another. As a teenager, I delighted in the psychedelic “Live Love” stickers and adorned my school binders with them. When I entered theological college as an adult, I was relieved when my studies provided the foundations over which my beliefs had already been floating: the Bible was a collection of stories which, as you’ve noted in your question, were written by many different people over millennia; God was a concept we needed to wrestle with as we formulated our own truths; and Jesus was a man who lived a long time ago and taught us some challenging and interesting things, but wasn’t perfect.  None of us are.

The stories of Christianity, indeed the stories of all religions, are woven and wrapped around human truths; it isn’t the other way ‘round, as many religions continue to proclaim. Awe and wonder, conviction and repentance, gratitude and appreciation, sorrow, lament, and need: all these are human truths and human realities. Over the course of our history, in every corner of the world, we’ve sought solace and encouragement, meaning and destiny. We’ve done it through the tools our religions have handed us, simply because they were there for that use.

Jack and I know those tools inside and out; Jack much more intimately and comprehensively than I. We see the world through the templates of Christianity. We engage with it through the roots of our faith. While my congregation no longer celebrates Palm Sunday or Easter, we live the Biblical story that was woven of the truths and metaphors that reside at the heart of human existence: the dreams we have and the elation we know when we achieve them; the desolation of rejection and betrayal when they crash against the violence of reality; and the gift that it is, for each one of us, when we pick up the thread of someone else’s broken dream – an end to violence against women; the forgiveness of crippling national debt; the fight for the future of our planet – and carry it forward. These are basic themes of the human journey; Christianity got them right when they wove the story of persecution, passion, death, and resurrection. The stories bring us back to face and accept those truths in our own lives.

Jack’s world is informed, as is mine, by those stories. For decades now, he has looked beneath them and worked to untangle the threads that have held them together. And at the end of his work, he has, every time, grasped the one thread that was worthy of you and me and humanity and lifted it up, offering it to us to hold and use as we will. He calls himself a Christian because he lives his life through the stories to which his life was and remains bound. I am so grateful for his efforts there and for the gift and permission he has given to me to do so as well.

~ Rev. Gretta Vosper

 

Comments

 

3 thoughts on “How much should we teach our children about the Bible?

  1. I like Rev. Vosper’s answer a lot. I’m interested in this subject because a discussion group I belong to has debated the meaning of “Christian” many times. Usually the discussion begins when someone insists that the word “Christian” means only one thing, most often, someone who believes in and “accepts” Jesus as their personal savior, the saving work have been accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s become clear from all those discussions that the word “Christian” is used in more than a dozen different ways, all of which have validity for some folks. For example, some people wouldn’t agree that a brand new infant who has been baptized is a Christian, however other people would say it is. No person can usurp the language and compel everyone else to use their set of definitions.

    On page 131 of Christianity Without God, Lloyd Geering defines “Christianity” as “a broad and changing stream of living culture which reflects in some way the originating influence of Jesus of Nazareth.” In my opinion, it would be valid to call any person a Christian who has been deeply affected by being raised in that cultural stream and has adopted a lot of the values it promotes.

    Personally, I wouldn’t object to someone calling the Dalai Lama a Christian, because his values are similar to Jesus’. (See “The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus. The book is a wonderful account of his leading an important Christian conference, the 1994 John Main Seminar in London.) In that way, he’s a far better Christian than many folks who call themselves Christian and go to Christian churches every Sunday.

    Consider Karl Rahner’s idea of the “Anonymous Christian.” Rahner accepted the idea that salvation comes through Christ. However he suggested that people who have never even heard of Christ might be saved through Christ without knowing it. Some Catholics have stretched the idea a teeny bit by saying that people who belong to other denominations or faiths but live Christlike lives have a connection to the “true [Catholic] Church” without knowing it, i.e., they are “anonymous Catholics.”

    George

  2. Dear Cindy: I agree with what you said: “but to strive for as much honesty as we can” as we teach our children.
    My wife and I are taking care of our daughter’s young son, or our grandson Howard. That has been for 10 months already. We sing at every meal to thank for our food. But we use a Chinese text and the tune of the Doxology. In our text we do not use “god” at all: “We together thanking our food; One soup one rice not too easy; Sweat and Blood from people who farm; Eating with Grace, serving others. Amen”Now Howard can sing it with ease.
    As PrgressiveChristianity.org people, we plan to teach our grandson as much as we can with love and honesty. We will tell him that there is no “god” like a Santa Claus which also does not exist. The word “Theistic” is too difficult to be used for a two-tears-old child yet. We may say: “God is a spirit; those who worship god, must worship god in spirit and in truth.” When the time comes, we plan to describe the bible as truthfully and honestly as we can. We will tell him that the Bible was written by many people over a span of ten thousand years before Jesus who was a wise Jewish person about 2000 years ago, and that he had several brothers and sisters, all were born from his mother Mary in the village named Nazareth. We will tell him that Jesus had read many parts of the old testament before he became 30 years old when he began to teach people. We will tell him that almost all the books in the Bible had started out by people speaking about each of them and had been written at later times, that the written words into parchment or into paper came about many years later. We will tell him that all of what we read in the Bible had been translated into Greek language before they were translated again into English. We will tell him that the biblical stories had been formulated prior to the knowledge of science as we know it today. We will tell him that the stories about Jesus were not written by himself, and that the writers such as Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John wrote about Jesus at least 40 years after Jesus was already dead and gone. We will tell him that Paul had his name as Saul before he realized that Jesus had been a loving person who had been killed by the Roman soldiers after some Jewish political leaders had decided that he had blasphemed against their Jewish Law. Saul (Paul) also had persecuted those Christians who had believed in Jesus because Saul was taught to believe in the Jewish Law. Paul himself had never met Jesus and had not been taught by Jesus or his disciples, but he only claimed to have been taught by Jesus in spirit (revelation). It appears that Paul might have combined what he had read about Adam and Eve from the old Testament and what he had learned from the Jewish Atonement of one day per year in their practice of killing a lamb to atone for the sins of the people. So Paul formulated the Atonement Theology, saying that the killing of Jesus on the cross was an Atonement for everyone’s sin due to Adam and Eve. We will tell our grandson that the Curse of Atonement Theology cannot be believed today.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

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