You might recall that way back, at the beginning of this blog, I compared the Old Testament to an embarrassing family member for whom one must frequently apologize. While I don’t feel that’s the case anymore, there remains a problem: How to teach it to children.
My wife and I have gone around this issue a few times since we had our first daughter more than four years ago, and our struggles have led us to Peter Enns, a biblical scholar we both respect for his willingness to both love the Bible and present it as it was intended to be read – as opposed to how modern-day Christians might like it to be read.
The problem as I see it with presenting the Old Testament stories to children is three-fold:
1. Their view of God sucks. As a child, I struggled to understand the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Why would God tell him to do that? What if Abraham hadn’t heard the angel sent to stop him in time? What kind of God makes requests like that? That story was problematic for me. As an adult, I realize others are no less problematic; they paint a picture of an arbitrary, capricious, mean God, a God who, for example, gets so fed up with the people he created that he decides to wipe them all out – including, apparently, every single child on the planet – and start over. Our children may never question the basic unfairness of these stories, but that doesn’t mean these stories won’t shape their view of God.
2. They are fantastical. From the talking snake in the Garden of Eden to the picture of lions and wolves lining up next to zebras and hedgehogs to board the ark, the Old Testament is chock full of stories that children love because they’re just like all of the other stories they love, filled with animals and larger-than-life situations that capture the imagination. We expect our kids to let go of those other stories at some point – not necessarily stop reading and enjoying them, but to at least recognize that Santa Claus and magic and talking animals do not actually exist and have never existed. Except, apparently, the ones found in the Bible. So when kids get older, we tend to devolve these stories into morality tales from which children should find examples for their own lives. But here’s the problem: At some point, no matter how much faith you have, if you believe God is telling you to kill your child, I hope you’ll check yourself into a psychiatric clinic rather than follow the example of Abraham, and if you’re telling us the world is going to end and we should climb aboard the big boat you’ve built for the occasion, no one is going to be applauding your obedience to God. These stories were not intended for children, and attempting to make them kid-friendly stretches them beyond meaning and relevance, even coherence.
3. They are not factual. Going hand in hand with the point above, to what extent should we act as if these biblical stories are historically accurate when we do not act as if, say, the Chronicles of Narnia are historically accurate. No matter how true the creation stories of Genesis 1-3 are, they are not factual, and the evidence that everything around us, including us, evolved over billions of years is overwhelming and irrefutable. Likewise, geological evidence rules out the possibility of a worldwide flood, and the notions of Adam naming every animal on earth or all languages finding their origins in Babel fail to withstand any logical thought whatsoever. This is not to say these stories don’t have value, but again, they were not written for children, and they were not written with our modern concepts of historicity in mind. Teaching them as literally true now, then defending them as literally true later, often becomes problematic when they are confronted with a thorough presentation of the evidence against them.
Perhaps no story better covers all three of these problems than the Battle of Jericho. What kid doesn’t love a story of the little guy versus the giant races of Canaan. Every child can identify with the forces of Joshua as they circle the walls, mocked for their unconventional battle style. There’s intrigue, as the spies must escape detection and are saved by a quick-witted lady of the night, and there’s excitement as the walls come a-tumbling down, and the victory is won.
Of course, God also orders Israel to kill every last resident of Jericho, including every child. And when Achan tries to sneak some booty out of the city and hide it in his tent, it’s not just him who pays the price after the defeat at Ai, but his entire family, who may or may not have known anything about it. Our kids may ask us about these parts of the story, but even if they don’t, they certainly notice them, and they file them away as data points in what kind of God we worship.
Finally, despite the great effort put forth by apologists such as Josh McDowell to muster the weight of 60-year-old archaeology in support of the conquest narratives, more recent finds have all but ruled out the military events described in the Bible. Very few of the cities described in Joshua were actually habited at the time when Israel would have had to sweep through, and others show no signs of violent overthrow. The text itself is inconsistent about which cities Joshua did and did not conquer. The historicity of these accounts is simply unlikely, if not impossible, unless God rigged the evidence to contradict his own people’s account of what happened.
So what do we do about that? How do we teach our children from the Bible when so many of the traditional stories leave such baggage? Enter Enns, whose Bible curriculum, Telling God’s Story, takes a different focus than most. In a short, easy-to-read parents’ guide, he sketches out what he sees as a better way of teaching God’s truth.
He argues children should, first and foremost, be taught about Jesus in their early years, so he structures the curriculum around the life and teachings of Jesus because, well, that is the focus of the Bible itself.
I propose focusing on what the Bible as a whole is about, rather than zeroing on individual Bible stories or snippets of moral teaching taken out of context. This approach introduces young students to the big picture, encouraging them to understand the entire biblical story – as, I believe, it is intended to be understood.
The goal for this kind of approach is to prepare young Christians to have a vibrant faith in God and trust in Scripture in a world that is changing more quickly than we can describe.
So Enns argues for getting our children to know Jesus during elementary school, then getting a “big picture” of the Bible in middle school, which means explaining how the Old Testament functions in the story of God, which culminates with Jesus. This is more than simply showing all the ways in which Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, but pointing out how the whole sweep of the story from Eden to exile and back is looking forward to the final revelation of Israel’s messiah, the ultimate rescuer and ender of exile for Israel and therefore the world. In high school, then, children are ready to deal with the Bible in a more critical manner, dealing with the challenges it presents while understanding the purposes underlying the text.
I like this approach very much. It presents the Old Testament in a useful way – one that gives it far more relevance than when it is presented as a loose collection of stories and prophecies – and the idea of focusing on Jesus, as the Bible does, is dumbfouding in its simplicity. How has no one thought of this before?
On the other hand, one cannot simply choose to ignore the Old Testament until fifth grade. Even if you wanted to, it’s impossible. Sunday school lessons and Bible classes in Christian elementary schools are designed around the stories of the Bible, and that means a healthy dose of Eden, Flood, Babel, exodus, conquest, judges and kings. Enns does not give any guidance on how to handle those stories if we still struggle with their historicity and their portrayal of God and our children are too young to begin introducing the notion of the Bible’s Jesus-centered sweep.
What Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible does is set up a quick-and-dirty framework for parents wanting to present a healthier vision of God and his word than a simple telling of Old Testament stories would otherwise provide. He quickly and effectively knocks down various alternative approaches to the Bible – the Bible story approach, character study approach, book-by-book approach and the defensive (i.e., apologetic) approach – then briefly presents what he calls the five acts of the Bible, from Genesis 1 through the Gospels.
And here’s the beauty of the whole thing: If we can get the framework right, it’ll be much easier to get God right.
If our framework is the capricious and arbitrary God of the Old Testament stories, then we will filter the New Testament portrayals of Jesus and the teachings of his apostles through that lens. But if our framework is Jesus, whose incredible love and compassion led him to the cross, and he becomes the lens through which we see the rest of the Bible, God’s story becomes much brighter – and our children have a better chance of becoming the followers and lovers of God we want them to be.