Teaching the Bible in a Post-Literal World

From at least one perspective, I’d rather still be a biblical literalist.

It’s easy, after all, to teach your children that everything in the Bible is literally true, but much harder to introduce the nuance and shades of reality that lead to essentially overturning the reality of their childhood stories. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do that – I feel it’s always better to be truthful about the challenges and nature of the Bible because to pretend otherwise invites many more problems later – but it’s harder.

In literalist evangelical circles, there seems to be a tendency to describe the Bible as child-friendly, but I don’t think it’s true. There are stories in there we have adapted for use by children, usually by greatly sanitizing them, and there are concepts we can paraphrase so that children can understand, but the books making up the Bible were written by adults living in much different cultures thousands of years ago so that other adults in that culture could read them.

So how do we teach our kids to believe in and love the Bible while giving them the freedom to discover its tensions and contradictions without shaking their faith?

Not surprising, Peter Enns has been discussing this. As I’ve mentioned, Enns might be my favorite writer on the planet, an evangelical Christian who has dedicated his life – at much personal cost to himself – to helping fellow Christians work through the thornier questions of the nature of scripture, particularly regarding the creation stories of Genesis 1-2.

In a terrific interview with Jared Byas, Enns talks about how he recommends teaching the Bible to children:

Yes, how can a child learn early on to have a more nuanced view of the Bible so that when they get old they will be prepared for a more adult appreciation of the Bible?

This is a pressing issue, I think. A failure to give children a more nuanced view of the Bible can lead to crises of faith in middle-school, high school, and college, when they are confronted with information that is easily accessible on the Internet or discussed in classrooms (like the ancient parallels to the flood story or the different theological perspective in the Gospels).

I don’t think a child can handle a lot of nuance and subtlety. Kids are concrete. But, parents can model for them a questioning attitude toward the Bible. It is so refreshing when parents do not fear the thought of not knowing something.

“Hey mom, why is Jesus so mad at that fig tree?”
“Wow. I’m not sure. I’ve never thought about that before.”

Or, “It really surprises me that the Israelites kill so many people.”

Creating an atmosphere where honest engagement of the text, in an age-appropriate way, is of great value for parent and children alike. The pressure if off for parents to be the “answer man/woman” for everything, and children learn that God can handle their questions—and that some things are just plain old hard to answer.

I grew up believing the Bible satisfactorily answered all of our questions, and any doubting of the answers provided by a literalistic, premillennial view of scripture betrayed a lack of faith. That makes any kind of honest engagement with the Bible nearly impossible, and it’s an attitude I want to make sure my children do not learn – except as a way not to approach the Bible.

Enns continues:

The Bible is a difficult book to understand once you start looking at the details. It is fundamentally a book written for adults, not children. What often happens is, in trying to bring the Bible down to a child’s level, one has to water down or even distort the content of parts of the Bible. A classic example is the flood story. For children, we reduce it to a story of animals taking a boat ride where the moral of the story is “God is faithful.” In truth, the flood story is very unsettling even to adults—an angry God wipes out all life because people are sinful. A child may ask, “But I’m sinful, too. Will God be out to get me?”

I also want children to begin to see as early as possible that Jesus is the center and focus of their faith. We tend to replace Jesus with a lot of other things: our theologies, our denominations, moral behavior, etc. But knowing Jesus is the goal—and that is where I start in my curriculum, by introducing children to Jesus the way Jesus introduced himself to his audience: through stories, miracles, teachings, and other things.

At the end of the day, we are not called to have faith in anything else other than Jesus.

This is the key, I think. It’s so easy for literalists to get bogged down in defending the literal words of Genesis 1-11 or the historicity of Exodus-Judges – trust me, I know! But it’s also easy to get caught up in knocking down those stories or defending theistic evolution or whatever our pet theological topic of interest is. In the end, what matters is Jesus. Everything in the Bible points to him, and so should everything in our lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what my daughters think about the historicity of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. It matters what they think about Jesus. And the more my wife and I point to him, the more our children will see him and follow.

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