Should Children Read the Bible?

Former Conservative comes across a parent who is rewarding his 10 year old daughter for reading the Bible everyday. This isn’t a new idea for me: growing up I had several friends who would whip out a bible and start reading whenever their parents were watching. I was never convinced that they understood what they were reading, but their parents were always suitably impressed with their piety.

My question is, why do we want children to read the Bible? This question has nothing to do with the violence in the text. After all, are the Brothers Grimm any less gory? The question has to do with comprehension.

If you are a liberal or moderate Christian, you probably believe that the Bible has to be understood in its context as an ancient document. How likely is a child to be able to understand ancient greek and Jewish cultures? Even adults need a lot of hand-holding and support as they start to read the Bible. Without that they frequently come to mistaken understandings of the text.

If you are a conservative, you probably wouldn’t phrase things the same way, but there are similar problems. Conservatives are forever talking about the “apparent contradictions” in the text. One moment we’re being told that the Bible should be taken at “face value,” – none of that wishy-washy interpretation stuff for us – and the next we’re being told that the apparent meaning isn’t the actual meaning.

This is enough to trip up an educated adult. I’ve had several discussions with conservative evangelicals about the book of Job. I’ve been told several times that Job was prideful and so his suffering was punishment. This despite the fact that we learn from the very first sentence that Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.”

Is a child going to be able to grasp that just because the book says that Job was blameless doesn’t mean we can’t find something to blame him for? Perhaps we should stop printing those various children’s bibles (my sister-in-law has one where Adam and Eve eat the “no-no fruit”), comic book bibles and coloring book bibles. Maybe it’s time we put the bible on the same shelf with the other books for when they’re older.

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Selective Reading Round-Up
Quote of the Moment: Protestant Doubt
Clarity and Contradiction in the Bible
  • Andrew Hall

    Job was clearly a guy who was doing the right thing and God killed his kids because He felt like it. No worries though, Job got himself some new kids at the end of the book.

  • Matt P

    There are many works of literature that are unsuitable for children, or at least, if they must be read, be supervised carefully, perhaps skipping the gory parts depending on the age of the child. However, I doubt most children are reading the Bible cover to cover, especially considering most adults, even Christians, don’t either.

    Context does matter. Some people have a problem with Twain now for using the n-word, which, in the culture it was written, was suitable. Little House talks about native Americans as savages and better off dead. No one denies their place in the pantheon of great literature, but there are parts that are not suitable for younger readers who can’t understand the historical context of 150 years ago, much less 2000 years or more.

    There are certainly stories in the Bible that can be useful for teaching moral lessons to children, but they should be tailored in an age appropriate manner, much as school lessons gradually increase comprehension over time by increasing difficulty. Having children dive in without parental guidance is irresponsible.

    • vasaroti

      One of the main reasons for Twain using the N word was to spotlight the dehumanization of Blacks. The word was unacceptable to Twain- that’s why he used it. Then, as now, it’s supposed to make the reader wince every time they see it.

    • Michael

      In my opinion there really are no Bible stories that are sufficiently simple and moral that I would want to use them to teach morals to kids. Most of the clear-cut fables (like the ones in Genesis or Acts) and lists of instructions (like Proverbs) do not give kids the right idea. The more complicated stories like Job or the sermon on the mount and even short ones like Ruth will not make sense at all.

      Exodus can be a fun story I guess as long as the kids know it’s all fictional and don’t dwell much on all the dead people, but I still have a hard time getting over the tenth plague (not to mention one through nine).

  • JonJon

    As a literature person, I don’t have an answer to this question, other than to say that the Bible is not unique in being badly misread by the general public. Just because you got some enjoyment from reading (say) Huck Finn doesn’t mean that you understood it, or that you are capable of reading it correctly. After all, maybe you just really like all writing about rivers (this is not as far-fetched as it sounds.)

    So I’m of the opinion that the only reason to keep books out of the hands of kids is in the case of really graphic content that they probably don’t need to deal with yet. Now, the Bible has some of this, arguably not an overwhelming amount given its length, but it’s definitely there. I can see that as a reasonable justification for not letting a kid read it, although I think the cases for which that will really apply are pretty small.

    But not letting a kid read a book because they won’t understand it seems extremely inappropriate to me. Is it that they won’t understand the book “correctly”? Who establishes what the “correct” reading is? The parent? That’s alarming. The vast majority of parents have an incomplete understanding of a given book (much less one as complex as the Bible–and with a history of dogmatic, bitterly opposed schools of thought, to boot.)

    The whole goal of letting a kid read is to allow a kind of exploration and self-education. That implies imperfect knowledge. Imposing a standard of knowledge before that exploration and education can begin seems to be the worst kind of ass-backwards.

    • Matt P

      So children should read whatever they want, whenever they want? There has to be some filter, and I’d rather the parents apply it than churches, schools, or governments.

      Every person is biased and established the “correct” understanding of a work. I had a teacher in my college english class who consistently gave me low grades in analysis of the poetry readings because I failed to comment upon the sexuality that oozed from every word. I did not because at the time I was a virgin and did not understand those interpretations. Could he have mandated that I have sex in order to correct my readings? I use an extreme example because we all have imperfect understanding.

      But parents have a legal and ethical responsibility for their children. They should be involved in what books they read. If they do not, they abrogate their historical role and, by default, assume responsibility for the results or lack thereof.

      To slightly change the topic, I think the “unschooling” movement is a load of crap, and will inflict upon society hordes of uneducated, unsocialized creeps who expect life to be handed to them upon a silver platter. You can’t expect a child to self-educate without any foundational knowledge.

      • JonJon

        “So children should read whatever they want, whenever they want?”

        Yes Matt, I think if you read carefully that’s exactly what I said. /sarcasm.

        “There has to be some filter, and I’d rather the parents apply it than churches, schools, or governments.”

        Well, no, there doesn’t have to be a filter, actually. A good filter is certainly better than no filter, but a bad filter is decidedly worse than no filter at all.

        I don’t understand where you’re coming from with this sexed up professor thing. (Although I’ve been taught by my share of those…) I would think that as someone whose understanding of a book was constantly stomped on by someone else’s, you would see the damage that it does. You were, in effect, not allowed to interpret the book for yourself, but given “expert” guidance to decide what was important. You seem to have found it rather irritating. So my question is simple: why are you using this example to suggest that people’s reading should be guided by experts?

        “But parents have a legal and ethical responsibility for their children. They should be involved in what books they read.”

        Leaving aside your bit about the historical role of parenting, which probably isn’t what you think that it is, I agree with the above statement. I think parents should absolutely be involved with what their kids are reading. I just don’t think that means that they should disallow their kids from reading certain books just because they are “hard” or ideologically troublesome. When I say a parent should be involved, what I mean is that a parent should be available to talk about what a child reads and help him or her interpret it. This is the same thing that a parent should do for any kind of learning experience a child has.

        And a parent should be concerned for the safety and well-being of their child. But that means making sure they’re buckled in on the drive to the planetarium, not forbidding them to go because the vast inky blackness of space raises too many uncomfortable questions. Uncomfortable questions are how children learn, and if you don’t believe me you don’t hang around very many children. One’s job as a parent is not to prevent uncomfortable questions, but (gasp) answer them.

        To slightly change the topic:
        “hordes of uneducated, unsocialized creeps who expect life to be handed to them upon a silver platter”

        Rofl. What the hell? Have you been to a supermarket lately?! It is not difficult to find an excess of entitlement and poor behavior in today’s kids. Let’s broaden your ill-considered complaint to all homeschoolers in the US, shall we? There are between 1.5 and 2 million children who are homeschooled in the US. The majority of them are *not* “unschooled”, but leave that for the moment. There are almost 50 million children going to public schools right now, and 6 million or so in private or parochial schools. (By the way, these numbers aren’t hard to find…) This means that according to the most recent numbers, just under 14% of US children attend school anywhere other than a public school, and (let’s be generous) perhaps 4% of US children are home schooled. Let’s be even more (extremely, ridiculously) generous and say that half of all children who are home schooled in the US are “un”-schooled. You are now talking about 2% of all children in school in the US. When you go to a supermarket and see a poorly raised, screaming child, 98% of the time, he or she will have been attending a school. When you read that a state’s test scores have gone down, 98% of the time, the students who didn’t learn what they needed to learn in the last several years of their educational experience were in school the entire time.

        Let me just restate this more clearly. Why not worry about the fact that 98% of all primary and secondary students in the US are increasingly entitled, increasingly unsocialized, and increasingly under-educated before you start fear-mongering about the 2% that you have no data on.

        • Matt P

          My wife and I are asked uncomfortable questions by our children (7 and 9) on an almost weekly basis, so I do know where you are coming from, JonJon. In fact, we usually ask “what do you think the answer is?” before discussing it with them. This includes the birds and the bees. And Santa Claus. And God. Because we believe that parents must be involved in our children’s education. It is important enough that we don’t just leave it to the schools, or the books they read, or just the parents.

          My point about my professor was that we are all biased. I can analyze myself enough to know, or at least suspect, where my bias lies and take conscious steps to mitigate its impact. I don’t know how a particular teacher is biased, unless I’ve sat in their classroom, and I don’t know a book’s bias unless I’ve read it recently. Which is why I don’t like “experts” screening my children’s books. I know my children and can suggest books that are maturity-appropriate for what they can understand, and talk to them about the parts they might not.

          I suspect we are talking around each other a little. I agree that most kids are failed by the system, and I believe (although I’d have to search for some studies) that parental involvement is the cure. To be honest, any studies would have to be correlation because I doubt it would be ethical (much less possible) to do a double-blind in parental involvement.

        • JohnMWhite

          I agree with JonJon here. I think the idea of shielding children from literature until you’re sure they’ll understand it the ‘right way’ is inappropriate and illogical. At that point, they might as well not even read the text and just be told what it says, for example by a man in a dress every Sunday.

          I feel fortunate that my parents, despite being quite conservative Catholics, had no qualms about me reading anything and everything. They were perhaps a bit wary of my young self reading the likes of Stephen King, and warned it might cause nightmares, but never would have thought of saying ‘you must not read that’ about anything. When you consider that some of the earliest tales we tell children involve cooking human beings alive or brutally beheading hungry creatures, I really don’t think there is much that can be written on a page that would be too much for them. Film and television is naturally different, because it presents a realistic image that a young child might not be able to fully separate from reality, but with literature I really do not see the need for a filter.

          “So children should read whatever they want, whenever they want?”

          Yes. Whyever not?

          Also: “I think the “unschooling” movement is a load of crap, and will inflict upon society hordes of uneducated, unsocialized creeps who expect life to be handed to them upon a silver platter. You can’t expect a child to self-educate without any foundational knowledge.”

          Unschooling isn’t what you think it is. They don’t just throw a child in a library when they turn five and say “ok, go learn stuff, if you feel like it”. There is a foundation, and socialisation, it’s just that specialisation comes from what the student is interested in and cares about learning. While you might presume that most children are lazy brats who will choose to learn all about Grand Theft Auto rather than educate themselves, that’s not really how it works until children have their natural curiosity crushed by factory-standard institutions controlling their every move and berating them for every mistake.

          I’m certainly wary of the homeschool idea for the fanaticism that such isolation protects, but state schools in the West are not doing a particularly good job either. I remember when I got to university, which was not that long ago, there was much consternation among the staff about the number of students who somehow qualified for uni but had never learned how to write an essay, had no idea what a bibliography was and, in some cases, could not read. They weren’t home-schooled or unschooled. People from state schools like myself also had a habit of bewildering lecturers by putting our hand up to fearfully ask to go to the toilet, interrupting the lesson because we had never been allowed to perform a natural bodily function without permission from aggressive teachers who begrudged anyone who ever needed to empty their bladder.

          • Iain

            I’m not really adding anything to this argument, but I thought JohnMWhite (and maybe others) would find this talk on modern education systems thought-provoking:

      • Schaden Freud

        As a kid I read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted (or at least when my parents weren’t looking). My parents did try to filter what I was reading, so I simply solved that problem by not telling them what I was reading. It didn’t do me any harm. I was unschooled for a few years too, and that didn’t do me any harm either. In fact I put myself through college and earn well above the national average. If you put a kid in a situation where s/he has to self-educate, s/he will.

    • Michael

      I absolutely think kids should be able to read any book they want within reason, but I certainly wouldn’t specifically encourage them to read the Bible. In fact if I saw them reading it all the time, I would probably suggest they diversify.

    • Ty

      “Just because you got some enjoyment from reading (say) Huck Finn doesn’t mean that you understood it, or that you are capable of reading it correctly.”

      Gah, I hate hate HATE this symptom of literary pretension. No offense Jonjon, I just hate it a lot. Writing is a solitary act. Reading is a collaboration. It is impossible to ‘read something wrong.’ Any writer who doesn’t think their reader will bring a whole host of preconceptions, prejudices, and educational levels to the table is an idiot.

      You never ever ever get to blame a reader for not taking from the text what you’d hoped they would.

      • UrsaMinor

        “You never ever ever get to blame a reader for not taking from the text what you’d hoped they would.”

        You do if you compose your work in Lojban. Or so goes the theory.

        Arthur C. Clarke was a great proponent of deliberately designed logical languages. I have yet to see one that works in the real world.

      • JonJon

        Well, while I do think it is possible to read something “incorrectly,” I meant to convey the idea that since the vast majority of readers read “incorrectly,” “correctness” isn’t a good standard for filtering what people read in any way. I’m a big fan of calling it “incorrect” reading primarily because it counters the prevalent tendency to allow every single interpretive act the same merit. And some interpretive acts are, if it makes more sense than “correct,” more skillful, relevant, and productive of knowledge than others.

        But, at any rate, I’m not unsympathetic to your position. I certainly don’t think that the “correctness” (or “skill,” or what have you) of one’s interpretation should be used as a standard for the censorship of a book.

    • Rich Wilson

      I’m concerned with what my kid sees on TV (and our only source is Netflix/DVDs etc, so minimal advertising) but not with what he reads. No, I don’t want him reading porn (he’s not even 5) but by the time he’s able to read his way through something, I figure even if he doesn’t get all of it, it’s not going to hurt him either. I think there’s a difference between something active like reading and something passive like TV. Your brain has to be ‘on’ for reading.

      I distinctly recall reading T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” at age 12, and thinking it was a bit beyond me, and I’d have to read it again as a ‘grownup’. But it didn’t kill me. Or even, I don’t think, scar me.

  • Jay

    And which Bible? The King James, for instance, is so plagued with convenient mistranslations and politicized perversions of the original texts that you would be leading a child directly into heresy by exposing him to it. Pregnant virgins? Immortal souls? A heavenly afterlife? Why, you little pagan!

  • Andy Breeden

    From Introduction to the Old Testament, Lecture 1, “The Parts of the Whole,” Christine Hayes:

    The Bible’s not for children. I have a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old. I won’t let them read it. I won’t let them read it. Those “Bible Stories for Children” books, they scare me. They really scare me. It’s not suitable for children.

    The subject matter in the Bible is very adult, particularly in the narrative texts. There are episodes of treachery and incest and murder and rape. And the Bible is not for naïve optimists. It’s hard-hitting stuff. And it speaks to those who are courageous enough to acknowledge that life is rife with pain and conflict, just as it’s filled with compassion and joy.

    It’s not for children in another sense. Like any literary masterpiece, the Bible is characterized by a sophistication of structure and style and an artistry of theme and metaphor, and believe me, that’s lost on adult readers quite often. It makes its readers work. The Bible doesn’t moralize, or rarely, rarely moralizes. It explores moral issues and situations, puts people in moral issues and situations. The conclusions have to be drawn by the reader.

    • JonJon

      Andy, do you agree with this quote? I don’t think I can productively comment unless you’ve actually said something substantive about it. Whether or not you agree, and how strong that agreement is, would be a bare minimum for this to contribute helpfully to further discussion. Even better would be an explanation of why you think what you think about this particular passage you’ve quoted here.

      I admit, you have provided a position for other people to examine, but I don’t really care about Ms. Hayes’ argument, since she isn’t here talking about it.

    • Michael

      The Bible doesn’t moralize, or rarely, rarely moralizes.

      Clearly this guy has never read any of the epistles. Or Proverbs. Or Psalms. Or Leviticus. Or Hosea. Or any of half a dozen other books.

      The parts of the Bible worth reading do not moralize, but big chunks of it do.

      • Michael

        Note that when I said “this guy” I was referring to Andy. The author (Christine Hayes) is presumably a woman.

    • Noelle

      Don’t know who Christine Hayes is, but unless she wants to come on here and argue her own points, I’d rather hear your own original opinion on the subject.

  • Noelle

    I do not recommend censoring reading material for children. Nothing boils my blood more than a good book banning.

    • UrsaMinor

      I agree. I had unrestricted access to any book that I wanted to read as a kid, and (strictly anectdotally) I would say that I ended up much better prepared to deal with a diverse and confusing world than my peers who were only allowed to read parentally pre-approved things. The world is not a neat, sunny, whitewashed place. Reading only neat, sunny, whitewashed stuff is not going to help you deal with it.

  • Gordon

    I read a book called Punished by Rewards that made a compelling case that by rewarding a behaviour -in this case bible reading- you are subtly but inexhorably sending the message that the thing is not worth doing on its own merits.

    So when nobody is watching (or paying) they will not read the bible anymore.

    Sounds good.

    • Mogg

      I’m not sure about sending a message that the thing is not worth doing, but it does sound like a classic case of training by conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs dribbling when they heard a bell. In this case, the kid is being trained to read the Bible when the parents can see – which may not be exactly the outcome the parents want!

      • Michael

        Many parents prefer to train their children than teach them.

        • Mogg

          Exactly. Straight out of the Bible: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. Lots of people in the more fundamentalist type churches really believe that’s the best way to raise children.

          • Ty

            This is why I don’t have kids: someone told me it’s wrong to beat them into submission.

  • konrad

    When I was in primary school there was an after school program intending to do just that. They lured us in with promises of cookies and small pamphlets that contained selected biblical sections and the promis that if we read enough of them, we would eventually be given our very own copy of the whole book.

    I went a few times, and ate the cookies and then got sufficently bored to give up entierly.

    • Michael

      our very own copy of the whole book.
      I’m guessing they didn’t tell the little kids that anybody can easily get free Bibles from any of dozens of churches, charities, and other organizations. The Gideons will even deliver them to you.

  • Daniel J. Pool

    I would say that this article is 100% correct–however really just about any story, in the wrong context, can be harmful to a child’s understanding of the world. When I was a kid I thought (if I tried really hard) any wardrobe would let me into Narnia.

    I think the real concern is whether or not the parents of said children are making time to aid a child’s reading comprehension. Like the article said even adults struggle at times when reading ancient texts. Investing time to share thoughts on a text can be more powerful at times than the text itself–’Everyone Poops’ is very thought provoking.

  • JenG

    I would love to hear your take on Peter Enn’s “telling god’s story” guide and cirriculum for teaching on this topic. I think his ideas have a lot of merit and are by no means the typical – and terrible – current approaches. Please check it out!!!! I also think the Jesus storybook bible (it’s christocentric) shows some promise.

  • Nox

    One interesting answer to this question.

    And mine…

    Yes. But only for the reasons they should read Shakespeare, Homer or Stan Lee.

    Tradition has its value. That is not to say we should be bound to tradition (as I’ve argued previously, and as most here would agree, we should not), but we should be aware of tradition. We should be aware of where we came from and how we got here. And the traditions upon which western culture is mostly based run unavoidably through the bible (I am referring here to people’s perception of the book as much as what the book actually says).

    Should it be read as the word of god? Should it be read a good source of moral guidance? Should it be read as an entirely accurate history of mankind (or even a mostly accurate history of the jews)? Should it be read as great literature? Should it be read as man’s greatest attempt to describe the divine?

    Probably not, since it is not any of those things.

    But should it be read? Just read? As a book like any other (the way even a child might read “Animal Farm” or “Watership Down” and get something out of it without having to believe the talking animals part)?

    Books about god may not actually tell us anything about god, but some of them tell us interesting things about humanity’s search for god, which in turn can tell you quite a lot about humanity. I know the question is should children read the bible, but I tend to think that people of any age should read whatever they wish to read without restriction. If a person (of any age) understands that not everything they read is true, there are things they can learn from the bible.

    Where I would worry about children reading the bible, my main worry is that they might believe it. A person of any age who actually believes the bible is made to believe some dangerously foolish things. And as people begin life with no frame of reference for discerning truth, children are more vulnerable to being deceived.

    Also most of the positive messages or useful information are contained within a small minority of these books (specifically imo, Job[though I agree this one is for advanced readers], Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, and James, each of which also teaches useless or harmful messages). It is problematic to judge the bible as a single book (or even to mention it as a single book). And many of the parts that would raise it’s overall score can be completely separated from the rest. You don’t need the entire canon for the Golden Rule. That stands on it’s own merits and can be expressed completely separate from it’s appearance in the bible, and reading from front to back you wouldn’t get to it until well after Numbers and Joshua. By the time they are exposed to anything positive (almost all of which can be taught without even mentioning that it’s in the bible), they will have read some of the most destructive words ever put to paper.

    If I saw a child reading the bible, I would be concerned for what they might find there, and I would consider it a moral imperative to tell them it isn’t really a true story and that just because the book calls someone “righteous” does not necessarily mean their behaviour is something to be approved of, before encouraging them to continue reading and form their own judgment.

    There are negative moral lessons and factual innacuracies throughout the book which have the potential to do very real harm to an impressionable mind. Just not as much harm as trying to control what people read (for even the best reasons). I don’t believe a parent is ever really helping their child by sheltering them from information (even demonstrably wrong “information”). There are a lot of bad ideas out there. Your children will find them. If you want to protect them from bad ideas, the best thing you can do is teach them to recognize and dismantle bad ideas.

    Wherever you’re raising them (although this point applies more in the US than anywhere else), however you’re raising them, your children will eventually be exposed to christianity. To leave them unaware of the religion leaves them open to being blindsided by an evangelist (your children will almost certainly encounter a few). Knowing what the bible says is the best reason not to be a christian (and if there is a best reason to be a christian it is probably that as well) and among other benefits it is a remarkably useful tool for dealing with those who would like to tell you what they think it says.

    If it is a closed case (as it pretty much is at this point) that christianity and it’s associated literature are mistakes of mankind, what should our species do with it’s greatest mistakes? Sweep them aside and pretend they didn’t happen or put them on display and tell our children about them in hopes that we will all realize what we did wrong last time.

  • Nathan

    Jesus didn’t go around teaching people to read the Bible. He taught people to be good to one another; forgive, have mercy, not to become angry, not to resist evil. These can be taught without a Bible if one chooses. I personally think that with all the contradictions the Bible contains, it would only serve to makes things more confusing for children. Children do not need religion or dogma which entraps the mind and the soul. Teach the simple doctrine of Jesus (or as some like to call it, “the golden rule”) and that is sufficient enough. Always to do for others what one would do for their self.