Honesty in the Journey (or On the Raising of Young Heretics)

Honesty in the Journey (or On the Raising of Young Heretics) August 11, 2013

Nearly twenty years ago, my oldest was six years old. One of our bedtime routines was a brief Bible reading.

One evening we found ourselves in the Garden of Eden story—Adam and Eve, a piece of fruit, and a snake with vocal chords.

As I read, my son kept sighing, as if impatient with my reading. Being the only Old Testament expert in the room, I ignored him and kept going.

But he kept sighing. He even had the audacity to interrupt me.

“Daddy, snakes can’t talk.”

The woman said to the serpent, “we may eat fruit from the tr….”

“Daddy. Snakes. Can’t. Talk.”

With a sense of foreboding, I stopped reading and asked him, pray, to continue his remonstration. For the next few minutes I listened to a six year old deconstruct his faith, which amounted to the following:

Two naked people, magic fruit from a magic tree, and a talking animal. C’mon. This is obviously a story, not too different from the cartoons I watch or the other books you read to me, none of which you expect me to accept as reality. So, it seems to me that the Bible is a story, which gets me dangerously close to thinking that maybe God is a story, too. Hence—follow me here, Dad—I’m not sure why I should really believe God is real, which is to say, please stop reading, and can I have a glass of water?

My six year old was having a faith crisis.

Well that’s just perfect. I can see the headlines now: “Controversial Old Testament professor raises heretic son” (trial footage at 11:00).

My first instinct was fear: “Shhhhhh! Keep your voice down! He may hear you.” But, in one of those moments that for me constitutes sure proof of God’s existence, my mouth was kept from saying what my brain was telling it.

I tried a different approach: “You don’t really believe in God anymore? O.K., well, tell him.”

Let’s not talk about the problem, just tell God. Be honest with him.

My son wasn’t expecting that. He looked at me like I had spiders crawling out of my nostrils. He also looked a bit relieved.

Over the years, I have been thankful to God that I didn’t correct my son’s theology, for that would have been utterly stupid. Had I shamed him or coerced him into saying the right thing (so I would feel better about my parenting skills), I would have been responsible for creating another religious drone, another one who, at a young age, was already learning to play the religion game.

I would have taught my son a crippling lesson, that faith in God requires him to be dishonest with God and with himself.

I am proud of that little six-year-old, who trusted himself enough not to play games. And I am thankful that I, by a flickering moment of God’s grace, didn’t blink (too much).

Life in Christendom can sometimes feel like a show. We can be quite concerned to put on appearances—even though the Gospel humbles the proud and unmasks the hypocrite. Dishonesty cheapens the Gospel as yet another commodity to be controlled and manipulated for personal gain. It ceases being that which gives us our true identities to that which is manipulated, along with everything else, to hold on to our false selves.

We construct many reasons for maintaining a posture of dishonesty. For many, the failure to utter before God where we really are and what we are real think reflects a lifetime of corrupt spiritual teaching: God went through a lot of effort to save you, so the least you can do us have your act together so as not to disappoint him.

In a perverse twist, “holding on to the Gospel” becomes a motivation to hold on to self-deception.

I have learned that God, for our own sake, does not let that condition continue indefinitely.


This post is first appeared in December 2011 and was adapted from my commentary on Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 2011).


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  • This is good Pete,

    I have enough crises of faith on my own…I know my kids will too as their lives unravel prematurely.

    If I can model the Psalmist’s honesty and not pretend piety…allow the faith to be what it is, not what it isn’t and find that God is larger than our flickering ability to square the corners…

    Grace and peace for lent Pete,

    -Michael Thomson

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Michael. In a way, what you’re saying is that it’s OK to model a faith crisis yo your children. Interesting way of putting it.

  • Don Johnson

    And here is a crux. The intersection of faith and experience is different for different people. Some think the ultimate in faith includes denying all that experience teaches them. Some think the ultimate in faith includes embracing all that experience teaches them. And yet God can break both types of boxes.

    • peteenns

      Plus a few other boxes not on our radar screen, Don.

  • Peter, it’s a lovely story. Now there’s a lucky son.

    • peteenns

      Lucky Dad, too.

  • I’m so not a theologian, never have been, never will be, not even going to attempt to go there. But I’ve done my best to teach my kids to be honest with their faith and honest with our God. Thanks for your honesty, Pete. I respect it and appreciate it.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Carolyn. I think you’ve got some great kids, too 🙂 And congrats on your published piece!

  • Pete, I appreciate your honesty, and I hope I can also have the same wherewithal when discussing these things with my children. It reminds me of a student I had in youth group who graduated and went to a state university only to come out questioning the Garden of Eden story. His parents thought he “was abandoning with his faith” and reacted poorly, but he was simply questioning, not abandoning. We could use more parents like the above and less like that student had.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Evan.

  • Terry

    I wish I’d wondered some of these things when I was younger — while still moving forward in faith in Christ — rather than waiting until I was a pastor in my mid-30s. It about took me out, all the while trying to keep the crisis from taking out my wife, children and congregation. Keep up the encouragement Pete.

    • peteenns

      We seem to create these problems for ourselves, Terry, by setting up a standard that God seems not to be interested in meeting.

      • Terry

        That is exactly the case Pete. Exactly. Better to know the God that loves us than the God we’ve made up to love, I always (now) say.

        • Matt

          Terry, as a pastor in my mid-thirties now and also with a wife and kids, I’d be interested in chatting. (If the moderator would pass my email address to Terry… thanks!)

          • peteenns

            WIll do if Terry approves.

  • This is such a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. I resonated with it for so many different reasons.

    In Jonathan Kirsch’s book, “The Harlot by the Side of the Road”, the journalist shares a similar type of account when he began to read the bible to his five year old son. Kirsch didn’t know what to do with the passage in Genesis where Noah is lying “buck naked and drunk as a sailor” so he began to paraphrase things. Kirsch writes, “My son, already media wise at five, soon began to protest. If I paused too long over a troublesome passage, trying to figure out how to tone down or cut the earthier parts, he would sit up in bed and demand indignantly: what are you leaving out?”

    Children call a spade a spade and maybe this is why Jesus asks us to become children again. I know I left the Catholic church in my heart by the time I was thirteen because questions weren’t being answered and things didn’t make sense to me. Thankfully, God brought me back in a profound way when my mother took her life a few years ago when I was in my late thirties. (What amazing grace). Yet those years of questioning were good for me. I just wish someone had engaged me in a dialogue so that I could have been on board a little earlier.
    It seems you did that beautifully with your son. Related, one of the things that struck me last year in an Old Testament class was the struggle some folks had in understanding that there can be great truths in story even if the story is symbolic or not real. While some issues of historicity are key to our faith, others are less so. God speaks to us in so many different ways. As Christians, I think we have to learn to embrace the ambiguous and abstract a bit more readily. It’s part of the great and beautiful mystery of Him.

    • peteenns

      Lise, this is why writing a children’s curriculum has been such a challenge, in a good way. They are very concrete and don’t put up with convoluted explanations. Thanks for your comment.

  • I appreciated this post! I don’t have children of my own, but I know that I had many, many doubts about Christianity in my early years and teens. Often adults tried to silence those with serious questions or make you feel like you were losing faith. I don’t want my children (in the future) to experience that.

  • jon hughes


    That’s a moving account. I think the danger for me would be if your son or my son said he couldn’t believe in a man walking on water and feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Would we take the same approach in that instance?

    • peteenns

      I would allow them to think and remind them that God can handle their questions and doubts.

  • Just a dude havin’ a Glaubenskrise

    Thanks, Pete. I so needed to read that.

    • peteenns

      Glaubenskrise. Nice 🙂

  • Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see what’s so clever about your answer: “You don’t really believe in God anymore? O.K., well, tell him.” Isn’t that still feeding your son the not-so-subtle hint that God is real whether you believe it or not? It doesn’t seem to acknowledge your son’s genuine doubts and the possibility that he may be right. You could have done a lot worse, but you could have also addressed his doubts without shoehorning in the assumption that God is real.

    • peteenns

      You are bringing up a legitimate, but different, level of discussion, Danny. Often, people with a faith crisis think to themselves, “I’ll just go over here for a while and work out all this God business and then maybe see how or if he figures into it all.” I am taking a page out of things like Psalm 73 or Ecclesiastes where God is confrontable even in the disbelief, which I think adds a biblical dimension to this issue with young people. Still, I know what you are saying, but that is another post (or 2…or 10).

      • Fair enough. Thanks for your response.

      • Ian

        “You are bringing up a legitimate, but different, level of discussion, Danny.” I dunno, it didn’t sound like different levels were going on in the conversation you report.

        Sounded to me like you found a clever put down. You managed to simultaneously find a way to take the possibility of genuine disbelief off the table, while at the same time allowing you to feel self-righteous about not being explicit about what you expected him to believe. And you’re still feeling rather chuffed with yourself about it 20 years later.

        If someone told you about their belief in fairies, and you said “I’m sorry I just don’t buy it.” and they replied “Have you told the fairies that? Its cool, the fairies have long said that they don’t mind being told that. You really ought to confess your doubts to the fairies.” You’d rightly conclude they were a) not respecting your position and b) trying to be a smart-alek.

        No ‘deeper level’ or ‘biblical dimensions’ needed. Just a bit of basic respect.

        • peteenns

          Ian, you seem angry. In any event, my son (now 24) he would get a chuckle out of your reaction. If as an adult he brought the same issue to me, he and I would have (and have had) a very different sort of conversation. I also hope you can see the difference between a parent speaking to a six-year old about a matter of religious faith and two adults talking about fairies.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Ian, do you have kids? A convo about the nuances of God and faith/unfaith would not be possible with a 6 year old. You could always try, and they would likely just zone you out and then ask for a cookie.

  • JenG

    I’ve been listening to Peter Rollins lately – though I’ve yet to read his work – and can’t help feeling he’s on to something. Are you familiar with his work? Is he taking doubt too far?

    • peteenns

      I don’t know Rollins.

      • JenG


        I’ve listened through a couple podcasts off iTunes from different interviews he’s done. He’s a bit hard to understand because he’s 100% Irish : P But he’s brilliant and, dare I say, deeply prophetic for our times.

        “Life in Christendom can sometimes feel like a show. We can be quite concerned to put on appearances—even though the Gospel humbles the proud and unmasks the hypocrite. Dishonesty cheapens the Gospel as yet another commodity to be controlled and manipulated for personal gain. It ceases being that which gives us our true identities to that which is manipulated, along with everything else, to hold on to our false selves.

        We construct many reasons for maintaining a posture of dishonesty. For many, the failure to utter before God where we really are and what we are real think reflects a lifetime of corrupt spiritual teaching: God went through a lot of effort to save you, so the least you can do us have your act together so as not to disappoint him.”

        This quote sounded very much like Rollins so I was wondering if he’d influenced your thought at all.

        If you have a spare hour and 12 minutes, “Homebrewed Christianity” has a podcast of him speaking at Claremont. It’s called “TNT: Peter Rollins at Claremont” and you can get it for free on iTunes. It’s a decent intro to what he’s about. “Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot” podcast feed has an interview with him too called “The Role of Atheism in Christianity”.

        He’s a deconstructionist but I think he’s hit on something that a lot of us are thinking and feeling but not saying (although you are saying it and for that we’re all grateful!). The way he talks about Ecclesiastes reminds me of you too.


  • Daina

    I think there is Grace in your son’s questioning, not just your “flickering moment.” But it is often so hard for newer believers being discipled to both become a member in a church, AND work through their own grow in understanding scripture.

    Genesis may be the toughest read in the entire Bible for us; it is for me. Through Noah it reads like an allegory, and from Abraham on we forget that it is written as a recounting of history by a man born some 400 years after the last events. Having just finished I & I, appreciate your efforts to open discusion of these things.

    • peteenns

      I agree. Genesis should not be addressed with young people, I think. Gen 1-11 especially is among the hardest parts of the BIble to get on board with. That’s why in my Bible curriculum I start with the Gospels for grads 1-4.

      • Dan

        As a 20-something fully comfortable with his framework hypothesis view, I’ve definitely done some serious thinking about how I want to present scripture, especially Genesis, to any children I end up having. As you said, children are so concrete – the unbridled literalism of children can honestly be a joy to observe. My mom’s explanation of “a day to the Lord is a thousand years” worked with my young mind who asked how the Genesis account was compatible with how dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, but I can’t imagine all children are the same.

      • Frank

        The most ridiculous claim the bible makes is the resurrection of Jesus. If you believe that whats so hard about understanding everything else?

        Truthfully I don’t understand some Christians doubt or incredulity around things like a talking donkey or the parting of the Red Sea when the believe in the resurrection.

  • Hmmm…mighty articulate for a six-year-old…. 😉

    I remember reading a children’s Bible by myself when I was a kid. I was fascinated especially with the stories and pictures from the first part of Genesis. Then, in grade school, I read up on evolution through National Geographic and some library books. One day it dawned on me that they were mutually exclusive.

    My upbringing was in the Roman Catholic Church, but I left that behind at age 17 to become “evangelical.” The RCC had no problem with evolution, but the evangelical movement sure did. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I took a “faith step” and embraced creationism.

    It’s taken me years to recover from that mistake.

    I’m grateful now to be part of a church that doesn’t make a particular viewpoint on origins a test of faith. I hope I’m doing better with my children’s questions than I did with my own.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your input, Adam. Such a common story, in principle even in not in detail.

  • Pete, this was great! I was having similar thoughts as ur son about an hour ago… I’m writing my senior paper this semester on evolution and theology so this issue is fresh on my brain… Thanks and shared!

  • Thanks, Pete. Really, really good. My little girl is just 3 yet, but this will come in due time. Thanks for preparing me for that point. Or points, actually.

  • An R-rated meditation on 5-point TULIP Calvinism and the parable of the Prodigal Son shaped the way we raise our children. In the George C. Scott vehicle Hard Core, the control-freak father discovers that his attention to detail does not after all protect his daughter. As home schooling parents, we simultaneously seek to protect our children, but desperately cling to God for His mercies. Ultimately, we must trust Him, rather than our sheltered environment.

  • As someone who had my own decade-long crisis of faith and who is now a father trying to raise children, its comforting to see this process worked out in the life of another man and father. Had I been more open with my parents and pastor about my own crisis, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone down all the rabbit holes that handling it on my own took me. I just pray that, if my children have their own crises, they feel that they can come to me.

    • peteenns

      Great way of putting it! It comes It comes down to the risk of relationship with our children rather than controlling them out of our own fears and insecurities. Which means, we need to trust God with our children and do our best along the way.

  • Richard Maloney

    This article was rather disturbing to me, as it demonstrates the lengths that theists will go to in order to keep their kids theistic. The child in the article (although paraphrased) articulated logical, rational points for disbelief, the theist does not explain how the snake could talk, or how the more fantastic elements of his religion were in any way remotely possible.

    Instead, he pushes the blame off on his son. It’s not that the theist doesn’t have answers: his son is having a crisis of faith.

    It seems to me the theist is the one having the crisis of faith. After all, his assertion that his son is having a crisis is immediately followed by this quote: “My six year old was having a faith crisis. Well that’s just perfect. I can see the headlines now: “Controversial Old Testament professor raises heretic son” (trial footage at 11:00).” Heaven forbid a theologian be outwitted by a child! To this reader, the child is not having a faith crisis: the father is having an ego crisis.

    Finally, the theist uses a cowardly trick to fool his child into believing again. Rather than answer his child’s questions, the theist simply tells his child to tell God he doesn’t believe anymore. Not only does this kick the can down the road to the child’s teenage years (as such a bullying argument can’t stem the tides of doubt forever), but it’s a special pleading argument: “Believe in my deity first, then insult that deity you now believe in with your oncoming disbelief.” This is not the way that grown adults should behave around children.

    It’s one thing to explain one’s theological beliefs to one’s children. It’s quite another to use a rhetorical trick to avoid answering the tough questions and placate one’s ego for a few more years.

    • peteenns

      I appreciate your opinion, Richard, but I think you are reading my post from, perhaps, past wounds, and so not really seeing what I am saying–in particular you seemed to have missed completely my tongue in cheek humor. I was giving my son, even at that age, the freedom to explore his own spiritual development, but by challenging him to pursue God in the process. His questions, as pressing aas they are for a child, can be addressed in the adult level when the time comes. At that point he would see that a talking snake hardly constitues a crushing blow to theism.

  • Carol Stoner

    Appreciate this post more than you can know. Quick story to share….I was picking up some kids our group sent on scholarship to summer church camp (they were what we commonly label “unchurched”). A fourth grade boy with a VERY complicated home life (and no dad anywhere in sight) said to me as we were loading suitcases into the back of our van, “Carol, did you know David cheated on his wife?” I stammered something like, “yes I was aware of that part of the story.” Truth be told, I was thankful that another kiddo ran up and interupted our conversation, because I was lost in stunned-ville about where to take it. Weeks later when I checked in with all the campers to see what they remembered about their camp experience, this same boy said, “Carol did you know that David cheated on his wife?” I said to him, “you mentioned that to me while we were at camp. What is it about that part of the story that effects you so?” I don’t think I will ever forget his response (because it tells us precisely why we shouldn’t ever think the dirty little details don’t have the ability to speak)…he said slowly with great emphasis, “God FORGAVE HIM.” I am so grateful for the gritty little neighborhood where I hang (and most in my church are scared to tred), because it teaches me over and over that its not about getting it perfect (as if we ever could)…

    • peteenns

      What a great story, Carol. Thanks.

  • Terry M

    That was indeed a stroke of genius both in the writing and in the living.
    Sometimes we have to meet people where they are in the faith or lack thereof.
    I think that’s how God deals with it too. I’m certain God is not looking for automatons who regurgitate the theology they were force fed. I’m more inclined to believe in a God who will listen to my heart positive or negative and help me through it. I mean if you can’t feel safe having an honest talk with God, who can you feel safe with ? I also believe in a Supernatural God and Learning to separate the supernatural from the natural in a logical way can be difficult at younger ages.
    Great writing. I will be encouraging others to read your writings. God Bless.

  • NixonisLord

    I lost interest because this isn’t interesting; it’s boring songs an at early hour on Sunday and you expect me to pay you talk about something you’re not really sure of yourselves and which makes absolutely no difference to your moral lives anyway. Why should I run twice as fast to stay in the same place?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Perhaps I might have responded to such a question by saying “Since snakes don’t really talk, and it’s unlikely that a snake made by God would really try to rebel and undermine God’s plans for men and women, what do YOU think Moses was tryinig to say when he described the person who talked to Eve as a ‘serpent’? Have you ever heard a person described as a ‘snake’? Have you heard Jesus described as a ‘lamb’? What does an author mean when he tells a story and uses the name of an animal to describe one of the characters in the story?”

    I suggest that the concern should be about teaching our children to distinguish between what was written with the intent that it be understood literally, and what was written to be figurative or symbolic, as well as combinations of the two, when real people do things that are symbolic to transmit an idea. The baptism of Jesus by John involved real people doing something that was symbolic and figurative as a way of saying something that was very real.

    Making this distinction is vital to understanding Genesis 1 and 2 in the way that it was written. Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis, if you prefer) clearly was NOT present at the creation. What he wrote was therefore a description of something that God revealed to him, either by telling him in words or by showing him a vision or view of the events described. It is certainly a summary and leaves out details. For example, there is no reference to any of the planets, which were already well known at the time of Moses. There is no intimation of the larger structures of galaxies and nebulae, which were not known of at that time. It is not a first hand account, but one at second hand. For these reasons, to claim that it is a complete account, and that nothing that is not stated in the account could be real, is simply to make claims for the account that it does not make for itself.

    So this kind of a conversation should not be classified as a crisis of faith in God, so much as it is a crisis of an unwarranted assumption that all passages in the Bible were meant to be understood with facial literalness.

  • Beth D

    Great post! I have had similar experiences with my kids and handled it much the same way. Faith grows over time and Jesus (not parents) is the Author and Perfector. What can you do with tough questions but pray?

    Personally, I see no reason to avoid Genesis with kids though. The basic idea is that God made everything and he made each of us in his image — special and very good. That’s an important and basic tenet of our faith. We can’t always wrap our minds around everything God is, does, says — which is another useful thing to learn early on.

    • peteenns

      You are certainly right here, Beth. The big-picture of the Genesis story is important to communicate. Some of the details can get tricky, though.

  • Beth D

    I meant ‘very good’ as in fearfully and wonderfully made.

  • Beth D

    Dr. Enns, What do you think about Baalam and the talking donkey?

    • peteenns

      I think they were clearly miscommunicating 🙂

  • Beth D

    I take it you don’t think the donkey spoke. Do you find that interpretation is unreasonable or troubling in any way? Not trying to debate…just curious about your view.

    • peteenns

      I was just having some fun with your open-ended question, Beth. I think the donkey is a literary symbol to make a theological point about Balaam’s spiritual insensitivity toward God–something even a donkey was able to perceive.

      • Jeff Martin

        There is one noticeable difference in the story of the garden and Balaam. The snake just starts to talk but the donkey was given voice by God.

        • Derek

          Wasn’t the snake a demonic manifestation – i.e the devil?

          • Jeff Martin

            The text mentions that the serpent was more crafty than any OTHER wild animal that the LORD God had made. So he was one of the wild animals. The problem was humanity has always had a problem taming creation. It seems most of the time we take it to two extremes – we focus on creation exclusively or we discard it as not relevant.

  • Beth D

    thanks for the answer!! So you don’t find it unreasonable that the donkey talked, you just don’t think he did.

    If a person thinks the donkey could and did talk, why not a serpent?

    How much of the Bible is literary symbolism and how much really happened. In considering something symbolic/literal, what are the criteria? If you think too much of it is allegory, symbolic, non-historical does that cast doubt on Infallibility?

    It looks like I will have to buy your book!

    • peteenns

      All those questions are great, Beth–and they also take a LONG time to answer with sensitivity. As for the donkey, it’s not just that a donkey spoke–but note Balaam entering into a casual conversation with it.

  • Nate

    Does your son still believe now?

  • Pete – I know that you cannot answer this with a short response, or even a long one or perhaps even in book – but – what do you say to the 26-year-old who says the same thing? At face value it would be an angry giant, a talking serpent, a scientifically preposterous story, conflicting accounts, and a spiteful deity who curses the serpent, childbearing and the ground. How, or can one engage an adult who sees it this way in the Hebrew bible, some of which carries over into the NT?

    • peteenns

      Doug, I think at the adult level it is time to talk about these things in an adult way. To a child I think what can be done is create a culture in the home where questioning–which is inevitable–is not seen as hostile to faith but part of the faith journey. For those who have such interest (I don’t think such discussions should be forced upon people), the topic can turn to any and every issue of the Bible that needs to be discussed. And that is the best answer I can give without writing a book 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Hey, I just read this somewhere else, and thought it may be an interesting read concerning the serpent in Genesis:
    God bless.

  • Jay Blossom

    Pete: A more technical question: At what point in the history of Torah interpretation did the Genesis “serpent” begin to be associated with the Devil? I know the association is in Revelation 12 and 20, but I’m wondering anyone before the first century thought that the serpent was the same being as the Devil.

    • peteenns

      I’m not sure, Jay, but let me look into it. I don’re recall seeing it in 2nd Temple Judaism, but I could eb very wrong on that. Re: Rev 12 and 20, could the ancient serpent be an allusion to Leviathan and God subduing it at creation, a la the psalms? Just a thought.

  • T. J. Luschen

    Hi, I don’t understand the last line: I have learned that God, for our own sake, does not let that condition continue indefinitely.

    What is the “that condition”? Do you mean “holding on to the Gospel”? I think that when I started questioning my faith, I did “hold on to the Gospel”, and I guess that lasted a couple years, but now I believe the Gospel as little as I believe the Old Testament. It is a good story and can hold valuable moral lessons, just like any other story like Cinderella or George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Are you saying that God helped me get past my doubt to my current certainty that there is no God, or at least that Jesus was not God and if there is a God we can’t really know anything about him? I did like the fact that this came from your Ecclesiastes study – it is my favorite book of the Bible and the only one I can really wholeheartedly agree with.

  • beth

    I’m curious here…were you reading the bible, or a bible story book like the one pictured?
    If you were reading form the Bible, you know there’s no ‘Eve’ talking to a snake – she is simply the generic ‘woman’ – her naming is elsewhere. Little stuff like this is subtle but meaningful and butresses kid’s reception of the text in the genre it arrives in. If you change the genre (nailing down things that are not nailed down in the text) you are a)bastardising the text b) creating a faith crisis that doesn’t need to happen. There’s plenty in this world to challenge our faith – the call to compassion, the profligate wealth and greed of the west, to name a few – we don’t need to butcher the bible as well.

    I’ve consulted in children and fams faith formation for a long time. And it is admittedly a hard sell to convince parents and leaders to actually read the bible with (not to) children as the best practice. Many of the ‘suspension of disbelief’ difficulties come from the paraphrased glosses – I have always found reading the NRSV (which of course my kids have known from first teeth is a translation of a highly edited and collected tapestry oral tradition) is as easy or as difficult for any age. Children in our schools in Australia know how texts are formed. They know about genre and editing and allegory and metaphor and a ‘play with a play’, narrative and commentary in the same piece and that texts shift between these forms fluidly. They get all of that in school and read with this kind of intelligence from the first years of school. If we suppress these skills in approaching the bible – we are mad. We read because it is life-giving. Modelling the humble honest reception of the text as a multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-vocal, multi-faith resource for living life in God seems to me to hold a very ‘high’ view of scripture. Much higher than taking it upon oneself to rewrite in a paraphrase and dumb it down for kids.

    On another angle here though is the gap between academic theologians and biblical scholars and parents/teachers of children seeking to open the Bible. I am both. This is (I confess) my particular area of professional interest. I wonder Peter, whether/how this experience with your own child has reshaped your practice as a teacher?

  • Derek

    I’m now 28 years old and ever since I became a Christian I have never stopped questioning and wrestling with honest doubts. God’s grace is manifested during those times indeed.

    I’m not trying to make a snide remark here, but I tend to still believe that snakes can talk because my worldview incorporates the reality of the supernatural, and if Satan was literally active, a talking snake at that point don’t really doesn’t surprise me all that much.

    (Yes, yes, I am aware that snakes were a common feature of ANE mythologies!)


  • Darryl Stringer

    Peter (or anyone) – What book would you recommend to learn how to differentiate the different literary genres in the Bible?

    • summers-lad

      I would recommend the Bible. C S Lewis said something along the lines of “if it reads like a legend, it’s a legend. If it reads like factual history, it’s history. If it reads like poetry, it’s poetry.” Read the Bible (as far as possible) without preconceptions, and let it speak for itself. If you can, read it with one or two people who are coming to it for the first time and listen to each other’s takes on it.

      Lewis also said that the resurrection – the stuff of mythology recorded in down-to-earth style and close-at-hand reality – had the unique quality of being “a myth that really happened”. Be open to there being (sometimes) more than one genre in the same passage.

      • Darryl Stringer

        Thanks Summers-lad. I get that, but then I read the story of the Israelites in the OT and some of that reads like factual history, but some scholars say that the writers have exaggerated things or the exodus didn’t happen quite as it is written. How does one sort through it all? Or should we just accept that God is God regardless of what is history and what is a “mnemo-narrative”?

        • summers-lad

          Sorry for the delayed response. A fair question; I tend to take the Bible as true on its own terms (e.g. the creation stories are portraying truth about God and God’s purposes for the world, using the form of a myth; Psalm 137 truly demonstrates the anguish and faith crisis of the Israelites in exile, etc) which is different from saying that every chapter contains doctrinal, non-contextual truth. I don’t have a good answer to the question of embellishment or fiction posing as fact, though I would have no problem with Job or Jonah, for example, being dramatic fiction as that wouldn’t affect the message of these books. (Just as there doesn’t have to have been a real-life Good Samaritan.)
          I suppose if I was to suggest anything it would be to read the Bible centred on Jesus, and how the whole testimony of experiences in it relates to him. That may not answer your question but it will help focus on the essential.
          I hope someone can give you a more direct answer. Keep on exploring!

    • $25547577

      If you want to find a book on literary forms in the Bible, I suggest two things. Google literary forms in the Bible and Amazon. Do the same thing in Google Books. There you may actually be able to read through books that have been scanned. In all cases, I advise keeping an open but critical mind.

      Donald Cole used to be an integral part of the line-up on the Moody Bible Institute’s WMBI. I remember him often saying that if all you’ve read is the Bible, you don’t know the Bible. I took issue with him, not because I felt he was wrong, but because I felt he looked down on the students at Moody. He often made statements that made me feel he didn’t think highly our our acumen.

      I the years that followed my graduation, I slowly began to realize how right he was. My first revelation came from the John Steinbeck novel, East of Eden. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe chapters 22 and 24 went into great depth on the story of Cain and Able. Until that time, I had never seen such an excellent exposition of that story, and I knew it was right on the money.

      As years turned into decades, I discovered more books outside the Bible that explained it in ways I would never have thought to consider. Moreover, I found that people I once viewed with suspicion actually had a better understanding of the Bible that I did. For example, liberal New Testament scholars knew infinitely more. I also learned that I could benefit from reading Jewish and Christian scholars of the Hebrew canon. For that matter, I could also learn from Muslims who tackled the Hebrew canon and the New Testament with their expository tools.

      My answer to your question, Darryl, is that there is no one book I can recommend. You may actually learn something true about the Bible from a work of fiction as I did. Furthermore, you can benefit from studying many works, and this will only serve to excite you about your faith as well as challenge your previous assumptions on every front.

      I can recommend authors such as Bart Ehrman and Israel Finkelstein. Dr. Ehrman is a respected New Testament scholar, but he is also an atheist. Like me, he went to the Moody Bible Institute. He has written a number of trade publications that happen to be so well composed that even lay people such as myself find his works fascinating.

      Israel Finkelstein is a scholar of the Hebrew canon, and he has written a book called “The Bible Unearthed.” From a literary perspective, that book is very interesting indeed. Finkelstein’s premise is that most of what we think of as the Hebrew canon wasn’t written until the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. I won’t spoil the surprise for you, but I’ll let you know that Finkelstein goes into great depth on the history of the Hebrew canon and the historical developments that very likely gave rise to its development.

      I know many people will take exception to the very idea that most of the Hebrew canon came so late, but that is precisely what I’m trying to get across. These books challenge our presuppositions and take us to places we would not imagine otherwise. I believe they help us understand the Bible with new, profound insights. They take us from black and white to living color.

      To give you a small sample, it never occurred to me that Genesis 1:1-2:3 was poetic, but that is in fact what it is. If you look closely, you can even see traces of it in our highly distorted English translations. I say distorted because it is impossible to translate ancient Hebrew effectively into modern English, and even the best translation committees approach the task with a certain amount of human bias. Look for the concepts of separation and population. Those two ideas show up again and again throughout the six “days” of creation, and it all starts in Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, Elohim created… Wait a minute! When did this happen? In the beginning? Or was that at the first, the first fruits, the principle, the head? What? What did Elohim (the Mighty One[s]) do? He or they created… Wait a minute! are you sure? Did he or they create or did he or they hew out? Did he or they make fat? Did he or they form?

      It just so happens that the Hebrew, for all its apparent simplicity, is rich in imagery and meaning. While Hebrew vocabulary may be limited, each word takes on many connotations. If you conduct a word study on the Hebrew word for beginning, bereshit, you’ll find that it has many different connotations. The same holds true for bara, the Hebrew word for create. If you look up every instance in the Bible that each of those words appears, you’ll be amazed at the variety of connotations. Translation is an imprecise art. The words tohu bohu (commonly translated formless and void) are an example of onomatopoeia. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is full of poetic imagery.

      Even more importantly, however, one must not overlook the surrounding context of a passage, so for Genesis 1:1, which appears to be a prologue of everything that follows in Genesis 1:1-2:3, you have the surrounding context of separation and population. The Almighty separated the light from darkness. He separated the day from the night. He separated the sky, the sea and the land. Then he populated the earth with plants and trees, birds, fish and eventually human beings. Do you see a pattern here? I do. God hewed things out of a chaotic mess (Genesis 1:2), and then he populated the earth with every living thing or made it fat.

      Finally, there is something we dare not miss. We tend to see the earth as a sphere, orbiting around the sun 365 days per year and rotating on its axis 24/7. That is not the way the ancient Hebrews saw the earth. They viewed it as a flat circular plane with mountains, surrounded by the abyss (the deep). Overhead was a hard dome, over which there was water, the sun the moon and the stars. When the Almighty saw fit, he opened doors in that dome, and it rained. Underneath the earth was a region called Sheol. The earth stood on pillars and had literal corners. To understand Genesis 1:1 properly, you must shed your 21st Century mindset and go back to thinking like an ancient Hebrew. That is nearly impossible, but completely out of reach with a little imagination. I’ve learned all these things through extensive reading on these topics. I can now say that I agree with Donald Cole.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Two naked people, magic fruit from a magic tree, and a talking animal. C’mon. This is obviously a story, not too different from the cartoons I watch or the other books you read to me, none of which you expect me to accept as reality.
    Your kid is right. Genesis 1 IS written as a story, beginning with a poem or song. It’s the Old, Old Story of the Jews.
    Some time ago, Chaplain Mike of Internet Monk speculated that the Age of Reason and Industrial Revolution led to viewing the Bible not as the Old Stories of God and Man, but as a “Spiritual Engineering Manual” of FACT, FACT, FACT. And we’ve been handicapped by this “Mind of Wheels and Metal” approach ever since.

  • hannah anderson

    I appreciate your ability to actually engage your son’s doubts, and I understand that this is the general thrust of this post. But I’m curious; why did you equate his inability to believe the Scripture with a fundamental disbelief in God? This is an honest question coming from a mother of three young children myself. Aren’t these two different faith crises? Does God exist? and Can I trust the Scripture’s revelation of Him? are not the same question.

    My 9-year-old daughter and I were talking just yesterday about how difficult it can be at times to believe in God (I think the specific question at hand was God’s eternality) and truthfully at that point, specific revelation wasn’t part of the conversation. So that while I am profoundly and deeply convinced of the authority and inspiration of Scripture (more conservative than most I’m sure), I’m also convinced that honest engagement with general revelation plays a significant part in our children’s ability to believe in God in the first place.

  • Ross B

    I must disagree. In a nutshell, unbelief is sin that needs to be confessed and forgiven. We all have questions and doubts, and this will continue in this life. As a father and a grandfather, I would say you missed an opportunity to be vulnerable and admit to your son that you, too, struggle with these things, then to lead him in asking for God-given faith.

  • G Michael Moore

    Nice article. I note (disappointed) that the author does not describe his son’s faith journey beyond that moment. The author’s answer is certainly better than the alternatives he describes. However, I wonder what the impact of putting the conundrum back on the kid (ask God about God) was. Is that a helpful paradox for a six-year-old? Maybe. Maybe not.

    More honest, perhaps, would be for Dad to describe his own understanding of how the “magic” works, while letting the boy know (in an open-hearted way) that 1) Each person must come to their own understanding and that 2) In Dad’s opinion, the boy’s honest inquiry is worthy of God. As the boy, I would find that much more helpful and a lot less crazy-making. Of course, this comes at the risk of Dad putting his own credibility on the line. At least it is truthful and, I believe, worthy of the boy’s respect.

  • herewegokids

    So interesting…. I wondered about that a lot as a kid (why is the Bible different from fairy tales/legends, since much of it was obviously of the same type of genre) but never dared say it out loud. Sometimes the purely miraculous seems just as unlikely, for instance, one of my favorite moments of ‘story time’ w/ my own: my 3 year old daughter (a natural skeptic) and I were reading a board book on Christmas. Around page 3, where ‘suddenly a host of angels appeared to the shepherds saying Glory to God and Peace Unto Men!!’, she looked at me slyly, (with a ‘gotcha’ expression) and said, “Yeah, riiiiiiight.” hahahahahahaha

    • herewegokids

      I love that about her, she gets it from her mom. I love that she questions.