No Bible Story Left Untold?

No Bible Story Left Untold? January 31, 2012

Today in my freshman class, we’re beginning our discussion of Plato’s Republic. In Book II, there is a discussion of which Greek myths are appropriate to share with children. It always makes me think of the similar issue regarding Bible stories, which in turn makes me think of this video:

Even some stories that are regularly told to children contain rather horrific or gruesome details – the turning of Noah’s Ark into a story about cute animals rather than the mass extermination of most of humankind and animalkind, or David’s battle with Goliath as though it is merely a child standing up to a bully and does not end with a beheading.

Some churches place a lot of emphasis on telling Bible stories to children. Given that the Bible is in fact a collection of books and other literature for adults, and many stories end up being changed in order to be shared with children, I’d be interested to hear from a wide range of people of varying religious and non-religious perspectives. Should the Bible be shared with children as it is, in a watered-down form, or not at all? Is the Biblerated R“?

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  • To meet the standards that many Christians have for appropriate childrens’ literature, the Bible would have to be soaked in ammonia.
    But since Bowdler’s been dead for 200 years, we can’t ignore all the death in the Bible…I wouldn’t endorse being explicit about the sexual stuff – neither the good (Song of Solomon), the bad (Judah), or the ugly (the Benjamites in Judges) – because I think that a healthy sexual life is most helpful in dealing with those passages. So, better to wait until they have some hormones to manage before you teach them about other people mismanaging theirs.As for violence – I say go ahead and read what’s there. Kids are violent, their world is violent, the larger culture around them wants to show them violence. God’s attitudes toward violence, and God’s own acts of violence, integrate so easily into the framework of violence already present in young minds. From the simple: “Punching your brother is wrong because God said that every person is made in His image…” … to the complex: “Dad, hitting is bad, right? And Superman is a good guy? Explain.”  The Bible is honest about violence – I don’t understand it and am troubled by it – but it’s in there, unblemished, and I think it’s best to just lay it out for kids to begin to discuss and ponder. 

    • Simon

      I’m not so sure I would go along with the distinction that Biblical violence is ok for Sunday School, but Biblical sex needs to be saved for the youth group. Its not easy though is it, as much of the narrative sections of the OT – i.e. the ones that are easier to teach to small kids. Can’t even do the Exodus without the slaughter of both the firstborn kids and the soldiers / horses of Pharoah’s army. I certainly struggle with telling the Noah story as one of God’s extermination judgement – evenn though that seems to be what an honest reading of the text requires (not my limp “God helped Noah to rescue as many as he could” retelling).

      In short I don’t have a good way of sharing much of the OT with kids, and I’m not quite comfortable with a “this is what silly old people in the past thought God was like” approach either. As a result my kids have got a ratehr Marcionite canon. Not a great solution, but its just where we’re at at the moment.

  • Oliver

    This reminds me of overhearing my two daughters one day (when they were about 3 and 1.5 years old respectively) as the older sister told the younger one, “If you don’t do this, I’ll shoot you dead.” Now, we were living in rural Tanzania at the time (the older one was 3 months old when we moved there, the younger one had been born there), we had no TV, no computer games, neither of them had ever seen a gun, and not heard any gruesome stories either (or so we parents thought). So, this statement took me by surprise and I went to their room to inquire about where this concept of ‘shooting someone dead’ came from. In all innocence, my oldest daughter told me, “Well, David shot Goliath dead!” So there! Even the toned-down children’s Bible from which we read to them was still enough to bring out the old human nature ;^)

    On a different note, don’t some conservative Jewish circles have restrictions on certain passages / books of the Bible, like one has to be 30 years old before reading Song of Solomon, for example? Or is that just another urban myth?

    Greetings from Nairobi,

    • Oliver, there is definitely a view expressed in rabbinic texts that there are some texts which should not be read on one’s own because of their penchant to lead to mystical experiences and heretical interpretations of those experiences – Ezekiel 1 in particular. I have the sense that there is also an age restriction as well, but I can’t think of the specific passage.

  • Robert

    As a parent, part of my job is to help my children understand the message of the myths they hear (whether sacred or secular). And understanding always depends on where and who you are at the moment. The message is more important than the form of the story. As they grow, I have to teach them more and more how to find the messages themselves. And I have to encourage them to seek out primary texts (or as close to primary as is they can understand) rather than relying on my or anyone else’s paraphrase. Heck, I even have to teach them that sometimes a paraphrase can be an important tool. At least, that’s how I see it.

    So, yes, I’ll may paraphrase or rely on a paraphrased version, but I’m not going to go out of my way hide the more literal version from them. And whatever versions they encounter, I’m primarily concerned with helping them see the message and giving them tools to eventually study on their own.

  • We have to assume that Plato (and his Socrates in “The Republic”) would be just fine with your teaching Book II to “freshman.”  Would they want you teaching it then to, say, second graders or kindergartners?Have you read Preface to Plato (History of the Greek Mind,) by Eric Havelock, who argues that “The Republic” is trying to persuade listeners and readers of the evils of the poets such as Homer and Hesiod and their stories, for the masses in Greece, and yes especially for the children?

    • It is an interesting thought that having teenagers read The Republic might be just the sort of thing Plato would have considered inappropriate! 🙂

  • I don’t think we should censor any of the Bible for children and it aggravated me that I felt I had to do so in order not to get parent complaints when I was a Sunday school teacher.  I remember giving a lesson and a 6th grader raised her hand and said, “What’s a prostitute and what’s a circumcision?”  What do they teach them in school these days?  Throughout history kids have been aware of violence and sex, it wasn’t until recently that kids stopped having front row seats to parent sexual intercourse.  They’ll get over it if they hear a story about people dying.

  • Nancy R.

       I’m a preschool teacher in a church-owned school, so the Bible is integral to our curriculum. We spend most of the year teaching about Jesus – his life, teachings, miracles, and a few parables. But we give them some Old Testament background in order to understand that God created us, loves us, and that we have turned away from him – and need to become reconnected through Jesus. So that requires going pretty deeply into the story of Adam and Eve and its themes of sin and death.
       All of our kids are familiar with violent themes – superhero worship is endemic in 4-year-old boys. A great deal of their dramatic play, both boys and girls, revolves around the threats of killing, rescue, and sometimes being restored to life after being killed. They’re already trying to understand issues of power and violence. While there are many stories in the Bible I wouldn’t dream of sharing with them, we don’t avoid some big and potentially scary themes.
       Just last week I was teaching them about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. I explained that Jesus would have to defeat the devil – but how would he fight him? The kids came up with creatively violent answers – run him through with a sword, fight him with a spear, and so on. Anticipating violence, they were even more struck by Jesus’ resistance using only God’s word.
       It helps that our school is in the church building. Sometimes we see funeral processions leaving the church as we’re playing in the play yard. This gives the children the opportunity to open up about deaths they have experienced. It’s great to be able to address their concerns in a context of God’s love, forgiveness and grace.