Why the Bible isn’t a Children’s Book

Why the Bible isn’t a Children’s Book October 5, 2016

Seatbelts, helmets, goggles, floaties, face masks, knee pads.

Safety first.

These are measures of protection we afford ourselves and our children – before they ever sit down on a bike or jump in a pool. But these devices, the seatbelts and the floaties, aren’t there to prevent one from having the experience of a car ride or an afternoon swim. They exist to foster a safe experience of the minivan and the deep end. Safety first. We seek out and invent these devices to uphold and encase our bodies because our physical existence is greatly valued. As it should be.

But what about our spiritual existence and its protection?

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in small-town Alabama. One of the things I remember participating in as a kid was “sword drill.” I’d gear gear up, standing with closed bible (the sword) in hand, waiting for the countdown and listening for the scripture reference and BOOM – I was off, frantically flipping the crunchy thin pages to find the verses called out in hopes that I would locate it before everyone else. The purpose of all of it? To hone my sword-wielding abilities, to be able to expertly play with the sharpest object in my “armor of God toolkit,” to be “ready to give a defense” when my faith was questioned. 

While I am eternally grateful for my upbringing I realized something as I began studying the Bible more closely and in academic settings – swords are sharp and very heavy. And I had no idea what I was playing with in those drills. I was never told, “Hey, this thing that you have in your hands – this is ancient sacred text, it’s complex, it’s dense, it’s been irresponsibly used to hurt people for hundreds of years so to avoid that, use it wisely.” No. I was taught to use the Bible before I was ever told what it was.

I wasn’t allowed to watch the Nickelodeon cartoon, “Rugrats” (remember that, 90s kids?) until the 6th Grade because Angelica was “disrespectful.” Yet, by that time, I had memorized the stories of David and Bathsheba, of God drowning humanity in a flood, and of Jesus’s very public and gruesome execution. See the disconnect? More care and caution was given to Saturday morning cartoons than to the images of God to which I was exposed. It’s the pattern of American Christianity and it deserves attention because…

…the Bible is not a children’s book. It’s a brash thing to say, and perhaps an obvious thing but I’ll say it again:

“The Bible is not a children’s book.”

Let me explain.

UnfundamentalistParenting

Image: Pixabay

The reality is that the Bible is an ancient compilation of myth, poetry, law, and letter, strategically selected and edited. It was a library once restricted to the interpretive minds of those in power, later popularized and translated into languages for all to read and hear. it is text necessarily bound to its context of time and place (as we are bound to the same). Narratively, it is the story of various people groups trying to sort out their place in the world and how God fits into all of that. It is the diary of their wrestlings with questions of who, where, and why, all directed at God, and of their best attempts at providing themselves answers to make sense of those wonderings. And they are questions and wonderings we still have today. It’s an attempt to understand the Divine and our own humanity. This is what the Bible is.

The Bible is also a collection of texts which seem to depict, on the surface, severe and holy punishment for human mistakes dealt out by a male deity who asks a father to murder his child, orders armies to slaughter indigenous peoples, and plays favorites from a distance. This is what I mean when I say, “The Bible is not a children’s book.” These are not simply black and red words on white crunchy-thin pages. They are wonderings about God, wonderings that often come to dangerous and hurtful conclusions that I cannot stand by. They are wonderings and conclusions that provide an image of God that I don’t want for the children in my care. I understand them. But they are not my conclusions.

At this point you may be thinking, “Yeah, but all those things – those are just on the surface. If we just read closer, deeper…”

Yes. But one has to possess the cognitive abilities to do that – to process the beautiful subtlety of various literary forms, contextualize historical and cultural realities, and understand nebulous concepts to mine that profundity from much of the text. We cannot expect young children to have the capacity to do that yet. Not until age 11-12 can children truly begin to process heavily abstract concepts, understand time in a more complex way, and translate historic events to their every-day lives.

This is why Disney World works; why Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and magic work. It’s because developmentally, children do not fully distinguish between fantasy and reality. It’s why, when you see 3 different Cinderella’s all in one, long day at the Magic Kingdom, your child FULLY believes that every single one of those girls is the real Cinderella. Your child doesn’t see beyond “the surface” to the 25 yr old in a costume, wig, and heavy makeup who also waits tables part-time and lives in the apartments down the road with her two best friends. They see the same character from the cartoons. Literally…2D and 3D are no different in their mind.

So when you read a child a story that says, “God told Abraham to take his son Isaac to the mountaintop and sacrifice him” do you know what that means to a child? It means that God ACTUALLY told Abraham to kill his kid. Nothing more, nothing less. It is unfair to expect our children to walk away with an understanding beyond what they hear; thus we have a responsibility to them to speak beauty, truth, and goodness about God, ourselves, and others, and to give them clear and healthy images of God – and we have the freedom (truly, we do) to use the best tools available to us with which to do that.

As a Children’s Pastor, I see it as my job to help strap on spiritual knee pads (“God is love and is bigger than we can imagine”), seatbelts (“People have been asking questions about God for forever – our ideas about God change, but God does not”), and helmets (“You are good, and safe, and made in the image of God – so is everyone else”).

For these most precious, concrete minds, these concepts will be difficult to see through much of the Biblical narrative. But I’ve come to trust that God is truly the “Ground of All Being” (or Being Itself, Tillich), and I find myself free to explore images of God anywhere and everywhere, in nature, in children’s literature, in active relationship with others.

The Bible is ONE tool we have to explore ideas of God. ONE – out of millions. When your God is bigger than the ONE resource, the world opens up and there is no obligation to ensure that a 6 year old knows the potentially damaging story of the great flood. After all, it isn’t a fair expectation that they learn from that particular story that God is love. (Quite frankly, it doesn’t seem to be a fair expectation of anyone to get that from the text). It is our responsibility as adults to give them the ground on which to stand as they begin to explore ancient stories and letters, to give them the addition and subtraction of our faith, as one of my mentors puts it, so that they can build upon it to later learn geometry, algebra, and calculus.

And simply giving them the basics of “You are good. God is love. You and everyone else are made in the image of God” is enough.

I had a mother recently ask me “What is the spiritual work I should be doing with my children?” (ages 1 & 4). My response was this, “Children develop their earliest notions of the Divine directly from their parents. Being a loving mother is the spiritual work.”

A child’s immediate reality is all they know – meet them there, validate that reality, and show them God.


Get a free download of a Christian parenting manifesto that helps us guide children into healthy spirituality + the most helpful parenting resources with progressive values.


Anna Register is originally from Birmingham, Alabama and currently serves as the Children’s Pastor at GRACEPOINTE Church in Franklin, TN. She attended Belmont University to receive her B.A. in Religion and later went on to study at The University of Alabama, achieving a Masters in Library and Information Sciences. Anna is currently studying at Vanderbilt Divinity School to earn her Masters of Theological Studies. With a heart for kids, a love of story, and a passion for theological study, Anna is working to explore new depths of doing spiritual work with children.
Instagram: annaregister
"The unpardonable sin. I was eaten up with a surety that I had somehow unintentionally ..."

Break the Cycle: Spiritual Abuse and ..."
"According to the 1988 commentary the girls were heartless because they didn’t react to their ..."

The Lot of the Abused: How ..."
"This is so important. I wrote two blog posts about this. "Children Obey Your Parents? ..."

Children, Disobey Your Parents in the ..."
"This article is excellent. I have always exposed my kids to "the world" - back ..."

Raising Children Beyond the Christian Bubble

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jenny E

    So what can I do if the church my family attends has no problem exposing my children (6 and 8) to all the gory and terrifying parts of scripture? Our first Sunday, my son came out (gleefully, truth be told) retelling the story of Achan, from the book of Joshua, who steals some things from the city of Jericho, which the Judahites have just sacked, and is taken out into the desert and squished to death with heavy stones. We are expats in China, and this is the only English-speaking Protestant church here.

    • Anna Register

      Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. I suppose if I were in your shoes, I would maybe ask myself how important it is for myself and my family to be in a formal church setting. Perhaps this would be a season to explore other modes of “church” with your family exploring nature, reading stories, and spending intentional time together – making your own rituals and sacraments as you appreciate the Divine in and among yourselves. I can imagine that would feel isolating though. All that said, you have the right and obligation to care not only for the physical existence of your kiddos but also their spiritual reality. So perhaps it’s a conversation you could start up with the Children’s pastor/ministry leader there?

    • Rose

      No, don’t leave the church! That is too often the answer Protestants come up with, and all it does is cause division and weakened instruction. We are called to fellowship regularly together. Find another answer. I do agree that maybe it’s time for a discussion with the pastors there about leaving out some of the goriest parts. But honestly, I am a pretty sensitive person who grew up with heavy Bible teaching from a young age, and I was never traumatized by it. It’s all about how these stories are presented to the child. Although I don’t even remember the story about the guy being squished to death. Ew. Maybe they skipped that one in my school altogether.

  • Stupid Atheist

    You’ve made me feel almost guilty for the “My Little Pony” bookmarks I routinely leave demarcating Ezekiel 23:20 in every Bible the Gideons were kind enough to leave behind in my hotel rooms.

    Almost…

  • LizEnFrance

    This is SO GOOD. I was raised in a similar fundamentalist church. I was a voracious and early reader who was good at memorizing Bible verses (completely out of context), and I was also an anxious and imaginative kid. I remember spending hours crying at around age 10 because I had somehow decided that the story of Abraham and Isaac meant God wanted me to kill my guinea pig as proof of my faith. My parents had no idea what was going on in my head and were horrified when I told them about that stuff years later.

    (edit: I did not kill my guinea pig)

    • I’m so glad you didn’t kill your guinea pig! *whew*

    • Rose

      No, this is not good; it presents heretical and damaging, ear-tickling ideas that will do nothing to lead our kids to salvation and a deep knowledge of God and Jesus. I’m so glad my children are not under a pastor like this. I am glad you didn’t kill your guinea pig, but it is not a reason to not teach the Bible to our kids. It’s just a reminder to talk to them about what we read in the Bible, not leave them to interpret it themselves.

  • Jacksmom

    I happened to stumble upon your article because a friend posted it to facebook. I never post on these things. In fact, as I am typing, I’m resisting the urge to just delete and walk away. I hate conflict that much. But, I feel like I should say a few things. I have a really hard time with the “The reality is that the Bible is an ancient compilation of myth, poetry, law, and letter, strategically selected and edited.” piece. To put the Bible in the same sentence as the word “myth” is so disrespectful and offensive to me. All scripture is God breathed. And, while the way you choose to parent is your choice; I am compelled to share the whole Bible with my kids. Even the yucky hard parts. Even the parts I don’t like. Even the parts where I might question God’s judgment or plan. I understand that some parts might be scary for kids, but do just sidestep it completely I don’t feel is the answer either. Our kids are going to hear about David and Bathsheba type stories at school way before the age of 11-12. I’d rather talk about it with them. I don’t think we can sugar coat or tiptoe around hard topics. Just telling our kids “You are good. God is love. You and everyone else are made in the image of God” is NOT enough. This is a tough world that we live in. I want my kids to know the Bible. To understand the Bible. To have it so deeply rooted in their hearts that when they get older and the rubber meets the road, they will have the knowledge and fortitude to deal with problems. If all they know is “You are good. God is love. You and everyone else are made in the image of God” they will not have a fighting chance as an adult. I know you didn’t ask for my 2 cents, but I felt compelled to give it as I’m sure others reading this may share my thoughts. I mean no judgment toward you. I’m sure you mean well.

    • Rose

      Well said. Tickling our kids’ ears will not help them at all.

  • Lynn

    2 Tim 3:16 & 17

    • To realize that this woman is a children’s pastor just makes my heart sad.

      • Lynn

        My heart too :'(
        Isaiah 54:13 & Luke 18:16

      • Rose

        I thought I was the only one. Glad to know I’m not.

  • candide

    The bible was not written for children, just for immature adults. Anyone over the age of 11 who believes the bible is simply still a child who loves fairy tales.

    • davidt

      How Diego Delanda of you!!!!! Brilliantly un-self aware which is modern Christian as far as I can tell. Sorry that your historical family was obviously so inbred as you have stated. Nothing but Children, as adults living, in a fairy tale la la land. Very common and normal actually. How did you get so smart Diego, natural selection, accidental random chance…. University? WOW go figure university the bastion of genius that’s Evolved us into being profound self important adults. Exactly like Diego DeLanda. Know your own history Diego.

    • Rose

      I am so tired of hearing this ridiculous and ignorant attempt at an insult. Just stop.

  • A fish with no hands

    What other understanding does abraham’s plans to murder isaac hold?

    • Rose

      As a Catholic, we understand that this was a foreshadowing of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus. Through Abraham’s unquestioning faith–despite his grief and inability to understand God’s ways–He fulfilled His promise of redemption for all mankind. The Bible says this about that event:

      “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[a] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” Hebrews 11:17-18

      • Kevin R. Cross

        Mind you, I’ve always liked one interpretation I encountered from some strains of Hebrew theology – that God was indeed testing Abraham, but Abraham failed his test by being unwilling to stand up for right in the face of power.

        • Rose

          The Bible says that Abraham was being tested with Isaac, and he did indeed pass this test. I can’t remember what other test you are talking about, so I’m a little lost.

          • Kevin R. Cross

            Actually, iirc Abraham is TOLD he passed the test. Not exactly the same thing.

          • Rose

            Why are you arguing with the scripture I quoted above? And why are you arguing with this at all? You almost seem to be judging and evaluating God’s methods. Abraham passed the test of faith that God gave him. Because of his faith, God blessed him. Abraham became the father of the Jewish people through whom we received the messiah, Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins. End of story. I am baffled at your perspective. It doesn’t sound orthodox.

          • Kevin R. Cross

            Why would you assume I am? Or even assume I am Christian? You would seem to be more baffled by your own assumptions than by my statements.

          • Rose

            You’re absolutely right. Now I get it.

          • Kevin R. Cross

            Cool. (And cool that you’re cool about it.)

          • Rose

            I’m not cool about your interpretation. I only meant that I thought we were approaching from the same religious perspective, and I understand now that I was making assumptions. Guess it was the way you worded your first post.

          • Kevin R. Cross

            Oh, I don’t expect you to agree with my interpretation. I’ve just encountered instances where people have kinda lost it when they realised I wasn’t coming from their particular point of view, and I’m glad that’s not you.

          • Rose

            Whether there is an orthodox/correct interpretation (as I believe) or not, it is a little weird–even nonsensical–that people would do that.

          • Kevin R. Cross

            Some people just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that someone else disagrees with them on a basic level, like religion. Admittedly, most of them seem to come from a fairly radical background, like the more extreme fundamentalist creeds, but you’d think those would be the ones that would experience opposition more often, wouldn’t you? Personally, I like a diversity of opinion and good communication.

          • Rose

            I am devout Catholic now, but I used to be kind of close to fundamentalist–not really that identity but on that side of the spectrum. My experience at that time is that they tend to build more of a bubble around themselves than other sects/denominations do. The more extreme, the more of a bubble, I think. For that reason they are less aware of what is out there until they wade into social media and forums like this. And diversity of opinion and good communication is something to regard with caution, because it can deceive. There is something to that concern, I have to agree. But most sects denominations don’t see the need for that much caution.

  • Charity Burke

    I became a Christian in 1975/76. I was a preschooler. In my late teens I began to have serious doubts about Christianity that continued for two decades. This didn’t begin at a secular college either, I was studying for my theology degree at a Pentecostal, Evangelical Bible school in Texas. Fast forward 18 years, my husband and I began devotions and prayer time with our boys. We didn’t use children’s books or children’s Bibles. We didn’t bother with devotionals either. We read straight from a regular Bible. Our kids had just turned five and two years old. I knew in advance (from many years of study) what scripture to skip because it was too mean for kids, deadly or god having an enraged fit. I found myself skipping even more chapters, books at times, than what I initially thought was necessary. This new awareness of god through parental eyes played a big part in my husband’s deconversion, as well as my own, just two years later.

    • Rose

      That’s incredibly sad and seems so avoidable. But if you were already having doubts, I guess it makes more sense.

      • Charity Burke

        It’s not sad, it’s liberating to finally be free. I no longer associate with a hissy fit god like I did from the age of three to 39. If parents said and did 1/8 of the things god supposedly did/does we’d be seen as manipulative, vindictive and abusive on a good day. If he is bigger, more knowledgeable and more powerful than us mere humans then he needs to be even more accountable for his actions than what we are for ours. Instead he is somehow magically above it all. People always told me that as I married and had children I might better understand god. I do, but not in the way they assumed I might. Indoctrination is destructive, abusive and violent. Unfortunately, the ones most indoctrinated see it in themselves the least.

        • Rose

          But you’re not free. You’ve put yourself in a horrifying prison of sin and bondage, and Satan has you firmly in his power. Your blasphemy and mistaken perspective is similarly horrific and makes me want to vomit. I know better than to argue, though.

          • Charity Burke

            You don’t have to be afraid of a god or hell. There is help for religious trauma. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of it out there. It is just as real as PTSD. And if you had that as a child, it is quite normal to be enslaved to religion like I was the first four decades of my life. Question everything. Everyone should be accountable for their actions or lack thereof, especially an entity that claims to be sovereign and almighty.

          • Rose

            As I read your post, I first wanted to laugh, because I thought you were joking. Then I realized that you are serious. Surely there are people who have truly been abused with religion, but trust me, I am not one of them! I am so so SO grateful for my parents and teachers who taught me to know Jesus and dedicate my entire life to Him. Has it been a bed of roses? No way! Have I “questioned everything”? I sure have. But I don’t regret my religious life in the least and only feel sorrow for those who live their lives without God and who do not fear hell.

            And for you to try to hold God–the supreme being and creator of the entire universe– accountable to the human race is so outlandish that I would laugh if I, again, didn’t realize you are serious. Instead, I am just bewildered, shocked, and repulsed.

          • Charity Burke

            Well, I’m here if you ever want to talk. Have a great holiday and a fantastic new year.

          • Rose

            That is kind of you. I wish you a beautiful holiday, too.

  • Rose

    This post was deeply troubling to me. Not only does the approach to teaching children about God seem to be flimsy, weak, ear-tickling, and heretical (I say “seem” only because I didn’t take much time to analyze the argument), but it is contemporary to a fault. By that I mean that it seems to jump on the bandwagon of all popular philosophical thought and leaves orthodoxy and traditional biblical view far behind–which isn’t a good thing.

    My perspective is quite different, perhaps, because I went to a Christian school from preschool onward. We studied the KJV Bible in as much depth as our minds could receive, and got it daily. I remember sitting in my second-grade classroom as we students followed the teacher in our Bible lessons. We would also go to chapel in hear lots of Bible stories. We learned to read and understand (to a point) what the Bible said through its beautiful but archaic language, and we developed a solid knowledge of both the major OT and NT stories and people. I am a pretty sensitive person when it comes to difficult, gruesome, and painful subjects, but our teachers knew how to approach the text in a way that we could understand but that would not overwhelm us. The story of Isaac? We didn’t panic about that or about Noah or about any other stories. If anything, we found them exciting. That the blogger here is a pastor is pretty shocking, because the approach presented in this post is not a Christian one. I have and will continue to read Bible stories to my son, teaching him the doctrines of our faith little by little as we go.

  • Lynn
  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    It’s why, when you see 3 different Cinderella’s all in one, long day at the Magic Kingdom, your child FULLY believes that every single one of those girls is the real Cinderella.

    Note that Disney policy is that there is NEVER more than one version of a character at a given park at any one time. You will never have a Cinderella in one part of Magic Kingdom and another Cinderella in another part of the park at the same time. So there is only ONE Cinderella at Magic Kingdom. Yes, the role is played by many cast members, but it is all the same Cinderella.

    And who is the “real” Cinderella if not the Disney Princess? Of course she is the real Cinderella!

  • Paul Clutterbuck

    In my experience, most of the New Testament is pretty straightforward, except perhaps the trial and Cross narratives. The Old Testament is a completely different story, and probably should only be for adults who have already understood the message of the New Testament and can use it as a hermeneutic when reading OT material.

  • Kieran Mahon

    “The Bible is not a children’s book.”

    NO. FREAKING. SHIT.

    Who on EARTH thought it was more appropriate for you to read about David being a peeping tom, and then having an affair- then to watch a television show about a brat?
    Whoever they are, they need to have “judgement of child-friendly material card” revoked.

  • Lynn

    II Tim 3: 1-9