Thursday, December 1, 2011

reading the whole Bible to our children (1) guest post

A couple of weeks ago I posted a question for you about reading the Bible with kids - even the hard bits: should we read the gory or sexual bits of the Bible to children? Well, my friend Fiona McLean has taken pity on me and written a response! (You'll also find an interesting discussion in the comments here.) In the first of four posts, Fiona says,

I have some sympathy for this question, because quite a lot of the Bible does seem difficult: boring, irrelevant, confronting, offensive, violent, or sexually explicit. So why am I still convinced that we should not only read all of it ourselves, but also read it to children - our own at home; and other people’s children, in Sunday School, at conferences, and even in Scripture classes at school?

Firstly, if we were to avoid all the “difficult” bits of the Bible, there wouldn’t be much left! This applies to the New Testament as well as the old: think of Jesus, the Warrior King, slaying his enemies (Revelation 19:11-21); or Jesus, at his second coming, “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” (2 Thessalonians 1:8); or the servant who is “cast into the outer darkness” where there “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

In fact, someone of our favourite and most comfortable Bible passages may be a lot more “difficult” than we realise, especially if you are only familiar with the sanitised version in children’s Bibles. (Children’s Bibles can be very helpful, but they are not the Bible itself: they are always summaries and paraphrases; they are necessarily selective about what they include; and they are an interpretation.) Noah and the Ark is not just about God saving Noah and his family and lots of cute, cuddly animals, but about the great wickedness of mankind, as a result of which God sent a Flood which drowned every other person and animal (Genesis 6-8). We like the story of the boy Samuel being called by God, but we forget that God called him so that he could pass on the terrible news that Eli’s rebellious sons were under sentence of death from God for their blasphemy and iniquity (1 Samuel 3:11-14). When you tell the story of David and Goliath, do you mention that David cut off Goliath’s head (1 Samuel 17:51)? The story of the Good Samaritan includes a violent attack on a man which nearly killed him, and which left him wounded and half-dead in the street (Luke 10:30). The Prodigal Son squandered his money on prostitutes and reckless living (Luke 15:13). Even the sweet Nativity story, unedited, includes the terrible murder of all the baby boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). The Bible is full of “difficult bits”!

Secondly, I wonder what we mean by “difficult bits” anyway? Do we mean parts that are boring or seem irrelevant? Ideas that don’t fit in with our worldview – that seem harsh, that present God as cruel and vindictive or arbitrary? If so, perhaps it is our worldview that needs to change, our understanding of God that needs to grow to fit the reality of the God who has revealed himself to us.

Thirdly, even without the Bible there are “difficult bits” in life. There is much that is sordid and violent and nasty in the world around us: tsunamis, pornography, child abuse, cancer, infertility. Where is God in all this? Is he absent? Capricious? Vindictive? Powerless? Our children (and ourselves) are going to be exposed to these disturbing and difficult issues through the media, billboards, DVDs, newspapers, and television. As believers, let’s see what God’s perspective is on these things, and grapple with these difficult questions within the framework of a biblical worldview.

This is why, instead of just reading nice, comforting, somewhat insipid children’s Bibles, my husband and I read the whole Bible to our children. We believe and trust that the Bible is God’s word to us, and to our children (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:29). We want our view of God and of ourselves and of our world to be shaped more by God’s Word than by the culture around us.

Tune in next week for Fiona's next thoughts.

image is by johnb2008 from flickr


Rachel Lotherington said...

Thanks Fiona :)

Deb L said...

Sorry, Dinah's rape is in Genesis. I meant to refer to the rape of the Levite's concubine near the end of Judges.

Jean said...

Sorry, Deb, I just inadvertently deleted your comment! Here it is...

"Hmmmmmm. I've been mulling over this one as I've followed the discussion here and at the Briefing. I want some clarification. Do you honestly think it is okay to read and explain any passage of Scripture to a child of any age regardless of the contents? I hope to one day reach a stage with my children were we can discuss the whole of God's Word at some depth. However, with young children (3, 5 and 7) I think that's still some way off. At this stage, they can understand "God chose you to be his own before you even knew him" but cannot understand at an adult level the doctrine of election (not that I am assuming I know whether my children are elect). I don't avoid it, but I do explain it in a way I think they can grasp. I assume that in reading the whole Bible with your children, you would seek to explain those sections that are "hard" and not easily digested by young minds. With that in mind, there are some sections of the Bible I am not likely to read with my children yet because in explaining it to them, I would cause them to deal with ideas that they are still too young to handle. For example, the pack rape of Dinah at the end of Judges. There is no need for me to read and then explain that passage to my 7-year old girl at this stage. There are lots of other passages that show the results of a world in rebellion from the Creator without using that specific passage. It's not that I have any kind of theological problem with the passage. It's just that it seems to me to be a matter of plain godly wisdom that it would be unhelpful for me share that with young children. That's why I'm asking for clarification... perhaps you did not have in mind children as young as mine. Or did you? "

Jean said...

Hi, Deb! Thanks for the great question.

I think you'll find it answered in the comment stream here - if a little differently by different people.

I'll make sure Fiona gets a chance to answer you. I'll send you her comment.

In our house, we read all of the Bible including passages like the one you mentioned, even to our 5 year old. We read through the Bible (not in order, but a book at a time) as a family, so just as with kids sitting in on the Bible readings at church, they'll hear ours. My husband is very committed to the idea that 1 Timothy 3:15-17 means we shouldn't miss bits as we read. We haven't had any problems with this - we explain in terms the kids can understand as we go.

In the comment stream I mentioned, you'll see what Lionel did when their family happened across the passage you mentioned!

Other families with great respect for God's word deal with this issue a little differently, as you'll also see in the comment stream.

Love Jean. xxx

Jean said...

ps it looks like you have been following the comment stream, sorry! I'll pass your question on to Fiona.

Deb L said...

I've gone back and read more of the stream of comments, Jean, from the Briefing because when I'd last checked in there the conversation was only just beginning. I see most people are agreeing there should be some wriggle-room when it comes to very young children. Most people who are reading the "whole Bible" are doing some kind of editing by the way they explain the Bible to their younger children. You can't feed the "whole Bible" to a four-year old any more than you can feed a whole roast dinner to him without helping him to chop it up somehow. Some four-year olds will need more help with that than others. I guess what I'm saying is that when reading the "whole Bible" to small children, it is only really helpful to them if it is explained as well as read, and in most cases that will involve some censorship or accomodation to the age and stage of that particular child. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that provided you move on at some point and allow your explanations and discussions to grow as your children grow. I guess it gets more complex when you have a very large age range amongst your children.

Jean said...

Hi Deb!

Yes, it does get more complicated. What we did with 2 young children is different to what we do now, with a spread of ages. It was much simpler to aim at a particular age group back then! And there's a great deal of value in reading the Bible through as a family, both in the church and the home.

It's also complicated by the fact that some kids become independent readers very early: one of my kids (only one, the rest learned to read at school!) started reading to himself at 3 1/2. He was reading through Bibles of all kinds by 4 or 5. I never remember even considering what this might mean in terms of what he might read! It never bothered me - rightly, I think. Kids understand at their level. But kids starting to read independently (as well as being exposed to violence etc in TV, society and so on) is another reason we probably don't want to take too long before we talk about these issues and passages with them. Most of our kid will probably be reading through Bibles independently before we are absolutely comfortable with them reading all the bits they might find in there!

On the other hand, I can understand why some parents are uncomfortable reading some bits out to very young children, and I have seen in practice how this can be compatible with a very high view of Scripture and with exposing your children to the whole truth about God - including uncomfortable things like his anger and judgement. This is a decision parents need to make. But I'd caution (as I'm sure you agree) that we need to be careful about our motivation in doing this, and that it doesn't lead to censoring out all the bits that are "difficult" for whatever reason.

Love Jean.

Jean said...

And here's a comment from Rachael that she couldn't post herself:

"Hi Jean, this is a bit of a rambly comment, I'm sort of nutting things out as I go. I hope it makes some sort of sense.

I actually want to comment on the previous post but when I clicked on the link it was blocked by our internet filter in the categories "violence" and "sex/pornography". Which made me think that that's why children's bibles are the way they are. We want a children's bible to be something they can read unsupervised.

I heartily agree with Fiona: we should read the whole bible with our children. But there are bits (those difficult bits) that I would not want them reading (while young) without supervision, without us to help them understand why God did what he did and why it is right, or to explain what those difficult words mean.

So I think that children's bibles do have a valuable place.

Our approach has generally been to read a full bible (previously NIV now HSCB which the children find easier to follow) for family devotions. We have read children's bibles with individuals in their preschool and kindergarten years and them leave them available for them to read. By the time they can read fluently, they have a full bible.

Which is interesting, because they still are not at the maturity that I think they need to cope with a lot of the difficult bits. Yet I am happy for them to read unsupervised. Why? I think..
1. Because we are reading with them all the time, too. This means while we may not be reading and explaining every passage they read, we are helping them to develop an understanding of who God is and why he does what he does.
2. ...they have not (yet) been so influenced by the limits society puts on "acceptable behaviour for a God of love". So if God decides that to wipe out every man woman and child in Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinfulness, they don't have a problem. It's us adults that think it is difficult.
3. Very often they skip the bits that are difficult... it just goes over their head. For example, we had read the the Christmas story many times before our eldest asked what "virgin" meant.

So I am happy for them (aged 7 and 9) to have and read full bibles unsupervised.... although they might sit down and read a whole children's bible in one sitting, they struggle to do that with a full bible. They do find it hard going. "

Fiona McLean said...

Dear Deb,

The short answer to your question is "Yes"! - that is, we do honestly think it is okay to read and explain any passage of Scripture to a child of any age regardless of the contents. Our children are currently aged 6-11, and, over the past year or so, we have read all of Genesis and all of Judges to them (among other Bible books). We started reading the whole Bible to them from the age of 3 or 4.

Let me clarify that I am thinking her of reading the Bible to one's own children, with whom we have the opportunity to explain the character of God and a biblical worldview (as Rachael said), so that they have some context for what we read.

I agree that how we explain the Bible to children will vary on their age levels, but even young children can grasp that (for example) the world is sinful, that God is powerful, and that justice needs to be done.

Note, by the way, that the central event of our faith - the crucifixion of an innocent man - is pretty gruesome and violent. Think of the flogging, the crown of thorns, the humiliation of public nakedness! We don't necessarily emphasise the violence and horror to our children, but we certainly don't avoid reading about the crucifixion.

The other question is: If 3 or 5 is too young to read the whole Bible aloud, at what age would you start doing this? We would rather our children grow into big Bible concepts, rather than being exposed to them when they are older. If they haven't previously heard the "difficult bits"(which are confronting at any age!), these may jar with their (slightly distorted/sanitised) view of God and shake their faith.

I would reiterate that it is difficult to read the Bible and avoid issues that are tough or unpleasant - like, as you say, the doctrine of election. Or the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Or the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). Once we start censoring, where do we stop? As I commented in my guest post, even parts of the Bible which are used as popular children's Bible stories are much less sanitised than we are used to!

I find that reading the Bible keeps challenging me and confronting me, and this is, I hope, a means by which God shapes my worldview to be aligned to his, rather than to society's. (Jean has commented on this in another post).

So keep persevering in reading the Bible yourself, and to your children!



Deb L said...

I agree for the most part with you Fiona and Jean. But I still wouldn't read the rape and cutting up of the Levite's concubine to my young children. I would err on the side of having built up enough of a picture of the cycle of sin and disobedience throughout the rest of Judges to skip that bit. However, I do agree we should seek not to avoid "difficult" passages with our children. It's not helpful to hide from them the truth of a sinful world or God's sovereignity and right to judge. I take your point that it's a slippery slope when you start to chop bits and become the decider of what is "appropriate" truth and what is not. I would say that while they are as young as my children, I would skip some bits with the understanding that it was for a limited time only. I'm not sure I see the real difference between doing that and letting some parts go over the child's head. If I know the five year old has not really understood what a prostitute is, and then I don't take care to explain that fully to them, haven't I pretty much censored by omission?

Jean said...

Hi Deb!

I've been mulling over your comment all week...

This is a tricky conversation to be having - especially not in person. You see, I have great confidence that you, and other friends of mine, are teaching the Bible very well to your children - including the difficult concepts - even if you miss the occasional verse, say, on bestiality or rape.

On the other hand, I'm convinced that reading the whole Bible with our children - even young children - works well and acknowledges the fact that every bit of the Bible is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness", even "from infancy" (1 Timothy 3:15-17).

I also think this is a helpful paradigm to set up, both at church and home: I have learnt so much from my husband's willingness to read out all the bits of the Bible that others avoid or reduce to a few verses - the genealogies and propheciess and numbers and all the rest - in whatever context he happens to be in. This has given me immense confidence that we can learn from every bit of the Bible. That's the kind of confidence I want to give my kids.

But I say this knowing that others will give their kids the same confidence even if their practice differs a little from ours in the early years! So I don't want to make this the litmus test of whether someone is teaching the Bible well to their children.

I think you and I would both want to emphasise the importance of reading the whole Bible with our kids over the years, and teaching the whole counsel of God to our kids - even if, for some of us, it might take a few more years to get to a few small bits of it (I say "small" because I don't think it would be very much of the Bible for those who share these convictions, and I'd be pretty concerned if it was!).

On your final point: I don't think it's censoring by ommission to read out a passage and either not explain every verse, or explain it (better!) at a level a child can understand at that stage. It still communicates the value of God's word for every one of us.

Thanks for your input, Deb, as always!

Love Jean.