One day, I saw my son pick up a rock and hurl it in the direction of a neighbor friend. Horrified, I called him over and asked him what he was doing. He replied, “I was being David.”
You see, there’s this problem I have with the Bible and children. Most of it’s not for them. It’s full of stuff that is totally inappropriate for children. I was happy when The Christian Century recently had a feature article that acknowledged this (March 6, 2013 issue). The front cover has a picture of an antiquated Bible, and superimposed on top of it is the familiar MPAA R-rating symbol. In the small font, it describes the content of the Bible that earns it an R-rating (in the same fashion the MPAA does for motion pictures): violence, sexuality, rape, etc. The article talks about the pros and cons of different children’s Bibles, sometimes in humorous fashion. Here’s the author’s description of the Bible I primarily read with my children: “Its overall tone is upbeat and cheerful, so much so that even a grinning Goliath appears on the cover next to little David, slingshot in hand.”
David and Goliath, compared to some of the other stuff, is actually a pretty tame and harmless story. But even that had the unintended consequence of making my son associate rock-slinging with the good guy. I was raised in the Southern Baptist culture, and in that context, the working assumption is that any story in the Bible is valuable for children simply because it’s in the Bible. The Bible is somewhat seen as an end in itself, and the thinking is that we’ve done our job as long as we’ve imparted unto children the knowledge of the stories contained therein. I challenge this assumption.
Reading the Bible with children is an art, not a science. It’s a little more like a dance than a formula. How do you read the Bible with preschoolers and toddlers (the ages of my children)? Well, first of all, you’re lucky if you get them listening to begin with. If you do, they might ask to switch to a different story at moment’s notice, mid-sentence. And you also have to be ready to field off-the-wall, “how-did-they-think-of-that?” questions. I’m not sure how to navigate all of it, but I AM convinced that Bible reading with my kids should look more like the children sitting in Jesus’ lap than a scripture memorization chart.
Within this context, I try to do and remember a few things.
First, I try to balance what I want my children to learn with what fascinates them. If my goal is to help them develop a passion and interest for this book, I need to be willing every once in a while to sit there and talk about which disciple it is that has blonde hair…even though none of them did.
Second, I focus in on the lesson to be learned and real life applications. I want to help my children begin to feel the Bible’s earth shattering impact rather than focus on the fanciful details. There’s a reason some children grow up to reject the Bible as quickly as they do childhood fairytales. Children’s Sunday School curriculum tends to get caught up in the fascinating yet meaningless details of the stories. The Noah story is a sure-fire hit with children because they love animals. Great, so take them to the zoo on Saturday. The Noah story is not about animals. Neither is the Jonah story about the fish. Jonah was called to preach to a group of people who were the enemies. They had done horrible violence against Jonah’s people. Jonah didn’t want to preach to them because he didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy. The story actually ends in a powerful way that we rarely get to because of our fixation on the fish. God berates Jonah for not having concern for the Ninevites “who don’t know their right hand from their left.” So my children and I don’t read the story of Jonah without talking about God’s love and concern even for people who have been mean to us.
Third, I focus on the life and ministry of Jesus—what he said and did—more than abstract ideas about what He was. As dcTalk said in a 1999 song:
There is love in the red letters
There is truth in the red letters
There is hope for the hopeless
Peace and forgiveness
There is life in the red letters
The Bible is a means to an end, and that end is a living faith in the God who was revealed in Jesus. As a colleague once said, “Jesus is Lord, not the Bible.” I question the value of simply telling my children “Jesus saves” without helping them see the substantive content of what that Savior was about. After all, I can’t make anyone fall in love with Jesus, including my children. My job is to facilitate the life-changing encounter.
Finally, I remember that the “Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). This is not a tame book, and its words bear the imprint of Spirit inspiration. I do not own it, I cannot control it, and my children will learn and wrestle with it in ways that I can’t predict. As the Christian Century article says:
We can embrace the problematic Bible and abandon our efforts to control it. We can recognize that faith comes only as a gift of the Holy Spirit, not through the problem solving of anxious adherents to the Christian religion. We can hand over to our children, out of our own hands and our own control, the messy, shocking, astonishing, inspiring and multifarious holy scripture and let the Spirit use it to awaken their spirits, hearts and minds—including all the problems that come with such inspiration.
So yes, one time my son slung a rock due to an unfiltered understanding of David and Goliath. But just the other night, he brought his Bible out to me and wanted to read “The Good Samaritan” to me, saying, “This is your favorite story, right dad?” Moments like that make the struggle worth it.