Saturday 29 July 2023

The Bible: A Dangerous Book?- How to tackle the more challenging parts of the Bible with children

 A few weeks ago my voice appeared on radio for the first time, this was both exciting and cringe worthy.  Like many people I don't like the sound of my own voice much, but I gritted my teeth and listened to myself chatting about how I approach the tricky bits of the Bible with my four children.  My segment lasted just a few minutes and was edited down from a much longer conversation.  Of course this is necessary for radio, but I felt like I wanted to elaborate on what was presented on the radio because I certainly have further thoughts and reflections on the topic.  

My family motto from my Scottish ancestry is "Never unprepared", so in true Johnson clan style I did a bit of research and wrote a few pages of notes before the conversation.

My research mainly focused on the Utah Bible ban, the news piece which inspired the discussion in the first place.  It was clear from what I read that the whole debacle had been a mockery of the recent ban on explicit literature for children appearing in school libraries.  To be facetious it seems, some parents who objected to the initial ban cited the Bible as being grotesquely violent and "one of the most sex-ridden books around", based on it's "violence and vulgarity", as a result the Bible was temporarily banned in some schools. 

The question I was asked to contemplate in the light of this therefore was, how do we teach the violent and/or difficult bits of the Bible to children, and, should we leave out the more challenging parts?

For me a simple answer to this would be yes, I do think there are parts of the Bible that at certain ages we should leave out.  Young children's brains aren't developed enough to be able to comprehend the meaning behind what they might be  which could lead to short term harm.  The Bible is a complex book with many layers of meaning and depth.  While children can understand a great deal of depth and nuance; a straightforward good verses evil battle, even one which appears pretty gruesome, such as David and Goliath, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, Jael with her tent peg or the Israelites escaping from the Egyptian army through the red sea, are straightforward for children, and easy for them to understand the message, there are other stories in which the good and evil is not always obvious. Stories where an apparently innocent person suffers are much more difficult to present to children.  The rape of Dinah, the dismemberment of the concubine and the death of the first-borns in the plagues of Egypt for example. Children can understand the good verses evil concept, they understand that God is good and God destroys evil.  These stories can be understood by children on quite a superficial level and in spite of their violence, are not traumatising because they know that Good wins in the end. The stories where apparently innocent people suffer or die however can be difficult even for mature Christians to understand, so to expect a child to be able to pick apart how they were parts of God's big plan to show his great love for us would be an inappropriate expectation.  Therefore it is my view that these stories should be saved till a more a child's brain is more mature and ready to understand the message behind them.  The Bible is not meant to make children fearful, our God is not a God of fear "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God"  Isiah 41:10 tells us. So for this reason when they are little I use children's Bibles to read to my little ones.  

Some of our children's Bibles

There is a time and a place for those more challenging and difficult parts of the Bible.

Utah State Representative Ken Ivory was quoted saying:

"Traditionally in America, the Bible is best taught and best understood in the home, around the hearth as a family."

Now whilst this seems like a rather antiquated scene of the family sat around the fire sharing stories from the ol' family Bible, Ivory does make a good point.  The family is a great place to really get stuck into literature, to ask the hard questions and share thoughts, feelings and opinions in a safe space.  So in the unlikely event that your child should encounter one of the more difficult stories from the Bible, like those mentioned above, if you have created a home environment that encourages curiosity, questioning and honest conversations, children will feel safe to ask about the more shocking stories and you can read through and discuss the verses together, eliminating shock and fear and revealing how the stories show God's great love for us.  You can also pick up a Bible study aid of some sort to help understand the layers of meaning in them as well.  I have learnt a lot myself  reading through the Bible like this with my children, reading age appropriate stories and  finding out about their deeper meaning. 

I think that Ivory doesn't go far enough though, maybe because he sees religion as a private matter, but for Christians raising their children in faith, the church is also a vital place for children to gain understanding and wisdom of more difficult and challenging Bile stories.  It's important for children to hear about the Bible from all sorts of different, knowledgeable and spiritually mature people and not just their parents.

From the Jesus Storybook Bible

Obviously it's fairly unlikely that a child will pick up a Bible and encounter one of the more difficult stories on their own, one hopes that if they did they would feel they can approach a parent and discuss the story and ask questions.  Occasionally we do encounter a more difficult verse during our Bible reading and study and I will adapt the language to make the story more age appropriate. For example I might say that a woman was attacked, rather than raped. This isn't because I want to pretend to my children that rape doesn't happen or that I am afraid of the subject, it is because I want to maintain my children's innocence.  They encounter the darkness of the world every day and I want to limit it, I want to preserve their innocence and goodness as long as possible.  They will come across the concept of rape sooner than we would like anyway and I would rather discuss it with them then, than introduce the idea to them earlier. 

Likewise the word "adultery" I would probably change for "ran off with..."  Again this isn't because I am a coward and don't want to discuss the idea with them, it's to do with preserving their innocence and preventing them from worrying.  

Another tool I use if we encounter a difficult passage that they may not be mature enough to understand is to allow questions but not necessarily answer them.  So suppose they do encounter the word "rape" and they ask me what this means, I might give an age appropriate description, for example "it's when a man attacks a woman" or I might even say "that's not something you need to know right now".  

The fact is that the Bible does contain some dark stories.  Of course because it is about the world and real people and darkness is a part of the world and is a part of people.   

From the Hosanna Bible

When the Brothers Grimm wrote their fairy tales, they were a lot darker and more sinister than the more sanitised versions we read today.  The purpose was to create moralistic tales for the social good, to give children warnings about the world and how to live.  Although less gruesome the warnings to children still come through the stories today.  The story of Little Red Riding hood warns children not to turn from the path set out for them, to ask questions when you are in doubt and to listen to your gut instinct if something feels wrong.  Snow White taking the juicy red apple teaches children that if something looks too good to be true it probably is, not to accept treats from strangers, it tells us that the true meaning of beauty is more than just physical appearance, and to hold onto hope that you can overcome seemingly hopeless circumstances. 

Children being captured by witches, old ladies being eaten by wolves, being tricked into eating and drinking poison, parents dying, slavery...the writers of fairy tales did not shy away from challenging topics, because, like the Bible they reflect the truths that exist in the world, we live the the same world as the fairy-tale characters, and through them we too learn that there is darkness in the world, that we all make mistakes and that there is hope to overcome challenges.  Themes of good and evil, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness, capture and rescue, life and death, permeate the tales and all end in a happily ever after. 

In this way they reflect the stories of the Bible, we don't worry about sharing these challenging themes with children through fairy-tales, so we should not shy away from them in the Bible. 

From the Ladybird Children's Bible

Likewise, each and every challenging story in the Bible is included because they have an important message about God, ultimately they all lead us back to God's amazing love for us.  They help us to understand that we live in a fallen world, and how we should live in this world. They help us understand that we are all fallen human beings, each one of us flawed and sinful, just like the heroes we see in the Bible and the characters from our beloved fairy-tales.  If God can use those broken people for his glory then he sure as heck can use us too. Unlike Snow White, Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel, in the Bible we see real people over come real human challenges, not made up characters.  This inspires and encourages us, that we too can overcome great challenges that we face in life. We hear about Christians being persecuted and, although it is unlikely that we like John the Baptist will get our heads cut off, it prepares us for the fact that committing our lives to Christ does not mean a ticket to easy street, we will most certainly face persecution at some point in our lives because of our faith. The persecution and death of Jesus himself is completely terrible and gruesome, but it is vital that children learn about it, they need to hear the truth of Jesus being nailed to the cross to understand it's significance and importance for their own lives.  

The big difference between the Fairy-tales of our childhoods and the Bible is that the happily-ever-after that is promised in it is actually true.  We really do have a rescuer who has conquered evil and saved us, and one day we will get to experience this ourselves for real. Through Jesus death, as awful and shocking as it was we are not only saved for an equally devastating death, but we receive the gift of living that truth right now. 

So, although the are some very gruesome and dark stories in the Bible, it will always be safe and right and good to read the Bible with our children because through it they can learn the real truth about good and evil, darkness and light, capture and rescue and life and death, and that it is through Jesus, not magic spells, that we can have a real, true happily ever after. 

You can listen to my little segment here: