What do you think is the best way to read the Bible with children?
Sam Donoghue: Know the kids you’re working with. Things may wash over some kids while others will be traumatised. Everything we know about faith development tells us that the image of God that children acquire now, they will carry through their lives. If the God they meet in their Sunday school is nasty and judgmental, he will always be like that.
In a lot of Bible studies we do with kids, God saves the day and everything’s OK. The problem is that sometimes God never comes. For every Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, there’s someone getting stoned. You don’t get children’s resources about Stephen and it leaves children with a sense that God will always save the day. God does save the day, but not in the way that those stories presented.
Eleasah Phoenix Louis: When we think God is nasty or judgmental, whose measuring stick are we using? When we read the Bible with kids, of course we read it sensitively and according to where they are - know your kids, know the things they’ve been through - but we should also read it in a way that’s a conversation: “What does the Bible say good is?” “Who does the Bible say God is?” So we are discovering, rather than telling them what to think. Lots of adults I meet got to 16 and realised the world is not as black and white as the Bible was presented to them. They didn’t have the skills to negotiate that, so they dropped Christianity, rather than being in conversation with the word of God and with God.
Are there any good Bible stories to start with?
SD: I’m amazed how few children’s resources obsess about Jesus when we all want children to know Jesus. What we have throughout the Bible is the story of people’s interpretative interactions with God, and then we have someone who is the perfect revelation of God so perhaps we should talk more about Jesus. We do children a disservice when we look at the Bible and go: “For children to engage with this, it’s got to have action or animals.” The chief story told to children is Noah’s ark, which is possibly the most troubling story in the Bible, because God kills everyone! How does that get on the front of every children’s Bible?
Do you think the story of Noah happened in the way the Bible describes?
EPL: I believe it happened. It’s troubling and we have to approach it sensitivity. I think sometimes we make the mistake of explaining stuff away because we’re troubled by it. We do a disservice to children when we try to make them feel comfortable about uncomfortable things. Life is not comfortable, and I don’t think it prepares children for life if we try to smooth over everything in the Bible.
I’m amazed how few children’s resources obsess about Jesus when we all want children to know Jesus
THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
SD: I did a geology degree; there’s no evidence of a global flood. There’s evidence of a cataclysmic flood in the right area of the world for Noah’s family to grow up with the story of a great flood and for the myth to grow of a family who survived it. I would never say to a child: here is a made-up story from the Bible! These are stories which reveal God. The Bible is not a scientific text. It’s written to help people understand their meaning and purpose. I want children to deeply engage with the Bible by asking: how do I find God in this? How do I understand my story in the light of this story? Otherwise as children get older and critical thinking kicks in, they’ll start to look at the Bible and think: “This can’t be true.” I was talking to a kid in my Sunday school about David and Goliath. He had written off the Bible because: “You don’t get people who are 9 feet tall!”
EPL: Scripture is God-breathed; it is what God has written through people. A lot of these things - the history of the Bible, science in the Bible - are still up for discussion. I never take the stance when I’m reading the Bible with children or any one, that I have the ultimate interpretation
or answer. I lean more towards the literal reading but we need to leave room for conversation. If you say: “Logically this couldn’t happen,” whose logic are we using? Discoveries keep happening: biblical, archaeological, historical. As much as the Bible reveals God and Jesus’ redemption, it is also a wealth of information about how the world works and how people work. The conversation among theologians, historians and geologists is not over; there’s always a ‘but’. For all the people who say geologically the flood wasn’t possible, there are people who say that it was.
What about some of the other stories in the Bible or some of the miracles?
EPL: I don’t know how we can make Jesus’ miracles untrue. If Jesus is not the Jesus of the miracles and he was just a good guy… well, my brother’s a good guy! If Jesus is not who the Bible says he is, why do I need him? I heard someone write off the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, saying he used a chemical to create the fire. If you’re going to do that with the Bible and take away the mystery, the miraculous things, then children don’t really need God. They just need good parents, good education and a bit of hope in themselves!
SH: We’ve got to understand genre. The Gospels claim to be contemporary accounts and we know that if they didn’t contain miracles, they’d be wholly credible sources. You’ve got recent history, which contains people like Pontius Pilate who we know existed.
Then you’ve got the oral history of Israel that was spoken around campfires for a long time before it got written down. And most of it was written through the lens of exile, when a people were understanding how they got there and why they still had a hope and future. It’s wisdom expressed through stories. What if Goliath was just really tall and every time someone told the story he got two inches bigger? That changes everything because suddenly he can exist and we can ask why was it so significant that God sent a child? Why is the king trying to
dress the child as himself? My conversation with children would be to think about where is the meaning? Why did the writer want to tell us this story?
Then you’ve got creation which is poetic and makes really deep and important points about the nature of humanity - we begin to understand why humans can be the most profoundly evil thing that ever walked the earth, and the best.
EPL: When we start just drawing morals out of stories, we rely on human perspective and logic. It’s important that children know that God has been very deliberate about what he has spoken. That he was there when the Bible was written and put together. We do our children a disservice if we just extract morals. We miss other aspects of the Bible that are difficult and prepare us for life.
Should we place equal value on everything in the Bible?
EPL: I can’t think of one part of the Bible that we don’t need to know about. I’ve gone through every book and I’ve been able to find them all pointing to redemption and to Jesus.
SD: Of course there’s a most important bit, the Gospels - the perfect revelation of God. It’s not interpreted because Jesus was there. Anything we think of theologically has to go through the lens of: does this fit in the way of Christ? So much of what you get - particularly through the early Church - is them trying to contextualise the way of Jesus into their culture. We mistake God-breathed with God-written. It’s human words inspired by God and if we treat it like the United States Constitution we get ourselves in trouble.
There are also other stories that children need. The joy of someone like David is you can see that his life with God was all over the place. Children need to see how he still engaged with God in his mess. But I would still want to focus on Jesus above everything else.
Do you think there’s anything we should ignore?
SD: Leviticus doesn’t get on my syllabus much! What about Jephthah who sacrifices his child? He vows: “If I win this battle, I will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of my house.” The first thing is his daughter. He killed her for God…
EPL: We can’t ignore these passages; people are going to find them anyway, so we have to have discussions in safe spaces.
SD: A friend of mine did a study on children and Bible stories. Most children, when asked about Jephthah say: “That bloke got it wrong.” They challenge it with their own image of God. I wouldn’t say: “Well your image of God is wrong, because God clearly endorsed it.” I would say: “That’s really interesting, tell me why?” I want them to form their own thoughts. A lot of the time, children challenge these stories in a way that adults struggle with.
I remember drawing a picture of Jericho with a 7-year-old. She started drawing a chef. I asked why and she said: “People live there”. She was trying to process the fact that God commanded destruction on the city - not a castle, a city. The conversation made me think that predominantly the story was under attack from her image of God, more than her image of God was under attack from the story. She was more willing to say: “They shouldn’t have done that,” than to say: “God told them to do that.”
Would she conclude that they’d got God’s words wrong?
SD: I don’t know. She’s only 7! When she’s older, she might discover there’s no archaeological evidence for walls being destroyed at Jericho. She might start to think: maybe it’s a parable or a founding myth of a nation. I was intrigued by how she was dealing with the most difficult element of it, but not willing to go: “Oh, God must be like that.”
"We do our children a disservice if we just extract morals from stories. We miss other aspects of the Bible that are difficult and prepare us for life"
EPL: I definitely think exploration is important when we are reading the Bible with children. Let’s go on that journey with them.