The Bible is not a children’s book. While I figure most adults would agree to that sentiment, I feel as though when it comes to practicality, we treat the Bible as though it were a children’s book. Not only in the way adults read it, but in how we teach it.
When I was handed storybook Bibles in Sunday School, I noticed something strange about the “Bible.” Most everyone was a buff-man, most everyone was white, most everyone was smiling all the time, and so many people were “heroes.” My storybook Bibles looked and read exactly like my collection of children’s Greek myths, and the plausibility of stories like Noah’s ark seemed about equal to any number of my favorite Grimm fairy tales I would read.
So, as a child, I became reasonably skeptical. I could barely distinguish a Disney movie from the Bible’s many stories. Both featured strong male heroes, some sort of miraculous or magical ex-machina, and a happy ending. David and Goliath is the classic example of this. Of course, as an adult you read David and Goliath and realize there is way more going on there than just a simple tale, but as a child, it’s taught as a fun, simple moral.
When I turned to the Bible a little later in life, hoping to find stories with concise morals to tell me how I ought to live my life, I was disappointed and shocked. Instead of simple tales telling me why I should be good, I found brutal depictions of violence, rape, and ancient practices that made no sense to me. David wasn’t always a young smiley underdog who killed a big bad guy, he also had sex with his friend’s wife and proceeded to kill that friend. Solomon ends up a heretic (1 Kings 11), not the hero arrayed in glory and wisdom as I was taught. Elijah kills 42 children by sending a couple bears after them for calling him “bald-head” (2 Kings 2:23-24). A woman is brutally raped and cut into twelve parts and sent throughout Jerusalem (Judges 19). There are penis jokes (1 Kings 12:10), and erotic poetry (all of Song of Solomon), and incest (doesn’t take much effort to find). I could keep going, but I figure you get the idea.
And so I ended up not really liking the Bible after reading it in its entirety, because the Bible isn’t what I was taught as a child. I was taught it was a happy little book, with simple, nice characters, concise morals and stories, and (most importantly) a guidebook to life. Turns out it isn’t exactly that.
Perhaps you are surprised I haven’t mentioned Jesus Christ once in this article. That’s because as a child I was only shown Jesus in three ways. We hear about the nativity at Christmas, then at some point we hear about some miracles (usually feeding of the 5000 for some reason), and then you hear about the crucifixion at Easter. However, I feel as though, children cannot comprehend the death and resurrection of Christ in its entirety. I am not saying you cannot be saved as a child, or that children are extremely naive, but if even well learned adults cannot fully comprehend the resurrection, one can imagine that children certainly cannot fully comprehend what they hear. The death and resurrection of Christ makes almost no sense, and it isn’t fair to just tell kids what happened and assume they understand. As Paul writes, “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.” 1 Tim 3:16
So naturally, the question arises: how do we teach children those stories in the Bible which are vulgar, violent, and confusing? We don’t. Children don’t need to hear every story in the Bible to appreciate the Gospel, they need Jesus. And we certainly don’t need to dumb the Bible down into simple drawings and sentences devoid of the poetry and beauty that the Bible actually possesses. What results from dumbing down the Bible is a lack of appreciation for the Bible.
What we need to do is properly discern what is and isn’t appropriate for children. Yes, Paul does say, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching” (2 Tim 3:16) and Proverbs does say, “Train children in the right way, / and when they are old, the will not stray” (Prov 22:6) but this doesn’t mean we should find ways to make scripture “mean something” to children today by attempting to make them more entertaining. When we teach David and Goliath to children because we know it will be entertaining, isn’t that missing the larger theological point? Why can’t we instruct children to memorize the beautiful poetry of the pastoral Psalms, or have them contemplate the plethora of Jesus’ miracles?
The Bible is an incredible book, with some of the most powerful writing in world literature. After reading the Bible without my prejudices and moralistic expectations, the Bible was no longer a collection of fairy tales. What a blessing that the inspired word of God is an incredibly conceived work of literary art! And like many great works of literature, it cannot be appreciated in full at a young age. You cannot hand a five year old The Great Gatsby and hope they appreciate it; likewise certain passages in the Bible with adult themes shouldn’t be handed to children. And when we dumb down the Bible so they can understand it, later in life there will be consequences, because altering the nature of the Bible alters the nature of the message. Storybook Bible are man-made, bias, and certainly not inspired (they more resemble Aesop’s Fables).