There has been some deabte on various blogs about whether or not we ‘sanitise’ the Bible for children. Seeb
http://www.davidwakerley.com/2010/09/17/story-danger/comment-page-1/#comment-13633 and then at this response: http://emergingkids.blogspot.com/ (scroll down to the entry ‘Wrestling with cultural shifts 1).
It has been suggested that I comment. It happens that last January I spoke on the importance of letting children read / hear the Bible as it is and not to water it down. So here is part of that talk
If we are going to be people who inspire children with the Bible the very first question that we have to ask ourselves is ‘Do we love the Bible ourselves?’ ‘Are we inspired by it?’ For if we are not ourselves inspired by the Bible; if we do not love it ourselves then we will never be able to pass on such a love to children.I wonder when any of us last really took time to read through the whole of Psalm 119 and reflected on our love for the Lord’s word?
‘Oh how I love your Law! It is my meditation all the day.’ (Ps 119.97) Or even Psalm 19?
‘The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.’ (Psalm 19.7-11)
So before we consider ways in which we might inspire children into the Bible for themselves let us examine ourselves and see how much we love the Bible.
Do we take time to read it? Do we take time to listen to it being read? When it comes to the Bible being read in our worship do we listen attentively? When it comes to the teaching do we check it out with the scriptures for ourselves? Do we meet with others to read and study the Scriptures? Are we studying them? Are we taking them to heart? Are we trying to live by them in the power of the Spirit?
We can only inspire children into the Bible as we are getting into the Bible for ourselves. We can only encourage a love for the Bible in children as we love it ourselves.
THE BIBLE INSPIRES US TO INSPIRE CHILDREN
If we are to grow a love for the Bible in children, and inspire them into listening to it and reading it for themselves then the first place that we must look for inspiration and guidance is naturally the Bible itself. We will take a quick look at several different places.
Deuteronomy 6 & 11
‘Impress them on your children’ (6.7 & 11.19 cf 4.9) emphasises just how important Moses believed it was to teach children the ways of the Lord. It implies repetition, even recitation for the purpose of memorisation. In a cultural setting in which the oral tradition was more important than the written one this is hardly surprising. It was by memorising that the word lived within the people. In our more ‘written word’ based culture we may express more emphasis on the regular reading of the words. The importance however of the central place of the word of the Lord is clear.
But this is far from rote learning where the text is simply memorised. It is not simply knowing the text so well that it can be quoted. No this is to be a lived text. This word is for daily life, and for every part of it.
Hence, ‘Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’. (6.7 & 11.19) This must imply for us today the proper place for children to talk about the Bible with their parents, other adults, and each other. Conversation is key here.
‘Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.’ (6.8f & 11.20f) These words speak of the value of visual reminders and stimulus. Orthodox Judaism may have taken this more literally than was intended but the fundamental idea of being visually reminded and stimulated to recall, think about and talk about the word of the Lord is clear. We should reflect on what visual reminders might be helpful for us and children today. Screensavers on PCs and mobile phones; posters and pictures on the walls; fridge magnets – all might be seen as modern equivalents.
But as Moses continues he is clear that simply knowing the words will not be enough.
‘In the future when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand …’ (6.20ff c.f. Exodus 12.26f)
Moses knew that future generations would ask ‘Why?’. They would want to know the reasons for the lifestyle they were called to lead. They would want to be given the meaning and the context for these words. For the people of God it was never enough simply to pass on the story. It was always vital to explain the story as well. The history had to live for each fresh generation. It was not simply ‘they’ who came out of Egypt; it was, and is, ‘we’. The history is remembered and lived now. It impacts life today. So too for us. If we are to inspire children into the Bible we will need to be a people who allow children to ask the questions, ‘Why?’, ‘What for?’ We must encourage exploration not simply reception.
This plays out further in the great Psalm 78. The opening verses are often quoted by those of us engaged in work with children, and rightly so. ‘We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children …’
But we tend to stop at verse 8 and fail to recognise that the whole of the Psalm offers us guidance on passing on the story to the next generation. What the whole Psalm does is encourage us to tell the story – all of it, including the bits that we do not find easy. Tell the story of God’s faithfulness, and also our failings and weaknesses. Present the story in its wholeness not in a neatly sanitised form. It is the story which sets the context for the law. The Scriptures sit together as a whole not in nice separate compartments.
Here the people are gathered together and Ezra, along with colleagues, reads the law aloud and explains it to all who are gathered. This crowd Nehemiah tells us includes, ‘the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law’ (Neh 8.3) This must have included the older children of the community. They took part alongside all the adults; listening to the words and the explanation.
The opening verses of Proverbs make it clear that parents pass on teaching and instruction to their children. They teach about the fear of the Lord which is seen in practical daily wisdom for living. Proverbs deals with how we speak of and to one another; how we handle money; generosity and meanness; our attitudes to work and to learning; justice in the market place; sexual temptation and much else besides. It continually reminds us that a life lived ‘in the fear of the Lord’ that is a life that puts God first, reveals itself in how we live day to day. Children want to know how to handle daily life. They want to know how to handle friendships, gossip, unkindness etc. – well Proverbs has plenty of help to offer.
Luke’s gospel gives us glimpses into both how John the Baptist & Jesus are raised by their parents. Both couples are presented as those who love the Lord and live by his word. Both John and Jesus use the scriptures extensively in their ministry. They quote it, and they allude to it constantly. Jesus himself is clear that it is the scriptures that spoke of him; and it is these scriptures that shaped his ministry.
Where did they both learn the word of the Lord? Well it was from their god-fearing parents and from the community; specifically probably the synagogue school. In these two lives home and the worshipping community worked together to help these boys learn the scriptures and shape their lives by them. Neither home nor the community understood what would become of them both as they did so. Somehow they allowed the word freedom in both lives such that they were both utterly shaped to live by the scriptures.
It was these same scriptures to which Jesus continually pointed his disciples; and to which he continually still points us as disciples today.
Ephesians & Colossians
Paul’s letters offer us a few insights as well. First, Ephesians 6.1-4 & Colossians 3.20-21 are frequently quoted in relation to children. What we must note is that Paul quotes the Scripture for adults and children alike to hear. He gives them Scripture on which to reflect. Children are being taught through quotation from the Scriptures; but not as is often suggested in a ‘proof-texting’ manner; rather Paul is inviting reflection on the scriptures.
Our final Bible example is Timothy. Paul writes this to him, ‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it (Grandmother Lois and mother Eunice – 2 Tim 1.5), and how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ (2 Timothy 3.14f).
We are not told how it happened but we are clearly told that from his earliest years Timothy was taught the scriptures by his grandmother and mother. Now we know that Timothy grew up in a ‘mixed’ family. His mother was Jewish whilst his father was a gentile (Acts 16.1). We also know that his father had stuck to his gentile convictions when it came to raising his son, as he had not had him circumcised. In this setting Mum and Grandma taught Timothy the scriptures. Paul knew this young man well enough to know just how deeply this had shaped him. The whole basis for Timothy’s ministry as an adult follower of Jesus lay in his childhood discovery of the scriptures.
I hope these biblical stories and passages have given plenty of food for thought already. A love for the scriptures comes from both parental and community involvement with the child; it is not either / or but both / and. A love of the Scriptures comes from the mix of the story and the law. It was not a matter of separating out parts of the scripture but setting it all in its wider context. A love of the scripture arises from the freedom to talk about it; to ask questions of it; to explore it and discover it. Love does not come from a forced approach or a locked down ‘You shall believe this’; it comes from the freedom of engagement. It takes the child seriously in their reflections and questions. A love of the scripture also comes from its connectedness with everyday life and everyday matters. If the scriptures are set above and beyond the realities of daily living they do not become a source of joy and life but irrelevant and detached.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BIBLE ITSELF
Now I need at this point to emphasise that I am talking about children engaging with the Bible itself. I love re-telling Bible stories myself; I love others doing it creatively, as Bob Hartman demonstrated so well last night. But here I am not talking about Children’s Bibles, or books of Bible stories re-told. I want to encourage us to help children, of all ages, as fully as they are able, to engage with the text of the Bible itself.
This will naturally be through listening to it before ever reading it. But as reading skills develop children should be encouraged to read the Bible itself for themselves. Clearly this will mean care with translations that use language with which children can best connect but we are talking about bible translations not bible reductions.
A few years ago Ruth Bottigheimer produced her book ‘The Bible for Children’. It is a fascinating exploration of the production of children’s bibles from the very earliest days of printing. Few of us today realise just how early children’s Bibles appeared. From the seventeenth century onwards there have been plenty. Bottigheimer’s research is detailed and her analysis careful. At the end of the book she reaches this rather devastating conclusion.
‘Children’s Bibles express values and standards that are not universal and eternal but particular and ephemeral. Bound by place and time, they adapt an ancient and inspired text to changing manners, morals, ideas, and concerns. For authors, buyers, and readers in nearly every age children’s Bibles have seemed to be texts faithful to the Bible itself. But their authors’ common effort to use the Bible to shape a meaningful present has produced Bible stories that mingle sacred text with secular values.’ (Ruth Bottigheimer – The Bible for Children p218)
In 1986 Roger & Gertrude Gobbel produced a book entitled ‘The Bible: A child’s Playground’. Probably because this was published by SCM Press it passed most evangelicals by. It is a great shame that it did so. Their simple plea is that we allow children to listen to, read and play with the actual text of the Bible. This is the inspired word of God after all; our re-tellings are merely that, re-tellings. It is the text itself which is the dynamic living word of God.
Let me give you a little taste of what they offered.
‘All too frequently, children are offered snippets of the Bible as well as alterations, adaptations, and stories of the Bible’s stories. In reality, something other than the Bible is offered.’ (Gobbel & Gobbel p87)
‘We need to rethink the desire to protect children from certain biblical material. What children encounter in the Bible is not at all unusual or strange to them in the midst of ordinary life.’ (Gobbel & Gobbel p88)
‘To withhold or to alter biblical material out of a desire to protect may in the end present a Bible that is insipid, incomprehensible, and unbelievable.’ (G & G p89)
‘It is recognized that in some situations rewrites and abbreviations may be in order and that books of Bible stories for children may serve some useful functions. But the dominant concern of this chapter cannot be overstated. Rewrites, abbreviations, books of stories, and stories belonging to adults – all the products of adult activity – must not be permitted to intervene, unnecessarily or unduly, between children and the Bible. Children must have opportunity to meet the Bible directly, examining it, asking questions of it, thinking and feeling about it, making sense of it, and responding to it as they are able.’ (G & G p97)
‘In broad strokes, to teach children the Bible is to encourage and assist them to engage, act upon, and interact with it as they are able. It is to assist them to experience the Bible as they are able. It is to encourage and assist them to play and lean to play with the Bible as they are able and to assist them in their own process of interpreting and learning to interpret the Bible.’ (G & G p151)
PUTTING THIS INTO PRACTISE – In the Home
So in simple terms we need to encourage parents to sit with their child and read to them, let them read the text of Scripture. Use a text which is readable for the child; the layout and images of the WTL Bible Publication, which uses the New International readers Version, make it easier to read and follow. The language levels of the Good News Bible, for example, are easier than the King James; but use a translation.
Encourage parents to talk about the text with the child. Here the Godly Play question, ‘I wonder’ is very powerful. It encourages and stimulates engagement with the text. Undertaking something visual or tactile as a way of reflecting on the text together is also really helpful.
Howard Worsley’s recent book, ‘A Child sees God’ is the best recent example of how child and parent together discover great insights into the scripture from one another through a straightforward reading of the text and conversation around it. His recording of these conversations, and subsequent reflection on them is extremely helpful. I hope it gains some wide exposure.
Then do something creative together that flows from the text / story and conversation. It might be drawing, painting, writing, sticking, cooking, watching something, clay, going on an exploratory walk around a garden or park – and as you act creatively enjoy each others company, and where appropriate talk further about the text and its impact on our lives.
Putting it into practise – in our groups
Then in our church based groups, whatever form or shape they take, and whenever they take place I have a very simple set of questions to ask.
Is the Bible visible as we engage in our activity together? Illustrate with story of Muslim child seeing placing something on top of Bible as ‘disrespectful’. How we use the Bible physically conveys a message to all with whom we work.
Do we open and read from the Bible itself – or do we tend to rely on our re-tellings of the stories and texts?
Do we encourage the children to ask questions of and around the text?
In other words do we encourage children to express their own understanding of the text?
Do we recognise that they will offer insights which we ourselves miss?
Do we take their spirituality seriously enough?
Then be creative around and from the text. Similar suggestions to those in the home but you can add in drama, dance, puppetry, song and music making, quizzes and the like. Let the text guide the creativity continually.
How we behave with the Bible ourselves will communicate most of all. A love of the Bible will happen in children because they engage with it themselves and discover for themselves the living God who speaks through it. Our own love for the scriptures will be infectious if it is real.
This rediscovery of a love for the Bible is the responsibility of both home and the wider worshipping community; both must work together. Children will only discover a love for the Bible when they engage with it directly. Please do not sell our children short – let them loose with the Bible itself. Let the Bible loose in their lives.