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Why NOT to Read the Bible to Your Children

14 January, 2009

brannansmall1Journalist Joan Bakewell wrote an article recently, entitled ‘Read Your Children Bible Stories. Here’s Why…‘. She’s an unbelieving former Anglican, but she gives this reason why everyone should read the Bible to their children:

…no one knows their Bible stories any more. And I think they should…What all these accounts have in common is not piety or an exposition of God’s purpose for Man, but cracking good stories – a match for anything that the Greeks and Romans came up with. And, like many myths, they have a high quotient of blood and violence, cruelty and torture: just the sort of thing that children love. So why aren’t children reading them along with the fairytales that are still so acceptable to parents? I think we are losing the stories just as we are losing the faith. And that need not be so….

Bakewell feels that there’s still a lot of value to be found in all the blood and guts and so on in Bible mythology:

I have revolted against this aspect of secularism. I resolutely read Bible stories to my grandchildren. I think it is important that they should know of their Judaeo-Christian background and its place in the culture that they inhabit.

Needless to say, I think this is the WORST reason to read the Bible, whether personally or — especially — to the grandkids. But that’s coming from the perspective of someone who actually believes this stuff. What about from the perspective of believing that the stories in the Bible are simply the mythical self-expression of the fears and desires of the authors? Conveniently enough, Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 15. Here are some of my thoughts in response to Bakewell’s suggestion in light of this passage from Paul.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:1-8)

How did Paul feel about the great story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection — with its huge doses of blood and violence and intrigue? It’s certainly a really interesting story, and talk about a surprise ending! But one of the most striking things about this passage is that Paul’s concerned primarily with arguing about how trustworthy an eyewitness account it is. And this is precisely what he describes as the story we as the church (together with the Corinthians) have believed which is the gospel by which we’re being saved if we cling to it.

So then, Paul, what about this: may we still cling to this gospel story of the triumphant resurrected Christ simply as a great story, a yarn full of dramatic interest for the kids — one which does a great job of identifying lots of lingering Western Judeo-Christian cultural references? Well, conveniently, Paul addresses this, too:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied….I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:19, 31-32)

Paul in strongest terms claims that the importance of the resurrection lies not so much in that it’s a great story, but in what the story means because it really happened. In this light we can offer some answers to the question, Why shouldn’t we appreciate the Bible simply as good stories and no more, for entertainment and cultural reasons? As Christians, I think it should be obvious that we’re not even on the same planet as Paul if we think that Christianity is helpful even if it’s not necessarily ‘true’. The biblical authors don’t allow us to make such claims if we take their own testimony seriously. In fact, Paul here claims that the good news is actually the worst possible news if it’s just a pious desire with no historical, flesh-and-bones reality to it.  There’s a lot more that could be said on this point, but I’ll move on to a more relevant question for Bakewell’s suggestion: Why shouldn’t non-Christians appreciate the Bible simply as good stories and no more?

Well, one reason is that whether the Bible’s read in light of its overall message or that message is missed or dismissed, the stories won’t make much sense. If the Bible’s read in light of the gospel of Christ, I suspect non-Christians would get little enjoyment or wisdom or guidance out of it. The gospel is foolishness to the world, and all the more so we are foolish if it isn’t true. Without the resurrection, as Paul says, Christians aren’t good storytellers — we’re liars. Lies that are internally coherent yet dangerously foolish aren’t much of a resource for good children’s stories. On the other hand, if the golden gospel thread between all the stories is broken, none of them really makes sense on their own (although I guess some of them could still be entertaining and dramatic — and equally revolting, and ridiculous…). Again, I don’t see the ‘benefit,’ especially for reading to children. You’d have to skip a lot of the Bible with such an approach, and anyway without the overarching plotline the rest would be hopelessly banal.

Another reason, along the same lines, is that in such a context the Bible’s stories can’t be taken seriously as stories. The authors told these stories for reasons, and those reasons would have to be constantly ignored in reading the stories. All stories have a point to why they’re being told; every time you finished a Bible story you’d have to ignore or dismiss the point of it! No one does that even with Greek mythology. This hardly counts as instilling a healthy understanding of Judeo-Christian culture; it seems more like instilling an unhealthy patronizing of believers as those not in the know. And again, isn’t this something like what Paul is saying, if Christianity’s only a story? If that’s the case, Christians and non-Christians alike should feel a mixture of something like condescension, pity, and contempt.

Thus Paul’s advice if the Bible’s testimony to Christ isn’t true, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” As applied to the present discussion, in this case it seems it would be ‘wisest’ not to waste their time with the Bible, but to make sure to teach children to strive to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain until their brief and meaningless existence comes to an end. (This is melodramatic, but you get the idea.) Bible stories by their very nature run contrary to such goals, and have to be reinterpreted beyond recognition to be made to serve such an outlook. According to Paul — who knew and believed and lived Christianity as well as anyone — there is ultimately nothing to be gained from Christianity, ‘humanly speaking,’ if it isn’t true.

Again, these are just some of my thoughts in response to this article. I’d like to wrap up, though, by quickly looking at our own Christian attitudes and actions in understanding the Bible, especially in reading it to our children. Do we read our children Bible stories as if they were just for the purpose of entertainment or morality?

As those who believe the gospel because by the power of the Holy Spirit we have been given to understand and believe that Christ is risen indeed, and everything that means for all eternity, we mustn’t treat the Bible as one more storybook among others. The primary point of reading David and Goliath to our children isn’t  to keep them entertained or to motivate them to emulate David; the main point is to lay out from the story of David and Goliath the gospel of Jesus Christ, David’s greater Son (see Jer 33:14-21). Don’t get me wrong, these truly are great stories — in fact, we should say much more than that, because these are our stories, our communion of the saints and our household of the faith. But if lose sight of the fact that this community and family survive because of the flesh-and-blood, God-and-man reality of our ever-living head and the power of his indestructible life (Heb 7:15), then we’re not instilling Christian culture or sensibilities or morality into our children: we’re in danger of making them above all most pitiable.

I’ll conclude, however, with Paul’s story of the good news of the reality of the resurrection:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death…. (1 Cor 15:20-26)

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One Comment
  1. Hannah permalink
    22 September, 2010 11:13 pm

    I love to read the bible. And i always read it to my children. I love god so i think this site sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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