Effing with the Ineffable: Why we shouldn’t teach the Bible to our Children
Noah’s Ark, King David, the Ten Commandments, the Garden of Eden. All staples of a healthy Sunday School curriculum. We teach these stories to our kids from an early age, hoping to instill in them a love for God’s Word and a trust in God through joy and hardship that will stay with them all their lives. But are we doing more harm than good?
When we first learned these stories ourselves, we did so at the most basic, literal level. We were taught that God spoke directly to Noah, Moses, Adam and Abraham, just as you and I would speak to each other, in a way that *He* doesn’t speak anymore. Everything happened exactly as the stories claim they did, in the most literally and historically accurate way possible. The talking serpent in the Garden of Eden actually existed, a flood engulfed the entire planet, and God destroyed an entire town for being gay (none of which is true).
Growing up into all truth
The problem is, we were never taught to grow up in our understanding of these stories. Any talk of the mythological value of the Bible is quickly shut down by claims of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “infallibility”. Yet just as we recognise that ancient Greek and Roman myths never actually “happened”, they still hold an immense amount of truth regarding the human condition and our relationship to each other and the world at large. Aboriginal Dreaming stories relate not so much historical accounts of creation, but the spiritual dynamics and social consensus between people, animals and the land they all share. We recognise that fairy tales and fables aren’t historical accounts, but they still contain truth about what it means to be human.
Just like these tales, our modern movies and books create mythologies that reinforce the basic stereotypes of good and evil. As a child, it is important to understand these concepts of good and bad, right and wrong. They are projected into our stories through heroes and villains, goodies and baddies. We grow up accepting these stereotypes, but as we get older we realise that life isn’t so easily delineated. Like the Taoist yin/yang symbol, light and dark are intertwined, with a little light even in the darkest spaces and a little dark even in the lightest. We grow in our understanding, accepting that Snow White and the Evil Queen did not actually exist, but that they are reflective of the relationship between selflessness and selfishness that both reside within each of us.
Passing on a childish, but not childlike gospel
Unfortunately, most of us in the western church have not been raised to read the Bible so judiciously. Our leaders have not matured in their reading of the Bible, nor had their leaders before them, and now what gets passed down to us and our children is a very immature reading of the supposed "black and whites" of scripture that do not give us a firm foundation in the Grace of the Gospel. We have generations upon generations of people growing up with a Christian worldview, unsure of God’s character or their standing before *Him*, unable to totally trust God as a child trusts a loving parent.
Not that anyone can even fully grasp the concept of God. The fullness of the Infinite Divine Reality is too vast to be contained within our theological boxes. But if Jesus is to be followed and held up as the ultimate Divine Revelation of God to man, we need to judge the rest of scripture accordingly, and teach our children to do the same. Did God really cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden or destroy the entire population of the world, save one family, in a flood? Jesus love for, and forgiveness of, the worst “sinners” – even those who unrepentedly murdered him – would suggest otherwise. Did God command the mass genocide of people occupying the land Israel wanted for themselves? Not if “every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” from our heavenly Father. Does even the worst of sins – the sin of unbelief – deserve to be met with a violent and torturous eternity? Not if Jesus’ dying words are to be believed.
Jesus instead speaks of forgiveness of enemies and of the peace of God within us all, and how hard it will be for those of us who struggle to find both in their own hearts. He speaks in allegorical terms of this self-inflicted judgment, terms that his people were familiar with in their day and age. These weren't literal judgments, any more than a camel can literally pass through the eye of a needle.
Rightly handling the Word of Truth
These stories then need to pass through the lens of “Does this exhibit as much love, grace and forgiveness as Jesus did throughout, and beyond, his crucifixion?” If they don’t, then they aren’t from God, no matter how much the author of the text claims that they are. And that is ok. But what do we do with those stories that don’t fit the character profile of God that Christ portrays? In simple terms, they are the record of very flawed, very ancient and very malleable understandings of God that grow and develop as the people do. They are stories, poems, allegories and histories of human development, and at a greater level, mythologies of our own capacities for good and evil and the Divine Loving Presence that redeems them both.
Until we learn to read the Bible with more focus on the grace of God and the right exegetical tools to dig that grace out of a very human text, we will continue to perpetuate a false narrative of a god who ordains humanity’s use of all kinds of violence and even orchestrates its own. Until we learn to reject that kind of reading of scripture, we will continue to pass on the same fear, guilt, shame and uncertainty to our children that we learned ourselves.
We should not be teaching the Bible to our children until we ourselves grow in our understanding of it; until we can find the inspired grace that permeates the text and read that alone as the Word of God ultimately revealed as Jesus Christ; until we know what to make of the rest of it and how it speaks to our own human desire to make God speak for our eagerness to exclude others; and until we see how those desires work against us as the lines of demarcation we would draw shift and sway to eventually exclude us as well.
If we continue to pass on immature readings of scripture to our children - with no prescribed path of spiritual growth to navigate the proper methods of its application in a modern world - we will pass on a dead Church with no future. Our children will continue to search outside of the Church for an adequate spiritual path of growth that is currently so lacking within our community, leaving the faith until there are eventually none left to prop up infantile traditions of ungracious beliefs and practices. We have an opportunity now to grow ourselves, to do the hard work of maturing spiritually, so that we can lead our children into the ways of Christ.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft