How we read the Bible

The Bible is an endlessly complicated compilation of writings, diverse in genre, style, content, interpretation, and history. This means it can be confusing, challenging, and downright mysterious at times. It’s also, we believe, sacred. But in too many cases, we think the way Christians reverence the bible reduces rather than honors its mystery.

We at St. Barnabas like to say that our job as Christians is to take the bible not just literally or figuratively, but seriously. That means reading a story literally sometimes, or figuratively others, but most of all it means being honest about what is confusing, challenging, and mysterious about our sacred text. Faith is a serious thing; it doesn’t seek to oversimplify things or find easy solutions. Rather, it recognizes complexity when it sees it and tries to reckon with mysteries honestly and openly.

What this means when we share our sacred texts with children is that we should be alert to the pastoral appropriateness of the stories we decide to tell. Just like it may not be pastorally appropriate to read the story of David and Bathsheba at a wedding, or the story of Judith at a prayer service for peace, we should use both our spiritual and pastoral judgment when sharing the Bible’s wisdom with children.

In truth we’ve always done this: the reason the stories of Noah and the Ark and of David and Goliath show up so often in children’s bibles is because little children love animals, and little boys enjoy action stories. But in a curriculum built around kindness, there are aspects of those stories – God’s choice to destroy every living thing with a flood, the rout of the Philistines – that are best left to a later stage of our children’s spiritual and emotional development.

To be clear: this is not to imply that any part of the Bible is dispensable or irrelevant, only that we can be more careful and judicious about the developmental, pedagogical, spiritual and pastoral standards we use when choosing the stories we will tell during our one precious hour.

How much we read the Bible

We think the bible is so important, that it is one of the most important ways we have of knowing God. But we also think it’s a really complicated and demanding book – not just for children, but for grown-ups too. So what we prioritize is fluency over facts.

We think too many formation programs simply fill children with stories, a new story each week, as if mere familiarity with the details of these stories were the same thing as biblical faith. (Not to mention that there aren’t enough weeks in any year for anybody to really give all of scripture its due.)

Instead, we focus on just a few stories each year, and invite our children to really dig deep into what each story tells them about God and their neighbors and themselves. What we want is to teach children how to read the bible, not just to help them memorize the important events and figures.

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As it happens, through the course of several years in our program, our children actually do develop a pretty good familiarity with the Bible’s major events and figures. But more importantly, they will have built a relationship with God and one another through their readings of the Bible, which is what we think all of us – young and old – are meant to do.

To put it differently, let me expand upon a story from my book. Before I became a children’s minister, our five-year-old daughter Millie came home from Sunday school one day. I knew she had talked about Sarah and Abraham in her class, so I made a point to ask, “What was today’s story about?” She responded, “Something about old people having babies, walking somewhere. Actually, I have no idea.” By the next Sunday, she had moved on to a new story from Genesis, with about the same level of comprehension and significance.

Now compare this to our son Danny, who is five years old now and is in the Love First program. We recently spent two months using the Joseph story to frame our gatherings around the theme of Love Neighbor each week. Danny can tell you all about Jacob and Potiphar and Joseph and Benjamin. But he can use this story to think about sibling rivalry and anger and betrayal and forgiveness and family.

At five years old, he can think through situations in his own life and use this sacred story to find meaning in his own experience and to discern the love of God acting in his life. In other words, this story has entered his life in a meaningful way. We’ve given him time to live with it, wonder about it, understand it, learn from it.

The fact that we only cover a few stories a year may give the impression that we don’t care enough about scripture in the Love First program. The opposite is true: in fact, we care so much about scripture, we so value its richness and complexity that we want our children to steep in these stories, to be formed and molded by them, so that they can start to understand what it means to hear God speaking in these ancient words.

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