"Am I teaching kids to behave Christian-ly without teaching them Christianity?"
So wonders Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, a delightful series of Bible stories that he now says falls short of what it means to teach children about God. (Watch the interview. DO IT. This guy is seriously my hero.)
He points out that a lot of times, when it comes to writing for children, we hand them a moral instead of a story.
There’s a place for that. Sermon illustrations, Aesop’s fables, and coloring book captions are too short to get much into character development and plot. If the purpose is to drive home a point, illustrate a concept, or briefly refer to something else, it’s okay to have less than a story.
It’s also okay for stories to contain a moral of sorts. Think about your favorite stories as a child, from your fairy tale and very hungry caterpillar days to the chapter book series you read in later years. Most of them probably taught you things about the way people should act, the dangers of being greedy, or the importance of teamwork. Those are all good things.
But a moral by itself is not a story. It’s a fragment of one. Put into proper context, morals are the powerful underlying messages that can change our lives. By themselves, they’re pretty weak and unconvincing, left looking nervously around for narrative, foreshadowing, characters, and conflict to back them up and make them worthwhile.
Also, morals are the stuff of fables and fairytales. Some of the dramatic events of the Bible can seem pretty fantastic if taken away from their context. “And then Jonah got eaten by a fish!” “And the Red Sea split in half!” “And the guards throwing in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego got LIT ON FIRE and DIED!”
If kids think that Paul is basically a Biblical version of Chuck Norris (“He got shipwrecked—twice—and a poisonous snake bit him. He was fine…but the snake died.”) or think of Ruth in terms of Cinderella, you might have a problem. You might not start out your story with “once upon a time,” but sometimes that’s what kids hear.
Or, as Phil Vischer put it, "We were reducing the Bible to a collection of folktales rather than a worldview...that changes the way you look at everything."
Because of this, I’m not sure what I think about how we should teach children the Bible. Especially at a younger age, it’s hard for them to connect everything in a scheme of redemptive theology. But what if, with every story we told, we emphasized two things. I’ll talk about the second one next week, but here’s the first: this really happened.
Here are a few dos and don’ts on this subject that I’ve thought of or heard about.
- Leave out (age-appropriate) details that are culturally confusing or difficult to explain just to make the story more 21st century relevant.
- Talk about heaven as a place in the clouds where we all turn into angels and do nothing all day. I don’t want to go to this “heaven.” Neither do kids. Also, it doesn’t exist. I’ll probably write a separate post about this someday.
- Attach the wrong moral to a story, even if it’s a nice and true moral (hint: “kids can do stuff” is not the message of David and Goliath).
- Bring in maps.
- Show pictures of the way people really looked and dressed, instead of cartoon images of suspiciously Caucasian prophets and priests. (I once used dry erase markers to make a laminated Jesus more Middle Eastern on a poster in the children’s wing of a church I was visiting. Don’t tell anyone.)
- Read passages from the “non-story” books (Psalms, prophecy, epistles, etc.) that relate to the story you’re telling so kids don’t just get content from the historical books.
- Explain historical context (like what the Passover meant to the people if you’re teaching about the Last Supper).
It’s not about making the Bible more complicated. It’s about taking care to make it real and reliable.