On Reading the Hard Parts

So, Haley’s post from two weeks back – on telling our children Bible stories in our own words – has really been on my mind lately. A lot of reasons why, really, but two in particular:

  • I’m teaching the Godly Play curriculum to the three-year-olds at church, which involves retelling Bible stories and asking lots of wondering questions at the end.
  • I’ve been reading through Genesis with my almost-5-year old. If you’ve never tried this with a small child, well, it’s not for the faint of heart. Those nephilim! And oh, gracious goodness, Noah in his vineyard. Let alone trying to explain Hagar and Sarah, or the smoking pot and the halved animals.

It’s amazing to witness a child hearing – really hearing – some of these stories for the first time. Especially the hard ones. And as I’ve read and told some of these hard stories, I’ve become increasingly aware of how my own theological education actually gets in the way. I find myself wanting to put myself between my child and the story – to give her a filter, quick! – before the sheer strangeness and scariness of the story hits her. To make the Bible stories safer, I suppose – or, to make her experience of them more safe, so that she is sure to draw the right conclusions from them. Except that I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is not my job.

Last night, my daughter and I read the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story from Genesis 22. And it was harrowing. She didn’t know how it was going to end! She didn’t have a neat theological filter for the story, and she hasn’t been taught to read the Bible as a series of moral examples or instructions. It was just a story where God shows up and tells Abraham to do something really, really awful. The same God she talks to every night.

As I read, I could sense her responding to the story: tension, a little confusion, sadness, and at last, relief tinged with perplexity. I asked her at the end if she had any wonderings, and of course she did. “But why¬†did God tell Abraham to do that?”

All I could think about was how to make coherent theological sense of the story for her: could I somehow translate and condense¬†Fear and Trembling for the five year old brain? (Answer: No. Really. Don’t even try.) And I did give some simple answers. We talked about how Abraham trusted God; that Abraham obeyed because he knew God’s commands are always good, even if they don’t seem like it to us; how true obedience means you trust the person you obey. And I’m glad I didn’t just leave her alone with the story. But I still feel like I talked too much.

I mean, if we really believe that the Bible is God’s story, and that it’s a story that sweeps us up, takes us in, so that we become a part of it — well, then, there’s a lot to be said for just letting the Bible happen to us. And to our kids. Let them be awed by it, amazed by it, sometimes scared by it. Let them experience the goodness that always lies on the other side. I keep running into my tendency to pre-digest Scripture for my kids, to tell them what to think about it, to give them my understanding rather than enabling their own experience.

And I can dress it up all I want in the language of good theology, but (and here I’m speaking only for myself) it’s rooted in a profound fear of error and a lack of trust that God is present when my children hear his word. And a fear of their own freedom to hear and respond to God. I’d like to do it for them, so I can make sure they do it right.

So, a question, I guess: what’s your experience of reading the hard parts of Scripture with kids? How do you strike a balance between offering appropriate explanation and letting children experience the story freely and react to it for themselves? How do you give theological explanation without shutting down wonder or perplexity?

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