We’ve all see them: Noah’s ark toys, Noah’s ark nursery bedding, and of course Noah’s ark books depicting cutesy animals trotting by in their characteristic two-by-two fashion. It’s a curious choice, really, for an introduction to the Bible. It’s not exactly a feel good tale, and if I had to choose one story that was representative of the overarching biblical narrative it probably wouldn’t be that one.
The Noah Problem, as I like to call this particular pitfall, extends beyond the ark. Many Bible storybooks also focus on stories like Joseph’s coat (Look at all of those colors! Let’s learn the names of all the colors!). There are other examples, I’m sure, but you get the point: they’ve entirely missed the point. When we try too hard to make the Bible relevant to very young children, we risk emphasizing the wrong things in the name of biblical literacy. Good goal, poor methodology.
My point is not that we shouldn’t tell children certain Bible stories. Rather, it’s that when we tell children Bible stories they should be faithful retellings. I want my children to grow up hearing all of the Bible’s individual stories, but only if after hearing them they understand what they’re really about. I want them to know the overarching story and themes of Scripture – creation, fall, redemption, restoration – and how the individual stories fit in to the bigger picture. In short, I want them to learn to read the Bible theologically. If our kids are too young to understand the point of the ark story or of Joseph’s life, rather than trying to find something fun and appealing in the storyline and improperly emphasizing it, let’s just wait awhile until they’re ready for the full story.
On a hopeful note, I’ve recently come across a few good resources on this topic. This 4-minute Tim Keller video is a good reminder for all of us on what the Bible is basically about, but it also has much application for how we teach the Bible to children. And just yesterday I spotted an hour long presentation by David Helm, author of the Big Picture Story Bible, on how to teach children the whole story of the Bible. I haven’t watched that one yet, but I’m planning to do so very soon. I’m so thankful for great resources such as these!
Thank You!! I have struggled with this myself and realized I need to learn the bible better in order to share the stories more accurately with little one.
I remember growing up and never really learning the true point of many Bible stories, so sadly, as a young adult none of them seemed relevant. Such as Samson and his long hair and Noah’s ark…..
Now I explain how the Noah story tells how everyone laughed at him for listening and obeying God, but in the end he and his family were kept safe because they listened and obeyed even when they did not understand why.
So far the theme that I have come up with to teach preschoolers (age 3+) is a single theme to apply to many of the stories: Listening and Obeying Keeps Us Safe. But Sometimes (often) It Is Hard To Do: people laugh at us (Noah, Jericho), we don’t want to do it, or were afraid (Jonah – who had to have a “time out” in a stinky place, but was safe in there), scary (Daniel) or it seems too fantastical (Abraham)….but we trust and obey anyways, knowing God will take care of us and keep us safe…..
But I would like to learn more about teaching these stories to small children since I am so new at this and not very confident in what In know about the Bible myself. I have enjoyed a couple of Tim Keller’s sermons online once before and look forward to looking up the two new links you suggested — now that I have children this is something I think about almost daily!!
Loree, I think you’re completely right that telling Bible stories accurately requires a greater degree of Biblical and theological literacy. Knowing that is one thing that keeps me wanting to spiritually grow – I have a little girl to teach and I can’t teach what I don’t know!
I also think you’re right on target about what’s at stake. If we make the Bible all about learning the names of animals, etc, our children will feel like they grow out of the Bible as soon as they learn them all. How tragic! I can only hope that I will be able to share the Scriptures with my children in a way that helps them see that they’re “relevant” to us during every season of life.
(Confession: I’m commenting on this while my baby is playing on his Noah’s Ark playmat, complete with digital Mozart music and barnyard noises. I wonder if the TinyLove people even considered using the cacophony of confined animals, rushing floodwaters, and drowning people instead? Probably not.)
“When we tell children Bible stories, they should be faithful retellings” – yes and amen! I’m not inspired, so it’s not up to me to reframe Scripture for my kids according to my own ideas of relevance. Rather, it’s my job to pass it along to them as wholly and faithfully as possible. Sure, that can mean judicious selection (I’m not going to attempt to explain Lot’s visitors in Sodom to a three-year-old). But even if my daughter doesn’t totally understand the big picture when I’m telling her a story, the Word is saturating her imagination nonetheless – and I think that’s where God’s Spirit does a lot of work, on all of us.
I think your last point is really important, Sarah. We can’t forget that the Holy Spirit works in children’s hearts through the Word even when they don’t yet fully comprehend every theological intricacy to be found in the stories we tell them. What a good reminder to be praying to that end in my own daughter’s life.
Also, that’s hilarious about the playmat!
Yeah, all the animals are smiling, and I think a lion is flying a kite. Very biblical, that. (Although, the lion is hanging out next to the lamb, and you could probably do some interesting exegesis on that, what with the ark being the refuge of those who are delivered by God from the violence on the face of the earth.)
Your post put me in mind of Paul’s comment to Timothy in 2 Tim 3:14-15: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through Christ Jesus.”
Paul knows that Timothy has been familiar with the Scriptures since his childhood, through his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. My prayer is that I can be as faithful as those women, and pass Scripture on to my children not as something to be memorized for prizes or wielded as a weapon, but rather as “able to make [them] wise for salvation],” as “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
That’s a very different vision than the “good goal, bad methodology” approach much Christian kidlit takes, sadly.
I totally agree with you Haley! I think sometimes for young kids the Bible becomes more of an exercise in memory work and trivia and the true meaning is lost. However, children who know the most about the stories and their parents are looked upon highly for teaching their children the most about the Bible!
You would be so interested in ! “The Religious Potential and the Child”! I will have to lend you my copy! This topic is explored quite a bit, in fact one could see it as at the heart of the whole Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
I’m not going to go on and on here because it would be way too long of a comment, but actually, in that book they advocate waiting for Old Testament stories until the children are older (not sure the exact year, I’m thinking the 6-9, definitely not in the 3-6). They do this so that the children are old enough to figure out the theological meaning and relate it to the rest of what they know about God and Christ. . You can tell a child outright what something means, but I think it’s important to set them up so that they can struggle through and figure it out on their own (certainly I am still working on this!) They say that the risk is that children begin to see the Bible as a group of stories instead of God’s revelation to us.
Certainly they go into way more detail than I did here, and I’m a bit on the fence about it, but in many ways it makes sense to me. At the least, it makes me very mindful of how I talk about stories from the Bible (particularly the Old Testament, since they are not as obviously related to Jesus) so that I’m not just telling a story but faithfully giving them information that will help them have their own relationship to and with God.
One thing that makes the Big Picture Story Bible so special and unique to me is that it does teach things theologically, everything does fit into the theme of the “Forever King” and I love that! It isn’t just moralizing or recounting facts, but helping children see how each step relates to the Forever King them.
Thanks for the link to the David Helm video, I’m definitely going to watch it…when I have a free hour…someday, hopefully relatively soon!
I completely agree about The Big Picture Story Bible being a great antidote to this pitfall. I meant to mention that in my post actually – I’d guess that the frequent use of a good story Bible such as that one goes a long way in protecting children from The Noah Problem.
And yes, I’d love to borrow your copy of Religious Potential. Thanks for the offer!
Thank you for this post, Haley! I think you’re right on. Seems like we need a special ability to analyze Bible stories for their emphasis, not just their content. I remember how often I heard the story of David and Goliath taught as a child with the emphasis that I, too, could be brave like David! Misses the whole part about what GOD did that day!
I loved the part in the Tim Keller video (that I linked to in the post) where he talks about David and Goliath: Is the story about us and how we can be like David or about how Jesus took on the giants who can really kill us? I have a feeling I’m going to be watching that video many times in the years to come.
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I stumbled on your website after searching for ‘work” activities to follow this week’s chosen Godly Play story at my church (all being offered online at the moment).
This post took my eye. I completely agree – we should not “cute-sie” stories down for our children whatever the age, and should provide the whole over-arching story behind our faith and the Bible stories.
That is why I love (love, LOVE!) Godly Play so much: it has been created with the belief that children already have experience of faith, we as storytellers need to provide them the language to express and think about it (please note – my summary here is the “elevator pitch” version, and very crudely outlines all the beauty that is Godly Play.
Our group of children of children this year is very young (grade 2 down to very young toddler). I am constantly amazed by how the children respond to the stories we present.