Our church has embarked on year two of a fabulous five-year goal–read through the Bible each year. Last year, we worked with Zondervan for a very successful Bible in 90 Days sprint through Scripture. This year, as one of my colleagues puts it, we’re reading the Bible oven-style rather than microwave-style. We’re reading through the One Year Bible, and using the helpful online resource, the One Year Bible Blog.
At the same time, Cherry Creek Presbyterian is a church committed to ministry to families, and we want to see people of all ages engage the Scriptures. For that reason, it only seemed natural that we would encourage families to utilize the companion resource to the One Year Bible, called The One Year Bible for Children, by V. Gilbert Beers. I appreciate Tyndale’s effort in seeing this through.
My wife and I have been taking our kids through this book for the past 20 days, and I’m noticing some recurring patterns that I must comment on, for the sake of helping families in our congregation best use this resource. I put it in a blog format to a wider audience in case it’s of value to others going through the process. (This departs from my normal topic: worship, church, and culture.)
The One Year Bible for Children has done a good job so far of summarizing the biblical story. It does not hit every book of the Bible…not by a long shot. But we can’t expect a resource to do that well and still be apprehendable for children in a format built for annual reading. Where The One Year Bible for Children has fallen short, in my estimation, is in its questions at the end of each reading. The questions, though well-intentioned (they’re meant to engage the children, test reading comprehension, and seek to apply Scripture in a tangible way…what a noble goal!), ultimately fall into an interpretive trap many books geared toward children fall into–moralism.
Too often we find in children’s Sunday School curricula and children’s Bible books this line of thinking:
Look at what <Bible Character> did. We should do that, too. We should be like him. That’s what the Bible’s teaching us.
Look at what <Bible Character> did. We shouldn’t do that. That’s bad.
The quintessential example of this is the all-too-often skewed interpretation of the book of Jonah:
Jonah didn’t follow God’s command, and look what happened. He was punished by God. The book of Jonah teaches us that we should listen from God and not run from Him.
Unfortunately, this application has NOTHING to do with the intent of the book! The story of Jonah communicates God’s love and grace to Gentiles (specifically, in this case, to the wicked, pagan Assyrians). Jonah is a book about God’s grace and love for all people (not only the Jews), and about our mission to the world.
Sadly, this kind of moralistic interpretation persists in Christian literature for children–especially in Old Testament interpretation–and The One Year Bible for Children falls into this fallacy. For example, January 9’s reading is “Abraham and Sarai Visit Egypt,” recounting the Genesis 12 account of Abraham’s deception of Pharaoh about Sarai being his wife. The questions at the bottom of the page ask the following:
“What lie did Abraham tell? How was it a half-lie and a half-truth?…Which of these people were hurt by Abrahm’s lie–Abram, Sarai, Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s people, Abram’s servants? How?…Half a lie is still a lie. Don’t think you can get by with a little lie any more than with a bigger lie. If Abram couldn’t, you can’t.”
As Christians, we can all agree that these moral lessons are true. The ninth commandment teaches us that we shouldn’t lie (Deut 5, Ex 20). But the question is: Does the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 intend to teach us about the nature and effect of lying? No, it does not. Such an interpretation is not central to the author’s intent. It would be more appropriate to apply this story by looking at it in its larger redemptive-historical context, understanding that God, despite the sinful brokenness of the man he chose, moved forward His plan of salvation of the world through a race of people who would eventually be known as Israel. A better application for children would be: God is faithful even when we’re not.
But, more often than not, Old Testament narrative is truncated into character stories about whether or not so and so did the right thing. When we look at those stories through that grid, the only application we’re able to make is “x is right, y is wrong…we should do x.” That kind of (mis)interpretation of Scripture not only skews the intent of the passage, it even promotes raising up little Pharisees. If children continually get that sense from Scripture, all they think of the Bible is that it’s a rule-book on good morals! The fact that our wider culture has this misconception of Christianity (i.e. that it’s a religion about a certain set of moral values) is a testament to just how pervasive this misinterpretation of Scripture has been.
That said, I still encourage our families to utilize The One Year Bible for Children, but I would admonish our flock to come up with their own questions, moving away from moralism and into the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I plan on reading this to our children all year long, sometimes using the questions, and sometimes not. I plan on praying that God would give me wisdom about His Word so that my kids understand how to rightly read and apply Scripture to their lives.
I will also use this opportunity to plug a resource that I’ve found doesn’t fall into the interpretive trap of moralism: The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd Jones…a diamond in the rough. This book summarizes the biblical story through the metanarrative lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, frankly, there’s no other proper way to understand the Bible except through this lens. The Jesus Storybook Bible won’t give you the biblical detail of The One Year Bible for Children, but it will give you the redemptive-historical approach which is paramount to properly understanding the entire biblical story.
For Christ and His Church,