What we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible, part 2

Monday I started a series about what responsibilities we have to our kids as we guide them along their faith journey and teach them the Bible. Today we continue with part 2.

Part 1: What the Bible actually says

2. What you believe to be true – This is probably the trickiest on the list, and I hesitated it to put it in this order. I’m guessing half the comments I get will be to the effect that we don’t just want to teach our kids what we think but to show differing viewpoints, and I totally agree. There are three more parts to this series, and they all deal with handling opposing viewpoints or what to do when you have no idea which position is “right”. Let’s take it slow.

When Yosi was a baby and I looked ahead to handling issues of faith and belief with her, I imagined those conversations kicking off in earnest when she was in grade school. Instead, they started when she was 3. I was caught completely off guard by her astute questions about why certain things happen in different Bible stories. I was aware of the confusing and unsettling parts of certain stories, but I didn’t think she would catch some of them so quickly. The surprising lucidity of a preschooler’s questions highlights two things that we would do well to remember: 1) The basics of faith and spiritual life are simple enough a child can grasp them, and 2) they can usually grasp the basic problems and frustrations too. When your child is 3 or 4, that means a lot of Why questions.

When Yosi asks tough questions about the Bible or God when she’s 10 there will be more room for exploring ambiguities and promoting a nuanced approach to such issues, but at 3 she wants an answer and she wants it now. She wants to know why Jesus is getting beat up and killed when he seems to be so nice to everybody, and why we grown ups seem to think this was a positive event. She wants to know why Jacob liked Rachel more than Leah, and why he had two wives (in the running for my least favorite story to try to explain, and just for the record, “Because he was an asshole” is not an acceptable answer). She wants to know why Naaman killed a little girl’s family and drug her off into slavery, and why she helped him get better from leprosy anyway. She wants to know why Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and what slavery is, and why that was even a possibility.

We sit on her pink toddler bed and she stares up at me in puppy dog footie jammies and waits for an answer, assuming I have one, and assuming it’s right. Sometimes the answer is I don’t know (we’ll get to that later in this series), but even that doesn’t get me off the hook, because it still leaves an unanswered question, and sometimes I don’t know is code for I don’t want you to know or I’m not ready for you to be ready for this. Why did Jesus have to die? I have no freaking idea, kid won’t really cut it, because what I tell her about this question is essential to her basic formulation of faith. She expects me to tell her the truth, or at least what I think is the truth, which to her at this age is the same thing.

So, we dive in and tell our kids what we think is true on a particular topic. We owe them that. We may not be happy with the answer, and we need to qualify and avoid presenting it as the only option (which I’ll get to in the following posts in this series), and we need to model an attitude that allows us to humbly change our minds at a later date if we need to, but we give them an answer. This has made me realize how inadequate some of my own answers really are and work on better ones for myself.

When I look back at my upbringing, my dad always had an answer. I don’t agree with a lot of them anymore, and I think they could have been given with some more qualifications to their absolute veracity, but I appreciate that they were provided because they at least gave (and give) me a reference point for moving around within a given issue. I no longer believe in Creationism, for example, but the years I spent receiving that answer allow me now to explore arguments on both sides with a knowledge of where differing viewpoints are coming from.

I know I am wrong on some things when it comes to the Bible and faith. A lot of things, actually. And because of that I expect and even hope Yosi will reach adulthood with the freedom to disagree with me on any number of faith topics. But she’ll never learn how to formulate her beliefs and opinions if I don’t show her how I came to mine, and that means I have to show her what mine are. Actual, real answers and how I got them. There’s a time for withholding an opinion for the sake of allowing a pupil to work through some questions on their own, but at some point the opinion has to be shared for fair discussion to take place. So we share what we think is true, with humility, and we talk about it. And we try not to call any of the Old Testament Patriarchs bad names.

What is the single hardest question your kids have asked about the Bible? What answer did you give?

Part 3 coming on Monday!

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11 Responses to What we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible, part 2

  1. melinda says:

    Do we also not call Paul any bad names? The Old Testament patriarchs I cut some slack… mostly because I can see how easily they effed up, over and over again, even and especially after they were following God. So I can put up with their frustrating/hypocritical/annoying attributes.

    Then there’s Paul. Yeah… pre-Jesus he sucked. But even after Jesus he really does come across as an arrogant ass who I would avoid at the church potlucks. I have a hard time not swearing about him.

    As to questions, I do have a tendency to walk right into them with kids, rather than stray away. I’ve accidentally created young vegetarians, pacifists, and thinkers who learn to question authority because grown ups can’t always be trusted. This is probably why I’m not asked to babysit as often as in my high school years.

    Love Wins began a conversation the other night. The discussion of the book (and its author) divided the room in two: the half in support of asking questions and wrestling with answers, and the half opposed to questions that don’t come with answers in the same book (preferably the same chapter).

    This whole fear of questions has never sat well with me… but that’s a hell of a lot easier to say when I don’t have to consider how my decisions are affecting small children for whom I am The Authority.

    • I think you know me well enough to know I love questions and have no problem with them. I want my daughter to ask them, and I want her to always question established norms. However, I have to be able to provide her with something to work with in response to guide her in working through ideas.

      And I’m with you on the Paul issues.

  2. dannywright2 says:

    I remember coming near to the end of the book of Galatians when a junior high girl raised her hand in front of everyone and asked, “Wait, what is circumcision?”

    My answer: “Go home and ask your mother.”

    However, your wife, being more merciful than I am could see that this answer did not sit well. So, as I’m teaching she leans in toward the girl’s ear and begins by saying, “It’s where you take a knife and then grab the boy by the…” The rest was whispered into the girl’s ear, but the look on her face (and the shade of red she turned) let me know Lyndie had been vivid enough and clear enough that the girl came away with an accurate understanding of circumcision. [True story, by they way.]

    I think as a dad, I’ve come to see we should pretty much do the same thing. Even if my five year old daughter asked about circumcision, I think I should seek to get the idea across. I don’t have to show pictures to do that, but I create more confusion if I hedge.

    The same child’s parents came to me concerned when I began teaching through the book of Judges. “How are you going to deal with the really messy stuff [gross understatement] at the end of the book?” was their concern. Honestly, I found it pretty easy to sort through. Early in the book of Judges it states “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Laying that through the gospel grid, it makes slavery, polygamy, rape and murder easier to explain. We’re sinners, and when we do what we want, it makes a mess.

    • Yeah, but there’s a difference between dealing with violence caused by sinful people and violence that seems to be commissioned by God. The latter I have no idea how to deal with even for myself, let alone for my kid.

      • Your comment hits the nail on the head for me. The wholesale slaughter in the O.T., which at least in the context of the story is ordered by God – how do I explain that? I remember how it was explained to me (basically any means justified the end of preserving & protecting the nation of Israel so that the plan of redemption could play out through those people). As a kid, it made sense to me. At same point, I started thinking, “What the hell?” and I refuse to offer my children that rationale because it promotes an ethic that I find indefensible.
        I don’t mind Paul. After all the years of wrestling with what the N.T. says about women and homosexuals and slaves, even though I’m “liberal” on those issues, I love Paul. Frederick Buechner called him “Christ drunk”, and I that’s what I see in him. I’ll take dealing with Paul’s problematic teachings ANY day over some of the stuff in the Hebrew scriptures. Like the story of Achan in Joshua 7. Hate it. Hate. it.

  3. Jeremy Myers says:

    Kid questions are amazing, aren’t they?

    My five year old asked me a question just last night about death and dying.

  4. very well written post – it’s good to give an answer as the best you’ve got for now, and to frame it in such a way she will someday know that was not THE answer. At least you are modeling for her struggling with the Bible.

  5. Pingback: What we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible, part 3 | The Screaming Kettle at Home

  6. Pingback: What we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible, Part 4 | The Screaming Kettle at Home

  7. Pingback: What we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible, part 5 | The Screaming Kettle at Home

  8. Pingback: A summary of what we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible | The Screaming Kettle at Home

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