How (not) to teach the Bible to children

This is a page from The Picture Bible, the comic book bible with which I grew up.
This is a page from The Picture Bible, the comic book bible with which I grew up.
I found The Action Bible while looking for a way to introduce my 4th grade Faith Formation class to Scripture. I realized they didn't even know the basic stories of the Christian faith, so I couldn't teach them anything until they had those in their minds.
I found The Action Bible while looking for a way to introduce my 4th grade Faith Formation class to Scripture. I realized they didn’t even know the basic stories of the Christian faith, so I couldn’t teach them anything until they had those in their heads.

Let me start by saying that I am a big proponent of Bibles adapted for little kids so they can start learning the stories that make up the Christian faith. I grew up with The Picture Bible, and, thanks to that, when I graduated to a big kid Bible, I was already familiar with the stories that make up the faith. More recently, I was teaching faith formation to fourth graders as part of my time in seminary, and I found a newer style updated bible for that age, The Action Bible. The text is actually mostly the same, but the artwork is a little more exciting to appeal to a slightly older and more modern reader (let’s face it – the 70s illustrations of The Picture Bible aren’t gonna hold a kid as they get older). I was a little unsure of my position on comic book Bibles until I found out that the professor of Sacred Scripture at the seminary, Dr. Pitre, uses The Picture Bible, the same one I grew up with to teach his own children until they are old enough to graduate to the real texts. If they are good enough for the family of one of the greatest of modern American Scripture scholars, they’re certainly good enough for others looking to learn the faith and pass it along to the little ones.

Berenstain Bears BibleWhile I’m unabashedly in favor of these adapted Bibles, there is a wrong way to handle this. I was looking at some of the Bibles available for even younger children, and I found that Jan Berenstain (of Berenstain Bears fame) and her son, Mike, who illustrated and co-authored with her after Stan died (according to Wikipedia, he did some before, too.) made a storybook bible using the Berenstain Bears as characters. I was excited. I grew up with the Berenstain Bears. I thought this would be a great way for little kids to be able to be introduced to bible stories. So, I jumped to one of the stories that I frequently check out in these bibles to see how they handle them: the Last Supper.

Contrary to what the Berenstains may think, this is not what Jesus said. We can debate the meaning of those words, but let's at least tell the kids the truth.

Now, the institution of the Eucharist is definitely underplayed in the other two bibles I mentioned, but they are at least true to the story. I have a real problem when the approach is to change the actual words of Jesus to support one interpretation of His words. To the best of my knowledge, there is no dispute that Jesus’ words in the Synoptic Gospels were (obviously in Greek) “This is my body” or some version of that. Now, it’s ok if there’s a debate on the meaning of those words. Jesus did not say “This bread and wine is like my body and my blood. Eating and drinking these things will remind you of me.” I have to admit, to me reading this, I can’t even make sense of it. “This bread and wine is like my body and blood” is just a thoroughly weird thing to say.

I know that there are many Christian denominations that don’t promote Eucharistic Theology as the Catholic Church does. But, if we change the words to match doctrine, then the discussion can’t happen. Instead, we end up with people who think that Jesus explicitly said things that support our beliefs rather than wrestle with the actual texts of Scripture. I am well aware that Catholic Eucharistic theology is difficult to take from a purely rationalistic viewpoint or that of many of the protestant denominations. However, that is not solved by treating the text of Scripture with such flippancy as to completely rewrite the words of Jesus.

If we believe in the importance of Scripture to the Christian life, then the other half of that coin is to let the Word say what it says. We, then, as a Christian community, teach our children the meaning of the words. We help them to understand how to interpret Scripture, how to read it, how to understand it in the light of Jesus Christ and His Church. Now, both of the comic Bibles that I mentioned (and recommended) here omit some parts of the story and make some parts more accessible to the little ones. For example, the story of Sodom left out the fact that the men of Sodom wanted to, well, sodomize them. In my opinion, though, that is an entirely different story. We aren’t making a change, there, to support a specific interpretation, but to hold off bringing up some topics with four year olds. It leaves out most of Leviticus and Deuteronomy – can you imagine trying to make the explanation of precisely how to build the tabernacle followed by a precise description of building the tabernacle to those specifications interesting to kids?

Here’s the short of it. If the Bible is worth teaching to kids, it’s worth teaching right. If we have to actually change the words of Jesus to match our theology, that might mean that our theology is not as biblical as we want to think.

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