I’ve Heard This Story Before!:
Teaching Our Children to Read the Bible
A Response to Dr. Richard P. Carlson
2010 Hein-Fry Lectures
Dr. Carol Jacobson—April 21, 2010
I want to start by thanking Professor Carlson once again for our wonderful Bible study this morning. This afternoon, in response to his presentation, I want to think with you about the following question:
If our “goal“ as Lutherans and as disciples of Jesus Christ is to read and teach the Bible in the ways that Professor Carlson advocates, I want to ask, how can we best prepare the children and youth in our congregations—to make them ready if you will—to read the Bible this way.
If we want our rostered leaders and laity who read and teach the Bible effectively as adults, what kinds of preparation do younger disciples need as they grow into a mature biblical understanding?
Uncovering Presuppositions about Teaching the Bible with Children and Youth
My contention is that we cannot simply expect folks to read the Bible this way once they reach adulthood unless they have been “prepared” to encounter the Bible this way as children, as confirmands, and as teenagers. Let me say clearly here at the beginning that I am not suggesting that first graders can be taught to intellectually identify the various “worlds” of a biblical text, or that confirmands must read Ricoeur. That’s not my point at all— and would be both developmentally inappropriate and pedagogically impossible anyway. My point is that engaging the Bible as we have been doing this morning does not happen in adulthood unless the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual ground has been prepared for it during childhood and adolescence. That’s my thesis. But before we can see just how we might get our children ready to read the Bible in this way, we must first uncover some of presuppositions we may have about teaching the Bible to children and teenagers in the first place. I’ll mention just two, that I find especially problematic.
First, many people presuppose that children, especially young children, are not capable of understanding the meaning of Bible stories in the first place. Children, we say are not mature enough to understand the complexities and questions they will encounter in the biblical narratives. We worry, can children engage the Bible in ways that don’t just confuse them at best, or cause them harm at worst? Scholars have differed significantly in recent decades as to whether or not it is appropriate to teach Bible stories to children at all. Some argue that “the Bible is certainly an adult book. It was written for adults. … It was never intended by its writers as a quarry of stories for children. Neither did its writers intend odd verses to be taken out of context and used for moral instruction of the young” (1). Others disagree. They argue that although children are not capable of understanding the Bible as adults do, they nevertheless must be given opportunities to experience and understand the Bible as children do. Children, they say, can think, feel, and wonder about the Bible and about the stories they hear from the Bible. Moreover, they argue that to withhold the Bible and its stories from children is to withhold stories that belong to them as young members of the community of faith (2). I am persuaded by these folks. I believe we must encourage our children at any and every age to engage the Bible as they are able, wherever and however they meet it. Of course this means that interpretations of biblical stories they make as children will have to give way to and/or make room for other—more comprehensive—interpretations as they grow both cognitively and spiritually. Children will interpret meaning for themselves in a Bible story and make connections for themselves. These interpretations will have to be “unlearned” later as understanding and experience develop. More about unlearning later.
Now, I want to mention the second presupposition we as adults may have about teaching the Bible with children and youth. We presuppose incorrectly, that teaching the Bible involves emphasizing “content”—relating the facts of the story, asking children to repeat these facts, and hoping they will internalize a pre-identified “point” to the story. For any number of reasons, we think of children and youth as largely empty vessels, to be filled with all the content they will need to lead an adult life or read the Bible in an adult way. But this kind of thinking presupposes what Paulo Freire calls a “banking” (3) approach to teaching and learning. That is, we presuppose that if we, as adults, put the right information “into” children and youth, they will be able to draw it out of their “bank” when they finally reach adulthood. But anyone who has known a child knows that this is not how children learn, even if it is the way in which we persist in trying to teach them!
If we can give up a banking style of education as the norm for teaching children, and if we can agree that the Bible and its stories belong to children and to adults alike, then we can return to the question I want to ponder: How can we best prepare our children and youth to read the Bible in ways that are both revelatory and relevant to them all along the way toward maturity?
I’ve Heard This Story Before!
Allow me to tell you a story (4). I first became acquainted with the dangers and delights of teaching the Bible with children as a first grade Vacation Bible School teacher many years ago now. I had a dozen or so in my class and our task for the week was to learn together about the life of Jesus. The first part of the week went very well, I thought. We learned stories about Jesus from the Bible—stories about his birthday, accounts of Jesus’ loving and healing children, even the story about Jesus becoming lost as a child in the temple.
My first graders loved these stories. We celebrated Jesus’ birthday and learned about how we celebrated birthdays in our families. We found out that Jesus healed sick children and talked together about being sick and about how happy we are when we feel better. We discovered that even Jesus got separated from his parents, and shared stories about how scary it is to be lost and to feel all alone. Together, we discovered that Jesus was a special person—a real friend to the children he met. And, we learned that Jesus was our friend too—someone who loved us, cared for us, and was always with us, even when we felt lost and alone.
So far, so good. It wasn’t until Thursday’s class session that I began to worry. On this day, the story of Jesus’ life turned toward the narratives about his passion and death. Should I tell the stories of Jesus’ imprisonment, torture, and death to six-year-olds? How could I help them understand what was happening to Jesus without frightening them or breaking their hearts? Had I set the children up for emotional trauma unawares? I decided to focus on the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and we imagined it like a parade. But soon it was time to tell my students the next part of the Bible story. I told the children that some of the important people in Jerusalem were jealous because Jesus got a parade and they didn’t get one. They were so jealous in fact, I continued, that they arrested Jesus and took him to jail! One little boy, no doubt acquainted somehow with what can happen in jail, blurted out, “They aren’t going to kill him are they?” Now what, I thought! What should I say to answer this little boy? Fortunately, before I could say anything at all, another child in the class turned to the little boy and said, “Don’t worry, I’ve heard this story before. He raises from the dead. It’s really cool!” We didn’t talk about Jesus’ imprisonment, torture, or death at all. That wasn’t what was important to these children. Instead, we celebrated what was important to them—their friend Jesus raises from the dead and it is really cool!
It wasn’t until years later that I wondered just WHERE that little boy had heard the story before. In church? In Sunday School? On his mother’s or father’s lap? Where had this young student heard the story about Jesus’ death and resurrection before? Who had told the story? A pastor? A parent? A teacher? A friend? Whatever the source, it is apparent that this young child’s previous encounter with the Bible stories about Jesus was important and meaningful for him.
Well, hopefully the story I told has helped to convince you that children are capable of understanding the Bible in ways that are significant and useful to them. Indeed, children—even a young age already have an understanding of “their world in front of the text”—not in an intellectually sophisticated way, of course, but nevertheless the little boy in the story possessed the capacity to both remember the story and to articulate what was important to him about it. Jesus was his friend. His resurrection is “cool.”
Discovering Ways to Read the Bible with Children and Youth
So, where should we begin in thinking about reading the Bible with children? Perhaps with some general guidelines:
First, we should present the content of the biblical stories themselves in engaging ways. Children and youth need to know about who God, Jesus, Moses, Ruth and Mary are and about what they did [the world of the text]. They should hear Bible stories even before they are cognitively capable of repeating them or remembering their specific contents (5). Children and youth also need to know that in the Bible they will hear an ongoing story about God’s love for them and for the whole world [the world in front of the text]. And we must also show our children that they can do more than just listen to Bible stories. They can think about them, wonder about what they mean, and ask questions about Bible stories as well.
Once children reach later elementary age, they will become more interested in the world behind the text too. In their schooling at this age, they are learning about the world’s ancient cultures—this is also a great age to let children investigate the cultures of ancient Rome, Babylon, Egypt and Israel—and to connect these with the stories of the Bible.
Second, we should let children know that not only will they meet many interesting people and find many stories about God’s people in the Bible, but that they will meet God in the Bible too—a God who loves and takes cares of them today. Simply put, “the same God who meets adults in their encounters with the Bible is the same God who meets children in their encounters with the Bible” (6). God wants to meet our children in Bible stories—even while they are still children or not yet quite adults. And, although children may not be able to articulate these divine workings and holy encounters in the language adults would use; nevertheless it remains true that God promises to meet our children through the Bible and their encounters with it.
And third, it is helpful to remember that to teach the Bible with children has importance both for the present and for the future. As children and teenagers continue to develop cognitively and emotionally, their initial interpretations of a Bible story and its meaning can either cohere or contradict with their own later interpretations, sometimes both. This means that children and young people will often need to “unlearn” their previous understanding of a biblical story when that understanding no longer makes sense to them. This does not mean, however, that the child was somehow “wrong” in his or her previous interpretation. Rather, “learning, unlearning, and relearning” is essential to the development of a mature Christian faith and the facility and flexibility for reading the Bible as an adult.
Lastly, I recommend that children have their own actual Bibles. For children younger than 3rd grade I recommend the SPARK Story Bible, available at Augsburg Fortress. While not a complete translation, this story Bible is a wonderful book to read together with young children. For children between third grade and 12 years of age, a good Bible—which is a complete translation in the New International Version—is the Adventure Bible from Zonderkidz. This Bible comes filled with practical suggestions for how to get children of later elementary school age engaged with the Bible and its stories. At confirmation time is a good time for young people to invest in their first “study” Bible—one they can grow into, such as the Lutheran Study Bible, the Harper Collins Study Bible, or the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha.
Suggestions for Reading Luke 5:1–11 With Children, Confirmands, and Teenagers
Now, I’d like to return to the discipleship text from Luke 5 that Professor Carlson used this morning. I want to use his translation of Luke 5:1–11 as a kind of “test case” to see if we can find ways to invite children, confirmands, and teenagers to read this text in ways that help prepare them to develop mature understandings of how Christians and Lutherans read the Bible. Listen once again to the story, if you will:
And it happened when the crowd pressed upon him to hear the word of God and he himself had been standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats which had been sitting by the lake. After getting out of them, the fishermen were washing the nets. Embarking into one of the boats, the one which was Simon’s, he asked Simon to put out a little way from the land. After sitting, Jesus was teaching the crowds from the boat. As he finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Replying, Simon said, “Master after toiling throughout the night we got nothing. But by your utterance I will let down the nets.” After doing this, they caught a large multitude of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled their partners in the other boat to come to help them. And they came and both boats were filled so that they were sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees saying, “Go away from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man.” For wonderment enveloped him and all who were with him due to the catch of fish which they had taken, likewise also James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people alive.” After bringing the boats upon the land, having left everything, they followed him.
(Luke 5:1–11 [translation—Dr. Carlson])
Reading Luke 5:1–11 With Young Children
Let’s start with some ideas for teaching Luke 5:1–11 with young children. Since children six and under have not yet developed the capacities to think either logically or abstractly, they move easily and unselfconsciously from one experience to another, and have no need for [or interest in] logical consistency. Children at this age truly enjoy being told stories, but cannot reflect abstractly about a story’s larger meaning. And, although the youngest children can recall some of the details of a particular story, they can’t yet repeat the story in sequence. So in our text, we might expect a four or five year old to recall after hearing the story that some people were in a boat with Jesus and they caught lots of fish when he helped them.
Most likely, they will move quickly and effortlessly [which often appears somewhat random to adults] to connect the story they heard with their own lives. For example, a young child might respond to this story by telling another story—about a boat ride they went on, or a boat they saw, or by talking about how they don’t like fish, or by saying that they have ten boats at their house!. Although it might seem like these young children haven’t “gotten anything” out of the Bible story, and that they certainly are making up stories, I believe it is worth noticing some important things happening here. First, the children have enjoyed hearing a Bible story about Jesus helping people catch lots of fish. Don’t forget—they’ll hear this story again! And something else might interest them next time. In addition, they have been able to relate a Bible story about fish to themselves and to their own experiences whether real or imagined [which is all the same world—the world “in front of the text” for a young child. And, even if adults don’t understand the connections between the story in Luke 5 and the stories these young children’s respond with, nevertheless, a valuable connection between the Bible and the child has begun.
And, in truth, who Jesus must be in order to bring forth such a great catch of fish, or wondering if the story really happened or not is not how the youngest children will connect with this story. Rather, what interests them is that Jesus helped people catch fish when they couldn’t do it, just the way their mom or dad helps them do things they can’t do for themselves.
Reading Luke 5:1–11 with Older Children
When it comes to reading this story with older children [up to twelve years of age] cognitive and affective changes result in both a shift of focus in what interests them, and a growing awareness of their own new cognitive abilities. Children in these years have a wider range of experiences upon which to draw and to reflect. They have entered school and they find themselves asking more, and different kinds of, questions about what they experience. They become interested in collecting information and gathering facts about almost everything, including the Bible and its contents. Where once they did not have the interest or ability to remember the details of a biblical narrative, older children are more than capable or remembering the contents of Bible stories and often enjoy doing so. Sometimes they even add content that isn’t in the story! Now the questions “Is it true?” and “Did it really happen? ” become very important. So older children will want to know if the story in Luke 5 really happened or if it is “just a story.”
That kind of question is perfectly appropriate to the age group, even though it makes adults nervous. And, that kind of question cannot be answered with factual information. So the answer to “Did Jesus really make all those fish go into the nets?” should NOT be either yes or no. Rather, we might respond by saying, “I wonder—how do you think Jesus did that?” Or perhaps we could respond by saying, “I don’t know how Jesus did that. I guess God must have helped him.”
I recommend purchasing and placing tabs in each child’s Bible, to help children find the books of the Bible [and our story in Luke 5] with ease. In addition to Bibles, children at this age will enjoy maps of Israel, drawings of the temple in Jerusalem, pictures of Lake Gennesaret, and other kinds of reference materials that help them visualize what they are learning about [the world behind and of the text]. Children will also take pleasure in the challenge of a Bible treasure hunt, where they are asked to find answers to particular questions by looking up specific verses in the Bible. For example, a question might read, “What gifts did the Wise Men bring to Jesus when he was born? For the answer, look in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verse 11. Or—let’s look together for other stories about fish in the Bible, or boats, or crossing the sea. With help and encouragement, children at this age can become skilled in looking things up in their Bibles and will enjoy doing so.
Reading the Bible in Confirmation
As children continue to mature and to make their transition into adolescence, they once again enter into a new phase in the ongoing development of their cognitive, affective, and social abilities. Unfortunately, this is most often coupled with a growing disinterest in the Bible and its contents. Confirmands “often resist engagements with the Bible, complaining, ‘That’s the same old stuff. We’ve already done that. We know all that. Can’t we do something else?’ Their complaint describes an attitude or posture toward the Bible that can persist throughout adulthood. At this age, “I’ve Heard This Story Before!” is more of a lament than it is a celebration. Reading the Bible with children during the confirmation years can appear to be an uphill battle. But it needn’t be so.
After all, preadolescents possess the capacity to move beyond the confines of the concrete world of cause and effect, right and wrong, when engaging Bible stories. They are ready to move beyond questions like “Is it true?” or “Is it real?” Indeed, the nature of what constitutes truth and what makes something true has changed for them. Cognitively, children at this age can think abstractly. Just as important, their affective experiences of love, friendship, betrayal open the door to understanding something is true on a variety of levels [the worlds of a text]. Moreover, preadolescent children are developing a much more sophisticated understanding of time and historical sequence.
If Luke 5:1–11 is going to interest them as readers at all, confirmands will have to learn at a somewhat sophisticated level about the genres contained in the Bible, as well as learning about how historical, literary, denominational and devotional readings are all part of what it means to read the Bible. Confirmands should be taught to notice and identify the various kinds of literature contained within the Bible—poetry, parables, songs, histories, gospel, epistles and visions. They should be invited to offer their own understandings and interpretations of what these stories meant in their context and what they mean for disciples of Jesus Christ today. In this way the Bible becomes for them a more complex and interesting text than they might have previously thought.
Because children of confirmation age are developing a more sophisticated understanding of time and the sequence of world histories, it is the perfect time to begin the conversation about putting a story like Luke 5 into its variety of contexts.
Those who read the Bible with preadolescents should help challenge and encourage them to take notice of the fact that in the Bible, many stories are told more than once. In Genesis, for example, there are two accounts of God’s creation of the world. In the gospels, we find many stories from the life of Jesus told more than once, each from the perspective of the particular author. There are multiple accounts of the resurrection, the feeding of the five thousand, the Sermon on the Mount, and so forth. Children at this age should be encouraged to compare and contrast these accounts. How many stories in the New Testament seem similar to the one in Luke 5? Why would this story be recorded more than once? Asking questions like this, and LISTENING to their answers—rather than always offering their own—show young readers how to read the Bible at a variety of levels. I imagine that were you to ask a group of 8th graders what they think this story is about, after a few answers that are the “canned” ones they have heard in church—someone might venture that it is a story about friendship and trust—or perhaps about finding one’s way through deciding what to do with one’s life.
Reading Luke 5:1–11 with High School Youth
By high school age, youth who have been reading the Bible and who have been attending church have begun to observe that there is often a serious “disconnect” between what the Bible says and the ways in which Christians act. In their encounters with Bible stories, they have already learned that people in the Bible not only talked about what they believed, but that they acted on what they believed as well. Take Simon Peter in Luke 5 for example. Jesus tells Simon to let down the nets, and Simon does it. Simon Peter both believes and acts. Unfortunately, high school youth have come to the conclusion that Christians today say they believe, but they act in ways that contradict what they say they believe. They often feel the hypocrisy of the church keenly, and have a strong desire to practice their faith as well as to just believe it.
This is the time to invite adolescents to develop their own “style” for reading the Bible. Church teachers and pastors—probably not parents—should be showing high school youth concrete ways to read and study the Bible. In addition to developing more sophistication about identifying and reflecting on the worlds of, behind, and in front of the text, high school youth should be encouraged to mark up their Bibles for themselves. For example, one fruitful way to show high schoolers to read Luke 5 for themselves could go something like this. Suggest that youth read the story through not just once, but three times. The first time through, youth could be asked to pay attention to phrases or things that stand out to them and to mark them—perhaps making an arrow or some other mark in the margin. Then, while young people read the story a second time, they could consider the question of why Luke puts this story in his Gospel account. What does Luke want his readers to learn? Youth should be encouraged to underline places where they think Luke shows us the important points he or Jesus is trying to make. Then, encourage a third reading, this time listening for what this story is showing the young person about a need they have, a challenge they face, or a joy they feel. Invite youth to mark these verses with a star or exclamation point. Such an exercise in reading the Bible can be a communal activity or a personal one.
I have also learned that high school youth are more than ready to put into practice what they are learning in their reading of the Bible. Those who read the Bible with adolescents must give them time, freedom, and examples of how to test out what they are learning and to make their own interpretations about the significance of what they are learning for their own lives.
However you and the children you love decide to read and experience the Bible together, I hope these remarks, as well as Professor Carlson’s have helped to encourage you. In their encounters with the Bible children will find much about which they will think, feel, and ponder as they grow into the practice of their own lives of faith. Along the way, children will need encouragement and assistance in making the Bible a central part of their expanding world of experiences. In their interactions with the Bible, children will learn many things, and begin to understand themselves as a part of the ongoing story of the people of God that is recorded in the Bible. Most importantly, they will be invited over and over again to meet the God who loves them and to respond to God’s love for them with wonder, and with joy, and even with confusion. In this way, our children and youth will grow into ways of reading the Bible that are both revelatory of God’s work in the world and relevant to their own lives of faith and discipleship.
Berryman, Jerome W. Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1991.
Berryman describes and offers practical advice for teaching Biblical stories to children in ways that engage their imaginations, hearts, and bodies. I find pages 29–41 especially helpful because they provide a concrete description of a successful class session with children, which focuses on the parable of the mustard seed.
Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child: The Description of an Experience with Children from Ages Three to Six. Translated by Patricia M Coulter and Julie M. Coulter. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
Cavalletti offers an insightful and theological perspective on teaching the Bible with children. Influenced by her work with Dr. Maria Montessori, Cavalletti sets forth clear, compelling and practical advice for teachers. Pictures of classrooms and activities, as well as many of the drawings young children produced are also included.
Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child 6 to 12 Years Old: A Description of An Experience. Translated by Rebekah Rojcewicz and Alan R. Perry. Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago Liturgy Training Publications, 2002.
Here Cavalletti describes her experiences and offers recommendations for teaching the Bible with older children. Following much the same format as the preceding book, this text focuses specifically on her work with older children in the classroom. Pictures of classrooms and activities, as well as many of the drawings young children produced are also included.
Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981.
Fowler has done extensive study and research into the process of faith development from infancy to adulthood. Particularly interesting and helpful are his insights into human development (part II) and faith development (part IV). Sometimes his language is difficult for those not trained in psychology. A helpful summary of Fowler’s insights regarding faith development in children can be found in The Bible: A Child’s Playground.
Gobbel, A. Roger and Gertrude G. Gobbel. The Bible: A Child’s Playground. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. [currently out of print, but sometimes available used].
If you only read one of these suggested resources, I hope it will be this one. The Gobbels have presented a comprehensive, readable, and theologically grounded approach to both the why and the how of teaching the Bible with children. This would make a wonderful text for a congregational education committee to read as it does its work of designing educational ministries for its children.
(1) Jean Holm, ”What Shall We Tell the Children?” Theology 76 (March 1973): 141.
(2) As Roger and Gertrude Gobbel write, ”If we can honor and respect the differences of understanding and if we can encourage children to engage the Bible as they are able whenever and wherever they meet it, the concern for reserving the bulk of biblical material until adolescence fades in importance.” [The Bible — A Child’s Playground, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.]
(3) See Freire, Paulo, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum Press, 1970, 71ff.
(4) I have published this story and some of the ideas that follow in ”Let the Little Children Come: Teaching the Bible With Children” in The Ministry of Children’s Education: Foundations, Contexts, and Practices, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.
(5) Scholars generally agree that such cognitive ability is first present in children between the ages of 6 and 8.
(6) Ibid., 49.
(7) Gobbel and Gobbel, 136.