By Anna Ilona Mussmann
During my childhood, I believed for several years that God had given Noah a magic horn with which to summon the animals. After all, I had seen it with my own eyes--in the Bible cartoon my Sunday School teacher showed us, Noah trumpeted and all the animals came trotting. I thought it would be cool if someday archaeologists could find and use it. Imagine my surprise when I finally realized the Bible mentioned no such thing.
The problem with trying to teach children is that their brains are busy making connections between incomplete pieces of information. It is surprisingly easy to lead them astray. Not only do children sometimes learn lessons that were never intentionally taught, but sometimes they also fail to learn the lesson the teacher thought she was providing. Often we adults get in the way by talking too much about the wrong things.
Recently I read a discussion about teaching the story of David and Goliath to young children. Each suggestion involved using the story as an allegory that applied to the child’s own life. The ideas would have produced a memorable lesson with a Law and Gospel focus, but I couldn’t help wondering if they would really help students know the original material. We adults are so quick to mediate between the Scriptures and our children, summarizing and explaining, avoiding the awkward stories, trying to make the others feel fresh and relevant. This can be a dreadful mistake. It can produce people who know very little about the Bible.
When I was at Concordia Wisconsin, I took a class on the Old Testament. Many of my fellow students--including those preparing to go to seminary--commented that they were reading through books like Exodus and Joshua for the first time in their lives. They had never heard of half the Old Testament figures who appeared on our tests. Most of these students were kids from Lutheran families who had spent years in Sunday School. Clearly, something in their religious education had been amiss.
I’ve noticed three adult tendencies that often get in the way of the material we try to teach. The first is false simplicity. After we share about something something complicated like the Holy Trinity, we assume we must explain and expound in language we consider fitting to a child’s level. We blithely announce that God is just like an apple, an egg, or a few grams of water; failing to admit that a triune Being is something too baffling for even the adult mind to grasp.
We avoid tricky issues like Old Testament violence. Rather than acknowledging the apparent tension between a God who says to turn the other cheek and a God who helps His people slaughter their enemies, we turn those stories into comfortable allegories about conquering the problems in our lives. This is a mistake. We want our children to recognize the bigness and vastness of reality as revealed in Scripture. If we try to resolve all cognitive dissonance with our simplified explanations, aren’t we in danger of making reality seem tidier and smaller than it is? Isn’t it possible that we could present a false picture of God?
Another tendency is that of over-personification. We like to make up details that make Biblical characters seem more like us. The urge is understandable. When I was younger, I wished that God had said more about the people in the Bible. I would have enjoyed a book that answered all my questions with the thoroughness of a satisfying novel. Yet one beauty of the Bible’s relative terseness is its universality. We can see past the individuality of someone like Queen Esther or King David and thereby see the universal story of who God is and how He works. We may sometimes be left with questions, but that is no bad thing, because it leaves us much to think about. Terseness becomes richness. Let us leave that richness unadulterated when we teach the Bible to our children.
Yet at the same time, we ought not to fall into the third tendency and forget that the people in the Bible were real. Queen Esther, like David and Goliath, were born in specific times and experienced all the nitty-gritty details of daily existence. We don’t want to teach their stories as if they were sinless stock characters born only to convey spiritual messages to future generations. An idealized tale of a boy who conquered giants doesn’t age well as a child grows up. In contrast, the real story of David and Goliath might provide encouragement far beyond anything we can document in a lesson plan--the story’s very messiness might be just what a child in messy circumstances needs.
It is good to let a child’s understanding grow with his maturity. When I was teaching third grade, one of my reading groups read Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. A parent became concerned that I was failing to discuss all of the story’s “rich symbolism.” She didn’t want her son to miss any of the religious allusions or allegories. Yet if I had become a pedant with a pointer, what would have been left for him to ponder and discover on his own? I would, in fact, be showing a lack of faith in the richness of the material. I would rather let a child find fresh layers in the Chronicles of Narnia as he matures than run down a checklist when he is eight years old. Sometimes we should also let a child process Bible stories on his own before we point out every thematic and theological connection our adult minds have made.
This is not to say that we should throw a Bible at our kids and forbid them to ask us questions. Of course it is our job to guide our children’s understanding. Of course we must catechize them and answer their questions. Teaching children sound theology and showing them how to recognize Law and Gospel is key to preparing them to interpret and understand the “hard” passages in Scripture. Furthermore, it is our job as parents to learn and study so that we can provide our children the best answers possible.
Yet we don’t want to get in the way of the Scriptures we are trying to teach. It is important that our kids know and study the actual Bible, not just the tidy lessons we adults wish to draw from it. Perhaps sometimes we ought to talk less about religion. Perhaps we would do well to let our children more often grapple directly with Scripture, with the Small Catechism, with the hymns of the church. Perhaps we should trust a little more in the richness of that material (it's a means through which God has promised to work, after all) and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Despite our loving intentions, we will often get it wrong. Teaching David and Goliath to kids--teaching anything--is hard. We trust that as God works through our flawed and feeble pedagogical efforts, He will keep our children in their baptismal grace and help them to see what is true.
Even if we make up totally awful analogies.
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.