When I talk about ‘generational hermeneutics’ as a potential sub-field within larger fields like Religious Studies or Biblical Studies, I imagine fruitful conversations await us both in describing how things are but also how things should be (the ‘is/ought’ division). Let me begin with the ‘is’ question. I see few scholars asking questions about how children and adolescents actually read the Bible when they read it. The only book I’ve encountered (at a library), and intend to buy and read one day, is Melody R. Briggs’ How Children Read Biblical Narrative: An Investigation of Childrens’ Readings of the Gospel of Luke. I’m sure there’s more work being done but I don’t think it’s receiving as much attention as it should.
How do children read the Bible differently from adolescents and how to adolescents read the Bible differently from adults? Or, how do children process religious instruction differently than adolescents and adolescents differently from adults? I know the latter has received some attention, for example, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. I think more attention is deserved.
The second question is the ‘ought’ question. As a high school teacher I have to be cautious about how I teach certain parts of the Bible. For example, I don’t spend a lot of time on the Song of Songs. Likewise, it’s always a little tricky explaining the appearance of Shiva’s lingam. This task is complicated further for my colleagues who teach middle school students. Definitely skipping the Song of Songs with the seventh graders! But this raises a question: When can students read the Song? Or, as I joked in the meme above, when should we teach the story of Noah and the Ark? I mean, the Creator literally washes humanity from the earth like we’re a stain and we turn around and tell children about it because, ‘Oh, look, cute animals!’ Is this wise? Is this age-appropriate?
On a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts—The Bible for Normal People with Pete Enns and Jared Byas—they interviewed author Cindy Wang Brandt about her book Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness. She talked about growing up in a fundamentalist-type home and how certain approaches to the Bible and religion can leave adults with a lot of baggage to work through. They spoke about how parents might avoid harming their children with the Bible and religion. I think these are questions that should be asked even outside of ‘practicing’ circles. Scholars of religion can and should mix with psychologists and sociologists who study children and youth and their brain development. We should be asking questions about the ‘ethics of indoctrination’. I know some of the more established religious traditions have been thinking about this sort of thing for centuries as we see in say Catholic Confirmation or the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah. But there’s more to be done. And I have a feeling some work is being done in various disciplines but we need cross-pollination.
So, when should children read the story of Noah and the Ark? When are they mature enough? Is it ok to introduce it to them as a happy story about God saving animals when they’re young and then return to it later to discuss some of the more complex, even disturbing aspects of the story later?