Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner’s “What Is God Like?”

I received my copy of Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner’s beautifully written and illustrated children’s book, “What is God Like?” It’s vision of divinity is loving and inclusive. It’s imaginative and open. It offers anyone caring for children a way to teach a healthy theology, as displayed on the page I shared below. (“But whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel brave, and what makes you feel loved.”) I love it. It’s a perfect reflection of Rachel’s legacy and her love for people—especially people who felt disenfranchised by institutionalized religion.

Cover

It’s available June 15th wherever you buy books.

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Parenting, the Bible, and Faith-Transitions

My experience as a Religious Studies Instructor who teaches high schoolers, and conversations I’ve had with friends who are rethinking how they may or may not teach the Bible to their own children, led me to ponder whether some parts of the Bible are more appropriate for others depending on the age of a child. See “Rating the Bible”. Now I see Jared Byas of “The Bible for Normal People” fame has released a podcast episode titled “Parenting in a Faith Transition” with his wife, Sarah Byas, where they discuss this topic, so I thought I’d share but also document so that I remember it as I continue to think on this topic.

Rating the Bible

I teach the Bible in a high school setting. It’s a college preparatory school. It’s not a Sunday School. But it’s a high school, so even if I’m trying to give them a near-college experience, there are many ways that I have to teach that remain age-appropriate.

For example, if I show a film, some R-rated films are never going to be acceptable. Other R-rated films are acceptable with parent permission. PG-13 and below are fine.

So, what of the Bible then? There have been years where I’ve avoid the Song of Songs and years when I’ve taught it. When I’ve taught it, it was the equivalent to blurring out the sensitive parts in a picture. I tell them it’s about romance and sexuality. Like many translators of the Bible into English, I choose to soften the language. But is Song of Songs best left alone when teaching adolescents or left only to certain teachers—kind of like sex ed isn’t a topic taught by all teachers?

What about graphic violence? Children hear the story of the Great Flood (a.k.a. “Noah’s Flood”) at a very young age…but the Creator literally drowns almost all of humanity. This is worse than genocide. Do smiling giraffes on a boat really soften the narrative? Should children learn about that story at all?

Should there be a form of trigger warnings? I feel that it’s important to discussed King David’s abuse/rape of Bathsheba to understand the full depiction of the man in the Bible but that’s a tough topic to cover. On the other hand, I don’t want students becoming young adults and thinking the Bible is a squeaky clean book. I’ve heard too many young Christians dismiss the Quran because of content that’s in their own Holy Book but due to biblical illiteracy among the faithful their prejudice goes unchecked.

If the Bible were to receive film ratings for chapters, what rating would each chapter receive. Filmratings.com gives basic explanations of how films are judged. Here’s a visual from their webpage:

If you go to pp. 6-7 of their “Classification and Ratings Rule” you’ll see how they determine what label to give and what content should be mentioned in the warning box.

If we were to rate Genesis 1, what rating would it receive? What about Revelation 12?

Common Sense Media has their own rating system for movies that helps parents decide based on criteria such as:

  1. “What age is the movie aimed at?”
  2. Quality
  3. Educational value
  4. Messages and role models
  5. Violence, sex, and language
  6. Consumerism
  7. Drinking, drugs, and smoking
  8. User reviews

Would “user reviews” be how people have experienced the Bible? I don’t jest here. For some, the Bible is extremely live-giving. For others, frankly, it’s been used to traumatize them and they’re best off if they spend some time away from a book that has been weaponized against them.

For kicks, it would be fun to rate the Bible using a rating system created by conservative Christians, such as movieguide. If I just gave you the plot of the Samson narrative, where would it rate using this scale?

Does a literary narration of Samson’s violence and sexual exploits differ from a visual presentation? Would you read a story from the Bible that you wouldn’t show if it were depicted as a movie, cartoon, anime, etc.? I find this line of inquiry to be pretty fascinating and I wonder how this relates to how publishers package the Bible for teens.

Why do people leave their childhood religions?

According to the Pew Forum’s analysis in 2016:

Among those who say they were raised exclusively by Protestants, roughly eight-in-ten now identify with Protestantism, including 80% of those raised by two Protestant parents and 75% of those raised by a single parent who was Protestant. Most who were raised exclusively by Protestants but who no longer identify as such are now religious “nones,” with smaller numbers now identifying with Catholicism or other religions.

‘One-in-Five Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes’

What does this tell us? Well, it indicates that at least among Protestants the greatest indicator of your potential religiosity is the religion of your parents. Other researchers have confirmed this theory.

In Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, Christian Smith, Bridget Ritz, and Michael Rotolo make this observation on pages 6-7: ‘The best general predictor of what any American is like religiously, after comparing all of the other possible variables and factors, is what their parents were like religiously when they were raising their children…when viewing Americans as a whole, the influence of parents on religiousness trumps every other influence, however much parents and children may assume otherwise.’

This raises an important question: What about the rise of the ‘Nones’, i.e. those with no religious affiliation? Surely, most of their parents weren’t Nones! Andrew Henry’s recent episode of Religion for Breakfast attempts to tackle this related question, ‘Why Do People Leave Their Childhood Religion?’ Since this the first question that arose in my mind when I read that most people follow the religion of their parents, I was excited to see this video being released at this moment. Watch it!

When should children learn about Noah and the Ark?

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?