Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sunday School Fairy Tales (or Why the Bible Should be Taught as History)

Those of us who grew up in church have many fond and nostalgic memories of the Bible stories we were taught. We remember David and Goliath, Sampson and Delilah, Noah’s Ark, Jesus and the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Baby Moses in the Bulrushes, Zacchaeus the Wee Little Man, and many others. The problem is, we often have the same fond memories of many other childhood stories like Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Emperor’s New Clothes. Both sets of stories were short, entertaining, and had some moral lesson. They were often surprising or funny. They had kings and miracles. Their heroes did great and marvelous deeds. Unfortunately, we may not have understood that one set of stories was completely made up while the other is entirely true historically.

Now, many of us grew up and learned the difference between truth and fairy tales. We know that the Bible is true. We take it seriously now. But some children grow up and are told (often in school or in college) that the Bible is just a collection of myths. At best, it was a collection of tales passed down for many years and full of wishful thinking and primitive beliefs (or so they are told). And if those people haven’t learned better – if they have not been shown the historical evidence for the truth of the Bible – they often fall prey to this faulty view.

To help prevent this from happening, it is important to teach the Biblical account, not Bible stories. They aren’t “stories,” they’re true. There are several very serious problems with teaching the Biblical account as stories.

1.      Inaccuracies often creep in
When you try to turn the Biblical account into a cute bedtime story, it is easy to accidentally add incorrect details or omit important ones. This can lead to an inaccurate understanding of what really happened. In some cases, this mythical version of the Biblical account can be very persistent.

For example, how many of you have heard the story of David and Goliath and heard something like this: “David was a little boy, just like you, and look what he could do with God’s help.” David was a little boy when he killed Goliath? The Bible doesn’t say that. In fact, it is quite clear that David was an adult at the time, and a very strong and tough one at that. He was a young man (and the youngest of the family), but not a little boy. He had already killed a bear and a lion with his bare hands before he fought Goliath. He cut off Goliath’s head with Goliath’s own sword after killing him. That sword, if it was anything like Goliath’s other weaponry, would have been large and heavy. And, of course, David’s reward for killing the giant was to marry King Saul’s daughter. He must have been of marriageable age. Anyway, the picture of David as a young boy of 8 or 9 when he killed Goliath is one that often persists, even among those who know the Bible well. If people would teach the account correctly, this wouldn’t happen.

There are also lots of examples of things that may not be expressly taught incorrectly, but cause misunderstanding. For example, pictures in children’s Bible story books usually show all the Biblical characters as white, Jesus as nearly effeminate (pale skin, angelic features, long hair), and Noah’s Ark as a tiny boat with animal heads sticking out every window. These views are ridiculously na├»ve and are certainly not what the Biblical account depicts.

2.      The Bible becomes sensationalized
The Bible does contain some amazing and miraculous events. There’s nothing wrong with teaching children about the remarkable things that God has done and marveling at His power. That is a good thing. But if the only parts of the Bible that are taught are the “exciting” or “amazing” parts, children will not get the full picture of all that the Bible teaches. They get only the sensationalized version, which sounds a lot like a fairy tale, not real life.

This sensationalization, together with inaccuracy, often leads to what my husband and I call the “Sunday School Fairy Tale” version of the Bible. It is a superficial and warped view of what the Bible says. When you come across someone who rejects the Bible as being a book of myths, you will usually find that what they object to as being so unrealistic is this fairy tale version of the Bible rather than the real thing. The problem is, they usually don’t know the difference. They don’t know how to see the Bible in realistic terms because no one has ever shown them.

3.      The Biblical account is not given its proper historical context
A big part of helping children (and others) to understand the historical nature of the Biblical account is including discussion of its historical context. Don’t just emphasize the moral lesson, talk about it as history. When children are taught about George Washington, Nero, Florence Nightingale, Genghis Khan, or any other historical figure, we talk about when they lived, their culture, their motivation, their language. In short, we put them in historical perspective and we talk about them as real people with real lives. Why don’t we do that with Biblical figures?

How often do you hear someone talk about what year the Flood happened? Whether dinosaurs were on the ark? Who Cain married? Why Eve didn’t freak out when a snake talked to her? Where the Garden of Eden was (there’s no way of knowing that, by the way)? Have you ever wondered why Jonathan didn’t hate David? Where the different races came from? Why God instituted animal sacrifice? Why Jesus came when He did? Why the particular 66 books of the Bible are Scripture and other ancient texts aren’t? These and many others are questions that today’s young people wrestle with. And they often are not getting answers.

If we neglect to talk about the Biblical account in realistic terms, we aren’t preparing our youth to answer the questions they will undoubtedly have. If they go long enough with unanswered questions, if they can’t figure out how what the Bible says can possibly make sense, many will start to wonder if it is really true. While we may not be able to answer every question definitively, we can at least have a serious discussion and offer reasonable possibilities for consideration. Without such reasonable discussion, why should they find it reasonable to believe it?

This is especially true of the book of Genesis. There are many questions that will be asked about the Biblical account of origins that are not being answered in today’s churches. Many will be unable to reconcile what they believe about the Bible with what they learn in science class. If we give a one-dimensional view of the Bible and never discuss the historical aspects, it becomes more and more difficult for them to take the Bible seriously in the face of criticism and ridicule from the secular community.

4.      The Big Picture is not shown
When we teach the Bible as a collection of “stories” we fail to convey the full scope of the Biblical account. The Bible does have individual accounts that are of use in themselves. But an important part of Biblical literacy is understanding the Bible as a single, coherent, historical narrative that gives the account of God’s work throughout history. The Bible was designed, not just to give us moral lessons or tell us how to be saved (although those are, obviously, very important), but to reveal to us God Himself. You have to get a bigger perspective of the whole Bible and its context in order to see the full message.

These four points are some of the major reasons why the Bible must be taught realistically, with its historical context, rather than as a series of stories. Not only is Biblical literacy at stake, but the very minds and souls of the next generation. Christianity is under fire. The Bible is being ridiculed in every corner of our society. Let’s not give the enemy any ammunition by contributing misinformation. Let’s not perpetuate the simplistic and unrealistic fairy tale type Bible stories. Let’s promote serious study and discussion of the word of God at every age. It is sorely needed.

Linked up with NOBH, Kids in the Word Wednesdays, Seeds of Faith, WFMW, TPT, Denise in Bloom, Proverbs 31 Thursdays, and WLWW.


  1. This is a great summary of topic that's been on my mind for years. I believe that many churches are failing our young people by leaving them ill-prepared for future challenges to their faith. In particular, when our Sunday Schools teach "Bible stories" to our kids in much the same way that we tell fairy tales to them, why should we be be surprised to see those kids reject the Bible as historically accurate later in life? The Sunday School Fairy Tale approach should be systematically rejected in every church.

  2. Is it ok to subject Biblical writings to the same academic rigor that we do other writings before we teach it as history? If so, then I would agree. If we can't talk about who might have actually written it, why, when, etc., then I would object to teaching it as history.

    1. Absolutely! The Biblical texts should be (and have been) subject to the same rigorous academic study as any other ancient document. What's more, they pass on every front. We have secular documents that confirm many of the details given in the Bible. We have archaeological support for many of its claims. We have multiple independent documents and document fragments of different ages that show that the text has been faithfully preserved over time. The text itself shows remarkable internal agreement in spite of being written by about 40 different authors over a period of about 1500 years.

      All of these facts (and others) prove the authenticity of the Biblical account as an accurate historical document. Obviously, not every claim in the Bible has been (or even can be) verified independently, but in every instance where it has been tested, it has been verified. This gives us great confidence that it is trustworthy in instances where no verification exists. Also, many skeptics who have undertaken to disprove the Bible on historical grounds have ultimately come to believe it because the case for its historical authenticity is profound.

  3. Great points. Biblical illiteracy is rampant in our country. Context in history and in the great story of redemption is so often overlooked when teaching the Bible to our kids. They understand more than we give them credit for - give them the information!

    Thanks for linking up at The Pelsers and Kids in the Word Wednesday.

  4. Yes. Yes. Yes. That is all. :-)

  5. I've never connected these before, but I'm glad you have! I completely agree. It is tricky trying to retrain myself to stop using words like "Bible story" and repeatedly just reading excerpts to my kids instead of emphasizing the bigger picture. I've often wondered how to best separate fiction from nonfiction in our reading time together.

    1. It is tricky to refrain from saying "Bible stories." I have to watch myself too. But it's well worth adjusting our speech to make the point that the Bible is not simply a story.

      As for how to separate fiction and non-fiction in reading to your kids, there are several ways to do that. First of all, you tell them that the Bible is not just a story book, but is really true. You can also avoid talking in funny voices like you may do for fairy tales and other stories and use a more serious expression and tone for the Bible. Make sure they sit up and listen to show respect for the Bible when it is read. After you read, point out important points and talk about what that meant to the people living in those times as well as what it means for us today. As my dad always said, the Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us. So talk about who it was written to and how they lived. Read additional books and other resources to learn about how people lived in Bible times and about the evidence there is for the historicity of the Bible. Talk about Biblical doctrine, various Biblical accounts, and evidence for the Bible's truth in front of your children and with your children. If they have questions, take them seriously and do your best to answer them. If you don't know, find out. If there isn't a clear answer, don't be afraid to say that, however. Honestly telling them that is far better than giving a faulty pat answer or telling them not to question. The Bible can stand up to any scrunity, so you don't need to fear questions. Also, you may want to (once your children are old enough) find out what skeptics are saying about the Bible, the "errors" they think they have found, and teach your children to debunk them. All of these will help teach your children that the Bible is different from other books and prepare them to defend their faith in a hostile world.

  6. I am a mother, a homeschooling parent, a children's minister, a praise and worship minister and woman striving to be after God's heart. I LOVE THIS!!! I still struggle with not reading the Word as a storybook. I pray I teach my children well to stand up for what they believe!

  7. Totally agree ... I teach Jr. Church to 2 - 6 year olds, and I'm most empahtic about correcting errors of how old a person is .. and comparing the correct age to people the kids know in the church. They got quite a laugh out of the picture of our oldest church members having a baby ...

    And I always emphasize that it is true history.

    When we study History in our home school, I always have them read the relevant Bible passages right along with the historical period that we are studying. It's extra work, but my older 2 girls have a great understanding of where the Bible fits into the past. I'm looking forward to teaching my nearly 7 year old and 2 year old as they begin to learn History. I've got 2 high schoolers and 2 just starting school. I'm hoping I learned from the mistakes I made with the oldest 2.

  8. Thank you for this post! Perhaps it is okay to call them stories because they are stories - true non-fiction stories. And maybe we should take the time to read them from the Bible and dissect them with our children.

    But most importantly, like someone else commented, many adults do not know the true accounts of many of the "stories." Oh that we would want to know and seek truth so it can be applied like a salve to our weary hearts.

  9. Wow!!! Thank you for this post! I am a Sunday School teacher and am currently preparing new curriculum for our church. You have given me A LOT to think about. Thank you so very much for such a well thought-out and truthful post about the Bible and helping us all to move past the idea of it being a book of fairytales to it being the inspired Word of God filled with actual accounts of actual events that happened. Hopping over from Life in Bloom. A Little R & R http://jukiczr.blogspot.com

  10. Fabulous Post!! I totally agree!

    A turning point for me, personally, was learning that the Bible was more than a collection of outdated Bible stories, but that it contains PRINCIPLES for living that apply to us today! I was certainly brought up on Bible stories in Sunday School.

    One mistake perpetuated in Bible story books is that Noah had to capture the animals, when actually God BROUGHT the animals to Noah! Of course, there are many others, as well, that I am learning as an adult!

    Very insightful post!

  11. Forgot to mention that this is exactly why I never let my children watch Veggie Tales!! It just seemed to trivialize the real men and women of the Bible into a silly cartoon.

  12. You only left out one point, that I can see. That point being the age of the children being taught. As non-professional educators, in many cases, the Sunday school teachers depend on the teacher manual to tell us what to teach. So it is very important for the church to pay great attention to the teachers materials. Also for the Sunday school teacher to be up to speed on the mental age of the class. For example, the very young take everything literally. Therefore take home papers and materials are quite important in imprinting the truth of the Bible story on them when they share it with their parents. Your article here is everything good to consider while teaching Sunday school. It is not a calling to be sloughed off until Saturday night. [Grammy]

  13. by all means teach fairy tales and bible stories. David killed a lion and a bear with his bare hands ...that statement right there lets you know this is a parable and not to be taken literally .... don't make the mistake so many Christians do of thinking that most of the Bible can be found to have historical evidence to back it up.
    If that were the case one would not require faith to believe

    1. 1) It doesn't actually say David killed the lion and bear with his bare hands. Try reading it again. It says he "smote" it, which could mean killing it with a club or a sword. Nowhere does this require bare hands. It does seem to indicate that perhaps he grabbed the lion by its mane while killing it, but there is no reason to think this was all done with hands only.

      2) This is intended to be a historical account, not a parable. The context makes that clear.

      3) Not everything in the Bible can be verified by external verification. But where it can be, it has been. In no case has it been proven false. Thus, it is reasonable to believe it to be an accurate historical record.

      4) This belief based on known reliability is faith. Faith isn't a leap in the dark, in spite of evidence to the contrary. Faith is a rational placing of trust in something shown to be trustworthy. Only in very recent years has the church in some places embraced an idea of "faith" as being opposed to evidence and reason. This modern definition of "faith" is not what the Bible teaches faith to be.

  14. Re: sensational-ization. The problem actually is on a very fine scale, and complex. We do not always automatically see where to divide a Biblical account in the way it was intended. We might oversimplify it, seeing some of its features as the sole hinges on which it turns.

    But many Biblical accounts were intended in a much more complementarian, holistic, integrated way, with no simplistic ‘hinges’. This integration seems to be that of Genesis 22.

    But a typical reading of Gen 22 assumes that it hinges on God’s praising Abraham for 'obeying' God's 'voice' (vs 18). This non-integrative reading renders God as teaching us that God required of Abraham (and, by extension, of us) an unreasoning, impulsively blind, irrationally loyal, essentially legalistic assent to God's verbatim.

    This ‘locally hinged’ reading of Gen 22 comes out in debates as "God said so, so I'm right and you're wrong", or "The Bible says so, so I'm right and you're rebellious", end of discussion. In personal thought, it comes out as a rigidity born of intellectual insecurity and inexperience, and reinforces itself like an intellectual form of panic.

    Thus, even when Hebrews 11:17-19 is taken into account, many people may simply think that Abraham's reasoning was just an added benefit to, or even reward for, what seems to have been, on his part, an impulsively irrational compliance to God's verbatim.

    But if we take all of Abraham's prior responses to God into account, then it is not a necessary conclusion to think that Gen 22 renders Abraham just suddenly breaking from all his prior commitments to a carefully rational (if sometimes mistaken) response to God. In fact, if the whole point of the test was as Hebrews 11:19 seems to indicate, then, given all of Abraham's prior responses to God, it is mostly likely that Abraham's initial response to God's request was *not* that of a pro-wrestler's "Bu-yah" kind of impulsively blind obedience (as in, "I will rejoice in my toughness by obeying this crazy request against all my better judgment").

    Many Christians assume that Abraham was an ethical-moral Everyman. So they cite Hebrews 11:17-19 to bolster the view that God’s purpose in praising Abraham in Gen 22:18 was implicitly to command humans to have an unreasoning faith in God’s verbatim. However, the Hebrews passage addresses merely the spiritually positive lessons of Gen 22, specifically by explicating Abraham’s own point of view. And that passage does not address God’s point of view in praising Abraham for ‘obeying’ God’s ‘voice’.

    G. K. Beale says, ‘there is always a related range of meaning that appropriately is an expansion of the explicit meaning’ of any assertion in the Biblical text. Beale explains, ‘All speakers and writers are aware of more than what they are directly saying in their speech’ or in their writing. (((G. K. Beale, 2014, ‘The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors’, Westminster Theological Journal 76: 263-93, pg. 265))).

    Accordingly, the letter is not the spirit, and thus God’s praise of Abraham in Gen 22:18 is not motivated by legalism and an *pre-hoc, post-justified* analogy-ism to the future Christ.

    As the book of Job teaches, we ever are to allow for the existence and actions of a certain third party. But Job was the Everyman. There is no indication that Abraham was; we just tend to assume he was.

    If Abraham really was a ‘cultural Christian’ in all points of moral understanding, then, unlike for Job’s test, God would not have had occasion to cause Abraham to think that God wanted him to engage in child sacrifice.

    Abraham, by any of the roots of paganism that still lived in him, would have been wide open to the suggestion that an innocent child might rightly be sacrificed, if only the god to whom the sacrifice was made would, and could, simply give the child’s life back.