Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How (Not) to Treat the Bible As a Story Book

I didn't grow up in the church, but I do remember attending one in the summers with my Grandma. I remember, vaguely, a Baptist Bible Camp in Ontario. I remember that I barely ever heard any Scripture read, except for the verse in Exodus 20 about not killing things, which is what us campers would yell loud and jubilant as we squashed moths under the swift jackboots of our pre-adolescent tyranny. Take that, insect. But more importantly, I remember one solitary Sunday School lesson about Noah's Flood in the actual church in Dryden: I remember how all of the kids dressed up like animals and (for some reason) pirates who were aboard the Ark, and we acted it out, and then were taught a version of the flood story that -no kidding- involved a long section on how Noah forgot to take the unicorns aboard and made God really angry. And I forget everything after that. (Just so you know, there are no unicorns in the Bible.)

"I'm Trying to Find a Verse About Butterflies"
When you start treating the Bible like a love story, or an ethical children's story book, or as material for an elementary school play about a shiny coat, as most Evangelicals tend to do, you might as well throw in a unicorn while you're at it. At that point we're totally justified in waiting for a prince on a white mare to show up and rescue his lovesick princess. I actually had a girl about a year (or two?) ago explain to me "I'm trying to find a verse about butterflies in the Bible to put under a butterfly tattoo I'm getting." Because hey, if the Bible is like a huge fairytale love story, complete with giants and castles and dragons and -apparently- unicorns, a butterfly is downright expected somewhere in that mix. But the Bible would make a weird love story. Throughout the Bible, there are records of wars, and lists of rules, and minute historical details, and building schematics, and inventories, and long letters about all kinds of things besides romantic love, except for one poem written by a polygamist.

The Way We Talk About the Bible
When we talk with each other about the story of David and Goliath, does that kind of language make us think "historical event" or instead, "children's book"? The same goes with characters in the Bible. And, for that matter, the phrase in the Bible when talking about any historical person, place, or thing. It's like talking about Mary in Peter Pan instead of in London, 1904 AD, famous for a brief tenure in Neverland. Why do we talk about the Story of the Battle of Jericho, of course in the Bible, when we could be talking about the "Israelite Battle of Jericho in 1400 BC, referenced in the ancient Book of Joshua"? Ask yourself which phrase makes you surer that you are talking about a real event in human history. If you take nothing else away from this article, at least be intentional in how you speak about the Bible: we are guilty of presenting the true events of Biblical revelation with less historical language than is contained in the story boards of most television shows.

The Story of God In Human History
As a quick word, of course there is a story in the Bible. God speaks through the Scriptures, and He has interwoven a grand narrative through all the Biblical books that He has so inspired. Admitted. But our language has to be careful, or we will start thinking that the Bible is a story in the same way that, say, Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland are stories: to fully appreciate the Biblical story, we need to appreciate the fact that this all actually happened to real people in a real place surrounded by actual ancient cultures. How we talk about it will affect how we see it, so be careful about your words.

A Quick Word About Women And Children
I say this, not out of any sexist or child-despising tendencies, but out of sheer fact of observation: the "Bible as a story book" concern that I have detailed above is a stronger issue among women, particularly women who lead Sunday Schools and take care of children. And I don't know why. I've got suspicions, but Kendra is off in British Columbia right now, so I can't ask her to see if my suspicions are true. Here's the thing: that story of God loving His bride, the Church, is still there in the Bible. Just don't get stuck and think that's all there is. Don't let yourself try to cram the Bible into the mold of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White the same way that some men have tried to cram it into the mold of current philosophies. And when you teach it to a group of kids, try to respect their intelligence: if they are in school, find out how their teachers are teaching them history. Feel free to make your own adjustments, but in the end, don't give them a version of the Bible that would be perfectly at home with their children's books. If you do, those kids might grow up to leave the Bible behind with all the rest of their childish things - just another story about giants and princesses, castles and ponies, and good moral principles. Don't let that happen.

We need to be careful about how we talk about the Bible. It's not just God's love letter to humanity. It isn't a book of moral children's stories, either, although it's depicted that way in a lot of Sunday School curriculum videos. God gave us a library of historical works, not a children's book.

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