Deuteronomy 11:18-19. “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul. . . . And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” When God commanded that His words be impressed on our hearts and on our children, the only words there were to impress were those in the Pentateuch. How far we have diverted ourselves from this simple command of teaching God’s word in its entirety, “boring” parts and all.
Up until about 240 years ago, the Bible was taught to children in the same way it was taught to adults: it was read to them. Most children in English-speaking nations, in general, learned to read by reading the Bible. Families were all together in church services–children heard the same sermons as the adults, and the parents would talk to them about the message afterward. I’m not advocating going back to that way of teaching, and we have many more resources available to us which we should take advantage of. But it served human-kind well enough for thousands of years, and I am not sure that adults of today who learned under modern methods of teaching are better educated than those who came before.
Along came the Industrial Revolution. In the 1780’s an upper-class gentleman in England, Robert Raikes, noticed that children of the poorer classes were no longer attending school or church, but were being forced to work in factories to help support their families. He became concerned about what kind of adults this generation of uneducated children would grow up to be, and so conceived of a “Sunday School” to be held on the only day the children had off of work. This was the beginning of the concept of Sunday School that we have today. Unfortunately, it was Raikes’ primary goal to teach the underprivileged to read and to be good, moral citizens of Great Britain. Their spiritual enlightenment was secondary in his mind. Therefore, he chose to teach the children only those Bible stories which he could adapt to his agenda of moral values, leaving out any details that might detract from his goals. For example, he might teach them about the patriarch Jacob by expounding on his faithfulness and how he was blessed by God, leaving out the parts where Jacob lied, deceived people, and ran away like a coward. The Bible stories were presented as isolated tales rather than as part of a vast history, so that anyone attending his schools would come away with the impression that the Bible was like Aesop’s Fables: a book of unrelated moral tales with unreal, perfect characters.
As the years passed, printing in color became easier and cheaper, and colored story books for children became all the rage among the wealthier Victorians in the mid- to late-1800’s. Bible stories, with beautifully colored wood-cuts, were popular presents for Christmas and birthdays. Naturally, the stories in these books were chosen for their illustrative qualities, and the narratives themselves were often questionable. When the wealthy Victorians got wind of the Sunday School movement among the poor, they grabbed onto the concept with their own twist–illustrated Sunday School cards and papers. Again, these stories were presented as isolated, moral tales and chosen for their illustrative qualities. The Bible was cleaned up and disinfected so that the children would never know that David committed murder and adultery; that every living thing on earth, except those in the ark, died in Noah’s flood; that when Ehud stabbed Eglon, Eglon’s fat stomach closed over the hilt of the knife. In other words, the Bible began to be unreal and unhistorical, and those whose only knowledge of the Bible came from Sunday School grew to have a warped and one-dimensional idea of what the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is all about. A warped view of the Bible means a warped view of God, and there was a great falling away from the faith as the children taught in this way grew to adulthood.
Darwinism took hold, and the Bible began to be seen by many, even by Christians, as unscientific, even mythological. By the 1950’s and 60’s, the Bible was being taught more and more as a lot of unrelated, moral fables rather than historical truth–as a way of teaching children how to behave rather than teaching them to know their Creator and Savior. Even those churches which remained fundamental in doctrine often used inferior Sunday School material which failed to emphasize the historical accuracy of the Bible. Lessons were still chosen for the cute crafts and pretty coloring pages that could be created to enhance the stories, and so the less “pretty” stories were ignored. Think of the vast amount of material which is never presented in Sunday School, or in other venues of children’s education: most of the Judges, most of the Kings, most of the prophets. Fascinating, enlightening stories which children would love, which never-the-less would be difficult to illustrate tastefully or to create appropriate hand-work for. The adults raised in these Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools thought they knew what was in the Old Testament and so never bothered to read it for themselves. The Old Testament began to be seen as irrelevant to adults, to be set aside with books of fairy tales.
Many of us who now attempt to teach the Scriptures to children today received our earliest Bible instruction in the 1960’s style Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools. You might argue that they were better than nothing and that no other curriculum was available to be taught at that time, and that is certainly true. But the tragedy remains. Ask any adult of our generation a question about the Old Testament and see if they can answer it. Look it up and make sure YOU know the right answer yourself! How many adults today are fully literate in Old Testament theology? I have known many intelligent, well-educated Christians who are very knowledgeable in the New Testament Scriptures but have only the most rudimentary grasp of the Old. I have even heard arguments for abandoning the study of the Old Testament Scriptures since they have been “replaced” by the New! I sincerely believe that this attitude comes from a Sunday School mentality of Old Testament study. Since people are being taught the Old Testament as a collection of isolated morality tales, they can’t understand how they can be relevant to adults. They don’t understand what they are missing, because they have never really been taught Scripture as a serious, historical document.
How then should we teach the Scriptures to children? I’ll share my ideas on this tomorrow.