Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thoughts on Teaching the Bible

After my husband published a post about the dilemma of reading all of the Bible to a five year old during our homeschooling lessons, he received a few comments back that definitely show different people's approaches. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I definitely have some opinions about teaching the Bible. Before I start spouting off on one or more of my soap box issues, it would probably be good to give a little background. That way you might be able to see a little bit of where I'm coming from.

I have a fairly conservative Christian upbringing. My parents raised me in the Church of Christ. One thing about the Church of Christ that many people (even some who belong to it) sometimes mistakenly overlook is that although many congregations appear to be the same, the reality is that there is no official connection to keep them all in cookie cutter unity. Each congregation is in control of its own affairs and tries to follow the Bible or get off track in its own way. The church I grew up in was a bit of a trend setter (at least during my childhood and high school years) that was usually middle of the road or slightly liberal leaning within "the brotherhood" of Churches of Christ. My parents' faith experiences also colored my religious background. My Dad grew up in the same faith background that I did. However, my Mom grew up going to any church that the most available family member with a car went to that week. She had a big extended family and they went to every church on the map. With that background, she helped bring a little perspective to what I grew up with.

When I say "conservative Christian," I know that many people will want to stop reading right there. And others, who have had bad experiences with my denomination, will want to stereotype me there. To that I can only say, if you wish to remain ignorant of another person's faith journey, so be it. Stereotypes are just that, stereotypes. They can't tell you about a specific individual. I think that it would be accurate to say that although I have encountered closed minds, faulty logic, and hypocrisy among my fellow faith travelers, I have also encountered plenty of open minds, well refined logic, and sincere faith among many of them, too. So, please give us a chance. I was raised to know the Bible. I was raised to follow God and my conscience to the best of my ability. I was encouraged to think critically and be well educated.

As a result of this background, I entered a long college career that took me to four colleges and four majors in completely different subjects. The one that applies to this post is my last one. I was a Bible and Theology major. For a variety of reasons relating to family responsibilities, work responsibilities, social life and such... I didn't finish my degree. I was about five classes away from my 2nd Bachelor's degree in Bible and Theology. I make no claims to be a famous scholar. I never even took Hebrew or Greek. But, I still think that I probably have a better religious education at the college level than your average person off the street. The education I have does impact some of my thoughts on teaching the Bible.

When we started homeschooling our daughter she was preschool. The Bible classes she got at church were fine. Then she was Kindergarten and I tried to supplement her classes by following up on the Memory verse work and asking her questions about her lesson. I could write another post solely on my opinions of church Bible classes. I did quickly determine that my daughter found the memory verse work so easy she was bored with it. And she was more interested in the crafts than the stories (unless they were "icky" stories such as those my husband mentioned in his post). In talking with the people in charge of the curriculum to know what was to come in the grades 1-6, I learned that they didn't start a systematic study through the Bible until second grade.

We didn't start homeschooling for religious reasons, but we are religious. And our faith is important enough to us that I knew that one class a week on Sunday morning was not going to be good enough for us. So I decided to add religious studies to the schedule when I was planning for this year. We are following a historical structure in our studies so, she will learn about world religions as we encounter them in history. In fact, we our learning some of what the Ancient Egyptians believed, in our current studies by reading some our their myths. But, for our own family's faith, we are reading the Bible since that is the core of our religion.

Some people think that collections of Bible stories are most appropriate for young children. I agree up to a point. I've been reading Bible stories to her from numerous books of compilations since she was interested in being read to. She knows all of those stories, but she is lacking in context. And all of those convenient compilations are paraphrases. They are not actual translations of scripture. On the plus side, they eliminate most of the scandalous violence, the breaking of sexual taboos, the grievous misdeeds of the heroes of faith, and the difficult to explain passages about God himself.

I have a strong bias toward reading primary source material. Don't slice and dice my literature, history or even religion please. There is so much to gain by listening to an author as he or she intended to be heard. So, I made the decision that if I am teaching our daughter world history and literature in first grade, then I will be reading her an actual translation of the Bible. This gives her the context for those stories she has learned. She learns the order that things happened. She learns a lot more about how God interacts with people, than the cut and paste version served up in story books.

In addition to this, she learns that there is usually more to the story than she has ever heard before. Some of that story causes me my dilemma of whether to read absolutely everything. I mean... she's only five after all. She doesn't need to hear about everything does she? So, since I make a detailed lesson plan, I started reading through the Bible trying to divide up the readings in appropriately sized chunks.

I was a little nervous about including Noah getting drunk (remembering some of the interpretations of that story that I've heard through the years), but It went OK. It helps that I went out and got a translation that aimed at a third grade reading level. Some of the more difficult phrases to explain become euphemisms. The next problematic story was the story of the visitation of the angels to Sodom and Gommorah. I haven't got to that one yet, so I can't tell you how I'll handle it yet. Either I will edit my reading to give the gist of the story (it is a major story that is revisited many times later and therefore necessary to my eyes), or I will read it straight and deal with any questions from my daughter as they arise.

Of course there are all the long genealogy passages... I'm reading them. Genealogies were important to the people of that time and you can learn the occasional tidbit from them. Then there are the long passages in Exodus where God describes in detail to Moses how to build the Tabernacle, then Moses describes in detail to the people how to build the Tabernacle, then the people build the Tabernacle and it is described in detail. Whether or not that section takes up half of the book of Exodus, it feels like it does. I'm planning on editing that down to give her the highlights and give her an idea of what Israelites were told to do in their religious practices. Then later on there are all of the Levitical laws about how to do the various sacrifices, how to do the various feasts, the day to day legal issues, cleanliness laws, etc. I will try to give her some of it, but not too much. These laws are brought up later. Every time I considered skipping something, I would be reminded how it is brought up later with the assumption that it is no longer new information. Yes, much of it is deadly dull to us. Yes, some of it is downright icky. But, I found that in small chunks, it didn't look so bad and the few sections that I had the most problem with probably should be skipped for attention span reasons. She is only five!

I do not feel guilty leaving out a few things. You see, I'm leaving most of it in. Very few things hit my don't read threshold. And those are mainly because of her age. This will not be the only time we read the Bible. As she gets older, we will read every bit of it. By the time she is in high school I expect reading the whole Bible to be at least an annual activity. We are going slower this time through. I plan to be most of the way through Numbers by the end of the school year.

Another consideration is that we are following an educational approach that encourages exploration of facts and information for the youngest kids. It is not to gain mastery at the beginning. It is to lay foundations for further study. I learned from my Master's program (Library and Information Science), that people learn things better if they have already been exposed to that information. But, the young age level is not necessarily very good at analyzing what they read. It's the older kids that wrestle more with why and wherefore. So I feel comfortable with providing a much bigger slice of the picture than most kids her age get, with the idea that the small bits I've left out, will fit better when she is old enough to handle a little bit more heavy-duty mental wrestling that some of those passages prompt.

One commenter at my husband's blog made the helpful suggestion of starting with the New Testament in our reading. I appreciate the helpfulness, truly, but the suggestion undercuts a basic premise in my teaching of the Bible. That premise is that it is almost impossible to get a full understanding of the New Testament without a firm grounding in the Old Testament. I'm sure that steps on a few toes, because I have known many people who think that the New Testament somehow overshadows the Old to the point of making it obsolescent. In my mind, reading only the New Testament is like reading the end of a story but not the beginning. Have you ever flipped channels on your T.V. and been sucked into a movie only to find out that you watched only the last 15 minutes. Yeah, you saw the climax and the way it ended, but you are completely oblivious to what put the characters in their situation to begin with. You didn't see the character development or the trials and victories that came before. And remember, the people who wrote and read the New Testament when it was new, thought of the Old Testament as their scriptures. The Old Testament was their Bible.

So...I suppose I should report on how it is going. After all, we've been doing Bible readings for the last three weeks. Well, I have found that by Genesis chapter 15, I have not had to edit anything out. My daughter likes some of the readings but not others. I can tell how much she likes it based on how eager she is to come up with a sentence for her narration page and whether she wants to illustrate the passage (this last being completely optional). Some of them are pretty bland, but some are hilarious. For instance, the story of Cain and Abel. She never mentions the fact that Cain killed Abel (the obvious point for most of us). Instead she was impressed that Cain farmed, so she wrote "Who likes crops?" and had a picture of a very happy-looking stick figure of Cain showing off a platter of vegetables. I keep all of her work in a binder to document her progress. But even without that motive, The Pillowfight Fairy's work shows a very amusing view of the Bible.


Rachael said...

I feel that there is a great benefit in reading young children (3-5 years old) children's Bible books. They do learn and talk about how Jesus would do it that I don't believe they would get from reading from the actually Bible. Plus, they are getting the literature read in Church.

One of our favorite books is "This Bible Talks!" by Pamela Fischer. Narrated by Michael David McGuire.

They love it and are excited about the Bible! I find that exciting and will help the transition into reading the Bible. (here is the website if anyone wants:

Thanks for your thoughts! Happy Teaching!

Anonymous said...

I like your blog! I followed a link in an email to your hubby's blog and then clicked over to yours. I believe we are local to you guys -- I'd love to hear where you go to church!

Anyway, wanted to recommend a book called Greenleaf's Guide to the Old Testament (or something like that -- I'm too tired to look up the exact title). It is a guide through the OT, chronologically. You read the real bible aloud to the kids, and it has narration prompts to stimulate memory (for the kids to tell back what the story was). I like that the guide brings you through the history of the OT, even though that sometimes means going out of order from the way the books are printed in the bible. When my kids were your kids ages, we went through this guide and made little scrapbook pages of the major bible events along the way -- it was fun to see what my littles understood!
Anyway, I'll be back sometime to
Happy Homeschooling!

Tonya Power said...

Rachael and Deborah,

Thanks for the suggestions and the good words. As for where we go to church, I'll leave that at a church of Christ. None of them are exactly alike, so it doesn't tell much. I think you will understand my desire for some measure of privacy in our lives. As I prefer to use pseudonyms for our kids, I also prefer not to name the exact church.