Kids and the Bible: Are We Discipling Non-Readers?

Many adults are struggling to read the Bible. We know this. At some level it’s understandable, for the Bible is a big, complicated, and very ancient book. (At another level, the Bible is where Christianity gets its story, so the faith community needs to be deeply committed to knowing it well regardless of the challenges.) So if the adults are struggling, what would we expect from the kids?

If the Bible is tough going for the grownups, it’s going to be even tougher for younger readers, right?

It’s true, the challenge is not going to go away for younger readers. But maybe it’s time to look at how we’ve been trying to introduce kids to the Bible. What, exactly, has been our goal? What’s the right expectation for kids reading, knowing, and understanding the Bible? And what would the path to solid Bible fluency look like?

Where We’ve Been

Simply from taking a look at our standard Bible curricula it would seem that what’s actually happening is that we have other goals (spiritual formation, teaching morals, building faith, etc.) that use the Bible in certain ways. Often a deep engagement with the Scriptures themselves is not the intended destination. The result is usually that within any given lesson, the Bible is encountered as either a theme verse or two, or a safely paraphrased version of a “Bible story.”

Perhaps this approach is seen as a good and necessary adaptation of the Bible for readers who are younger and not yet proficient. It makes sense, right? Well, maybe not.

The problem with giving children a verse or two is that this approach tends to stick around as readers get older. We continue to show and teach the Scriptures by referring to “Bible verses” all the way through to adulthood. The consequence is that many people persist in thinking the Bible is in fact a collection of these verses (and if they are honest, admitting that some verses are better than others).

The problem with an ongoing diet of paraphrased Bible stories is that such tellings are not actually the Bible. They are typically told with any age-inappropriate elements toned down or taken out. And of course any paraphrase represents someone’s interpretation of what the essence of a particular story is.

All of this is appropriate as far as it goes, but there’s also a danger here. Many of these safe versions of the stories are never replaced with the actual biblical texts as kids turn into young adults. This means younger readers aren’t learning the way biblical language actually sounds and actually works. And older kids are never confronting the stronger, stranger, more complex versions of these stories that the Bible actually tells.

When do we get around to teaching young adults how to handle the real Bible?

Further, these collections of paraphrased stories are often treated as stand-alone lessons, so kids don’t ever learn how they are connected and build on each other to tell the bigger biblical narrative. And rarely are different kinds of literary writings ever acknowledged. A curriculum constructed of “Bible stories” will of course have difficulty incorporating things like letters, songs, wisdom sayings, and the other literary variety of our Scriptures.

So are we discipling kids into not being Bible readers?

What would any average child take away from their long-term experience with the Bible in our current teaching approach? Have they taken the first steps toward receiving the Bible on its own terms? Or have they been taught to use the Bible in simplistic and misleading ways?

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I’m reminded of a conversation we had with a prominent publisher of children’s Sunday School resources and Bible curricula. After reviewing their programs and comparing them with our perspective on Bible engagement, one of their executives, deep in thought, looked up and said, “So you’re telling me that if our programs are successful, we are actually producing generations of non-Bible readers.”

Are kids growing up learning that the Bible is a book to be read? Do kids have an inkling of the big story? Are they falling in love with Jesus—that is, with a Jesus understood in the context of the overall narrative?

Where We’re Going

Okay, here’s where we admit we don’t know all the answers, but we believe that some things need to change. As youth within the church grow up, graduate, and head out on their own in various ways, it doesn’t appear that a healthy and hearty appetite for Bible reading is going with them. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Bible reading and comprehension numbers are so low among adults in the church. People are following the path we’ve laid out for them, and then we scramble to convert adults into Bible readers after failing to show them the way in the first place.

So what would change look like?

The Institute for Bible Reading would like to learn more about all of this, and then do what we do, which is to provide fresh thinking and new resources that change the way the world reads the Bible.

We want to do more and better research on what the childhood Bible engagement landscape looks like in greater detail. What are the most popular current resources? What’s working and what’s not? What do kids say? What do parents say? What do teachers say?

We want to have in-depth, interdisciplinary conversations with all the right people and from all the right angles, so new learnings can take place. We want to listen well in an environment where different perspectives are presented and thoughtfully discussed.

We want to chart a course for a new future for kids and the Bible. We don’t believe that a Bibleless Christianity will be a vibrant and effective Christianity. The trajectory of downward Bible engagement in the church needs to be reversed if we are to fully receive the profound gift that we have in God’s word.

We want kids to know the Bible the right way at the right age and stage. We want kids to appropriately grow into the Bible. We want kids who not only love the Bible, but learn how to read it intelligently and well, so they don’t turn away from it the first time they encounter its opponents.

Please pray for us on this new journey. We need wisdom and resources and the courage to challenge old paradigms. Because God loves both his word and his children, and he wants them to flourish together.

Listen: Re-Enchanting the Scriptures

Glenn recently had the opportunity to present at the Your Imagination Redeemed Conference hosted by the Anselm Society, an organization in Colorado Springs that is dedicated to the renaissance of the Christian imagination.

Here’s the abstract for Glenn’s lecture Re-Enchanting the Scriptures

The rise of modernity has led to an increasing sense of the disenchantment of the world. As our rational, scientific explanations grow stronger, the sense of a mysterious, lively, and spiritual world diminishes. So what happens when the Bible meets modernity? Disenchantment happens—the growth of attempts to dissect the Bible and master its facts, draining much of its intended literary power and beauty.

So how do we re-enchant the Bible? We begin by simply remembering what it actually is. The Scriptures are a collection of diverse literary creations, telling a story, and inviting us into a live drama. What are we to do with such a Bible? Faithfulness is reading the Bible as the literature it is and then accepting God’s offer to enact the story and initiate a Spirit-empowered improvisation in our world today.

What GQ’s Bible Evaluation Gets Wrong

The editors of GQ magazine recently assembled a list of 21 no-need-to-read so-called Great Books, along with a parallel list of recommended alternative choices. [Read the article here.] The point was to challenge the idea that there’s a mandatory list of books that anyone claiming to be well-read will know from firsthand experience. Don’t worry, say these guardians of the hipster style scene, because the whole idea of a canon is, well, already shot.

Many of the Great Books aren’t actually so great, so feel free to take a pass.

The list itself is pretty eclectic, taking aim not merely at older classics from authors like Henry James, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, but also newer offerings like those of David Foster Wallace and Paulo Coelho. The original sin apparently afflicting all of the list? The snore factor.

No doubt some of the questioning, along with the suggested Plan B, are spot on. Instead of J. D. Salinger’s “not profound” Franny and Zooey, try Willa Cather’s “calm and contemplative and open” Death Comes for the Archbishop instead. Sound advice there. But sometimes the list limps, as when Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels are relegated to “barely readable” status.

The Bible and the List

Today the Bible remains largely unknown, but now it’s increasingly The Bad Book.

It’s probably not surprising that the Bible also made the cut list. These days there is a rather standard list of objections to the Bible, including but not limited to being sexist, violent, and generally approving of all manner of cultural regressions.

It is interesting and worth noting that not so long ago the standard story about the Bible was that it was The Good Book, albeit the one rarely read. Pollster George Gallup called it the best-selling, least-read book in America. Today the Bible remains largely unknown, but now it’s increasingly The Bad Book. And yes, boring too.

GQ’s list is not made up of review essays; it is as it claims to be, merely a list. But a few dismissive comments are included with each entry.

American novelist Jesse Ball’s cool brush-off of the Bible goes like this:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.

So there you have it.

First, the data point is correct: a long stream of research over the last few decades confirms what we all pretty much know anyway: the Bible is not being read very much. Most of those who still interact with it are not really reading it, but using some of its bits and pieces. So in many cases the pro-Bible people do not have a deep acquaintance with the actual content (which we’re actively working to address.)

Ball goes on to claim that once we do actually read it, we quickly discover the Bible’s manifold faults. But here the critique misses, I think, because of what I call the misframing of the Bible. Let me explain. For the Bible to be anything like what it’s intended to be, it is crucial to bring the right kind of assumptions and expectations to it.

Evaluating the Bible On Its Own Terms

Is the Bible trying to be like the other entries on this list? Is the Bible trying to be a captivating novel?

No, it isn’t, so characterizing it this way misleads us about its real purpose. And this can quickly enough lead to its easy dismissal.

Of course those who’ve already committed to the Christian story and its Author will have lots of reasons for wanting to read and reread the Bible. But what about would-be readers from outside the traditions that are honoring their own Scriptures? How does an honest outside evaluation of the Bible get on the right track?

For openers, the Bible must be acknowledged for what it is and what it’s trying to do. The Bible is a library of ancient literature, so the first thing is to set aside anachronistic contemporary assessments which want the Bible to act like a modern book. The Bible’s various literary entries are essentially telling us the story of a particular people from thousands of years ago and their claims to be interacting with the Creator of the world.

The Bible does this using ancient ways of writing and telling, so the only way to appreciate the Bible is to willingly enter into its own ancient world. If we’re going to pretend to sum up the value of the Bible, we at least owe it a fair reading, which means learning the basics of how ancient writings worked on their own terms. Poetry, prophetic visions, earthy wisdom, story-telling, and all the other communicative forms of the Bible are often strange to our modern ears. So the thing to do is learn a little about them and then at least begin by reading sympathetically.

Ultimately, the only decent way to read the Bible is to take it book by book, try to understand first what each one was saying to its own ancient audience, and then start putting the story together. Where does the narrative of the Bible go? We live where the story was going, not where it’s been. This is how the decisive question of the value in the Bible needs to be addressed. Rather than acting as a sourcebook for timeless truths, the Bible claims to be the beginning of a story that has continuing relevance for the world long past its own pages. It does this by making claims about the God of the Bible and what he’s up to.

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The Bible itself already has a long record of being a powerful force in the history of the world. It’s hard to think of anything more influential in the Western imaginative tradition of art and literature. This alone makes it worth reading. GQ’s assessment of the Bible was surpassed before it was even printed, and its dismissal tells us more about ourselves and our age than it does about the Bible.

It may be best to offer an invitation, rather than a defense. As the voice urged St. Augustine (no small cultural influence himself), “Take up and read!” Just be sure to read well.

Watch: Glenn Packiam Unpacks the Story of the Bible

As Christians we often hear about the “grand narrative” of the Bible. But what does the narrative actually look like? How does the book of Genesis flow into the story of Israel which culminates in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah? How do Paul’s letters to the early church connect back to the Garden of Eden?

In this video Glenn Packiam, lead pastor at New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs and the newest member of our Board of Advisors, explains the popular “Five Act” model of the Biblical narrative.

How Did We Get the Bible’s Book Order? And Can We Change It?

Not many of us think about it very often, but the Bible is a library of books, which means it can of course be put together in different ways. We’re all used to a particular order, but it’s interesting to note that this common order only became standardized in the early modern period. The printing press helped “freeze” the order we’re most familiar with. Before this, in the era of hand-made copies, there was more variety in the order of the books. And it’s not like any particular order was inspired by God. The early variety of book orders should make that clear.

So how should the Bible’s 59 books be put together? Is one way better than another? (By the way, we get 59 rather than 66 because some of the original books like Samuel-Kings were later divided into parts, mostly because of how much text could fit on an ancient papyrus scroll.)

A Short History of Building the Bible

When considering the order of books in the Bible, it’s probably best to start by thinking in terms of groups of books rather than simply individual books. And it’s crucial to think in terms of a longer-term process, not simply a moment in time when everything was decided at once.

Early on, the books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old or First Testament) were gathered into three groups: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Besides the five books in the Torah, which were always listed in the same order, the other groups had their books in different orders at different times and different places.

In the centuries before the coming of Jesus, the First Testament was translated into Greek because by then many Jews were dispersed and living in places outside of Palestine. This translation, known as the Septuagint, is different from the Hebrew Bible in several ways, including its arrangement of the book order. The new categories of books were Law, History, Wisdom (or Poetry), and Prophets. Since the Septuagint was the Bible of the early church, this new order was carried over into Christian Bibles as they (slowly) began to come together.

When we turn our attention to the New Testament, again it’s best to keep thinking in terms of groups of books, and then the order of books within them. Here, the four Gospels were gathered into a group (and Luke was separated from Acts), the letters of Paul formed another group, and then the general letters were another group. The Gospels themselves would appear in many varied orders. Revelation, interestingly, would often show up in different places among the other groups. The book of Acts could be placed with the Gospels, and other times before or after Paul’s letters. Hebrews would also jump around, though often it was assigned to Paul and placed with his letters.

Some of this variety of book order was tied to the preferences of churches in different geographical locations. Sometimes it looks like there was an attempted chronological order, and sometimes it was just putting books in order by size. For instance, Paul’s letters were typically in order from largest to smallest.

The key point is that there was a lot of diversity in the Bible’s book order historically, with people feeling free to move things around based on a variety of reasons. Once we realize that the Bible has been entrusted to our care, and that historically the church felt free to put it together in divergent ways, we can be intentional about thinking through what book order might best serve our needs today.

How We Built the Immerse Bible

The Institute for Bible Reading’s new edition of Immerse: The Reading Bible has been intentionally built to make big reading easier and better. If you’re going to read through a big part of the Bible continuously, that’s when the book order especially matters.

Overall, Immerse presents the Bible in six volumes (each volume will eventually have an 8-week church reading program built around it). We begin by generally following the older Hebrew grouping, rather than the later Septuagint order followed in most Bibles today. Beginnings is simply the original Torah, in the usual order. Kingdoms is the next set of historical books—Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, with Samuel–Kings reunified (the four books called “Reigns” in Eastern tradition).

Next up is the Prophets, but this time placed in a more chronological order (rather than sized by major and minor prophets), so they can be read as an ongoing commentary on Israel’s history. The Poets volume follows, and is broken down into two further categories: song books (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs) and wisdom books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job). With books like these, literary genre makes more sense as an organizing principle than chronology.

The last volume in the First Testament is called Chronicles, since it largely gives an account of Israel’s history from a later perspective than Samuel–Kings. The traditional books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are recombined (notice how even in Bibles today the ending of 2 Chronicles overlaps with the beginning of Ezra, showing how they were stitched together). The books reflecting a later historical situation, Esther and Daniel, close out the First Testament.

In the New Testament volume Messiah, we’ve done something a little more creative. In the common book order, the four Gospels are smushed (a technical term in biblical studies) together at the beginning. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, right in a row. But if you’re reading straight through, by the time you get to Luke it’s all starting to sound the same. So we’ve taken the four Gospels and spread them out, putting each Gospel with other New Testament books that naturally fit with it.

Luke–Acts is happily reunited, and then followed by the letters of Luke’s traveling companion, Paul. Paul’s epistles are now placed in the order he likely wrote them, allowing the reader to follow the development of his thought over time. Next up is the short and early Gospel of Mark, and given Peter’s historical connection to Mark, his letters come immediately after. The strongly Jewish Gospel of Matthew follows, alongside its natural partners, Hebrews and James. John is last, joined with the three letters of John. And Revelation closes out the New Testament, allowing each Testament to end with an apocalyptic writing.

The end result is a fourfold New Testament presenting a fresh, multi-faceted perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah, and its impact spreading throughout the world.

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There is no single right order for the books of the Bible. But once we realize this, it’s worth exploring together what order serves our needs well in this time and place.