Putting Away the Sunday School Jesus

Russel Moore has a good review of the movie Where the Wild Things Are. He says that the problem with it is not that it is too wild or dark, but that it is not wild enough and is not as good as the book because it does not properly deal with the existence of evil. He says that Christians are upset by the movie and are saying that it is not appropriate for kids because it is too scary, but Moore says that it is not scary enough. Evil is real and kids know it and they want something done about it. I haven't read the book or seen the movie, so I can't really comment on that, but there is something that he said that I think is important that we can all reflect upon. He compares what was done with the book to what we do with the Bible for children by saying:

Too many of our Bible study curricula for children declaw the Bible, excising all the snakes and dragons and wildness. We reduce the Bible to a set of ethical guidelines and a text on how gentle and kind Jesus is. The problem is, our kids know there are monsters out there. God put that awareness in them. They’re looking for a sheep-herding dragon-slayer, the One who can put all the wild things under His feet.

SundaySchoolJesus A couple of months ago a few of us went to hear Alan Hirsch in Mobile, Alabama and he said the same thing. He was talking about our different false images of Jesus and how they keep us from encountering the true Jesus. One of the images that he took on was the Sunday School Jesus. This Jesus is sugary sweet and is not a threat to anyone. He calls all the little children to come to him and he is just an overall nice guy. He was crucified for being a nice guy and if we believe in him, we can be really nice people too. The church is nice and everyone is nice. I think that it is wonderful to be nice, but that is a very incomplete version of who Jesus is. Yet, we do this with many of our Bible stories that we adapt for children.

A lady (who works with children) spoke up and opposed what Hirsch was saying. She said that it was important to have Bible stories for children and that many of them, like Daniel and the Lion's Den, were appropriate for children. Hirsch was not against telling children Bible stories, but he said that we needed to be careful to not sanitize everything so that the real story is lost. I agree.

Let's look at what REALLY happened in some of the Bible stories that we reserve for children:

  • Adam and Eve? No, we don't tell that story too often. They are naked.
  • Noah's Ark:  Usually a nice story about animals going two by two onto a big boat. It even has a rainbow! But, we often leave out the fact that the entire human race (save one family) along with every other animal drowned and died a horrible death. I'm not saying that you have to go into great detail here, but you can't leave out God's judgment on sin and stay true to the story.
  • Joseph's Coat of Many Colors: Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery. Kind of scary.
  • The Parting of the Red Sea (Exodus): The first born in Egypt died and the whole Egyptian army drowned.
  • Giving of the Ten Commandments: 3,000 people were killed by Levites wielding swords after the Golden Calf incident (more than died in 9/11).
  • David and Goliath: David cut off Goliath's head and held it up for everyone to see. Kind of gory.
  • Daniel and the Lion's Den: Daniel was saved because he trusted God, but his false accusers were thrown into the Lion's Den along with their wives and children and they were dead before they hit the floor. The Lions were hungry.

It goes on and on. Even the birth of Jesus was attended to by filthy shepherds and pagan astrologers and was accompanied by the slaughter of all of boys under two years old in and around Bethlehem. The Bible is not exactly a book for kids, at least the way that we think about what a proper book for kids is. It is filled with violence, death, and human struggle. Sin is real, as is suffering, disappointment, rejection, and loss. When we sanitize it, we strip judgment, pain, and death out of Scripture and we learn to not fear God. We see God as the one who makes everything better all the time. It is wonderful that we provide comfort and safety for children, but should we do so by creating a false understanding? Does the fact that we have done this with children for the past couple of generations have anything to do with lack of fear of God that we currently have as adults? Or, the unbiblical views of God that affect us so deeply? Perhaps.

Hear me: I am not saying that we should fill our Bible stories for children with blood, gore, and horror. But, I am saying that we need to find ways to tell the stories as realistically as possible so that our children can see that evil is real, that God judges sin, and that Jesus' coming meant something more than he was nice and kind. We do not do our children or ourselves favors when we sanitize everything to the point that we make a baby nursery out of scenes from the almost total extermination of life on the planet because of judgment over vile sin (Noah's Ark) and we fail to consider what we are doing and the story that we are telling.  Without understanding, at least on some level, judgment for sin, it is impossible to understand and appreciate the redemption that we have in Jesus. 

As best we can, we need to read and tell the stories of the Bible rightly. Do our children need to hear everything when they are 4 years old? No. But, they need to hear that God is good and holy and that sin has consequences and that there is evil in the world, but God delivers us and protects us when cry out to Him. These were the stories that the Hebrew people told their children and these stories inspired courage and confidence in their God. May we do the same.


8 Responses to Putting Away the Sunday School Jesus

  1. I wonder if the innocence we seek for our children existed for previous generations. I don’t really feel qualified to say whether we’re projecting that innocence… or if it’s something that has always been there. They might not be able to comprehend everything that fully-functional adults can, but shoot… from what I read the brain isn’t fully developed until our early 20s anyway. I guess all I’m thinking is… maybe sugar-coating the world as if it were a fantasy Disney World isn’t healthy, and perhaps all we’re doing by sugar-coating things is creating a naivety that leads to deep disappointment and even bitterness when confronted by reality. Maybe. What do I know? I’m only 28 and I have no kids.

  2. Many churches are in the sissy making business. They have been very successful.
    Yet, the Bible says churches are to be in the disciple making business. The disciple business has a bloody cross right in the middle of it.
    Sissy making churches are successful because they detour the bloody cross. It is hard to make disciples out of sissies because sissies balk at the bloody cross. They do not want to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
    Moral of the story: The Sunday School Jesus ain’t the crucified and risen Jesus. The Sunday School Jesus rules the gospel of nice. The crucified and risen Jesus rules the gospel that calls us tyo take up the cross, follow Jesus and die to self.

  3. “Sugary-sweet” Jesus…So yummy, but rots your teeth!
    I’m praying that God helps us to move into more faith in Him and His Word – believing that these are not Bible “stories” in the first place. We pass this idea that the Bible is filled with “stories” from generation to generation and then wonder why youth in this generation see the Bible as another fantasy/fiction book, not even as good as the Harry Potter series.
    When we take the stand by declaring, explicitly, that the Bible tells what actually happened, we will witness the confrontation and transformation that takes place when God’s Word confronts human thought. As long as we only “imply” that the Bible accounts are in fact reality, by continuing to pass on OUR Bible stories, we help to foster the idea that Our God has no weight in reality.
    I remember studying “Actual Facts” when I was in the Nation of Islam. I had to memorize things like the distance between the Earth and the moon, among other things. That I was studying what they explicitly stated were “Actual Facts” is what stuck with me the most, after all this time. As followers of Christ, we have THE Actual Facts that the True and Living God revealed in His Word. Let’s rightly present what we have in Christ with total confidence and faith in Him.
    Grace and Peace!

  4. Wow! I have felt that all along but couldn’t really comunicate that! WOW! So true. Whenever I mention that there is a cost to discipleship, I get funny looks like I am talking about some religion that the person has never heard of. “And why would Jesus make us suffer and die in doing his work??” Good thoughts to ponder Alan!

  5. I agree totally! It’s interesting that many fairy tales and nursery rhymes, told to children eagerly and readily, have more violence and depictions of evil, than sanitized Sunday School stories. I rarely comment on blogs but read yours regularly (from B’ham). Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s often profound.

  6. You should check out the Big Picture Story Bible. It does a great job of continually pointing to Jesus throughout the Bible. It doesn’t leave out God’s judgement, but explains the consequences of disobedience. I don’t do it justice, but it’s the best children’s Bible I’ve seen and we looked for a long time!

  7. What’s your take on the Nephilim mentioned in the Bible? Giants (i.e. Goliath) or something else? Around at the time of Adam & Eve? Later? Flood wiped them out?

  8. AMEN!!! Along these lines, I think almost all of the children’s coloring books don’t accurately depict Jesus. That’s why I avoid them all together. Seem overboard? Not to me. I’m convinced that our thoughts of Jesus are the most important thoughts we can have in this life. Guard it well dear brothers. The Apostles did.
    Also, when I read Ephesians 6 warfare section, I can’t get the 6 foot wall cartoon soldier from Sunday School out of my mind. But ephesians 6 is real, adult warfare. It is fighting against a real, deadly enemy.
    You’ve struck a chord pastor. Write on.