With the start of the new school year, we’ve begun reading through the Bible together as a family again (see this post if you want to know more about what we’re doing).
One reason I love the children’s Bible we’re using is that it includes far more stories and much more detail than most children’s Bibles I’ve seen. That means we’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into Genesis than our young kids have ever dug before. And there’s a running theme to what they’re noticing about these new stories:
There’s a lot of really strange stuff in the Bible.
For example, we’ve been reading stories like Abraham entertaining angels, angels striking a crowd with blindness, Lot’s wife turning into salt, God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Jacob wrestling with God.
I hope you don’t think it’s irreverent to label these and many other Bible stories as strange. The definition of strange is “unusual or surprising in a way that is hard to understand; not previously visited, seen, or encountered; unfamiliar or alien.”
To acknowledge and discuss with our kids that the Bible is strange is not irreverent…it’s actually extremely important when preparing them to engage with a secular world. In this post, we’ll take a look at why that’s the case, and how to discuss biblical strangeness with your kids.
Have You Forgotten How Strange the Bible Is?
In the normal course of our lives, when we make a strange claim, we naturally connect that claim to an explanation of why someone else should believe what we’re saying.
For example, imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in your office one morning when a colleague walks in and says to you, “Good morning! There’s a flying hippo in the parking lot. Really cool! Anyway, have a good one…” then casually walks on to his cubicle.
You would be baffled by that person’s behavior. He just claimed something that you assume isn’t possible or likely, yet he didn’t feel the need to elaborate. That’s not normal. You would have expected him to tell you in great detail about the crazy thing he saw, then offer some kind of explanation as to why he believes something so strange to be true.
Clearly, we normally assume that the what and the why of strange claims go hand-in-hand. But if you don’t realize that your claims are strange, you won’t realize just how much explaining you need to do. Like the guy from the office, you’ll end up making those claims without offering the corresponding explanation that should naturally follow.
That’s exactly what many Christian parents are doing.
Many of us grew up in Christian homes and have been hearing “strange” biblical accounts like the Garden of Eden, the burning bush, the Egyptian plagues, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, the virgin birth, Jesus’ miracles, and the resurrection our whole lives. It’s easy to become immune to just how strange these events really are. We end up recounting them to our children as if we told them there’s a flying hippo outside, then casually tuck them into bed for the night.
But when the Bible’s strange claims are unnaturally divorced from the rationale for believing them, it can lead to two kinds of problems:
1. We can dull our kids’ critical thinking skills.
Kids might learn to believe stories in the Bible that they wouldn’t believe in any other context, but have no idea why. That’s dangerous territory and none of us should want our kids to believe for the sake of believing, just because the word Bible is on the front of the book.
Atheist Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, summarized the problem this way: “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”
Inaccurate caricature of salvation aside, I agree with Harris’ general point. The Bible makes some strange claims, and we need to be ready to offer an explanation of why our kids should believe them….just as we would with any other strange claims in life.
2. Kids can become overly skeptical and reject the Bible just because it IS strange.
At the other end of the spectrum, older kids may end up rejecting the Bible simply because it IS strange. For example, atheists like to comment on my posts that they don’t believe in the resurrection because they know dead people don’t come back to life. What they don’t realize is that I know that too (surprise)! No one naturally comes back to life. Christians believe Jesus supernaturally came back to life.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that many things are strange but true. We live on a rock that jets around the sun at about 18.5 miles per second. Just because something sounds bizarre on the surface doesn’t mean there isn’t good evidence to support it.
Our kids need to understand that it’s not how strange a claim is that should determine its plausibility, but rather what evidence there is to support it.
How to Discuss Biblical Strangeness
For the reasons I’ve discussed, I love acknowledging to my kids when things we read about in the Bible are strange or even crazy sounding; it’s made for some of our deepest conversations. Here are some tips for discussing the three major kinds of biblical strangeness you’ll encounter: cultural, supernatural, and theological.
There are a lot of things in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that are strange because they recount historical events tied to an ancient culture far different than our own. For example, in Genesis 15:9-21, God reiterates the covenant he had with Abraham by having him cut a bunch of animals in half and leave a path in the middle for God to pass through (as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch).
When we read this story last week, I had no idea what it was about. Somehow I had always read right through it. So we researched it and learned that this was a type of ritual done in the ancient Near East to seal a covenant (see this article for more). It was meaningful to Abraham based on his cultural context, but is a completely foreign idea to us.
Stories with elements of cultural strangeness are a great opportunity to:
- Research what the significance of something was in an ancient culture.
- Emphasize that the Bible communicates real history across thousands of years, so we naturally read about people who lived very differently than we do.
- Talk about why so many laws very strange to us today exist in the Bible (like what to do if your ox falls into a pit—Exodus 21:33).
Every supernatural event in the Bible should be considered strange. Miracles are by definition not part of our everyday experience. Stories with supernatural strangeness are a great opportunity to:
- Acknowledge that some people assume miracles aren’t possible, so they reject the Bible without consideration. If God exists, however, miracles are possible (this is why it’s so important that your kids understand the evidence for God’s existence—the entire plausibility of the resurrection miracle rests on whether or not God exists).
- Talk about how miracles were astounding to the people who witnessed them; just because they lived thousands of years ago doesn’t necessarily mean they were more gullible than we are. For example, when Jesus lived, people knew exactly what death was and that dead people don’t come back to life. Something very significant had to have happened to convince them that a dead man was resurrected.
- Explain how miracles filled very specific purposes of God. A lot of skeptics have the idea that the Bible reads like a fairy tale—page after page of events that defy common experience. Given the lack of a continual stream of similar events today, they say the Bible lacks credibility (why believe God used to endlessly play in the world during biblical times but not today?). However, if you read the Bible carefully, you’ll notice that throughout thousands of years of history, there were actually just three relatively brief but prominent periods of miracles: the time of Moses and the Exodus, the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Jesus and the early church. Biblical miracles primarily occurred when God would have needed to authenticate His messengers and their message at key times in history. When considered in this context, there’s good reason for believing that if God exists, and He wanted to reveal Himself to mankind, He would have used miracles in exactly the way we see.
Some things in the Bible are strange to us because, if we’re being honest, we just wouldn’t have expected God to act in certain ways or say certain things. This is a very subjective strangeness, but an important one. Skeptics are often quick to point out that they don’t believe in God because they don’t believe God would (fill in the blank with any number of claims from the Bible).
When something in the Bible seems to defy your or your kids’ personal expectations of what God would say or do, it’s a great opportunity to:
- Call it out! I often tell my kids, “If I were God, I totally would have set this world up differently.” (For example, I think everyone should have the same life span. I’d like to discuss that with God someday.) My kids are amused when they agree that something would seemingly be more fair or make more sense if they were another way. And it’s a great chance to discuss how limited our understanding is of what God knows and wants to accomplish.
- Talk about the fact that God hasn’t told us everything we’d like to know, and that is something we have to get comfortable with.
- Discuss theological tensions, like the problem of evil. It’s certainly “strange” in many respects that evil exists in the world despite God being the world’s perfectly good creator. But if we never discuss that, our kids can end up thinking we haven’t considered the problem ourselves, or that there aren’t any good answers.
When you take the time to acknowledge and discuss these kinds of biblical strangeness with your kids, it will give them the important opportunity to critically think through their beliefs…and understand why, sometimes, strange is exactly what we should expect.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the “strangeness” of the Bible. Which biblical accounts have you had the most difficulty explaining to your kids? If there’s one in particular you’d like to see a post on here, please let me know!