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Every year, during the month of December, our family uses an advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas (and yes we know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25). We don’t use the same schedule or the exact same Bible verses every year, but I have found the verses that we have and will be using this year to be very helpful in teaching my children how the entire Old Testament foreshadows the momentous event of the Incarnation. As we are doing this as a family, I am being reminded once again of the importance of taking a few steps back from the details and minutiae of the Bible and thinking and meditating on its main message and story.
Within the Emerging church movement (and to a lesser degree outside of it) you will often hear the word “narrative” being thrown around. Most Christians tend to get a bit uncomfortable when you refer to the Bible as a “story.” When they hear the word they automatically think of it in the negative sense, as in children’s story, fable, or myth. This is due in part to the effective tactic of agnostic skeptics who refer to the Bible as a “fairy tale for adults.” However, it is also due to our own people teaching the Bible as a collection of unrelated stories about character qualities and mysterious divine intervention. When our children are young we teach them about “Bible characters” using flannel-graphs, crafts, and cartoon images. Instead of using powerful images like Caravaggio’s David and Goliath (see here and here), we resort to colorful caricatures, dramatic emphasis, or, worse yet, fruits and vegetables, to tell the story. Is it any wonder that such a large percentage of children raised in the modern church abandon their “faith” when confronted with the reality of the “real world?” What good does a flannel-graph story do when you are constantly being accosted by professors, co-workers, and friends who are intent on undermining your “Sunday-school religion?”
In his short but powerful indictment of secularism, Harry Blamires writes:
We cannot make sense of adult life with the mental equipment of the child. We cannot afford to carry into adult life a Christian consciousness so under-nourished and anaemic that we slide into accepting faddish convenience recipes for worldly well-being as our daily diet. The evidence is that when the time comes for getting to grips with the Christian faith as adults and not as children, many of our contemporaries abandon their faith. They were early spoon-fed on the milk of the word, but in adulthood they discard the nourishment as babyish, and assume that there is no more to be said. Meanwhile, professing believers, men and women who perhaps make great steps forward in other spheres of life, all too often succumb to the epidemic of anorexia religiosa which destroys all appetite for progress in Christian understanding and commitment.
While Blamires is right on the money in his assessment of the child/adult dualism that threatens real Christianity, he stresses the grown-up side of the Gospel without ever questioning how the Church is teaching the Bible to its youngest members. If we continue to teach our children the Bible as nothing more than a series of “stories,” when do we expect that they will make the transition from milk to meat? Just as real milk is necessary for a baby to grow, real Bible is necessary for the child. But if, as adults, we continue to forsake the meat of the Bible in favor of the milk, we will never grow as God intended us to. Teaching the stories of the Bible is one thing, but teaching the stories of the Bible in a silly way does nothing to advance a love for and understanding of the Bible in children. Why do we allow the Bible to be taught in this way, yet would never entertain the notion of teaching American or European history like this?
When Christians teach the Bible, they need to constantly have the “whole picture” in their minds. The story of the Bible (and it is a story, or narrative if you so prefer) is a comprehensive explanation for everything that we experience in the world. In this sense, the Bible is the worldview for the Christian. The Bible provides answers to the big worldview questions that have plagued philosophers since the beginning: why, who, what, where, how, and when. These ultimate interrogatives must be answered by any worldview that claims to have the answer to the “meaning of life.” And a worldview must “hang together” by being consistent within itself. We naturally know this about any endeavor that we undertake in life. If a factory-worker spent his whole life installing transistors on a circuit-board without ever once wondering about what his transistors are being used for, we would think him a little strange if we met him at a cocktail party.
“Hi, Bob, what do you do for a living?”
“I install transistors on circuit boards at the factory on Maple Street.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. What does your factory make?”
“I don’t know. I never bothered asking. I just install transistors for eight hours and go home.”
“Oh, OK. See you later Bob.”
If, after discussing the factory on Maple with other party guests, we discover that Bob is actually contributing his transistor-filled circuit boards to heat-seeking missiles for a terrorist country, would this change Bob’s view of his occupation? Does the “story” of Bob’s occupation line up with his generally pacifistic approach to life? Could Bob reconcile these two conflicting “facts” in his life without quitting his job, or letting go of his pacifistic beliefs? This is where our worldviews—our ultimate stories about reality—really matter. The story of the Bible is told quite succinctly in the first five books, ending with Joshua leading the covenant people into the “promised land.” Zoom out a bit on the entire Bible and we now see Jesus, the new Joshua, leading His covenant people into the “promised land,” the heavenly Zion, the city that Abraham was looking for “whose architect and builder was God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). The Bible is filled with repetitive patterns and types that the smaller stories (the Sunday-school ones) fit into. If we neglect to teach our children the grand narrative of the Bible—God bringing His people into the promised land—there is nothing that the smaller stories can contribute other than interesting miraculous events that make us feel good. Without the overarching story of the Bible, the Sunday-school faith of flannel-graphs and character qualities will never stand a chance against the humanistic, all-encompassing worldview of the secularist. There is no greater gift you could give to yourself and your family this Christmas than the story of the Bible, with Jesus as the central focus.
Harry Blamires, Recovering the Christian Mind (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 9.