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Talking to children about the Bible


Question & Answer

Q: By A Reader

How should I respond if my young children take the stories of the Bible literally when I don’t believe in a literal reading?

A: By Cindy Wang Brandt

Dear Reader,

Similar to the way you respond to children who believe in the myth of Santa and tooth fairies.

As a family, you can choose to not participate in those particular myths at all, and from the get go, prioritize telling your children this isn’t real, these stories never happened, but you can enjoy them as fictional accounts that lots of people in the world have fun imagining. Perhaps this works for you, but to me, it feels like it robs children of a season of whimsy and delight.

Or, you could fully immerse yourself in their world of imaginary thinking, and pretend with them it’s all real. Bake Santa cookies and tell stories of the elf’s adventures in the night. Although with this route, at some point when they outgrow their developmental stage of fantasy, you’ll have to contend with your white lies, as benign and well-intentioned they may be; and some children may not take well to this, breaching your trust with them.

I think the best of both worlds is to affirm their imagination, honoring their brain development, and scaffold their understanding for more nuanced criticism as they grow into mature cognitive processes.

It is possible to affirm their steadfast literal belief in stories while not necessarily endorsing their views. Validate their enthusiasm with open-ended questions, like, “Wow, you think that’s how it happened? How would you feel if you were Jonah in the belly of a big fish?” Entertain their imagination, not in a condescending way, but to participate in their mental world with empathy.

When they begin asking direct questions like, “Mommy, did the fish REALLY swallow Jonah?” That’s a sign they are starting to mature and test the boundaries of fact or fiction. This would be a good time to scaffold our responses—challenging them to a higher-level of thinking without overwhelming them. Follow your child’s lead and interest to investigate with them how marine animals consume their food, whether humans can survive in the belly of animals. Let them connect the dots because there may still be a phase where they can hold both facts and fiction in tandem. And of course, as they grow into even higher maturity in teen years and beyond, you can engage in deeper discussions of how ancient mythologies came to be, and offer your personal beliefs in how you hold biblical stories as valuable (or not) in your own life.

~ Cindy Wang Brandt

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Cindy Wang Brandt is a progressive Christian writer, but she has not always identified as progressive. In fact, she grew up conservative evangelical and was a career missionary for 5 and a half years. Cindy’s experienced a radical faith shift and writes often about how that shapes who she is today.

Along the way, she became a parent. Trying to navigate parenting when your faith has and is evolving has been complicated—but nobody ever said parenting is easy. However, she is convinced that one of the best ways we can make an impact in the world is to invest in the slow, unseen labor of cultivating values of hospitality, creativity, equality, social justice, and deep spirituality in the next generation.

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