I was thumbing through a “toddlers bible” this morning.
There was a page dedicated to the story of Noah’s Ark. One half of the page contained a picture of several smiling, happy animals and a few smiling happy humans, in a big, fun boat, all having just a great old time sailing the deep blue sea on a sunny happy day. I don’t recall the exact wording of the text, but it was basically an accurate retelling of the Biblical version in about seven or eight toddler-level sentences.
Here’s the problem. The story is clearly not a happy story. It wasn’t, as the picture seemed to portray, a case of cute cuddly animals and happy humans on a neat-o sailing adventure. Indeed, I think to frame the story that way, even for kids, is to do real violence to the story itself.
But what about the story itself? If the version cleaned up for kids is a travesty, still, the impulse to clean it up is rightly felt. For the story as it actually is told in the Bible is absolutely not kid friendly.
Everyone in the world, with a tiny set of exceptions, was killed, violently drowned. This is not to mention the animal life. This is not just scary, it’s horrific, and it’s hard for me to understand how I could present this story to a kid with any honesty or completeness.
What makes it worse is the fact that the one directing all this destruction is supposed to be one of the main protagonists of the story–and of the biblical tradition in general–I mean, of course, God. Why does this make it worse? I have always maintained to my kid (3.5 years old) that what you do with “bad guys”* is you put them in jail so they can’t hurt anyone, and you do whatever you can to help them turn into “good guys” if they want to. But this is pretty much the opposite of what God does in this story (and plenty others). The “bad guys” get killed, simple as that. All of them, all at once.
So here’s the dilemma with this particular story. I could sort of clean it up–but this would seem to require completely missing the point of the story. (For the point of the story involves essentially the horrible nature of the events portrayed.) But if I don’t clean it up, then it is practically impossible to make any moral sense of the story.
I think it is practically impossible to make any moral sense of the story, even for adults–and I think that is part of the value of the story. The Christian must ask himself some very difficult questions in response to this story, and wrestling with them is sure to lead to moral insight, but never to a “moral of the story.”
But can such difficulties be worked through by a three year old, in even a rudimentary sense? I don’t have the impression that this can be so.
Should one just refrain from relaying these tales til the kid is in, say, the eight or nine year old range? (Depending widely on the kid and the parents’ situation.)
Should one tell the story straightforwardly, and let the kid be decieved into thinking he knows some simple “moral of the story”, until one day several years later he learns to grow past the simple moral aphorisms he learns at his elders’ knees?
Should one not worry so much and just tell the standard cleaned-up version, again letting the kid come to his own realizations many years later?
Should one take stories like this as an opportunity to gleefully mess with his kids’ minds?
Some of you are wondering “why tell the story at all?” Some because they think the stories aren’t worth telling, and others because they think it’s clear I wouldn’t be telling the story in a good Evangelical Christian spirit and so shouldn’t feel tempted to bother. The reason I would tell my kid stories from the bible is that it was an important part of my own upbringing and growth in moral and even philosophical understanding, and I think it would be good if the language my kid uses for such growth has something in common with the language I grew up with. So we can communicate, and so I can better end up imparting whatever kind of wisdom there is in me to impart.
*A concept he picked up from his friends