Adventuring with Scripture – the Bible, children and discipleship

Discipleship and scriptural engagement – adventures that belong together. Discipleship is not a theory or an orderly set of doctrines you can transmit or teach like times tables. It is not about signing on the bottom line, ‘Yes, I believe all that.’ Even the devil believes God – and trembles! Discipleship is not learning about Jesus or God. Discipleship is about following Jesus. The only place we can follow Jesus is in this moment at this place.

Not in the future. Not in the past. Not when everything becomes clear. Not later when we grow up. Here and now, in all our fragility, in all the ambiguity and complexity of everyday life. Discipleship requires everyone—children, young people, adults, the elderly, the disabled—to participate and contribute as only they can. If the primary purpose of scriptural engagement was to extract doctrines, creeds, principles and prescriptions for Christian living from the Bible, to ‘learn from’ it, there would be no real reason for most of us to read the Bible at all.

It would be more prudent, more efficient and even more laudable to leave the ‘specialised’ work of biblical interpretation and theology to academics and ordained clergy better equipped for the task than we. The responsibility of ‘ordinary’ Christians like me would be to accept beliefs and obey instructions transmitted by the ‘Bible specialists’ about what the Bible means and what it tells us to do. I wonder, might this be why the Bible seems to be relatively low on the agenda of many congregations and individual Christians?

Could this be why we sometimes read books about the Bible rather than engaging scripture directly ourselves? I believe that the Bible is meant to inspire us all to participate with God in transforming the world God loves. No one else has or can ever engage the Bible from our particular time and place. This means that no one can engage the Bible instead of us or for us. The authority of the Bible demands personal engagement and takes our contexts seriously. We demonstrate the Bible’s authority, not by what we believe or say about it, but in how we embody and enact its truth, in how we reflect the transforming grace of Christ through our lives in particular times and places: in other words, in discipleship.

Like discipleship, adventuring with scripture isn’t a logical linear progression from exegesis to interpretation to application. It doesn’t follow a step-by-step method but takes us back and forth, to and fro, around and about. It isn’t predictable. It takes different shapes with different scriptures and with different groups of people in different times and places. It replaces general questions such as, ‘What does this passage teach about the nature of God?’ with specific questions, ‘What is the Word of God for us today?’ ‘How then should we live?’ ‘How will we respond in this situation?’ ‘What influence for the kingdom might we exert here and now?’

Adventuring with scripture, we come to see ourselves, our worlds and our God in a different light, to see the present as it is, and to look beyond the present to imagine and live towards the world being otherwise: God’s kingdom come, God’s will done on earth as in heaven. The exciting thing is, that when the people of God begin to live this way, our lives together will anticipate and reflect the kingdom in ways that are so transparently good and so attractive that, as the prophet Zechariah imagines, people from all nations will grasp the edge of our cloak and say, ‘Hey! Let us come where you are going? For we can see that God is with you’ (Zech 8:23).

Changes of focus

Adventuring with scripture in the context of discipleship shifts our focus in several ways.

1. From a documentary we study, to a drama we participate in
Our purpose is not to impart information about the Bible so much as to facilitate experiences in which we imaginatively enter biblical worlds and return changed into our own to live as disciples. Ann volunteers in a Christian program in a primary school. The classroom teacher warned her that Robert (not his real name) sat alone so that his behaviour wouldn’t disrupt the class. On the last day of the program, the children looked at pictures of the stories they’d explored. Ann said, ‘Choose your favourite story. Put your hand on that picture, close your eyes and imagine you are back there. Remember the story, who the people were, where it happened, what happened. Choose any character in the story, except Jesus. Imagine you are that person and ask Jesus any question you like.’ When Ann asked who would like to share their questions, Robert’s was one of the first hands up but Ann was afraid of what he might say and hesitated to approach his desk. ‘Well Robert, what did you ask Jesus?’ ‘I asked him why he didn’t heal me!!’ ‘Which story are you in Robert?’ ‘You know, that one with all the arches. That pool one. You said lots and lots of people were sick but Jesus only fixed one of them. Well, I was sick too and I want to know why he didn’t heal me.’

Ann remembers her panic, ‘What do I say to this child? Oh God, it has to be right!’ She knelt in front of his desk and the words came from somewhere else, ‘Did you ask him, Robert? Did you ask Jesus?’ Ann says, ‘I have always found that children can do the hard yards, smell the smells, hear the noises, feel the waves… It’s not just putting themselves back there but putting Jesus up front in the here and now. That is somehow the greater challenge.’ How might we help people experience scripture this way?

• How might we build bridges across gaps of understanding between our world and the world of the Bible so that children can find their own roles in the drama, while still fostering sensitivity to the cultural and other distances between biblical worlds and ours?

• How might we remove obstacles that silence the story or stop us from participating in it? How might we avoid explaining or justifying stories in ways that close them down? ‘This story is about…’ ‘Jesus did this because…’ ‘This means that we should…’

• How might we create safe dialogical cultures within which all generations adventure with scripture together? How might we share our adventures without suggesting that other people follow similar paths? How might we create space, silence and stillness so that the stories are not crowded out but continue to live in our lives, as they would in an oral culture?

• How do we do all this responsibly? The Bible is not gentle or innocent literature. It has coarse language, sexual references, explicit sex, blood and guts and heaps of violence, some of it gratuitous. It’s R rated. The people of Israel were told, ‘Teach your children while they are young… Remember we were slaves in Egypt.’ Slavery was, slavery is, an R rated experience.

How might we share the stories in ways that enable children to meet the rainbow and the locust, taste the joy and the fear, feel the love and the violence, share the hope and the suffering in ways that challenge but don’t overwhelm them? How can we help children meet God through scripture without being destroyed by the experience? None of these questions have easy answers. I have noticed, however, that it is much harder for those of us who grew up with the Bible to imagine ourselves into the story as if hearing it for the first time than for those who really are hearing it for the first time.

From meta-narratives that support general theologies to particular texts in their narrative and historical contexts
In less technical terms, I am suggesting that we don’t confuse themes, stories and theologies drawn from the Bible with the Bible itself. This requires us to carefully distinguish between what the Bible says (what is actually written) and what we understand the Bible to say (the inferences or conclusions we reach from reading the written words). The three themes that controlled my early Bible reading were God always keeps his promises, God’s eternal plan never fails, and the personal salvation story of individual sin, guilt, repentance, forgiveness and salvation. Reading through lenses focused on those themes prevented scripture from engaging me and silenced large sections of the Bible that had more practical concerns: power and responsibility, human agency, freedom and hope.

This blindness prevented me from connecting my vocation with my faith and discovering the adventure of discipleship. I am not alone here. On a Christian leadership training camp, one activity involved pegging labelled flags onto a clothes line to create a time-line of the gospel story. A young woman pegged in place the flag that represented Jesus sending out the twelve disciples who proclaimed the good news and healed people everywhere (Luke 9.1-6). She stood back, bewildered: ‘But what did they have to say? How could they proclaim the good news when Jesus hadn’t died yet?’

Attending to particular texts means appreciating the genres of scripture: story, poetry, songs, testimony and so on, not scientific texts or objective accounts of historical events. It means attending to how the story is told as well as to its content. It means respecting narrative contexts and the social, historical and political worlds behind them. It means listening to the Bible’s many voices and multiple competing perspectives that argue with each other, entice us with ambiguous gaps and spaces, leave many things unsaid, and unravel many grand claims that we like to make about God. What would happen if we engaged Scripture on its own terms?

From ourselves to the world God loves.
This means centring ourselves and our experiences. Discipleship is not all about us. We are called by someone and to something greater than we are. We are to seek the kingdom first. Discipleship is not primarily about our eternal salvation or our relationship with God, important as these things are. If this sounds harsh, I found it a huge relief to discover that the universe didn’t actually revolve around me! It also brought tremendous freedom. Psalm 27 begins: The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh – My adversaries and foes – They shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, My heart shall not fear. Wonderful words. How do we read them?

I don’t know what straits the psalmist was in when he sang those words. I do know that they were found on the wall of a small room in Uganda, scrawled in lipstick by a girl locked there as a sex slave – a child engaging scripture. I do not want to suggest that children, young people and adults should not receive all the pastoral sensitivity we can muster. They have their own struggles and pains. Life can seem overwhelming sometimes. But, for all our sakes, we must not let our concerns drown out the voices of the poor. Living as we do, with our physical needs met and few immediate dangers threatening us, we can sometimes assume that the Bible promises things that only a few experience.

We forget that most biblical communities of faith were oppressed ethnic or religious minorities surrounded by tangible danger. We forget that insecurity and fear continue to shape the lives of many societies today. We assume too often that our privilege is ‘normal’ and that it provides the standard environment for discipleship. Ava, another Christian volunteer, asked year 10 to 12 students on a bush walk, ‘How do we know that God loves us?’ ‘Because our parents love us; because we have good schools, good friends, are happy and healthy; because we’ll get good jobs.’ ‘How would you know God loved you if your house burnt down, your family was killed, your friends deserted you, and life was generally horrific?’ The students couldn’t answer.

Ava’s co-leader then spoke about how he experienced God’s love as a child, even when separated from his family, even when he lost his family through the holocaust. When I retold Ava’s story to several pastors, they told me that the students’ answers were appropriate for their age and stage of faith, that children need to be taught that the world is a safe place, that it’s part of growing up to believe things for a while that you don’t believe later. I agree that as we mature we need to progress from milk to meat. But, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus, God isn’t a fiction we grow out of, and we don’t live in Disneyland. Whether through disability or illness, family breakdown, poverty, grief, or abuse, the lives of many children are coloured by pain and trauma.

I wonder, when we eliminate pain and smooth over injustice in the Bible, what room do we leave for these kids? I wonder, what implicit false messages do we give other children? Do we imply that children who suffer must deserve it somehow? Or, that maybe it isn’t a question of deserving anything, maybe God just doesn’t love them? Remember Ann’s story? She didn’t labour over the plight of the many unhealed people by the pool of Siloam. But neither did she leave them out of the story or try to explain or justify their suffering. They remained unhealed, silent, unexplained. Their story engaged Robert. Their story was his. It’s not only children who hurt if we sanitise the Bible.

After Chechnan terrorists killed school children in Beslan a few years ago, several mothers from my church wanted to talk. ‘If God doesn’t protect our children, what is the point of praying? What is the point of believing in a God that doesn’t love us?’ The Bible contains rich resources to counter myths of divine family insurance and engage issues of pain and woundedness, uncertainty, danger and vulnerability—if only we would use it. Why, I wonder, don’t our nativity plays include the wails of Rachel weeping, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more? Why don’t we, as churches, share the grief of the Hebrew slave-mothers in Egypt and the Egyptian families mourning their first-born?

Why don’t we sit, as the people of God, and attend to the pain of God, so vividly portrayed by the prophets, God’s heart torn apart by a people who claim to worship God yet ignore God’s commands and harden their hearts against their brothers and sisters, God’s children? Why, I wonder, do we ‘treat the wounds of our people carelessly, declaring, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11)? Could it be that we refuse to see wounds we do not know how to heal? How might we encourage privileged children to de-centre themselves, learn from and respond to those who experience the world from the bottomside up? Sharing human stories might be a good start.

An Adult Literacy Class in Northern Uganda told me about the activities they were involved in and what they hoped to do next. ‘How,’ I asked, ‘would they like Australians to pray?’ They shared practical concerns: that they, their husbands and children wouldn’t get malaria and diarrhoea too often or too badly, that they’d be able to save and invest wisely, that their vegetable gardens would not be attacked by pests, goats, pigs, chickens and hungry schoolboys. I was about to leave when Sarah (not her real name) whispered, ‘Pray that we can sleep at night. Pray that our hearts and souls are peaceful. Pray that our anxiety goes.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Another woman explained, ‘Our sister has been kidnapped four times. As a little girl Karamajong cattle raiders took her twice. Then the rebels came, killed her father and cut him to pieces. They took her but she escaped.’ Sarah continued: ‘When the Lord’s Resistance came, my husband only just escaped. I was taken but wasn’t killed. My eldest daughter has reached 10 years. How can I sleep at night?’ Miriam shared childhood memories and adult hopes with her Peace Building and Literacy group in Southern Sudan.

‘When I was small my mother and father said, ‘Miriam, we need to keep you safe. You will not go to school. You will stay close to us where we can look after you.’ It didn’t work. By the time I grew up I had three children and no-one knew who their fathers were. Pray that our children can go to school AND be safe. Pray that I can look after my children the way my parents wanted to look after me.’ Sarah and Miriam cannot read. That doesn’t mean they don’t engage scripture. They live with its stories and sing its songs. The Bible story, the gospel story, is their story.

From doctrine to discipleship
This means engaging scripture to respond rather than to know, moving our focus from answers about what Christians believe (doctrine) to questions about how we live (the action reflection process of discipleship). This need not, and cannot, exclude children and young adults. Children are not powerless. They are not dumb. Certainly, as children mature their emotional resilience and the sophistication of their analyses can and should develop. However, even small children can begin to think about how they and their families are privileged or influential, how their interests and inclinations might affect what they see and how they see it, and what influence they, their families, churches and schools might exert where and how.

Our context is difficult – I live in Australia. Developed nations worry about childhood obesity and terrorism. We often use, on average, more energy and produce more waste than any country except the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, and Kuwait. Our divorce, depression and suicide rates are among the highest in the world. Australians, on average, live in larger houses with fewer people in them than ever before. How do we adventure with scripture in a world where 20 percent of the world, including us, consume 85 percent of the world’s resources?

How might we equip children and young people to join with us in negotiating responses to scripture that take our contemporary contexts seriously? Adventuring with scripture is dangerous. Like Christians who supported slavery, we will make mistakes. We can reduce the risk of misadventure by engaging scripture in community; listening to other voices – especially those who disagree with us; asking the Holy Spirit to help discern what God would have us do and what not; and being humble enough to realise that when convinced we are right, we might be wrong. That’s sobering. It’s also exciting. Adventuring with scripture in the context of discipleship is risky, political, world-changing stuff. Do we trust ourselves enough? Do you trust children and other adults enough? Do you trust the Spirit enough to adventure with Him?

© 2006 Deborah Storie.

This article was first presented as a talk for Scripture Union Australia’s Encore Conference, March 2006: Adventuring with Scripture – Rediscovering the Bible and Discipleship.