Children’s Ministry, the Bible, and Seinfeld

Here’s an excerpt from a recent writing project with Ivy Beckwith:

In the late 1990s, Dave became a die-hard Seinfeld fan. Every Thursday evening, he would gather together with his family, flip on the tube, and laugh as Jerry freaked out about his new girlfriend’s pea-eating habits or George turned the space under his desk into an office napping station. But since he only became interested in the series in the last few of its nine seasons, he had to catch up on what he’d missed by watching reruns of the show. Since most of these reruns were aired out of order, he was able to enjoy the jokes embedded in a particular episode, but the overall plot of the series continued to be choppy, unclear, and full of holes. It wasn’t until Seinfeld was released on DVD a number of years later that he was able to find episodes that he had missed, watch the series in consecutive order, and gain a sense of the larger storyline. He realized that the jokes he thought were only in one episode actually recurred and developed over time. He started to understand more about the characters as they developed over nine years. What were once individual, isolated shows became parts of an overarching story. And when Dave understood this greater narrative, the entire series took on more meaning.

In an admittedly shallow way, the Bible is like Seinfeld. It contains several different stories that are enveloped in an overarching narrative of God’s interactions with humanity. While it is possible to understand some things about God by simply learning parts of the story, greater truth and deeper understanding comes from being aware of the larger story.

Too often, children’s ministry offers young people with different, age-appropriate episodes of God’s story without helping them to understand it as a coherent whole. (Although one wonders if stories of murder, genocide, war, and sex are really “age-appropriate—we’re speaking, of course, about the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, and David and Bathsheba). When offered as stand-alone stories, the Bible can easily become a rigid reference for how to live a Christian life. Each story brings a moral or a point (we’ll talk more about this in the next chapter). Ivy has called this the Aesop-fableization of the Bible. And even though this choppy rerun-based approach to teaching the Bible might help children learn to obey their parents, to share their toys, and even that Jesus died for their sins, these lessons and morals remain shallow.

A recent mainstream children’s ministry blog took those of us who talk about the Bible as God’s story to task. The blogger was making the point that children understand stories to be tales that aren’t true or that are fanciful, arguing that stories are fiction and the Bible is non-fiction. The blogger said that when speaking of a Bible story, we should never use the word story but we should instead say, “In the Bible, it says” or something else along these lines. This would ensure that children would understand that what is in the Bible is true. But we hold to a broader notion of truth. Truth involves more than just whether a piece of writing is fiction or non-fiction, whether the events in the Bible actually happened or not. Truth is in how a story speaks to our human condition and how it works to transform us. This type of truth exists in the episodes that make up grand epic of God’s story.

When the Bible is offered to children as the overarching story of God’s interactions with humanity—one that includes many different episodes—these shorter lessons and points are infused with larger meaning and truth. Children can learn that obeying their parents isn’t as simple as it sounds, for God is their divine parent, as well as their parents’ divine parent, so they ought to honor their parents and God—and struggle with what to do when honouring one means going against the guidance of the other. Learning to share one’s toys becomes part of the overarching theme of love that is woven throughout God’s story—love not only for the neighbour, but also for the stranger and for enemies. And Jesus’ death is understood in more complex and nuanced ways—as the result of threats to the status quo, the attempted (and failed) triumph of violence over peace, and God’s ultimate love for humanity.

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