Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The New Testament (Meet the Ancient World 9)

I'll say it, so you don't have to: Our study of the New Testament was lame. Lame, lame, lame.

Actually, it was worse than lame, for it left my kids profoundly upset.

It was a lovely summer afternoon, and the hammock beckoned. I figured I'd read Nini and Desmond about the birth of Jesus from one of our children's Bibles, and soon give some more thought about how to proceed.

But once we'd read the story of Jesus' birth, the kids wanted to hear more. And more. He gathered His disciples, performed His miracles, and the kids got more and more engrossed. "Keep reading, Mommy!" they declared, each time I proposed to put the book down for the day.

I warned them that something really bad was going to happen to Jesus, and they might not want to hear it all in one sitting. "Keep reading!" So, stupidly, I did, all the way through Jesus's arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Stunned silence ensued. Here the kids had discovered this remarkably appealing protagonist, full of love and magic and good deeds, and he died gruesomely. I talked about how Christians understand it as a hopeful tale, with the resurrection as not just as a happy ending but as the centerpiece of their faith. Desmond acted like this made him feel better, but I could tell otherwise.

From that point forward, the kids refused to discuss Jesus or the New Testament at all; they just shut down.

Obviously, I screwed up. I tried to remember way back to the Methodist Sunday School of my childhood: What, if anything, were we taught about the crucifixion? Was it all just baby Jesus in the manger and adult Jesus performing miracles and preaching love? Can't recall.

So all I can say is, Don't follow my example. And if you have thoughts about approaches or resources for teaching the New Testament to the very young in a non-proselytizing, important-slice-of-world-culture way, please please share.


  1. Well, I am Christian, so I haven't really approached it from an agnostic approach before. But it seems you want to teach your children the story and tell them why some people feel the way they do about it, regardless of whether you agree with what they believe about it. So, here's my point of view... we teach our kids that Jesus died. We are very sad that he had to die this way, but we are so happy he died for us, because his death made resurrection possible. And because of this, we can be with our Heavenly Father again, and we can see our family and friends after they/we die, and be together forever as a family, when this life is over for us. This is what we believe and what we teach our children. You can tell yours that that is what some people believe, and that is why even though we're sad he died the way he did, we are so grateful to him because we believe he died for us, and because he did that, we can all be together forever.

  2. Thanks, Heather -- it's very helpful to read your perspective. I will definitely be revisiting the New Testament with my kids ... after I've given them a little more time for the trauma to fade.

  3. Because Clarissa is so ultra super sensitive...I gloss over the death on the cross part right now. Right now I kind of "glide" on to he's in heaven with Grandpa Skoog, etc. But we do teach like Heather suggested. Give your kids time, that's a shock to their little systems. If they are anything like Clarissa, they don't deal well with the bad ugly parts of the world (ie Jesus death on a cross). Shelve it for now, but revisit it when they are older. Even though they are 6 they are a newly turned six and sound like my little Miss sensitivity. There's time enough when they are older to get into it.

  4. This reminds me of an NPR story about a man whose young daughter asked what Christmas was about and he told her about Jesus, the nice man who told people to love each other. "And what happened to that nice man?" she asked. "Well, they killed him." A few months later it was Martin Luther King, Jr. day and his daughter asked what it was about. And he answered that MLK was a man who taught that people should love each other. "And did they kill that nice man?" she asked.

    I don't have any advice...I made a similar gaffe with Shakespeare. I decided to put a children's Shakespeare tape on for my 5 year old daughter at bedtime...Romeo and Juliet! Half an hour later she crawled into my bed sobbing. "Why did you put that on for me? It was a very sad story!" A couple days later she came running to me, very concerned, saying, "Mom! I'm listening to MacBeth and I think it is another one of those tragedies!" She went on to listen to them many times and got over her initial sadness.

  5. I think in my church the death part was glossed over somewhat--we were told very little about how he died--and instead the resurrection was stressed. We were told that dying was like going to sleep, and so he slept for two days and came back to life on the third. I don't know if that helps now, but I know I was a pretty sensitive kid and the death part never bothered me too much, because there was a happy ending. We never read it straight from the Bible, either, though, so the fact that he was PUT to death may also have been glossed over a bit at first.

  6. Jesus himself spoke these wise words about his death only days prior to the crucifixion....

    “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will remain a single seed. But if it dies, it will produce many grains of wheat. For whoever will find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. If anyone would serve me, they must follow me. They must follow me in death “

    I know, I know... not something you could just read to your kids and have them go "oh, now I get it." Heck, most adults read that and they don't "get it".

    But the comfort for me was learning the process of seeds being able to "give life." I never knew that the seeds had to die first. Somehow, it is less tragic for a seed to die than our beloved Jesus, but perhaps the concept could bring some comfort?

    And by no means did you fail in sharing this story with your children!! You have told them about Jesus! Where could there ever be failure in that?? Truth is, we all face our pain and disappointment regarding his cruel death. There just isn't any way to candy-coat the truth where Christ's death is concerned.

    Keep up the good work in teaching your kids and keep that dialogue going as they process the info and how they feel about it. Best of luck to you!

  7. Furthermore, Bruno Bettelheim would point out that, even if it bummed them out, their wheels were turning, and it was a good thing.

    Many of the religious stories are unbearably sad. Balder and Hoder! I weep every dang time! But they're worthy nonetheless. Disney is regularly vilified for confronting issues of parents and death and sadness and loss and all that, but they're right on the mark. They simply know how to tap into powerful currents that our current make-all-Earth-kid-friendly ethos doesn't allow for.

    I remember being taught all about it in Sunday school and VBS and Mission Friends and RAs. (Oh yes, my friends.) And I don't remember that it scarred me — but it did give me a vocabulary for such things.

    I remember then, as a teen, seeing "Last Temptation of Christ" when it came out, and, because of my frank religious education, coming to the opposite conclusion of some of my religious friends: no, it wasn't sexy *enough*. Scorsese, Italian that he is, gave us a Southern Renaissance view of the crucifixion and therefore a Southern Renaissance view of the temptation itself (which was, as you recall, to come down off the cross and lead a normal life).

    A Northern Renaissance guy — Vermeer, maybe — could paint a glowing portrait of everyday life, hanging out, fixing dinner, playing with the kids. But old Scorsese just couldn't make it look as beautiful and in fact tempting as the crucifixion. After all, who wants to be an ordinary schlub with love and happiness, when you can sacrifice it all to die alone for the sins of all mankind on a windswept hilltop, bloody-faced, with a full orchestral score blaring?

    That vision of the crucifixion, and in general of Jesus's death at the hands of everyone (hypocritical religious leaders, craven politicians, occupying soldiers, the fickle crowd screaming for blood — we're all in there), is a vision that is central to our understanding of Western culture. It's a foundation for everything from Harry Potter and His Dark Materials to Speed and 24, and on and on.

    All this is something that, by necessity, a child can't articulate, and wouldn't find any value in articulating, but that's Bettelheim's point: it's in there. So, good for you!

  8. In our Sunday school, usually the trial and death of Jesus is covered in the context of the why (ie discussion of what is sin and the consequences etc). So that's a possible approach if you want to revisit it.

    In terms of other ideas:

    Have you read the Narnia series yet? Also, I can strongly recommend the Story Keeper video series. Told from the perspective of a band of persecuted early Christians living under the Romans, they tell the stories of the New Testament while staying very close to the gospel of Mark text.

  9. Glad I found your site. Just starting on the Homeschooling wagon with my 4 year old and 1 year old daughter. We live in the country and will be doing a lot of outdoor activities and always feel jealous of homeschool families in New York ( we used to live in Brooklyn). Now, we know we will start doing some field trips to the big city starting next year. Will keep reading you.