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After thirty years of teaching at Hope College, I’ve learned a lot from my students.

On woman wrote about reading Romans 16: “I grew up in the faith. I attended church and Bible studies. I interned in a church. It’s astonishing that I never learned about Phoebe or Tabitha or any other examples of women’s leadership!”

After reading the horrific story of rape and escalating warfare in Judges 19-21, a student wrote: “I feel really guilty for having doubts and confusing thoughts, but it seems like God is sort of absent for a lot of these stories. He almost moves his chess pieces and then leaves for a while to let it play out.”

I wrote in response: “I have more concerns about people who can read this awful stuff and NOT be skeptical.”

A few of my students know something about the Bible. Usually they have attended Christian schools. Most of my students know almost nothing. Perhaps they experienced Children and Worship when they were small. Perhaps they have watched some Veggie Tales videos or colored Joseph’s coat or tried to imagine Jesus walking on the water. All of these are great experiences for seven-year-olds.

Teenagers are learning calculus and physics and taking Advanced Placement courses in literature, psychology, and history, but in church, they do not learn about the complexities of the Bible. They don’t know that there are two creation stories in Genesis 1-2. They don’t know about the complicated family values in Genesis. They don’t know that the heroic figures of Moses and David had messy lives. They don’t know about the women in the Bible.

I recognize the challenges of getting teens to Sunday School. I’ve seen the eye-rolling and the sullen stares. I wonder if some of their resistance is simply that they are bored. What if they saw how weird the Bible was? What if they were challenged both intellectually and spiritually? What if they could ask honest questions without fear of judgment? What if they could encounter the complexity and mystery of Scripture without easy answers?

A teen curriculum might start with the book of Genesis. What are the differences between the creation stories? Why are there two creation stories? What are they saying? The students are studying biology and physics. How do they think about the interplay between creation and evolution?

Look carefully at the families in Genesis. Why does Sarah give Hagar to Abraham? Does Hagar consent to that? Jacob has children with two wives and two maids. Dinah is a complicated story about (lack of?) consent and male control of a woman’s sexuality. Tamar sleeps with her father-in-law and is pronounced righteous. Joseph is assaulted by Mrs. Potiphar. If you read these stories with the teenagers, I suspect they will be paying attention! These stories are ugly, difficult, meaningful, and relevant!

Many biblical stories do not possess an obvious moral lesson. Sometimes the Bible shows us what NOT to do. Biblical characters often made the wrong choices, as we all do. Too often they are portrayed as one-dimensional heroes and it is difficult to identify with them. Seeing them in all their complexity and messiness might make it easier to connect with the characters and see their lives in relationship to our own.

One of my students recalled that when he was in confirmation class in middle school, he asked some questions. The pastor took offense, asked him to leave the class, and told his parents, who insisted he write a letter of apology to the pastor.

When I was in high school, I read through the Bible in a year. (I was a geek already at sixteen). I wrote a list of questions in the back of my copy of The Living Bible, and when I finished, I went to see my pastor, Alvin Hospers. He patiently listened, answered most of the questions, and said a few times that he didn’t know. He did not dumb down his answers or demonstrate the slightest hint of criticism or shame. He honored my curiosity and my intellect. He provided a safe space for me to engage with the Bible.

How might we give the teenagers in our churches the same safe space in which to learn about the Bible in all its complexity? If we did, I suspect that some adults in the church might want to attend also!

Lynn Japinga

Lynn Japinga teaches religion and women’s studies at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In her spare time, she enjoys swimming, weight training, reading, and walking her stubborn but affectionate grand-dog, Wrigley.


  • Lynn, I love this. More questions, more wrestling, fewer answers. I think this is what teens, and all of us need. And I remember being your student and how I grew from that permission to struggle! Thank you!

  • Shar Karsten says:

    These are the very same thoughts I have been having recently. Years of Christian schools, Sunday school, church twice every Sunday, numerous ‘Bible studies’ and still, the knowledge I had of scripture was surface only. Now that I have time to spend more time reflecting on Scripture, reading authors who have delved deeply into the culture of that time, I have new understandings that have greatly enriched my life. I am more fully aware of the mystery that is God. We have tried too long to put God in a box. I pray we will find new ways to teach us how to engage with scripture.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank-you. Honest, heart-breaking, and important.

  • Dawn Alpaugh says:

    All the questions we (adults) asked and discussed in your class. And you honored every one. It’s such an important part of our faith, the questions, the not knowing, the new discoveries, along the way. I always think that God is pleased we care enough to wonder and ask.

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Don’t you suspect some of the politically flavored brands of Christianity thrive only because otherwise intelligent people simply don’t read the Bible? It’s easy to call Abraham a patriarch with undertones of reverence until you read what a cad he could be, and how the stories about him defined the place of women in the emerging Israeli culture. And if his behavior wasn’t bad enough, Lot lowered the bar about as far as it could go. From my first reading of the story I was perturbed God turned Lot’s poor wife into a pillar of salt, when he clearly was a more deserving candidate. Part of the problem come from the pulpit. Too often congregants hear pastors repeatedly proclaim “This is the Word of Gods. Praise be to God,” or “Listen to the Word of God,” or “Thanks be to God for the Book that We Love.” We get lulled into believing the ancient stories were written by the finger of God, rather than a collection of writings written by gifted story tellers some 2600 years ago in a culture we scarcely understand, telling tales of a tribal family some 3500 years ago growing and emerging into a People and a Nation. We’d do our youth a great service teaching them early on that the Bible is filled with some imaginative stories. Some great, some good, but some quite ugly. Read them as best you can through the eyes of people living long ago in far different cultures. It really is a Good Book. We’ve just failed to teach followers how to read it.

  • Duncan MacLean says:

    I needed to read this today. Thank you.

  • Tony and Deanna Vis says:


    My wife, Deanna, and I just finished reading this powerful post. We were especially delighted to see your story about your high school pastor, Alvin Hospers. Alvin is Deanna’s uncle. Her dad and Alvin were brothers. Dee just wanted you to know that the story was no surprise to her. That is the uncle she knew and loved. Thank you.

  • RZ says:

    This is such a great prompt and following are great responses. We are hungry for this dialogue! If only we could give the scriptures their due wonder rather than such a shallow defense. Dale’s ” word of God” description is a good place to start. The “nones” I know would still be with us if they had experienced the sentiments expressed here. Thank you all!

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Amen to this, and to all the replies. When I taught confirmation I told the students that first and foremost I gave them credit for being able to think. In my view, I big part of the problem in debates among people of faith is their assumption about what the Bible is FOR. (Not merely material for supporting arguments.) Your brief description of its origins would help a lot of folks consider new ideas, if they could let go of the idea of divine dictation. Thanks for a well written piece worth sharing and discussing.

  • Gail Ebersole says:

    Thank you Lynn for this! You could put into words what I could only wonder about. After over 40 years working with Young Life and InterVarsity, I thought about this all the time. I’ve actually thrown away all my YL talks and videos!

    I have been grateful for those who have made me think more deeply about all of this. Some WTS profs, Eugene Peterson.

    I know you are definitely right about the questions younger people ask and they would like answers or at least admit I don’t know. I think this is one of the problems with younger people not going to church today but a wonderful and exciting time to walk along these same young adults who are asking the “right questions “! Probably questions we all wanted to ask but maybe were afraid to ask!
    Blessings to you! We met in Albany at General Synod when I was a student delegate!

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Fabulous. Thanks for this, Lynn.

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