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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!