My son, three years old, loves Samson. He loves Goliath, too. If it were up to him, our nightly ‘Bible time’ would consist entirely of repeated readings of those two stories. He would probably have on occasion to yield to the wishes of my daughter, his senior by two years, who would queue up either Jonah or the Good Samaritan. All in all, if my children were in charge of ‘Bible time’, we would only ever cover a tiny portion of their children’s Bible, which already omits the larger part of Scripture, and reduces severely even the bits it includes. Notice, too, that in none of these stories is Jesus named, accept that the Good Samaritan is a story told by Jesus. So in one of four Bible lessons Jesus is the narrator, in the other three he doesn’t appear at all. Jonah’s preaching isn’t half bad, but still, obviously this won’t do.
On top of that, I note a few additional deficiencies of children’s Bibles in general. Illustrations, first of all, wield a strong influence on the impression a child retains of a character or event or context. When David arrives at the battle lines to bring food to his brothers, he is often portrayed as docile, fragile, even weak and vulnerable, like the sheep he keeps. Indeed David is called “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1), but this is not for the way he carries himself but for turn of lyrical phrase—his artistry. So these illustrations of a sheepish David are misleading, and find no support in the text at all. (Saul says only “you are but a youth,” and David’s self-description as one who has killed lions and bears to protect his sheep does not do much for those cheesy pictures, either.)
Jesus, too, is always pictured with unwarranted ethnic specificity and a spacey smile hinting not at profound obedient resolve but naiveté and helplessness. He looks more like a mindless, nonsense-peddling spiritual guru than a man about to face with unbending hope in the justice of God His own painful murder at the hands of evil men. I think his character, in the illustrations at least, evokes pity more than trust, if I didn’t know better from reading better renditions.
The fact remains that the Lord gave us words and commended spoken testimony as the primary means of conveying the gospel, even to children. At several points Moses instructs Israel to explain the history of God’s mighty deeds to their children. This teaching should accompany the repeated observance of the Passover meal—so there are sensible aspects to it, as there are in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But these are sacraments, and not portraits of the Lord Himself. And I think visual representations of Jesus in particular must take the second commandment seriously—and children’s Bibles ought to be no exception. (See this post for example.)
A second issue I have with some children’s Bibles is that the writing is more given to cleverness than to communication of the content of Scripture, like a youth pastor who fears he is not cool enough and so tries much too hard to ‘connect’. In such cases both diagnosis and remedy display a wayward paradigm, and the result is both an insult to the young and culpable disconnect with Scripture. Cool is not the need; Jesus, as He is given in Scripture, is what is needed.
Of the several children’s Bibles we own, The Jesus Storybook Bible is best at conveying sections of Scripture (though mostly narrative) while also teaching that Scripture has its historical and theological unity in Christ. The writing is ok, and—supposing we can live with it—the illustrations are clever and tasteful. The Biggest Story got my hopes up with a catchy subtitle: “How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden.” Of course “back to the garden” is bad eschatology, but the fact that the subtitle is overtly biblical-theological was appealing. In the end, this one is a mixed bag: the writing is very disappointing (tries too hard and ends up confusing), but the illustrations—supposing . . . you know—are beautiful. Too bad. The Beginner’s Bible might be the most popular. I’ve seen it everywhere, in many languages. The writing is clear and simple and the stories are told (reduced from the original) as well as you may expect. It is for the very young reader, though, so at this point we visit it only occasionally (the first one mentioned above doesn’t include Samson!). The illustrations here, in my view, say far too much. They are very effective in the sense that the kids love them; but again I worry that some of them mislead. A colorful picture of a storm at sea is one thing; but those pictures of Jesus get on my nerves, truth be told. The other thing is that the writing makes no attempt to connect the selected narratives with their fulfillment in Christ. What you really have then is an episodic anthology of sparsely narrated illustrations of your favorite Bible heroes. Lame—but on the other hand, so much evangelical preaching is only a verbally upgraded version of the same. These days you even sometimes get PPT with your proclamation of the Word; in case your thinking wasn’t already lazy enough, here’s some more screen time for you.
Back to the point—children’s Bibles are already heavily reduced versions of the inspired Word of God, and if I left it up to my kids we would only read about Samson, David and Goliath, Jonah, and the Good Samaritan, and maybe every now and then about baby Jesus. So, sorry, but I do not let my kids choose their nightly Bible story. I tell them that God already chose, and that we should read what he gave us to read. Still, almost every night they ask; still, almost every night I remind them that we have to read whatever story comes next, so that we aren’t reading only what we want to read but what God wants us to read.
God is not only the author of the Bible; he is the author of life. So, following the pattern set down by the author applies on a broader plane as well, but it is especially important for reading and preaching Scripture. If you’re building some Ikea furniture, you don’t follow only the steps you like; if your professor assigns chapters 1-10, you don’t read chapters 2 and 3 over and over and expect to do well on the exam; if the recipe calls for flour, eggs, and milk, you can’t leave the flour out because you don’t see the point; and so on. A diet designed according to taste will not be a healthy one. Like a diet of candy canes: initially satisfying but ultimately growth-stunting, they say. Folks raised on such stuff will be malnourished, their growth uneven, and their ability to endure trial and difficulty dubious.
Many pastors claim that since last Sunday God led them to preach this or that passage, or to preach this or that message. They say this because the selection looks pretty much random, so some explanation helps bolster credibility: ‘No, it’s not haphazard; it’s from God’. I think such claims are not only false but dangerous, because effectively the canon of Scripture (designed by God) is replaced with a canon of private, unverifiable, subjective selectivity (one person’s ungoverned inclinations). As I noted in an earlier post, this puts the pastor on the level of the authors of Scripture, and that is pretty much the definition of a cult.
Lectuo continua, Latin for ‘continuous reading’, is the idea that a church should be led through the text of Scripture sequentially: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, etc. I’ve just indicated more or less the theological rationale for this: God is the author of Scripture, so we should work through the text as he has delivered it to us. If you wouldn’t select from a recipe only the ingredients you feel led to include or follow only the steps you feel like following, what excuse could there possibly be for treating the Bible this way?
The alternative is to select your own passages to preach from week to week. It may look as though there is no pattern, no system, no thought process connecting the passage from one week to the passage for the following week. But that is just the point: no one can see the connections between the selections. No one can see connections not because they aren’t there, but because they originate in the heart and the mind of the person selecting; they are subjective and secret, untested and untestable. In other words, if your pastor selects a different passage each week without following any identifiable structure, then you can do this: list the passages that he or she has chosen with the sermon titles or emphases he or she has preached, and you will get this: what he (or she) thinks, believes, and wants to say, a kind of personal spiritual journey pieced together from the words of the Bible. You will not get this: an objective pattern of the exposition of Scripture according to Scripture’s own structure and controlling center, the gospel of Christ. In other words, does your pastor use the Bible to proclaim a selective reduction of Christian-like things, or does he put himself to use in the service of Holy Scripture, preaching and proclaiming the gospel according to the Word of God? What do you think you’re getting at church: the Word of God or spiritual autobiography in the second person imperative?
Lectuo continua does not mean that we have to begin with Genesis 1 and proceed at a steady pace to Rev 22. It does not mean that the Table of Contents is inspired, canonical Scripture. It means that the structure of Scripture should set the structure of preaching and teaching. So, studying a letter of Paul, or a book of Moses, and understanding it in its historical and literary context, and above all within its place in the history of redemption—these are the basic components of biblical interpretation, and so for preaching, too.
So the point is not necessarily in what order passages are preached, but that the passages are preached as God has given them. I read once a theologian saying this: the pulpit should not drive you to the text; the text should drive you to the pulpit. That means that we don’t use the Bible to preach, but that we are diligent, studious, faithful and obedient, in being used by the Bible to present Christ to His people.