Is The Bible Too Violent For Children?
I have been reflecting lately about the place of the bible in my life. I was exposed to the bible, in a great deal of detail, from a young age. It was part of the warp and woof of life for as long as I can remember. Most importantly, it gave me tools to cope with pain and undeserved suffering, both my own and others.
The bible was long, with plenty of storylines leading here, there and nowhere, but taken all together, the whole story had a wonderful cohesion, a comforting rhythm. I think even from childhood I sensed that the bible was like an individual life: full of confusing events, disappointments, and seeming dead ends, but a tale that from some later perspective would turn out fraught with meaning, every confusing bit of it. The history of Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, the Hebrews enslavement in Egypt, the great escape to the Promised Land, the Babylonian captivity, and the coming at last of the Messiah was an illustration to me that no matter how confusing life gets, a larger story exists. Something better must lie ahead. I had no doubt that the entire world, and my life too, would end in the eternal kingdom of Jesus, where He would set everything right. Every pain we had, back to that initial loss of the Garden, would find comfort and relief in that newfound world.
Some of the reasons I took the bible the way I did may be explained by my background. By the time I was 10 my mother had been through a psychotic break, a suicide attempt and a nervous breakdown; my father had returned from the Viet Nam War with a bad case of post traumatic stress syndrome; my cousin was in prison for murdering a neighborhood girl. Perhaps the stories of loss, longing for home, and death in the bible helped me process my own feelings. I also wasn’t shocked by the violence in the old Bronze Age tales; in fact, the stories resonated comfortingly with my own experiences. Cain got angry at Abel and killed him, the way my cousin George had that poor girl. Perhaps some children might be frightened reading about what Cain did to Abel; I felt sympathy for Adam and Eve’s grief, and happiness with them when the new baby Seth came along. Family violence was terrible, but life continued. Good things could still happen.
The Bible helped me maintain hope
The bible, or perhaps simply this sense of a larger narrative that I had absorbed through reading the bible from beginning to end, helped me through the first serious existential crisis of my life. It happened in 1977, when I watched Alex Haley’s miniseries Roots on television. I was 10 years old. Mom and I were both very excited about Roots, which was a big deal at the time. My bedtime was put on hold for us to sit together on the floor in front of our TV.
I still remember the moment of my crisis. Kunta Kinte had been captured and chained in the hold of the vessel which would carry him to America, and as that ship’s prow cut the ocean my heart sank. I realized simultaneously that something Really Bad just happened, and that since this was a true story, that meant God hadn’t stopped the Really Bad. I hit the theological conundrum of bad things happening to good people which causes many to question the nature of God or even whether he exists, and I had all the nuance and sophistication of a 10 year old to deal with it. But a moment later the dilemma was solved, either by God’s help or by the help of a thought process made possible by hours of pouring over biblical tales of wanderers, outcasts and misunderstood prophets. I realized that Kunte Kinte was on his way to America, where he would begin the family that would eventually include the author of Roots, who would become not only a best selling writer, but would bring the story of Kunta Kinte to the world. Immediately the thought settled into my brain that although Kunta Kinte was suffering now, greater things were ahead of him. The slave ship no longer held the terror it had a moment ago.
Like Kunta Kinte, my life had been hijacked by powerful, exploitive forces. I was trapped inside the dark ship of my parents’ mental illness, carried I could only guess where. But I had learned from reading the bible that the arc of the story is long, but it bends towards justice. I think I sensed that no matter what the world stole, a way existed to reclaim one’s own. Kunta Kinte lost his family and his freedom. I lost my father’s presence entirely, and my mother on and off to hospitalizations. I knew things were awful for Kunta Kinte, and things were bad for me. But believing in his future on that evening in 1977, believing that he could endure, was my way of believing in me.
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