Sharing Scripture with Children
Andrew Boyd · October 16, 2012
Andrew interviews Mat. Jenny Mosher about how to properly teach children the Bible.
Andrew Boyd: Hello, and welcome to the first episode of From My Youth: ideas and resources for those working with youth and campus ministries. I’m your host, Andrew Boyd, director of youth, young adult, and campus ministries for the Orthodox Church in America. It is our hope to bring you a new and exciting resource every episode. To that end, please join me in welcoming Matushka Jenny Mosher. Say hi, Matushka!
Matushka Jenny Mosher: Hi, Andrew!
Mr. Boyd: Mat. Jenny was born in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and American mother, and moved to Connecticut as a teenager. She has a B.A. In Church history from Yale University; a Master’s in religion, focusing on the study of Scripture from the Yale Divinity School; and a Master’s of Theology in systematic theology in ethics from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. She is married to Fr. Joshua Mosher, who is the present rector of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Meriden, Connecticut. They have three sons: Elias, who is 13; Ephraim, who’s nine; and Alban, who’s eight. She works part-time as a grants officer for FOCUS North America. She also does research in writing and speaking and publishing on the place of children in the Orthodox tradition. She has taught church school on and off for almost 20 years and worked in curriculum development. She is deeply interested in how we transmit the faith to children, especially how we share Scripture with them, and it is on this topic that we will be speaking today. Welcome, Matushka.
Mat. Jenny: Thank you.
Andrew Boyd: It’s great to have you here.
Matushka Jenny Mosher: It’s great to be here.
Andrew Boyd: So how would you talk about Scripture generally? What is Scripture?
Matushka Jenny Mosher: Well, probably the most important thing to acknowledge about Scripture is that tradition has always taught it’s the word of God. In some ways that means it’s connected in a way we don’t really understand with the person of Jesus, whom we also call the Word. In that way, it’s obviously hugely central to the faith, but in a more everyday sort of semantic fashion, Scripture is essentially a bunch of texts, most of which are stories. They’re written in a certain way, and that certain way has been preserved throughout the ages as particularly important. It’s gotten used in lots of different formats. We’ve used it in theology, we’ve used it in the Liturgy, but we still also have the Bible itself.
When we are confronted with kids and transmitting the Scripture to kids, often people start to feel insecure how exactly to do that, so that question, how we pass on the Bible and the stories of the Bible to kids with integrity, is really what a lot of my work centers around.
Mr. Boyd: On a technical-language level, how does Scripture work?
Mat. Jenny: Scripture works by the phenomenon [that], like lots of literature, frankly, the words matter. The way the words are put together matter, and the stories themselves generate particular meanings. But the cool thing about Scripture is that you might be able to generate certain meanings from one story, but you might have another story in another part of the Scripture that resonates with that other story, and across the books we get deeper meanings. When we have a story in one part of the Bible that has a reference to a story in another part of the Bible, often those stories mean more, because, somehow, the tradition wants them to be related to each other and leaves clues in each place for us to figure that out.
Mr. Boyd: What would be an example of that?
Mat. Jenny: An example of that would be something like the story of Noah, in which the flood happens, and it happens in the story that it takes forty days and forty nights. There’s all sorts of stories in the Bible that have references to forty days and forty nights: Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast for forty days and forty nights. Once you get into the levitical stuff, there’s also tons more.
The tradition notices these things and basically says these things are related for that reason. It’s important for those markers to be in those places so that we are made aware of that.
Mr. Boyd: That it’s one whole story. It’s not all divided up separately.
Mat. Jenny: Exactly. You see us using that fact when, for instance, we get to something like the blessing of water on Theophany. All of a sudden the Church pulls together all sorts of stories. What is technically the celebration of Jesus’ baptism, all of a sudden you’ve got Noah, we’ve got the Israelites passing through the Red Sea; we’ve got all these different references that feed into that celebration and just make it so much more rich, of Jesus stepping into the Jordan.
Mr. Boyd: We have that repetitive theme often in our prayers. Especially at the blessing of the water, you hear, “As the God who did this here,” and they’ll name a biblical story, “as that same God, do it also here and now,” right in our lives.
Mat. Jenny: Exactly, and the technical term for that, in academic study, is typology, where you see things echoed across the way. Obviously, when we talk to kids we don’t talk about typology, but kids notice. They notice the resonances, if the resonances are blessed for them to find. They notice the resonances between stories, and it can lead them into understanding the stories many ways, too.
Mr. Boyd: You’ve taught church school; I’ve taught church school. We both know that the one thing that most church school programs need that they don’t have is time. We’re always pressed for time, and we have so much to teach and so much to impart because of the richness of our faith. Why should we prioritize Scripture when there are so many other things we also need to impart to our children—our history, our saints, our traditions, our sacraments, our dogmas, iconography? There’s so much volume of things to teach. Why should we prioritize Scripture?
Mat. Jenny: I think everyone could agree that an understanding of Scripture makes your understanding of all those other things so much greater, so much more thorough. Basically, all the other aspects of the tradition have roots in Scripture and in the scriptural stories. If we can give our children that foundation in the Scripture, then all those other things, there are going to be times when it’s going to be appropriate and good to talk about: the bishop, when he comes to visit. How much better, how much more do we have to work with when we have our kids already grounded in a really sophisticated understanding of what worship was in the Old Testament period and the richness of it?
We don’t do this for nothing. When we vest the bishop, you hear all this Scripture, and if the kids have some sort of sense of where that comes from, and not just sort of a random, trivia-like sense—“Oh, yeah, that comes from the Old Testament”—but a real, narrative reality unfolds behind it for them. This is the history of the people of God; this is another episode in that. What better experience? As an adult I feel that, and for kids we want to be able to open that door for them as well.
Mr. Boyd: To make them part of that story the same way they see links between Noah’s forty days and forty nights and Christ’s forty days and forty nights, they also see that link continue on into their own reality here and now.
Mat. Jenny: Exactly. That’s why we have forty days and forty nights. That’s what Scripture does and has always done for the people who hold it as Scripture: to show that God is acting in history, here and here and here. He doesn’t always do the exact same thing, but the sense you get is clear and sort of weaves through all these different lives and all these different people. What we want children to know is that it can weave through their lives, too, and for them to be able to see themselves as a continuation of that structure. It’s really important.
Mr. Boyd: The problem is, I think, at least the intimidating part of teaching kids Scripture is that so often we look at the text directly and it can be kind of intimidating to try to relate what the text is directly saying to children, especially in the Old Testament. Are there good ways that we can adapt biblical stories for our kids?
Mat. Jenny: Sure. For one thing, especially in America, we have all sorts of insecurities about Scripture, because on the one hand we have a good proportion of the population that are scriptural literalists, and then on the other hand we have a good proportion of the population that are essentially trying to deconstruct Scripture into meaninglessness. So we’re like: “Where do we sit?” I think that really the most sensible thing, and we start with it from a practical point of view, but once you look into it you see that actually this is the advice you’d find in the Church Fathers as well, is the most important thing is to just introduce the children to the stories as stories, and to tell them stories in a way that engages them and really captures their imagination and causes them to remember them. Those are the most important elements for youngest children in our care.
In some ways, that leaves all those issues to the side. We’re dealing with it as a story as opposed to trying to figure out exactly what the meanings should be for this kid. In fact, it’s best to stay away from trying to pre-digest meanings for children at the early stages. To tell it in a way that’s engaging, but also in a way that respects the integrity of the biblical language to an extent. That doesn’t mean that paraphrasing is [not] allowed, because we certainly see the Church kind of doing that sometimes. In liturgical readings of Scriptures, we sometimes come across composites, where instead of going through the entire section of this Old Testament reading, if you actually look at the verses, you can tell that the reading has been condensed.
Mr. Boyd: Most of our vespers Old Testament readings, when they’re called for, are composites like that.
Mat. Jenny: There’s no reason why we can’t also accept more accommodations for kids. But again: to respect the language as much as possible, to make sure that we are leaving in there those important signposts that give kids the ability to connect one story with another. I think it’s very common in stories of Noah, for instance, for people, instead of saying, “Forty days and forty nights,” to say, “Noah was on the boat for a long time.” There’s no sense in making that kind of reduction. It doesn’t freak the kid out that you said, “Forty days and forty nights,” and “a long time” is somewhat meaningless. It doesn’t give the child any ability to connect that with another story. So respect the language as much as possible; respect the signposts as much as possible.
Beyond that, to really open it up as something that children are really going to be able to engage with and then retell, like, to you. It needs to be told in as memorable a fashion so that then they can retell it to you. That’s really the sign that it took root. Some people like to do that by themselves, that they feel they have the skills to adapt the story by themselves, and teachers are very good at that: looking at the text itself and then redoing it for the children. Some people like to rely on books, and I always recommend [that]. There are some excellent Bible story books out there for kids. There are also some really terrible ones…
Mr. Boyd: Could you give us a sense of how to evaluate that kind of resource?
Mat. Jenny: In the same kind of way that you would adapt it yourself. Look at the language and ask yourself, “Does this story…? The way that they tell stories in this book, does it respect the integrity of the story itself?” As in, “Does it have the same kind of plot? Is it fascinating?” Sometimes when you’re reading a Bible story, you’re like: “Wow. That has nothing to do [with the original].”
In fact, I once ran into a story in a curriculum that was using Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel to tell a story about the ideal Christian family. I just could not believe that, because everybody knows how the real story goes. This was kind of an example of somebody being like: “I want to be able to talk about an ideal Christian family, so I’m going to look for a Bible story that will serve my end.”
Mr. Boyd: Instead of being faithful to what the text actually says.
Mat. Jenny: Make sure whatever book you’re using doesn’t have that kind of a process going on.
Mr. Boyd: Some kind of agenda or something.
Mat. Jenny: Agenda, pre-decided morals, and that the stories are being shaped to fit that. You want it to honor the intent of the story in the real text.
Beyond that: Is the language well-done? Does it echo the language in the scriptural story itself? Is it told in a way that’s going to be engaging?
If you can even evaluate beyond that, some storybooks do a great job of illustrations, too. There’s a wonderful lion Bible storybook for children that has some of the most intuitive illustrations, that they add to the good interpretation of the text. They used similar motifs in some of the stories. In the illustrations, some of the stories are better connected, and a clever kid will pick that up. It’s wonderful that it’s there to be picked up. It all helps to show that the story is part of a whole, not just these isolated individual morality tales. To evaluate it for the same sorts of things you would care about if you were choosing to paraphrase it yourself.
It’s also good to look for completeness as much as possible. There are some Bibles for children… It’s appropriate that Bibles for children often leave out the longer parts of, like, the Levitical law. There are things children are not ready for. You can always introduce those later in an interesting young adult Bible study. There’s a children’s storybook Bible that I like very much in general, but for whatever reason the editors decided that the story of Joseph was not important. I was like, “Yeah…”
Mr. Boyd: Especially for us… That story is used so much in our hymnography. The troparion for the first two days of Holy Week is, “Jacob lamented the loss of Joseph.”
Mat. Jenny: If you’re going to pick a book like that, make sure you also pick some excellent books that have a version of Joseph in it, to not leave that hole in a kid’s education, because there’s some reality of our situation. Absolutely, our tradition is completely rooted in Scripture, and no one’s liturgy is more Biblical than ours. On the other hand, the experience as children in the average parish vis-a-vis Scripture is kind of uneven. We’re going to work our way through the Gospel, most of the gospels, on Sunday morning, so most kids [hear that].
First of all, some kids never go to vespers, but most parishes may never use the Old Testament readings at vespers. The experience tends to be lots and lots of Gospel, but not very much Old Testament as a shared community. As for that side, I think it’s really important that church school should see that as one area that they really have responsibility to fill in, because every year we’re going to get to Holy Week, and all of a sudden the Old Testament just pours forth, all over our experience of that week. If kids have reference points for all those things, then that week is going to be so much richer for them. We really need to see the time that we have the children as time when we can fill those gaps and build that foundation so that by the time that they’re adults, they have enough of a sense of how all of this fits together, that they can go on from there.
Mr. Boyd: We’ve talked a bit about using children’s Bibles and retelling and paraphrasing stories on your own to children, but what about transitioning kids and young adults into reading Scripture directly? Do you have any advice on that front?
Mat. Jenny: Absolutely. I think reading Scripture actually makes the most sense in a more devotional context. I think it’s good and possible to have times when you’re just reading stories with your younger kids, and times when you’re reading directly from the text as part of either a family prayer time or just a family devotion. There’re all sorts of reading plans to split up the Scripture into small, manageable chunks for each day, and to engage in that as a family is an invaluable example and habit to establish.
I think the same goes for young adults and teenagers. If they’re in a family that hasn’t had that habit or discipline together, there’s all sorts of ways to get them started on it. I would say the most important thing is the example of the adults in the room. Certainly, for me as a teenager, being a teenager was when I really got engaged in church, and in part it was because of the example of the adults in my life and the fact that they really treated their experience at church and their experience of the Scriptures as not optional, as really sort of foundational to the rest of their life. Any teen is going to take more seriously the idea of starting to regularly read Scriptures if they see the adults in their lives doing that, too. Really, we can’t discount that. We all sort of cast around for “What’s the perfect book to get my kid interested in the Bible?” Well… You could find the perfect book, but it’ll seem a lot more interesting if you find it interesting. For teens and young adults, there’s all sorts of whole resources in the electronic world for this, too. There’s apps that will help you to do daily Scripture readings. I think the Greek Archdiocese has one.
Mr. Boyd: Yeah, they do, at least for iPhones. It’s actually a very nice app, I think.
Mat. Jenny: Very pretty. You can also get podcasts, and certainly Ancient Faith Radio is a huge resource for stuff like that. There’s all of the low-tech Bible-reading plans on paper, and that works just as well. I think for a lot of our teens, if they have a phone or if they’re on the computer a lot, that’s a good way to make them feel like it’s an easy, palatable intro to that sort of thing.
For families that really haven’t done it together, there’s a number of ways to just start. Often I recommend picking a fast period and making it your commitment for the fast period to start reading the Scripture together. There’s a beautiful Advent tradition that is starting to take root in Orthodox communities in America. It was originally adapted by a group of Orthodox homeschoolers, called the Jesse Tree, which was originally a Lutheran tradition.
What it is is that during the days of Advent, families read together a short Scripture reading about the ancestors of Jesus each day, one each day. It tells the whole foundation history as you read up to Christmas. Each day is associated with an ornament that you then hang on your tree, so that by the time you get to Christmas you have a beautifully decorated tree and this wonderful lead-up to the Nativity story, all this background. So for families that really haven’t broken into daily Scripture reading together yet, it’s a great way to just test the waters and have it associated with the holiday season and something beautiful and something fun for the kids.
Mr. Boyd: Do you have any “don’t do"s for teaching Scripture in the home that you can share?
Mat. Jenny: Yes. One would be, I referred to a little bit earlier, to not, as much as possible, pre-digest the story, not use Bible stories as a way to teach your kids morals. That’s not to say that Bible stories aren’t full of morals, but sometimes we can really run into adults at some point who see it as the main tool that they use, and children will figure that out, and generally they’ll run the other way. I once encountered the story of a woman who was looking for the best Bible story to use to teach your children how to clean their rooms. Don’t do that.
Mr. Boyd: Just tell them to clean their rooms!
Mat. Jenny: Really, what we want is for children to fall in love with the Scriptures, ultimately.
Mr. Boyd: If you start out saying, “Joshua’s a story about treating your brother nice,” then they’re not going to think of anything else, like it’s a type of Christ.
Mat. Jenny: They’ll think, “Oh, well, I know where this is going.” So that would be the first thing, to not condense its meaning in a particular meaning, and present that ahead of time for children. The reality is that if you take any story in the Scriptures, you can find all sorts of meanings for it, even within people that we would consider the Orthodox Fathers. There’s no story that has not been interpreted in different ways or mined for different things. We do our kids a disservice by predigesting a meaning for them, and saying, “This is a story about x,” instead of letting them enjoy and explore the story itself. So that would be one thing.
A second thing would be: Don’t treat the text as if it’s omniscient. This is where I think the communities that tend toward the literalist or fundamentalist reading of Scripture get in trouble, when the Bible is treated as: you go to the Book for the answer to everything, when really the Scripture has no intention of doing that as a text. It’s meant to lead you to the God who knows everything, but not to provide all the answers to everything all in one place.
When we teach children that the Bible is omniscient and has all the answers about everything in it, then once they’re older and realize that actually that’s not true, then they lose faith in it as a text and as a source of wisdom, whereas we should be more comfortable in their presence with some of the mysteries that are in Scripture and admit that we don’t necessarily understand it all and there are some things that the text is just not trying to do for us. It’s not trying to present a completely provable, locked-up version of ancient history, and that’s okay; it’s all right. And just being comfortable with that ambiguity throughout its history. We can certainly find the examples of that in the Fathers.
The other thing that I think is important is to admit that you are not omniscient about the Scriptures. There are certainly parts of the Scriptures that even the Church doesn’t pretend to really understand. The Book of Revelation is a perfect example of that. We never read it in church. It’s not prescribed for reading in church, because the Church accepts that there’s lots about that that we don’t get and it’s left to the Son to reveal to us at the end of time. To not present yourself as an expert, to be willing to defer to your clergy people or defer to someone who knows more or even to accept and admit to kids that some things are hard to get.
I think taking that humble attitude towards the text, when children see adults doing that, then they realize this text is bigger than all of us, and we all submit to it and learn from it, and this isn’t just about something that the adults have the grasp on and the rest of us have to submit to. That’s such a healthy relationship to Scripture, because ultimately that’s the relationship we should all have to it. All of us come to it from a position of learning.
Let’s see. We’ve talked about not predigesting, text is not omniscient, I’m not omniscient. I think the only other thing that I would include as a “don’t” is, again, through the Spirit with which you use the Scripture in your life, or if you’re a teacher, in your classes. This is a text that, throughout the ages of the Church, we’ve gone to because we treat it as food. It’s a source of life; it’s a source of that living water that Jesus tells us about. Treat it that way in front of children. Don’t treat it as the rulebook that’s going to find out all our deep-dark secrets. Treat it as something that is a gift.
Mr. Boyd: It’s the good news!
Mat. Jenny: It’s a gift, it’s the good news, it has all sorts of things in it that, if we mine it, we’re going to bear fruit and we’re going to bear joy. That’s what we want them to understand about the Bible, because that’s what’s going to allow them, as St. Basil said, use like honey to attract the bees. We want them to be attracted to it, because ultimately we want them to see it as a resource for them, not just something obscure that they’re required to learn about. The best way to do it is to model that kind of relationship with it ourselves.
Mr. Boyd: Lastly, Matushka, we talked a lot about how to teach the kids personally and in the home setting. What about the big picture? How can we tie this into an overarching parish project? How can we get clergy and parish communities involved in teaching the Scripture to our kids?
Mat. Jenny: I think the first thing is to have it as a goal, to really realize what we talked about earlier, that kids’ exposure is uneven, and to realize that there is no dearth of other kinds of influences in our society that want to teach our children about the Bible, and if we don’t do it, then those things will. It is not an uncommon story to hear about kids who’ve been raised in the Church and then go off to college and encounter the local evangelical fellowship and realize, “I don’t know anything about the Bible and these people do. What does that mean about the Church, and what does that mean about whether the Church knows anything?” It can cause sort of a crisis of faith. Basically, America is probably the most biblically literate society on the planet. Certainly there’s all sorts of resources out there in print and online and in the media, various sources that will tell our children what the Bible means if we’re not willing to tell them, and it won’t necessarily be an Orthodox viewpoint.
[It is important] for us to realize that it really is a challenge that we need to take on, and to not be lazy in assuming it, not to assume that if we just order the next lump of curriculum that we need for the next grade that it will necessarily fill the gap that our children have, to really be critical in the sorts of resources that we use in church school. I’m a huge fan of the idea of a parish library, where the church school staff takes on the responsibility of assembling a library for the parish children that instead of the leftovers and cheap books that we often see, is full of books that are great examples of telling the biblical stories so that families can take them home and explore them together and so that teachers can use them in class and know “this is a good version.” That’s a great parish-wide resource, to take that position and benefit from it for a long time.
I would say the other thing is, obviously, if you have adult education options going on for Bible study and stuff like that, to really think hard about “Can we think about something we can [do to] also include the teens and the young adults in?” As they start to graduate from church school and to really have a way that we can start to integrate them into Scripture studies with their elders so they can kind of see that process as everybody’s reading from the text, everybody’s needing to learn from it, and realize that that’s a pattern for adult life, that’s okay, it’s a good thing.
I love to base a lot of my church school work with kids around projects that can be then shared with the parish as a whole. We took two years to work through Genesis and the beginning of Exodus with my multi-aged elementary school church school group. In the process of that, we created a scroll that told every time we explored a story, we then added it to this paper scroll, making physical for the kids the fact that these stories came one after the other, and that they made up a scroll kind of like the Torah. By the end of the two years, the scroll was 130 feet long.
We had essentially an open house where we spread it out—we had to kind of loop it around the church to get it all spread out—and invited any of the older people in the parish to come and explore it and be guided through it by the kids. It was amazing. It was wonderful to watch children walking adults through the stories of Genesis and Exodus and telling them what was going on, and then what happened next, and then what did God do. A lot of these stories the adults hadn’t heard since they were kids.
Finding creative ways to take the Scripture and put it in the middle of all of us, this is one of the sources of our life, and this is something that we can all share from and enjoy together. To think about what do we do with the Scripture and kids and through school. Are we doing it? Are we teaching them? That’s what the Scripture’s for, to be a source for all of us. Or are we just giving them these itemized, little trivia tidbits about the Scripture? To be willing to be critical about what we do with them, and to think, “That’s not good enough. What can we do that’s better?”
Mr. Boyd: I just want to thank you so much, Mat. Jenny. I think this is a wonderful topic, and obviously a needful one. I hope you’ll join us again soon sometime.
Mat. Jenny: Great! Thank you for having me, Andrew.