Wednesday, January 10

"Aesop's Fableization"

Children's ministry can really stretch you sometimes. Last Sunday, for example, I had to prepare a lesson on Exodus 32. Here's a synopsis:

Children's lesson material
Idolatry is bad. God corrects it. Application: We should keep clear of idolatry but not be upset with God when he corrects us, because we need it (use illustration from school exercise book).

Historical facts of the story
Moses goes up the mountain. The people ask for a god. Aaron makes a gold calf for the people, and declares a feast day to the LORD (note it was intended as a feast day to Yahweh), it gets out of hand and becomes idolatrous. God is annoyed. Moses convinces God to be merciful. God relents (Open Theists smile smugly). Moses goes down. Moses gets annoyed, destroys the calf and calls the Levites to his side. Moses tells the Levites that God has told them to kill their brothers, friends and neighbours. 3000 are killed by their own priests. Moses tells them they are blessed for doing this. Moses goes up the mountain. God doesn't comment on the slaughter, but then sends a plague as punishment for the idolatry.

Now I don't have a clue what to make of this text - or any text where God seems to be asking people to commit murder/genocide in his name - but I'm content (for the time being) to not know what to make of it and keep my list of questions live. The interpretation of texts like this is a hugely problematic issue in Old Testament study (and, lest we forget, New Testament - remember Ananias and Sapphira?) and should be dealt with very carefully and with humility. The problem for me is when we practise an approach to children's ministry that has no room for a healthy agnosticism and insists on teaching a moral life-lesson from every story in Scripture. Sure, Jesus taught in parables lots of the time - but he didn't use the chequered real-life history of his people to do it.

In her book "Postmodern Children's Ministry", Ivy Beckwith calls this kind of life-application approach to using the Bible with children the "Aesop's Fableization" of Scripture. Did God really put the story of the slaughter at Sinai in the Bible to teach us a moral lesson about his correction of idolatry? If we really believe that what happened that day is historical fact, how can we look ourselves in the mirror and use it to teach such a simplistic lesson to children? Surely we should be horrified by this, not using it as a moralistic object lesson.

Our younger children's group is tentatively called "Noah's Friends". But (as one children's leader pointed out in a meeting last night) all Noah's Friends died. [Ahem... Oops!]. I am not innocent of this kind of Fableization. My daughter Pippa's room is decorated with scenes from Noah's Ark. All very cute and cuddly. Apart from the nagging thought that they are scenes from a global disaster ending in the deaths of countless people.

Am I being a spoilsport? Or is this a valid hermeneutics/children's ministry issue?


Anonymous Vyard said...

Interesting on many levels (and far more interesting than designing roundabouts in Kirkintilloch).
Although I do not have children I would argue that (from a certain age) we need to guide our children to ask questions and not duck the questions that we as adults can't answer.
Having said that, I do think, as your decorations suggest, we sometime gloss over the seemed harshness of God.
As previously discussed God's actions are like parents both to encourage and discipline. Not that I'm suggesting we should kill people to discipline them!
I have to accept God is the ultimate judge, however I wonder how he told the Israelites which of their friends to kill?
As an aside, relating this story to parables raises an old question in my head as to whether we actually believe this is an accurate retelling of an historical event, or something written down by the Levites to reinforce the point?
For me I'm now, lean back toward believing scripture is inerrant and this happened. Why is as I would tell my child I don't know, but I trust God and therefore trust his judgement / justice.
Anyway, I must get back to Kirkintilloch!

1/10/2007 05:46:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just so you'll know, you can get a weekly podcast from Ivy Beckwith on

1/10/2007 11:00:00 pm  
Blogger Jamie said...

thanks for the link. I'll check this out.

1/11/2007 03:58:00 pm  
Blogger Jamie said...

a related hypothetical discussion with Richard Dawkins is happening on Brodie's blog, for those so inclined...

1/11/2007 05:13:00 pm  

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