The Greatest Story Ever Told
When I was a kid my Grandparents Ranew down in Florida would send my brother and I boxes of gifts throughout the year. Sometimes they sent clothes Grandma found on sale at the commissary, other times they sent books. Sometimes they sent educational toys like microscopes and bug catchers, and other times they sent movies.
Among the most influential boxes we received during my childhood was one containing three epic Biblical movies: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
This was back when VHS was still a thing, and each of these films was so long it needed two cassettes. Believe it or not given their long run-times, I loved these movies as a little kid, especially Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. The music, the acting, the costumes, the cinematography – everything was so grand and epic and dramatic. Those films set my expectations very high for how stories from the Bible should be portrayed in movies, and I still can’t read about Moses and Pharaoh in the Bible without picturing Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner in their iconic roles.
As a consequence of growing up watching these long Biblical epics, my attention span was lengthened significantly and continues to be quite long. My appreciation for the majestic scope and scale of the Bible was broadened. My understanding that the characters of the Bible were real men and women who had real emotions, passions, temptations, and struggles was cemented.
Now I lament that there aren’t more films like these. And why aren’t there? Surely Hollywood has more wherewithal than ever before to make them. Is there any lack of demand?
Perhaps it has something to do with the dominance of the present-day Bible story movie market by Veggie Tales on the one hand, and unbiblical flops like Ridley Scott’s Exodus and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah on the other. Either way, I fear our tastes have strayed from Biblical authenticity into merely choosing one sort of wishful re-imagining of God’s Word or another. But is one kind of omission and revision preferable to another?
The Problem with Veggie Tales
Here’s where I confess my beef with Veggie Tales. Laugh if you like, but I’m serious. I have a problem with Veggie Tales.
Now please don’t get me wrong. There are far, far worse things children can watch besides Veggie Tales – Spongebob Squarepants, for instance, and far too many shows like it.
The temptation is to presuppose that animated shows are always for kids, that something airing on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon or Disney Channel means it’s automatically appropriate for young audiences. This was certainly my default assumption when I was little. Only now that I’m an adult and a parent do I realize it’s not that simple. Just because something’s animated doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for kids. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, and King of the Hill are four obvious proofs of this.
But I don’t lump Veggie Tales in with these shows or suggest that they’re all equally bad. Lauren and I have forbidden our children from watching Spongebob and The Simpsons. But even though I have a problem with Veggie Tales, Lauren and I do let our children watch it. If we’re at church or someone else’s house and somebody wants to put in Veggie Tales for the kids to watch, I’m totally cool with that.
After all, Veggie Tales is a cute, clean, funny, charming, winsome, innocent, and sweet show. My concern with Veggie Tales, although real and sincere, is not so great that I’ve outright banned it. But we don’t buy Veggie Tales DVDs, and it’s not at the top of the list of shows I would pick out for my kids.
Why? Let’s start with the obvious: Veggie Tales is not realistic. For one thing, fruits and vegetables can’t talk or emote or interact with one another. For another thing, even if plants could do any of those things, the men and women we read about in the Bible were not plants. They were flesh and blood men and women just like you and me. Not a one of them was a cucumber, tomato, broccoli, or asparagus.
And most of the things those real men and women lived through, did, said, thought, and felt were, generally speaking, the same things men and women live through, do, say, think, and feel today. As such, it’s harder relating to the Bible and applying it to our lives when we dehumanize the people in it and make light of what God’s Word says happened in the past and how real men and women both friendly and hostile to God interacted with Him and one another.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Veggie Tales.
The artificial cuteness and inauthentic sterility of Veggie Tales makes me slightly queasy.
Veggie Tales reminds me too much of most so-called “Children’s Bibles.” Only Veggie Tales goes above and beyond the typical dehumanizing cuteness of Children’s Bibles and literally dehumanizes its characters by making them all into talking fruits and vegetables.
The fluffy, pastel, eternal sunshine and rainbows illustration and paraphrasing that pervade Children’s Bibles makes me wince. Bibles for children seem to have a hard time with everything between Adam and Eve being evicted from Eden and Jesus coming back at the end to save his people. The bookends are age-appropriate for youngsters, but not the books between. God’s Word needs to be sanitized and cleaned up a bit, somehow. It needs to be made kinder and gentler, and so we cut stuff out and throw in artificial sweetener to make the whole thing more palatable.
And so Noah’s Ark wasn’t the only hope of a mocked and jeered at family of faithful, God-fearing preppers escaping the violence and perversion all around them as countless millions of people drowned outside their vessel. Noah’s Ark was a cheerful floating zoo where everyone smiled – including all the animals – as they patiently waited for the floodwaters to subside so they could disembark.
And Goliath wasn’t a bloodthirsty giant that David shot in the face and then beheaded before the Israelite army ran down and slaughtered his compatriots. The Philistine champion from Gath was just a glorified schoolyard bully who wasn’t being very nice to the Israelites until David took him down a notch.
Samson wasn’t an impulsive, hot-blooded judge who had his eyes brutally gouged out by a hated enemy after being seduced by the wiles of a loose woman. He was just a big, strong man who got blindfolded and captured by the bad guys one day so he could knock down their temple.
This is to say nothing of all the stories completely left out and neglected once those tales most easily sanitized for children have been picked over. Where is Potiphar’s wife falsely accusing Joseph of rape when he wouldn’t go to bed with her, and Joseph being thrown in prison as a result? Where are all the babies brutally murdered at Herod’s command in his attempt to eliminate a perceived threat to his reign in the form of Jesus?
There are so many Bible stories to tell, and they’re all worth telling. And every detail the Bible gives us about those stories is meaningful and important, adding nuance and context and depth to our understanding not only of human history and our place in it, but most importantly giving us a clearer and clearer picture of who God has been, is, and will forever be.
God’s Word is holy and clean already, and it doesn’t need us cleaning it up or creating buffer zones around it.
Why would we sanitize God’s Word as if it’s unclean? Don’t misunderstand me, I understand why it’s done. Who wouldn’t squirm at the thought of explaining to horrified kindergartners how Ehud lost his sword in the belly of Eglon, king of the Moabites? Maybe that isn’t an illustration that needs to be painted in vivid, graphic detail for young people.
All the same, where do you and I come by this assumption that stories like Ehud and Eglon are somehow inappropriate while David and Goliath is okay? And, wherever we get our reasons for sanitizing the Scriptures, are those reasons really so wise and good as we readily assume they are? I’m not so sure, but I can’t avoid the conviction we should tread carefully when judging the propriety of the Biblical narrative, including all of the details it presents, using a standard of goodness we received outside of the Scriptures.
And yet again, there are some stories and details of stories about which one has to question: how could they ever be presentable to young children? Song of Solomon in its entirety being the most obvious example.
In the case of that entire book we can look to reports that the tradition in ancient Israel was that young Jews weren’t allowed to read it until they were either 30 years old or married, whichever came first. Forget just sheltering middle-schoolers, the ancient Jews extended their blinders well through the teenage years and into what we now consider early adulthood. It’s probably safe to assume they would have been appalled at the way sex education is taught in our public schools and the way sex-acts are portrayed in our modern forms of entertainment.
That said, modern Christians need not take Jewish traditions as binding, or else we’re right back to the problem of judging the propriety of Scriptures by some standard of man developed outside those Scriptures. Nowhere in the Bible are we given instruction to shield certain books or stories from young eyes, or to water them down until our youths have grown older. And God’s Word is where we take our cues, not the traditions of man, whether ancient or modern.
Unless, that is, we’re talking about another error: translators of the Bible rendering God’s name “Yahweh” in the original texts instead as “the LORD” in our modern English translations. This has been done in deference to a Jewish custom meant to avoid even accidental violation of the third commandment by taking His name in vain. Somehow we’ve come to interpret where God says “don’t use my name in vain” as “don’t use my name at all, ever, even when you’re reading it in my Word.”
This is an error as old as Adam and Eve in Eden.
What was God’s only command to Adam when he was in Eden?
“Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Yet somewhere along the line the original command of God was expanded, whether in Adam’s retelling of it to Eve, or else in Eve’s reception of the original command from Adam. We know this because when the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit in Genesis 3 she responds:
“…But God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
Do you see the subtle difference? God says not to eat the fruit; Eve says they’ll die if they eat or even touch it.
And how well did that work out exactly, broadening the scope of God’s original command? Apparently it didn’t do much good because both Adam and Eve still wound up eating the forbidden fruit, being evicted from Eden, and plunging all of humanity and the entirety of Creation with them into sin, suffering, and death, even up to the present day.
Don’t kid yourself that the problem was that God’s command wasn’t expanded far enough. The next step would’ve been for Adam and Eve to conclude that God meant they couldn’t even look at the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden. Or perhaps they could’ve made an extra amendment against stepping foot within half a mile radius of that tree. But what does that ultimately do except for broaden the definition of failure and put us as corrupt judges over God, concluding that His original instructions were insufficient and incomplete?
At a certain point we ought to learn that God’s Word can’t be improved on, and He doesn’t need us being stricter or holier than He is.
Stop dumbing down the Bible for children.
Yes, many concepts are difficult if not impossible for young children to grasp. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try explaining them as they are, and letting kids understand what they will.
We shouldn’t dumb down the Bible for children. Present it to them as it is. You might be surprised how much they pick up. You’ll at least give them a fighting chance of understanding by not sugarcoating it or filtering out the hard stuff. Kids can be remarkably perceptive, after all. That’s why it’s good to teach new languages when they’re young.
Talk to kids like adults: normally, with wholesome and intelligent and helpful language. Explain things to them as you go and as they have questions. Make everyday conversations into educational opportunities by raising the bar for your kids and helping them grow and mature. Don’t avoid challenging them.
Remember Deuteronomy 11:18-19.
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Consider also Matthew 28:19-20
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
What we do not see in either of these passages, in either the Old Testament or New Testament, is an exception clause for certain details.
Good teaching is like good shoes.
Besides those three Biblical epics I mentioned earlier, another thing my Grandma Ranew used to send my brother and me when we were growing up was new shoes.
A few years ago Grandma Ranew explained to me why she did this so often when I was a kid. Growing up poor, she often only had worn out shoes that were too small for her feet. This not only embarrassed her by making her look shabby, it hurt when she walked because her toes were cramped. And so, when she was in a position to pamper her grandchildren, my grandmother loved buying my brother and me and our cousins nice new shoes on a regular basis, even when we didn’t need them.
And my shoes were always a size or two larger than they needed to be when I was a kid. This meant my shoes could be worn longer before they were too small, yes, but it also meant my toes never felt cramped.
This is a perfect illustration of why I believe we shouldn’t dumb things down for little kids. Sure, it’s okay to start out simple and build on the basics, but you always want to leave room between your explanations and their understanding so their minds have room to grow and mature. Kids need to continue asking questions and being curious, and they need to not get the wrongheaded notion stuck in their head that everything in life is simple and instantly comprehensible.
As a matter of fact, many things in life require contemplation, weighing and measuring, study, and reflection in order to come to terms with their true essence. The Bible is not only chock full of such things; it holds the ultimate key to finding the answers to the questions raised.
Better that we teach kids sooner than later not only to grapple with the difficult concepts and hard truths of life, to not settle for overly simplistic or sanitized niceties, but also to pray earnestly to God asking for wisdom, and to find ultimate, eternal truth in the totality of the Scriptures.
Consider Thomas Jefferson’s Bible.
In his later life, America’s 3rd President took a razor and literally cut all the miracles and supernatural events and claims from God’s Word. Now referred to as The Jefferson Bible, what was left over were the parts of the Bible Jefferson liked and cared for: the moral and philosophical teachings of Jesus. Those bits he could understand and embrace. The rest was hogwash and a stumbling block to him.
Now here’s my question: Is it possible that’s what we’re doing when we adapt the stories of the Bible for children by cutting out the complicated or “adult” parts? If we say that this bit of God’s Word right here is acceptable, but those parts over there aren’t because they’re hard to understand or accept, are we not committing an error similar to that made by Jefferson?
The truth is that the Bible isn’t just difficult for children to grasp. The example of Thomas Jefferson proves this. Here is a man still remembered 190 years after his death as one of our nation’s most prominent Founding Fathers. He was America’s third president and is still regarded as one of its greatest. He was the driving genius behind and principle author of The Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was regarded generally as a great mind, yet he couldn’t wrap his head around the greater portion of God’s Word.
So there is reason to suppose that the older one gets the more difficult it will be for them. Just consider Proverbs 22:6.
“Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Perhaps if Jefferson had been taught to know and understand and embrace God’s Word in its entirety from a young age he wouldn’t have stumbled so badly with believing all of it in his adult years. At very least the point is made that there is no set age of maturity at which the truths of God’s Word will suddenly be palatable. Very old and otherwise erudite people often struggle the worst.
Not only this, but we have the words of Jesus to mull over from Mark 10:14-15.
“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”