Friday 10 August 2007

Exegesis with a five-year-old

A recent conversation with my five-year-old daughter, after I’d been telling the story of Jonah and the whale:

—“But there wasn’t really a whale, was there, Dad?”
—“What do you think?”
—“Umm. I think some of God’s stories are really hard to believe.”
—“Well, even if there was never really a whale, it’s still a true story. True like a song or a poem.”
—“Oh, you mean like a rhyme.”
—“Yeah, the story is true like a rhyme – it’s true because it tells us something important about God.”
—“Oh, I see what you mean. It’s a story about what God is really like.”
—“That’s right.”
—“You know, Dad, I’ve got a big picture Bible with famous paintings of all these stories. We should look at those – the pictures make it much easier to believe the story.”


D. Timothy Goering said...

This wonderful anecdote reminds me of a quote a read a while ago from St. Francis Xavier: "Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards."

Theo said...

Nice - that's how I explain it to adults! My little sister, when aged about five, once asked if the Dick Haymes song "You'll Never Know" was about Jesus at the Last Supper. The lyrics in question were:

You'll never know just how much I miss you
You'll never know just how much I care
And if I tried, I still couldn't hide my love for you
You ought to know, for haven't I told you so
A million or more times?

You went away and my heart went with you
I speak your name in my every prayer
If there is some other way to prove that I love you
I swear I don't know how
You'll never know if you don't know now.

Spooky child. It's practically the Last Supper discourse from John!

Alex said...


As my wife and I are expecting, I was especially interested in this post. I would like to answer my child in a similar way when they ask this question, but I worry that they will start to apply this logic to Jesus. Because to a child, the Bible is the Bible and they don't distinguish types of literature. Could you say to your child, "Even if there never was a Jesus, it's still a true story"? I could not. My feeling is that if there never was a Jesus, then it is a false story. Again, the redactors/writers of the Jonah and Jesus stories were different, but a child isn't going to see that. I'd be very interested to hear your response as I am pretty nervous about sharing my faith with my children, much less the rest of the world.


Unknown said...

Does anyone have a good explanation as to what prevents us from apply the genre of myth to the resurrection and ascension? Although I seperate the way I interpret the OT from the NT, and am completely in favor of taking the NT seriously, it really bothers me that I have no response to the question "how can your write off sections of the OT as mythology and hold on to the incarnation, resurrection, etc. in the NT?" Does anyone know of any good explanations, or books that argue for taking the NT more literally in our interpretation. I've got my eye on Revelation by Swinburne.

One of Freedom said...


Ben Myers said...

Hi Alex and Micah. You're right: in the story of Jesus, we can't separate theological truth from historicity, since the whole point is that something happened in Jesus.

But my own daughter seems to understand that there are different kinds of stories (genres) in the Bible. Some are stories about what really happened, others are like poems or tales that teach us about God.

Even though (as you say) there's a risk that a child might apply the logic of non-historical genres to the story of Jesus, I reckon the opposite danger is much worse: if I tell my daughter that everything in the Bible is literally true, then the first time she learns that there was really no Noah's ark or Jonah's whale, it could undermine her faith in the whole Bible. You see this all the time when conservative evangelical kids reach university: they learn for the first time that there was no six-day creation or worldwide flood, and immediately their whole faith crumbles. Presumably this could have been avoided if someone had told these kids that there are many different genres in the Bible, and that in many cases "historical accuracy" is irrelevant.

So anyway, in my view the important thing is to avoid reducing the whole Bible to the same level -- as though it were one text rather than a diverse collection of stories and genres.

James F. McGrath said...

So many assume that child-like faith is one that accepts without questioning. Those interpreting in this way must not have had children or remembered their own childhoods clearly! Isn't it more natural to assume that child-like faith would be one that asks 'why?' and (unlike adults) will tend to point out that the emperor has no clothes?

Alex said...

Thanks Ben and great points James. Ben, I'm with you in that I also see a great danger in holding the Bible as a whole up to one standard that we have created for it, i.e. innerrancy. I wonder if you have seen the post of at Parchment & Pen blog called "The Danger of Innerrancy." It is making the same point you are making and I think it's an important read for all Christians. The blog is at It's on the left hand side under "Top Posts".

derek said...

You know, i agree with most of what has been said, but one thing is bothering me. At different times several people haev in different terms made the following claim:

literal interpretation=inerrancy.

However, i simply think that this isn't true. I went to a conservative evangelical undergraduate school, and they hammered on genre, author's inteneded meaning, the need for contextual and historical/cultural study in understanding the Bible.

While certain people may believe that the story of Jonah is a literal story, i think that it is pretty unfair to say that they are "inerrantists, who don't understand genre." Maybe they disagree with your assessment of the genre of Jonah. I guess my point is to say that one can be an inerrantist without "holding the bible as a whole up to one standard we have created for it, i.e. inerrancy."

This doesn't always happen, but i think that it happens more than it should. I hope my criticism doesn't come off as too harsh. One last note: although i attended a conservative bible college, i wouldn't call myself an inerrantist. So i don't necessarily say all this to be defensive, but i believe we who don't care for the caricatures that very conservative Christians put on moderate & liberal theologians, we need to be careful to not commit the same offense by equating two different things (i.e. hermeneutics and theory of inspiration).

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this clarification, Derek. And I think you're right: the real issue isn't inerrancy, but simply understanding different genres.

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