Help kids understand not all truth is literal

Biblical literalism is a plague on the church. (I don’t mean translating it literally but understanding it literally.) Yes, it affects some branches more than others, and I’m glad mainline denominations are not prominent among purveyors of this affliction.


Still, we need to help Sunday school teachers and parents teach the Bible to young people so those young people don’t one day throw the whole Bible out with the bath water (or, perhaps in the case of Protestantism, the Barth water).


Long before children reach the age of critical thinking, they are drawn into such great Bible stories as Noah’s Ark and Jonah in the belly of a big fish. Indeed, these wonderful tales are full of truth, even if — and maybe because — they don’t measure up as literal history in the way 21st century people understand history.


But if children are never given a clue about the power of metaphor and layers of meaning before they are introduced to some basic science about the cosmos, they may — and, sad to say, sometimes do — feel misled about the Bible stories they’ve learned. Sometimes they think the church is telling them one thing and science teachers something completely opposite.


In the foreword to “Thou Art That,” a recent paperback collection of writings by the late Joseph Campbell the great explainer of mythology’s power, Eugene Kennedy writes this: “The spiritual needs of people are neglected by religious leaders who insist on reasserting the historical-factual character of religious metaphors, thereby distorting and debasing their meaning.”


I’m certainly not arguing that there’s no accurate history in the Bible. But Scripture was not written over hundreds of years by a large cast of authors as a definitive guide to history or science. It was written as a sufficient revelation of who God is and it was written in religious language, which is inevitably metaphorical.


If we are to take Scripture seriously, as opposed to literally, we must always ask what it’s saying about God, about us and about our relationship with God.


The question is how we can keep our children enthralled by the power of the stories in the Bible without eventually finding they are dismayed when they figure out that Earth wasn’t created a few thousand years ago in six literal days, or when they puzzle out that Noah could not possibly have carted around two (or any number) of every animal species on the planet, or even when they learn that the number 40 in the Bible usually just means a heck of a long time.


And surely there are ways to do that. After all, most children don’t disown their parents when they finally learn that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are none other than Mom and Dad.


My concern is that children will miss what the Bible is trying to tell them if we don’t find ways to help them understand metaphor — for, in fact, all words are metaphors because they point to meaning beyond themselves.


And it would be a disaster if they walked away from the word of God because they conclude that it’s literal nonsense.


BILL TAMMEUSis an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at about his latest book at E-mail him at

Click here to read columnist Tom Hobson’s response “In defense of literalists.”