Bible Stories, Literalists and the Sunday School

by Gaylord Noyce

Gaylord Noyce teaches practical theology at Yale Divinity School. His most recent book is The Pastor as Moral Counselor.

This article appeared in the Christian Century April 25, 1984, p. 421. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To a family and children inescapably caught in literalistic Biblical interpretation: Children are amazingly resilient, even to stories of violence, especially when from a secure home. Stories are part of our culture and need to be known — especially Biblical stories — even in their violence. Your (liberal) presence in such an environment will have an impact, even if totally outnumbered.

My daughter and son-in-law have built their home way back in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia. With their own hands they built it, helped by a few relatives and college chums pitching in sporadically during summer vacations. It’s a lovely place, hidden in a valley with just enough flatland to support a few cows, pigs and chickens, a small apple orchard and a garden that year by year will change toward what I call dirt from the clay and sand base that already provides them with most of their produce in a good season.

This couple’s older children are five and three years old, as are some other children who live not too far away. Not having found a nearby church (Betsy and Jeff have been driving 50 miles for services when they could make it), they have, with mixed hope and uneasiness, participated in starting up a small home-based Sunday school for the people in their cove: “two Catholic families, one Southern Baptist, one Methodist, and us.”

Because the environment in the hills of West Virginia is literalist and fundamentalist, the way the Bible stories are being told in the new Sunday school has this young couple on edge. “The things they have covered, far too literally for me,” writes Jeff, “include Noah’s ark and the flood and the creation story.” Then he goes on:

“Rereading these, I was again horrified at the violence, the demeaning position of women, and the wrathful and vengeful nature of God. How do you feel about this kind of biblical history?” In answer to that invitation, here goes:

Dear Jeff and Betsy:

I appreciate your worry about what a literalist reading and retelling of those old Bible stories may mean to Abigail and Sarah. You are well-educated people -- one of you in biology and one in educational psychology -- with a fine liberal arts background, so the foolishness of reading the classic yarns of Genesis as literal history is apparent to you. But please don’t let that put you off. Stick with the group. Here are four simple points in response to the uneasiness expressed in your letters.

1. Children are amazingly resilient little persons when they come from a home as secure and supportive as yours is. Some in your group tell them the Bible stories in very literalist terms, but that is how children of Sarah and Abigail’s ages have to think anyway. . . With the aid of the discussions you yourselves are also having with the children, God will eventually evolve for them into something less literally old-man-with-a-beard than at present. Although at least one writer/scholar counsels us to postpone all talk about God until children are 12, since before that they picture the Deity in such concrete terms, I see no way that we can do that in a culture like ours. Let the children hear interpretations from both the literalist Christians and from you; you have a far greater impact on your kids than has half a morning at Sunday school.

2. Stories are part of our culture, and Bible stories are an essential part of our religious culture. How can we talk adequately about Passover, baptism and even Easter without knowing the story of the exodus from Egypt? How can we understand Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert without remembering Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness? If we are to speak of a God who, despite human struggle, pain, loss and grief, promises us grace and peace, how can we leave out the story of Noah and the rainbow promise, and the dynamism of the covenant with Abraham? Those covenants have sustained the Jewish people through pogrom, Holocaust and untold anguish. How could we interpret our nature and destiny in a purposeful creation without those stories of Creator and creation so beautifully condensed in Genesis 1 and 2? Let the stories be told, even by those literalists in your Sunday school.

3. In your concern about violence, again remember the corrective gift of your home, and the resilience of children. Remember, too, that violence is nothing new to children. Violence is nearby even for your daughters. I shall always remember Abigail’s protest to you, at butchering time, about “Mr. Brown,” the cow she had named. When you tried to comfort her with some comment about how sad it is that things have to die, she said, “But Mr. Brown didn’t just die; you killed him.” She was only three years old. You won’t play up the violence in the biblical stories, of course. I pray that your fundamentalist friends won’t do so either. But violence is a part of the account of the American Revolution that Sarah will learn about in the fourth grade, and it’s also a part of biblical history. Those were violent times, when David and Saul faced the Philistines, and when Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities. There is no hiding place from that kind of world until we grown-ups can do a better job of accepting that there is neither Jew nor Greek in the community of God. And the lore of the Bible, even if interpreted literally, seems likely to have a place in building toward that day.

4. Your part in that Sunday school will have an impact, I’m sure, despite how outnumbered you feel. For the time being, stay with it and build some bridges with your literalist Christian friends. Even if they rule you out, your faith is as authentic as theirs. You are all trying to pass on something marvelously good and important to your children, and I wish you well.