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an exercise in child theology and biblical interpretation

April 23, 2014

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The Bible contains many examples of a child performing the acts or words of God in the face of faithless adults, who, by dent of their status – prophet, King, military leader, teacher – should have known better (Samuel towards Eli, David defeater or Goliath and shamer of Saul, Daniel usurping Babylonian pedagogy, the boy with 2 fish and 5 loaves over the disciples callous irresponsibility…).

These can be read along the lines of ‘God’s power made more evident because of the weakness/impotence of the child’, Narratively the figure of the child arrests our expectations, heightens the drama, and theologically, makes clear that the source of wisdom or power is God, not human.

There is theological truth in such a hermeneutic, for sure, but it comes at the cost of obscuring the child. And there are dangers in the rhetoric by which this is often described ‘God uses a child’. Uses: what an awful word. And in the same sentence as ‘child’ we should rightly be disturbed. A church that has grown accustomed to this language is dangerously susceptible to objectifying, using and abusing children, as our media scandals and Royal Commissions rightly document.

Without moving to the opposite extreme and placing the child on a pedestal (equally as objectifying, unjust and exploitative), are there other ways of reading these texts that see both the child and God, and which might a) illumine for us the vocation of children in our midst; b) qualify our understanding of who any human is in relation to God (regardless of age) c) Interrupt our expectations of God?

Textual Task: Take a text and share your observations, and the questions you asked (methodology and outcome)

Discipline of Prayer: How shall we repent of the objectification of children in biblical hermeneutics? in ecclesial discourse? in everyday conversation? christian culture?

6 comments

  1. Is there a problem in moving from the stories of particular and unusual children in the Bible to ‘child’ as a applying to all children? I think there is. And that we often slide over it in pursuit of our projects.


    • It’s certainly something to be as wary of as moving from the particular and unusual adults in the Bible to ‘humans’ as applying to us all.
      Thanks for the reminder.
      Adam, Ruth, Jacob, Zaccheus, Philip and Paul are all particular cases. What methodologies do we have for hearing their stories as ‘scripture’ which in some way impinges upon our reality, without, as you object, domesticating them to our purposes?


  2. This is what I’m working on in the field of NT… my chosen text and framework are too large to include in a comment here, but the recent works on Hebrew Bible texts: Valuable and Vulnerable by Julie Faith Parker and Give Me Children or I Shall Die by Laurel Kopf Taylor both do a superb job of this. Their methodology is “childist”.


    • Thanks for your contribution Amy. Perhaps you might mention with NT texts are your primary focus so that others in the future might know where to find someone who has trod the path before! And thanks for the references to those book – if you write a review of either, do post it on the child theology page.

      ‘Childist’ or ‘child-centred’ is another approach again.
      In the introduction to ‘Give me children’ Koef-Taylor describes a space for intersecting childhood studies delightfully as a ‘coffeehouse’ – welcoming and making conversation between child-centred approaches and other disciplines in which children are a voice or an image or an agent, etc…and creating new research.
      I hope that’s what is able to emerge here.


  3. I agree and definitely see room for that vision to emerge. I am still in the early phases of my doctoral work and so learning greatly from the conversations happening here and more advanced scholars such as Parker and Koef-Taylor. I would welcome the opportunity to review their works.

    My dissertation project is on Luke’s Gospel, primarily focusing on Luke 18:15-17, but really examining the whole gospel with the question of where the children are in the narrative centering my reading. I am particularly fascinated by Luke’s partial quotation of Malachi in the prophesy about John as an infant: “And he will turn the hearts of parents to their children” (Lk 1:17).

    I’d love to hear what others engaged in childhood studies make of that prophesy (and it’s omission of the second half: the hearts of children to their parents).


    • Thanks Amy, what a great topic. Your central text falls between one about a widow – which in hebrew bible, widows paradigmatically coupled with ‘orphans’ – and a text about a man who has been faithful to the commandments as a young person. A very interesting top and tail to the pericope with infants.

      As for the missing second half of Luke 1:17 – the heart of the Father has ever been turned towards his children, but the hearts of the children – will they be turned towards the Father? It remains an open question doesn’t it?

      I’m sure you will find much to share as your project continues! On the edge of my seat…



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