Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 29, 2014

“The Mean Guys Are In There:” What my 2 year old is teaching me about biblical narrative

James and Daddy Reading

James and Daddy Reading

James loves books! Last night he got into his “book zone.” This is when he sits down by his basket of books, pulls them all out, and begins to thumb through them one at a time.

I was enjoying this rare break in the action. For a few minutes I didn’t have to entertain him, run after him, or manage a toddler tantrum. He was enjoying his book and I was enjoying mine!

The “book zone,” however, does not last for long. Usually something comes up in one of the books that he wants to show me. Last night he got hung up on a picture book full of Bible stories. He ran over to me with his book and declared, “the mean guys are in there, the mean guys are in there!” He proceeded to flip through the book and point out all the “mean guys.” We saw the Egyptians oppressing the Israelites, Goliath taunting David, and the Roman officials leading Jesus to be crucified.

As we were flipping through this book I found myself wondering if all this violence and cruelty was appropriate for my toddler. Here I, a Christian minister, was wondering if I should censor the Bible from my own son. His other books seem quite safe and tame compared to the Bible. I have no reservations about James reading about the hungry caterpillar who eats too much junk food, or the “scaredy” squirrel who learns to overcome his fear of leaving the nut tree, or the five little monkeys who learn about the consequences of jumping on the bed. I found myself a little less comfortable with him reading a story that graphically portrays oppressive slavery, war, and crucifixion.

This encounter with James got me thinking about how we have tamed scripture. Sometimes we edit out the parts of scripture that make us uncomfortable. We fast-forward over the parts about the “mean guys,” and quote the happy conclusions. Often the Bible is marketed as an inspirational self-help book. We have labeled the bible as “family friendly” on the radio, and we print a small selection of Biblical cliche’s on flowery stationary.

Last week someone asked me for my perspective on the famous T.V. preacher Joel Osteen. I responded by saying that I find his teaching quite heretical and dangerous. When I have heard him speak I find that a lot of editing is going on in his presentation of Christianity. He promotes a “health and wealth” gospel that suggests that true faith leads to material and physical prosperity. This message is heretical because it ignores Jesus’ teaching on the danger of greed, the redemptive value in suffering, and reality of sin and injustice that we encounter in our world. It is dangerous because it promotes a false hope that does not help people work through the suffering they will inevitably face. It also seems to suggest that those who are poor or sick must not be true Christians. The health and wealth gospel, then, excludes the very people that Jesus places at the center of His kingdom!

Last night, however, I was reminded again about how raw and honest scripture is about human suffering. The Bible does not gloss over the hard things about life. We encounter stories about, hardship, oppression, and violence.

While I may continue to wrestle with how to introduce these themes to my son in developmentally appropriate ways, I am convinced that the rawness and honesty of scripture is a gift. The Biblical narrative gives us an opportunity to explore the full spectrum of human experience. These stories give us a window into our own struggles, and help us work through our own pain. The reality is that the “mean guys” are not only in scripture, they are in our world as well!

During my sermon on the prophet Habakkuk last Sunday, I emphasized the point that to live by faith does not mean we live in denial. Habakkuk shows us that the journey from despair toward hope beings with lament. He needs to be honest about the pain he is experiencing due to injustice and occupation. The good news about the Biblical narrative, however, is that we also encounter a God who is present in the midst of pain. We can risk being honest about suffering precisely because God is there to lead us toward hope.

As my son grows up I hope he will continue to turn to these stories of scripture. I pray that they will not be overly trivialized or tamed. Instead, I hope that they will help him discover God in the midst of a world that continues to present us with hardship and struggle.

“The mean guys are in there, Dad.” Indeed, they are.


  1. David was referred to as ‘after God’s own heart.’ Yet he was far from the label of ‘good guy’ after an affair and manipulative murder of Bathsheba’s husband. He messed up a lot and God loved him! Our kids at all ages need to know they are loved by God even when they mess up and appear to momentarily wear a ‘bad guy’ label. We need that same reminder as well, It helps grow compassion in us.

    Yes, sometimes the ‘bad guys’ claim to wear the label of a ‘good guy.’ They are the scariest ones of all!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love the “mean guys” story, Phil. Brought back the memory of my eldest’s Christmas when he was two. On the way home I asked what the story had been. “The MEAN, MEAN king. His name was King Herod, and he was mean, mean, mean!” That was more than 50 years ago! He was very impressed, as apparently was James. But little ones, in our time, quickly learn about “people who do bad things”.

    And, I fully agree with your assessment of Joel Ofsteen! I just don’t understand how people can get that message from the Bible!

  3. A couple of weeks ago I gave a eulogy and tribute at my mother’s memorial service. In it I shared the earliest memory I have of her. That was sitting next to her on the bed at bedtime with my older sister on the other side. Mom read to us from Marian’s Big Book of Bible Stories and that is where the foundations of my faith reside. We learned about the wall of Jericho, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath (a personal favorite) as well as New Testament stories. In retrospect I can’t recall if the stories were cleaned up for young listeners but I assume that Marian did this. Nonetheless, thanks to this book, and more so to my mother, I began to understand the range of human experience and the grace of God.

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