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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Know*Be*Do: Using the Bible to Teach Ethics to Children

 Valerie A. Stein

For such a short story, the book of Ruth raises a number of ethical questions. For example, is it morally acceptable to get drunk as long as one spends the night on the threshing floor and does not drive the ox cart home? Is a young woman supporting an elderly, widowed mother-in-law not only permitted but in fact morally compelled to uncover the (ahem) “feet” of a man so he will marry her? Or, on a serious note, is a social safety net a moral imperative? To what extent are we ethically responsible for the well-being of those in our lives even if we are not legally responsible?

Despite the ethical questions raised in the story, Ruth is generally not quoted as a proof-text in the heated debates in our society concerning right behavior. I don’t see yard signs displaying “Ruth 1:16” (“Whither thou goest…” in the now classic language of KJV) alongside the Ten Commandments signs that are sprinkled through my southern Indiana neighborhood. And yet the Book of Ruth—and especially the way Ruth is taught—has played a role in shaping both specific ethical ideals and, perhaps in some unintentional ways, in shaping the very way one reads the Bible for ethical insight.

This is demonstrated in religious education material for children in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its predecessor bodies from the late 1800s to 2004. My research on the role of Ruth in religious education material for children is part of an ongoing project in which I have examined how the Bible is used in religious education materials for children. While there is much recent interest in the use of the Bible in popular culture and politics, there is little attention to the medium that is arguably one of the most influential on how the Bible enters public discourse. Religious education material is foundational to a child’s relationship with Scripture, and ultimately—because there is seldom a critical reflection that moves us away from the deeply ingrained assumptions we bring to the text from our childhood—this material also shapes many adults’ relationship with the Bible.

The impetus to examine religious education material for children has its roots in the classroom. My students generally think they know the Bible. But inevitably, close attention to the details of the text draws their attention to parts of the story they realize they did not know or never thought about. Many students find themselves frustrated and some even become distraught. One particular example is noteworthy. Several years ago, after a classroom discussion of Ruth revealed the sexually charged nature of the scene at the threshing floor, one of my students declared in great earnestness, “Dr. Stein, you have ruined Ruth for me.” Lest you think my presentation demeaned Ruth, it was Ruth’s conduct on the threshing floor that did not sit well with her; I simply made her aware of it. Ruth’s behavior in the story destroyed my student’s image of Ruth and ran counter to her Christian values. She had already been “familiar” with the story of Ruth; she admired Ruth, but as a result of my class, the story of Ruth had withered in her eyes and became not only worthless but perhaps even noxious.

My distraught student’s reaction is understandable given what my research has shown. First, the story of Ruth is used to demonstrate several different desired characteristics in line with teaching virtue ethics. She is presented as a virtuous person, and her story is meant to serve as a model and inspiration to develop particular character traits. This analysis of Ruth represents a broader practice in religious education material for children in the Lutheran church wherein the Bible is used to teach ethics in a way that aligns with Aristotle: the emphasis is on the training of character in order to become a good person rather than on rules about which actions are permitted and which are not, the idea being that a virtuous person is a morally good person.

Second, the way Ruth and other biblical stories are taught as models of virtue has significant implications for how one reads the Bible as a whole. Using biblical figures as models for moral behavior teaches children to read the Bible so that the story aligns with what they expect as ethical conduct; the problematic elements are ignored. Additionally, using biblical figures to teach virtue ethics trains children to read the Bible simplistically: to reduce or ignore the literary and moral complexity in the text and read stories as obvious moral lessons, often illustrated by a single biblical verse—a memory verse, a proof text, if you will, that is often not even from the story itself. Finally, although on the surface virtue ethics is taught, there is also an underlying message that the Bible is a collection of rules for behavior.

The Virtuous Ruth

Ruth has been an especially popular story, used as one of the fifteen or sixteen stories from the Old Testament each year from the Lutheran Graded Series of the General Council of the Evangelical Church in North America in 1897 until the Witness curriculum of the ELCA in 2004. She is presented as “diligent” (1901), “faithful” (1923), “a sturdy character” (1923), a model of “womanly devotion, womanly courage, womanly purity, womanly perseverance, womanly consecration to the Lord” (1907). The following two examples, one from 1903 and the other from 1993, illustrate the story’s use for training virtuous character.

In one of the oldest teacher’s manual (1903), Ruth is described as “humble and industrious” and as “a model of faithfulness and worthiness.” She is commended for not sitting and waiting for charity, for not complaining that she had no proper occupation, and for not considering menial service too lowly. Boaz is also virtuous but for different reasons. He is described as “a model man of wealth … financially and socially, a favored man, who, in the midst of prosperity and popularity took interest in those who served him, and in kindness of heart was charitable toward the needy.” Also, noteworthy for being one of the very few instances that acknowledge the sexual nature of what happened on the threshing floor, Boaz is said to be “a type of noble, true manhood” because he “shields the good name and is solicitous for the reputation of the young woman who is finding her way into his heart and life.” The teacher is advised to tell the students that “young people who are wise will never place themselves in a position which will throw them into liable suspicion.”[1]

In the 1993 Witness curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders, Ruth is a model of “ultimate devotion.” The “key idea” of the story is to “remain faithful and devoted to God.” The objectives listed for the lesson are as follows: “hear about Ruth, a faithful and devoted servant of God; reflect on people who have devoted their lives to God; plan how they can witness their faith in God by their devotion to other people or worthy causes.” The Bible verse associated with the lesson is Matt 25:40: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.” The teacher is instructed to discuss with the students that one shows devotion to God through actions toward others, especially the “least”: sick, elderly, hungry, children, any people who are oppressed. Fifth- and sixth-graders especially can show their devotion by being kind, putting others first, and avoiding cliques.[2]

Ruth as a Child

Particularly interesting is the tendency to shape the lesson so that Ruth models the virtue of being an obedient and helpful child. This is done in several different ways.

In some cases, this idea is listed as what is to be learned from the story. For example, in the 1902 Bible Literature (for sixth-grade) the first practical lesson of Ruth is: “honoring parents brings temporal blessings.”[3] It notes here the fourth commandment. Throughout the 1920s, the key lesson of Ruth is repeatedly stated to be about the appropriate role of the child in the parent-child relationship: “We should so love and fear God as not to despise nor displease our parents … but honor, serve, obey, and love them (vs. 1:16-17).”[4]

Another way the story is shaped so that the student sees Ruth as the model of an obedient and helpful child is through the use of an accompanying memory verse that is clearly intended to encapsulate the presumed main idea and essentially serve as a proof-text. The verse, often not even from the story itself, functions as the frame, drawing the child’s attention to select portions of the story. So, for example, in 1959, the accompanying memory verse is Exod 20:23: “Honor your father and your mother.”

A third way of shaping the way the student sees the biblical text is by telling modern-day stories that apply the chosen lesson of the Bible to the child’s life. For example, the 1985 Living Faith Series for second-graders uses such stories to reinforce seeing Ruth a virtuous child. There are three accompanying stories meant to illustrate the biblical text, all seeking to guide the children to be good and helpful. For example:

One afternoon Jesse ran home after school. He had made plans to go bike riding with friends. He opened the door and yelled. No one answered him, but he heard his baby brother crying in the kitchen. He stepped over the toys in the living room and raced to find his grandmother. She took care of the baby while his mother worked in a store. Grandma was stirring something on the stove. Pots and pans were everywhere. Then Jesse remembered this was the night his aunt and uncle were coming for supper. What do you think he did?[5]

Clearly, the appropriate thing for the children to say would be that Jesse put off his own plans and pitched in to help without being asked—just like Ruth, of course. The accompanying story becomes the narrow lens through which the biblical story is understood.

In the case of children too young to read the biblical text for themselves, only parts of the biblical story are retold, and even these parts may be told inaccurately to reinforce the theme for the day. Consider this example: in the 1956 Christian Growth curriculum for kindergarteners, one of the aims of the lesson is stated as guiding the child to be helpful. The lesson contains a modified version of the second chapter of Ruth, beginning with Ruth gathering grain in the field of “farmer Boaz.” Naomi tells her, “You are a good girl, Ruth, to bring home this grain. You have worked hard; now we have food.” The teacher introduces the story as follows: “Today I have a story for you about a farmer, a young woman who gathered food, and the girl’s mother [emphasis mine] who prepared it for the evening meal.” While this retelling does actually begin by stating Ruth lived with her husband’s mother, Ruth is introduced and essentially presented in retelling as a child who helps prepare dinner. The story in fact ends at the dinner table, corresponding to the end of the second chapter of Ruth when she brings home the grain from the field. There is no mention of Ruth going to the threshing floor, marrying Boaz, or having a child.[6]

No wonder that the 1959 Christians Growth Series can safely encourage children to “play the story of Ruth with your friends.” Now, while in this version for slightly older children Ruth does marry, the threshing floor scene is reduced to Naomi telling Ruth to “remind [emphasis mine] him [Boaz] that he is related to the family of your husband.”[7]

Certainly, presenting Ruth as a loyal, helpful child is an attempt to make the Bible relevant in an age-appropriate way to children whose primary sphere is the home; but this framing of the story lowers the bar of moral obligation. No longer is Ruth a story of remarkable devotion between two people who have no legal or socially expected ties; now it is one of expected filial duty—a very different message.

Ruth as “Other”

The story of Ruth is also used to teach virtue ethics in a way that focuses on how Ruth was treated rather than on what Ruth herself did. In this case, Ruth’s status as “other” becomes the primary focus of the story. While Ruth is often praised in these lessons for her loyalty and devotion—so much sometimes that one has to wonder if we should only be kind to the “other” who is hard-working and diligent—the model for appropriate character in these instances is really Boaz and the people of Judah. Here the range of the accompanying memory verses shape the particular issue Ruth’s story serves to address, and rarely do we encounter the same one.

In 1930, the story is accompanied by Acts 10:34 (“I truly understand that God shows no partiality”), and the lesson encourages showing friendliness to foreigners.[8] In 1932, the verse is Acts 17:26 (“From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth”), and the issue is race relations.[9] In 1933, the verse is 1 John 4:7 (“Let us love one another for God is love”), and the lesson is about contact between Christian and non-Christian nations.[10] In 1946, the focus shifts to immigrants. Quoting Hebrews 13:2 (“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…”), the lesson highlights the fact that Ruth, the foreigner, is welcomed among the workers. The teacher’s manual states that juniors are “too young to appreciate the dramatic elements of the story, but there is much in the book that they can enjoy and profit by learning. Emphasize friendly courtesy and sharing with a stranger.” The story illustrating how to apply the virtues in Ruth’s story to the contemporary world reflects the time-period: an American soldier befriends a ten-year-old Polish boy who had fought with his unit in the war. The soldier brings the boy to America, where, through the soldier’s influence, the boy finds this country a friendly place to be.[11] For younger children in 1946, the emphasis is also on foreigners, but expanded to include children who might be labeled as “other” because of developmental problems.[12]

In 1957, all “others” seem to be included: The memory verse is Lev 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), and the teacher is instructed to “help juniors see the bonds that unite us as Christians are greater than the differences of race, nationality, speech, dress, customs; not only show kindness to Christians of other nations, but to all people everywhere.” The application of the story, however, is adapted to fit the size of the world the elementary school student inhabits: “Discuss what juniors can do for families who move into their neighborhood.”[13]

Scholars often note the inclusion of foreigners in Ruth. Of course, one of the reasons they note this inclusiveness is because other parts of the Bible have more of an exclusivist agenda. Consider the command to expel foreign wives in Ezra-Nehemiah or the Deuteronomy passage that decrees “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation …” (Deut 23:3). Just as the threshing floor scene is quietly swept under the rug, so, too, are these more difficult passages. There is no mention of these other perspectives being present in the Bible.

Conclusion

Even though the religious education material on the surface uses the biblical stories to present moral exemplars, the method sets the student up to be vulnerable to reading the Bible from a deontological perspective, as a collection of rules that can be evidenced by proof-texts.

Yes, the focus in the religious education materials is on character not codified principles. However, only certain parts of the story are emphasized or even read or told at all. Biblical figures are models of moral behavior, and the Bible is read to affirm Christian values of the day. In cases where the character or story strays from that message, the text is suppressed. Retellings of the story skip scenes or rewrite them; and if not, these parts of the story are ignored in the lesson discussing the text. Furthermore, the focus on character development teaches students to read the Bible simplistically. Irony, play on words, the literary artistry of the story—all plentiful in Ruth—may sometimes be praised in teacher’s manuals, but they are completely ignored in the lessons.

Certainly the Bible needs to be taught in age-appropriate ways: pre-schoolers understand the world in very concrete terms; young children don’t yet possess the critical thinking skills of adults; and there are mature themes in the Bible that may not be appropriate to address with a classroom full of snickering pre-teens. However, when children are old enough to start dealing with complexities in the text, the problem is often confounded. Junior high and high school curriculum has often shifted away from the biblical text: in the case of junior high, the focus is usually catechism; in high school, the starting point is usually appropriate lifestyle choices for Christians, and how to deal with social pressures is often the primary concern. The only role the Bible plays is to offer the occasional proof-text.

If we want to move beyond biblical sound bytes, and if we want to raise children to be attentive readers who recognize and appreciate the complexity in the Bible and will not grow up to be blindsided by it, I propose rethinking how the Bible is used in religious education. First, when the goal of a Sunday school lesson is to teach Christian character and conduct, consider using stories about contemporary individuals or situations as models instead of a Bible story. As the Ruth example illustrates, presenting biblical figures as moral exemplars conflicts with the goal of teaching the Bible: the child learns the moral at the expense of the biblical story.

Second, when the goal is learning the Bible, then read the whole story together and engage the children in conversation. Encourage attention to details. Encourage questions. Resist easy answers. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Don’t pre-select a “key idea.” Don’t try to tie the lesson up into a neat package. Allow ambiguity.

Depending on the children’s ages, they will understand and appreciate different things about the stories, but the method can work for children age five as well as age fifteen. If a story or part of a story is inappropriate for little ones (as is the case with the threshing floor scene in Ruth), choose instead a story that isn’t and that can be examined in its entirety.

If we are going to give the Bible so much weight, let’s not strip it of so much of its substance.

Valerie A. Stein, University of Evansville, Evansville, Indiana

Notes

[1] Thodore E. Schmauk, J. C. F. Rupp, and W. L Hunton, ed. Lesson Commentary for Sunday Schools of the Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1903).

[2] Margaret Marchander. Witness. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

[3] John A.W. Haas. Bible Literature an Introductory View of the Bible and Its Books for 6th Grade (The Lutheran Graded Series; Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1902).

[4] Bible History Quarterly (Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1923-1925), 25-27, 27-29.

[5] My Place Among God’s People (Grade 2. Term 1. Living Faith Series. Philadelphia: Augsburg, 1985).

[6] God Cares (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1956).

[7] Christian Growth Series for Juniors (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1959).

[8] Augsburg Intermediate Juniors (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1930).

[9] Augsburg Intermediate Juniors (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1932).

[10] Augsburg Intermediate Juniors (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1933).

[11] Augsburg Teacher for Juniors (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1946).

[12] Augsburg Teacher for Little Ones (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1946).

[13] Augsburg Teacher for Juniors (Christian Growth Series. Philadelphia: ULCA Parish Education, 1957).

 
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