Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Constructive Critique of Children's Bibles: St Francis Students Weigh In

A while back on the blog, in "A Quasi-Muppet Theology of Creation," I shared the conversation by which the students of St Francis House decided to study children's Bibles in order to identify and evaluate the essential parts of the biblical narrative, as we tell them to our children. 

At the time we began the study, I wrote about my mostly cynical response to the students' proposal:

I admitted that, as the father of two children, 1 and 3, I consider myself something of an expert on children's Bibles, and that I mostly hate them. I tire of improvising around clumsy stories (water into grape juice, anyone?) just before bed and when I am tired and not wanting to keep on my theological toes. And yet, I told them, all the more reason to pay attention to the ways we Christians tell the story to our children. Right?


Now we have a semester of study under our belts, and I need to admit that the process has been unexpectedly fruitful. The insights and honesty of the students have illuminated nuances of Scripture and the faith we live as Christians in ways for which I am grateful. I feel honored to have been part of these discussions.


Even so, I was not prepared for our conversation of a week ago, circled up in a small coffee shop at Union South. We had been looking at a table of contents from a children's bible - a sort of step back for perspective from our week to week studies - and going around the table with a mix of critiques, questions, and eye-rolling disbelief. We cited a felt-obligation toward forced morals and over-glossed descriptions (pithy platitudes) of God as obstacles to a children's Bible faithful telling of the Christian story. 


One of the students even wondered out loud if, by these children's Bibles and the things they don't contain - "let the dead bury their own dead," for example - we seek to protect not our children, but ourselves, from the resulting questions our children would ask us about the story we tell and the (at least sometimes) incongruous lives that we live. Um...


But then, as we ended, this question: "Okay, then, what would you add to make a children's Bible for faithful, more true?


Some silence. I volunteered my answer first, saying that I would add a section called, "Songs God's People Sing," which, I explained, would include some representative psalms, modeling the idea that faith is not just about our moral goodness or what we think about God; faith is embodied and, first and foremost, faith makes us people of praise. This reflection comes from my firsthand experiences with my daughter, whose endless requests for "one more hymn, Daddy," have been my delight as her dad.


What else, though. What would you add?


The answers:


More Church. And the understanding that, in Christ, we have been made a part of it, animated by the Holy Spirit.

Community. The idea that we are not in this alone; that God calls us to learn from and rely on others. That asking for help is a good thing for God's people.
More death. Because the story as it is has plenty and is more honestly connected with our mortal nature.
More tax collectors and prostitutes. With the observation that Jesus came to redeem humanity, not to save humanity from the need for redemption.
The cost of discipleship. Including Jesus' teachings on wealth, the poor, and other "hard sayings." Again, who are we protecting?
An appendix of talking points and additional resourced for parents. We observed that at least one children's book included a lot of rhetorical questions, like, "Noah sent a dove. Can you find the dove?" Most able babysitters (to say nothing of parents) do not need these inane promptings. Significantly, though, these kinds of questions function to relieve the adult reader of genuine interaction. What if children's Bibles functioned instead to reinforce and equip that interaction, encouraging conversations after bedtime is over?

I left the coffeehouse that night energized by the students' insights and excited for the students' desire for encounter with the God who is, rather than the one we wish we'd gotten instead. I also left our time together deeply hopeful for the creative imagination of these students for engaging the faith we've received in its fullness and penning the story in its depth, breadth, and wonder. Thank God: better Bibles for children are coming.



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