Is the Bible a Book for Children, or, Do You Like to Talk to Tomatoes?

My friend Sarah McGiverin has started blogging at Jerusalem to Jericho. So, this gives me the opportunity to point you to a new blog that I hope you’ll read. Sarah and I spent long conversations trying to hammer out theology, and I am very glad to see she’s going to be sharing it online.

In her latest post, she writes on something that has been on my mind increasingly: children’s bible stories. She describes the state of most the children’s bibles in stores today:

Story lines are altered to suit rhyming schemes, works righteousness abounds, God is everywhere “He,” and the single thrust of most every story is that it is our bounden duty to tell everyone that Christ died to save them from damnation – even if the story is from the Old Testament. (See, for instance, Arch Books’ Zerubbabel Rebuilds the Temple.)

She goes on to admit what a lot of us think: the bible is simply not child-friendly. A lot of effort will have to go into changing the stories to at least make them readable to children. Noah and the ark comes out more funny floating zoo, leaving out the destruction of all creation. And what about the stories we dare not use with adults, much less children? (E.g., the rape of Tamar, etc.) Some of the stories in this book are just plain awful.

For our part, April and I have introduced Savannah to VeggieTales. She has taken to them as much as Bob the Builder and In the Night Garden. Watching these stories has brought me to something of a crisis in thinking, what exactly is she learning about the Bible? Veggies leaves out the more grisly bits of most stories and all have some sort of moral kids are supposed to learn. In Rach, Shack, and Benny, the lesson is ‘don’t go along with everyone else’. In Dave and the Giant Pickle, it’s ‘with God little guys can do big things too’. Not all Bible stories stay within their context – Mo and the Big Exit (the Exodus story) is a western. Some of it can be very cringe-worthy. How will this first encounter with the Bible affect her?

Yet, Savannah does love the Veggies. In particular, the Queen Esther story has stuck with her. It is by far the best of the bunch, anyway. OK, it send Haaman to the Island of Perpetual Tickling rather than hanging him from the gallows, but it sticks well with the story in Esther. Also, this episode is the least moralizing – the summary is simply – God uses people at the right place at the right time (a decent account of Mordecai’s – Morgapie to Savannah – words, ‘for such a time as this‘). One night, I showed her the story of Queen Esther in her children’s bible and she made the connection instantly. Now she asks for that story every night when we read the Bible (and she has to kiss Esther’s picture, too). VeggieTales has given her a love for the stories in the Bible that I do want her to have. I hope she will grow up to read the story of Esther deeper, and move on from the VeggieTales/Sunday school version she has now.

Which brings me to an aside: I am not a big fan of the treatment VeggieTales gave to the Exodus. But, I will say this for them. One scene caught me off guard and really touched me. I was interested in how they would handle the final plague. In it, the river rises and all the first born children get taken away (the assumption is they died, but it doesn’t actually say that). The narrator calls this the saddest of all the plagues and then cuts to Larry the Cucumber (Mo) who looks downcast as he watches. He then still looking very sad, quietly goes to the Mayor (Pharaoh), doesn’t say a word and the Mayor tells him to get out and take the people with him.  Why do I bring this up? I don’t remember ever hearing this story told in a way that it was heartbreaking to God and Moses. It was always a triumphant moment for God and Moses and a big cheer for them. I wonder if that speaks to the shallow way most children’s book handle the stories in the Old Testament. How many of us actually grew out of the ‘Sunday school’ version of the stories to think about them differently?

Sarah calls for more stories that can be more subtle, and she names Tolkien as a writer who illustrates Christian themes without being too direct. In the runup to Christmas, I think of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Though it does have Linus telling the Christmas story, it never gives the moralising this is what you do now. The story itself causes Charlie Brown to act and even the others to see what he was trying to do. Even more subtly is Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which doesn’t give answers, but simply says maybe Christmas was about ‘something more’. (This is much better than the twee answer given in the film version that Christmas is about ‘family’). Like Sarah, I am open to any and all suggestions. Please tell me if you have any!

At the moment, or at least until Sarah writes her own book she mentions in her post (!), I am going to err on the side of these children’s bibles and VeggieTales. After all the Bible has the book of Proverbs with its moralising, but often helpful day-to-day advice. Hopefully, as Savannah grows, she will also read Ecclesiastes and Job, both of which question the absolutism that Proverbs portrays (pretending there is no contradiction is the sort of Sunday school understanding I hope we all grow out of). As with those books, so with the children’s version Savannah reads now. I also hope that April and I will give deeper accounts of what it means to believe these very strange (and sometimes awful) stories are scripture. And we are hoping that people like Sarah will also have an active role in teaching Savannah about the faith where we have been unable to give a different perspective.

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10 thoughts on “Is the Bible a Book for Children, or, Do You Like to Talk to Tomatoes?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Will! I had been turned off by some of Veggie Tales moralizing, but really that is developmentally appropriate right now, and I loved your description of their treatment of the final plague – that is already beginning to transform my perspective on that story. So I’ll have to give Veggie Tales another go.
    I am excited to have our blogs in conversation!

  2. God is everywhere “He”

    I know. Isn’t that irritating? Jesus had a pesky habit of using male terminology for God as well. When will these people learn?! 😉

    (Ok, Will, forgive me for that. I am, after all, a Southern Baptist. I just couldn’t resist. Delete this if you want to.)

  3. Sarah: The moralising can get a little overbearing, so I understand. I am still amazed at their treatment of the final plague, too. If Moses didn’t act the way Larry the Cucumber did, he certainly should have! I am glad our blogs are in conversation as well! I look forward to reading more from you!

    Wyman: Oh, Wyman, you’re getting there! I will keep working on you! 🙂

  4. 🙂 at the God is everywhere He conversation… an arguement I often have with folk..

    …as for childrens stories etc, I use storytelling in school assemblies, I was so fed up with the slushy junk that was available when my children were small that I often took stories and simply re-told them myself.

    As for veggie tales- fun but….

  5. Thanks, Sally. I have read the stories you have posted, and they are delightful. I appreciate your posting them. I hope you will be able to more?

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on VeggieTales. I know they have problems, but hopefully when Savannah is older, we can talk more about what she sees.

  6. Pingback: Was Noah a giant turnip? « John Meunier's blog

  7. Tomie de Paola has some excellent picture books that tell and retell stories from the Bible. They are child friendly in their presentation. He has lots of excellent books that are not explicitly religous as well.

    Chris van Allsburg – the Polar Express – has some great books. And Polar Express has a wonderful message about the power of belief.

  8. Thanks John for the suggestions. I think someone used Polar Express as part of the project for that Tom Wright class I took earlier in the year… I don’t remember what he thought about it, though.

    I haven’t ever heard of Tomie de Paola. I will check him out.

  9. 🙂 My thoughts on veggie tales are mixed Will, they are lively and fun, but too often trivialise and diminish stories for me. They are also moral, which is not a bad thing, but if morality over faith is the message then I’d rather leave it than take it.

    Having said that my children did watch veggie tails, but I would not rely on them as a teaching method!

  10. Hi Sally! Thank you for your comments. I agree with you almost entirely! I think the only point of divergence might be that I am going to err (for at least now) on the side of veggies. But, as you say, I won’t rely on them entirely!

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