Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Review: I Wonder

I Wonder: Engaging a Child's Curiosity about the Bible. Elizabeth Caldwell. 2016. Abingdon. 160 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Before I review this particular title, I want to quote John Piper:
One of the main lessons from all the Bible is that God does not exist for the sake of our enjoying biblical stories; biblical stories exist for the sake of our enjoying God. In our time there is great fascination with tracing out the storyline of the Bible. I simply want to wave a flag over all this fascination with story and narrative to say: there is a point to the story; there is a point to the narrative— and the point is a person. Biblical stories are no more ends in themselves than history is an end in itself or the universe is an end in itself. The universe is telling the glory of God (Ps. 19: 1). And the history of the world is what it is to show that God is who he is. God writes the story of history to reveal who he is— what he is like, his character, his name. ~ John Piper, God's Word Our Story
And also Starr Meade:
 To the degree that our children do not know the fullness of God's Word, to that degree they will not know God as fully as he wills to be known. ~ Starr Meade, Give Them Truth
There are set and specific truths that comprise the Christian faith, and for something to be Christian, it must embrace those truths. Conversely, there are limits and parameters… Christianity is, first of all, a body of truth--to be known, understood, embraced, applied, and passed on. "Spiritual" ideas and feelings, divorced from that body of truth, are not Christian, no matter what those who have them say. Our children must know, first of all, the body of truth taught by Jesus, built upon and communicated by the apostles, and passed down in the church through centuries. Without that body of truth, they do not have Christianity.  ~ Starr Meade, Give Them Truth
I love the Bible. I do. I've loved the Bible since I was a child. I heard Bible stories in the home. I heard Bible stories at church. I heard Bible stories at school. But Bible stories were never quite enough for me. I always wanted more, more, more. I hungered and thirsted for the Bible itself. It never occurred to me to think the Bible was boring, dry, dull, lacking relevance, lacking in anything in any way. The Bible is the very Word of God. So when I saw the subtitle to this book: "Engaging a Child's Curiosity About the Bible," I wanted to read this book. Never have I felt so disappointed, so misled by a book. I felt many things while reading this one, at times: angry, disappointed, frustrated, irritated, argumentative, confused, pity, sadness.

The premise of this one is simple: the book seeks to encourage parents to read the Bible or to read Bible story books with children. It sounds perfectly harmless as a premise, doesn't it? The purpose also sounds good and safe: the book wants to help readers know what to look for in a Bible story book and how to establish Bible reading--or Bible story book reading--into family life. Neither the premise or the purpose reveals red flags that bad theology may be ahead.

One assumption this book makes is that parents will need to be convinced that they even should read the Bible with their children, and, that there are (heavy) obstacles to overturn in convincing parents to read the Bible with their children. Some of these obstacles reveal other assumptions or biases held by the author.

The book gives two reasons why parents should read the Bible with their children. First, that the past two generations have not stayed in the church, have not stayed 'in the faith.' Second, the increasing inability of professing (those who see themselves as Christian) believers to articulate their faith and use a faith vocabulary. The book never really goes beyond those two reasons. That is in itself disappointing.

The way I see it, there is only one reason to read the Bible: to come to know the God that the Bible reveals. It doesn't matter if you're nine or ninety, you read the Bible to meet a person: GOD.

The book seeks to be practical, informative, persuasive. It is well-organized. It is packed with examples of what the author considers "good" Bible story adaptations and "bad" Bible story adaptations. It is how the author sees and understands 'good' and 'bad' approaches to retelling that reveal that something is a bit off.

Many, many sentences when taken on their own seem good, seem true, seem trust-worthy. A few seem incomplete or almost right. A few sound iffy or questionable. These quotes come from early chapters in the book:

How about a round of True or False?!
The chance to wonder about the Bible as they wander through their life is essential for a child's spiritual formation, for developing a language of faith.
The children in our spiritual care need a way to engage the Bible that will grow with them. They need to have a spiritual foundation with the Bible that is grounded at home as well as in the church
Reading the Bible is one of the most important ways for children to learn a vocabulary of faith.
When parents tell or read a Bible story with a child they are making a commitment of time and space to share in their child's spiritual growth. In the telling and reading of stories, in the pauses for questions and comments that always arise, parents are making their spiritual life open and near to their child. And in this intimacy of sharing and wondering together, both child and parent grow together spiritually.
Children need a language of faith and it begins with story.
One of the ways that children become adults who are theologically articulate is to have experiences with the Bible.
Hearing the Bible stories in relationship with loving parents or family members forms children in faith and helps them develop a language of faith that will grow with them.
One of the book's strengths is that it asks thought-provoking questions. It may assume rightly-or-wrongly how you'll answer and proceed from there. But a good question is a good question. One such question is, "Do we practice the kind of faith we want our children to have?"

An exercise in one of the opening chapters has readers finishing these open-ended sentences:

*The bible is...
*The bible is not...
*My own experience with reading the bible is...
*When I read the bible, I struggle with...
*A question I have about the bible is...

The author seems to have fixed ideas into how readers will finish these open-ended sentences. And perhaps that is truly unavoidable. The author assumes (for better or worse) that her readers struggle with the content of the Bible, with the idea that the Bible is a revelation of God, that the Bible is true and authoritative, etc., that readers can argue with the Bible and win, that no doctrines or concepts are fixed or absolute, that readers derive their own meaning from bible stories and the only 'true' meaning is the one you derive yourself. This perspective is revealed by the end.

The book wants parents to read bible story books with a critical lens, and, to choose the best ones to share with their children. I agree with this initial statement of what a good story book is like: "Children's bibles need to draw readers into the biblical world and leave them wanting to visit there again." The book also warns against texts that are too tamed, incomplete, or not broad enough in their selection. Which stories are always included? Which stories are rarely included? Why is one story chosen and another overlooked? For example, Jonah is often included in bible story books, but, how many retellings tell the whole story of Jonah? Another example, how many story bibles include the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? How do they explain this tough text? How many skip it altogether avoiding a potentially awkward scenario? (I must say that this book has a typo--at least in the ARC--it says WOULD ISAAC REALLY HAVE SACRIFICED HIS SON IF THE ANGEL OF THE LORD HAD NOT INTERVENED?)

The book points out that there are four things that can drive a story: values, dogma, education, or engagement. The only 'good' way according to the author is engagement driven storytelling. The distinctions they made in the "types" of storytelling were odd to me. Engaging is defined in the dictionary as "very attractive or pleasing in a way that holds your attention."

What does engagement-driven storytelling look like? I'm not quite sure. Oh, the author gives examples. But nothing distinctive enough that I can with confidence define it in my own words. My clumsy attempt: it embraces doubt and mystery, seeks to be accessible to children at many levels, in many ways, be written for all ages. It encourages children to find their own meaning and their own truths in the text. Setting aside any "true" or "false" or "right" and "wrong" notions that may be traditionally seen as being embedded in the text itself. One's faith isn't really formed by knowing or learning or accepting certain facts and truths and beliefs and doctrines, instead, faith is formed by adventures one has in their own imagination as they engage biblical stories time and time again. 

One bible-story book that consistently gets slammed and held up as a bad example is Sally Lloyd-Jones' Jesus Storybook Bible. The author seems--emphasis on SEEMS--disgusted by the fact that Lloyd-Jones clearly tells readers that each story in the Bible reveals something about Jesus, that Lloyd-Jones doesn't let readers find their own meanings and interpretations, that her focus is too narrow and even unnatural.

After this section, I saw 'red flags' everywhere. By the last two chapters, I was quite upset. More questions for readers:

*What assumptions and past experiences with the bible need to be discarded?
*What beliefs about the bible do you hold on to and why are they important?
*What space and time can be made for engaging the biblical story?

Again, the author assumes how readers will respond. Notably, the assumption is that regardless of what one believed as a child, by this point, adulthood, the book's readers will have reached the conclusion that the Bible is not true and authoritative, that the concept of "God" is not as fixed and absolute as one might have naively believed at age 6, etc. The book encourages readers to teach the Bible in a way that their children will not have to "unlearn" things later like they did. There are paragraphs focused on the obstacle of parents who "don't believe" anymore. Each obstacle or objection gets attention. Another small example, "I don't want my child to hear God to referred to as "He."

Oddly enough, the author mentions the Jefferson Bible, and, how it is a terrible, horrible bad idea to have a "cut and paste" Bible that accommodates what one believes. But I have to ask, is it really all that different if your bible remains whole, if you either a) change the meaning of the text b) ignore the original, traditional meaning of the text c) live as if it [the text you're struggling with] wasn't there in the text.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

No comments: