How can anyone completely answer the difficult questions that children ask: Who created God? Will there be another flood? Is the Bible true? But then, we adults have questions too: With so many options and Bible translations, where can I go for help? What is the best Bible for my child? How do we talk about miracle stories, healing stories, and the creation stories? What about violence? When kids ask about the relevancy of the Bible for today, what do we say?
How we read and interpret the Bible with children may mean the difference between whether or not it will continue to be an important source for their faith development as they become young adults.
Written by an expert in children’s ministry, I Wonder is a resource for adults who want to explore ways to help children read, engage, wrestle, and grow into deeper understanding of the Bible. It is for those who come to the Bible with souls open to be fed and who want their children to seek faith and wisdom. It will also help readers address timeless questions and issues including recent biblical scholarship, literary analysis, reading the Bible from their social location and reading the Bible in a multi-faith world.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Engaging a Child's Curiosity about the Bible
By Elizabeth F. Caldwell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
What Story Does the Bible Tell?
When I write for children about the spiritual, I strive to create such stories, stories that use language in ways that are clear, filled with metaphor and symbolic images, concrete and personally relevant to children's experiences, and open to ongoing questions and conversations. I imagine that these kinds of narratives have the capacity to help our youth and children grow up. Whether or not they are literally true, good stories have the power to help us better understand who we are and what we believe.
— Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." This familiar childhood song reminds us of a basic theological concept. It's in the Gospel stories where we first hear and learn about Jesus. Moreover, we learn about love as it is first experienced at home in relationship with family members. We connect the love spoken about Jesus with our experiences of being loved by those around us. Beyond singing this beloved song with its simple affirmation of faith, what else are children learning about the Bible?
Why We Tell the Story of the Bible and Our Hopes in Keeping This Story Alive with Our Children
From 2002 to 2005, The National Study of Youth and Religion interviewed more than three thousand American teenagers (ages thirteen to seventeen) and found that a majority of youth reflect the religious faith of their parents. In this study, Melinda Lundquist Denton and Christian Smith discovered that mainline Protestant youth who attended church with their parents were "among the least religiously articulate of all teens." They found that the youth they interviewed were inarticulate with regard to speaking about their faith "because no one had taught them how to talk about their faith, or provided opportunities to practice using a faith vocabulary."
A faith vocabulary is first shared and practiced at home as parents and other family members raise a child in the Christian faith. Reading the Bible, becoming familiar with its stories and the themes that are woven throughout is one of the most important ways for children to learn a vocabulary of faith.
In their reflection on The National Study of Youth and Religion study and its implications for the religious lives of teenagers, Smith and Denton identified several conclusions that are important for our thinking about the role of parents in the religious formation of their children. They found that parents have the most influence in the religious and spiritual formation of their teenage children: "The best social predictor, although not a guarantee, of what the religious and spiritual lives of youth will look like is what the religious and spiritual lives of their parents do look like. ... Parents, will most likely, 'get what they are.'"
A second important conclusion from the study is finding that many US teenagers have a very difficult time articulating what they believe or the ways their belief systems impact their daily lives. "Religion seems very much a part of the lives of many U.S. teenagers, but for most of them it is in ways that seem quite unfocused, implicit, in the background, just part of the furniture ... important but not a priority, valued but not much invested in, praised but not very describable."
In this book that focuses on how we read the Bible with children, these conclusions about teenagers are worth remembering. The faith that teenagers exhibit is the result of what they experience in the home. What is modeled for them by their parents is most important. And the ways that faith and practices of faith impact the everyday, such as reading the Bible and connecting biblical stories with living life on a daily basis, means the difference in their ability to articulate what they believe and how they will live. Will their faith be one that can be articulated in words and actions or will it be decorative, "just part of the furniture," easily rearranged, moved to the background or storage?
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso believes that children need a language of faith and it begins with story, "because that's how children make sense of their world through narrative and story." Sasso states,
I think such language also comes through ritual and experience. The earliest spiritual experiences that children have often come through routine and ritual that are repeated over and over again. And often when I speak to children and I ask them when do they feel the presence of God, or if they could point to a particular experience, they often speak of rituals or moments where they felt very close to their parents and it helped them give expression to what they were feeling.
There is an intimacy present when stories are shared. 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.
Methodist pastor Kenda Creasy Dean, writing in her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, contrasts a "diner theology" of "being nice, feeling good about yourself and saving God for emergencies" with a "consequential faith, which is far more likely to take root in the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and mentor relationships where young people can see what faithful lives look like, and encounter the people who love them enacting a larger story of divine care and hope."
One of the ways that children become adults who are theologically articulate is to have experiences with the Bible, a foundation of faith for Christians. In his book The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church (1970), James D. Smart noted the importance of lay people engaging in Bible study, although only 5 percent of congregations actually do so. Smart commented on the reasons why 95 percent feel no need for this kind of study.
Their version of the Christian faith and the Christian life is of a character that they can dispense with any serious delving into the scripture. They are content with a church in which all things are done decently and in order, which makes minimal demands upon their time and provides a maximum of moral stability and spiritual security for them and for the immediate community in which they live. ... They are too confident of their ability to remain faithful to Jesus Christ while ignorant of the Scriptures that witness to him.
Forty years separate these quotes by Dean and Smart! Yet the similarity of their observations is astounding — perhaps a wake-up call for those who are interested in raising their children in faithful Christian homes. Practicing the faith at home can be done in many ways. John Westerhoff, an Episcopalian religious educator, wrote a very practical book in 1980 titled Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith. In it he suggests five guidelines for sharing faith with children from birth through childhood. He believes that it is the responsibility of parents and family members to help children grow up with a language and an experience of faith. This is possible when children hear and read and recall stories from the Bible. Children grow in their faith when they learn how to pray — at meals and bedtime — and how to offer prayers for others. Westheroff believes that the Christian faith is first experienced by children when they see how the things they do for others — like listening, helping those in need, caring for someone who needs help — are important activities of service. And children's faith is supported by their participation in the life of a congregation as they learn to worship, celebrate the church seasons, participate in the sacraments, and know that there is a family called church who loves them.
Similarly, Daniel Aleshire, a religious educator who is now the head of the Association of Theological Schools, wrote this definition of Christian education:
Christian education involves those tasks and expressions of ministry that enable people (1) to learn the Christian story, both ancient and present; (2) to develop the skills they need to act out their faith; (3) to reflect on that story in order to live self-aware to its truth; and (4) to nurture the sensitivities they need to live together as a covenant community.
The first guideline, learning and telling the story, is the focus of this book. In some ways it may be the hardest one for many parents. Questions abound:
What stories do we read together?
Where do we begin?
What if they ask questions I can't answer?
I'm not sure what I believe about the Bible, so how do I read the Bible with my child?
Sources for these questions and apprehensions about reading the Bible with children focus on a variety of issues.
1. Previous Experience with the Bible
If you grew up attending church school as a child, then you may have a memory bank of favorite stories, probably stories of familiar biblical characters from the Hebrew Bible: Adam and Eve, Noah, Sarah and Abraham, Ruth and Naomi, David, Esther, Jonah. You may also know a lot of the stories of Jesus (birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection) and some stories of the early church and its leaders: Paul, Peter, Timothy. Or you may have forgotten a lot.
And if you did not grow up in a religious tradition or if your family was only nominally Christian, attending church on Christmas and Easter, then your lack of experience with the Bible may be an obstacle to reading it with a child.
2. Knowledge and Level of Comfort with Reading and Studying the Bible
If you have a lot of knowledge about biblical stories, perhaps they are like beads strung on a necklace — each one there as a separate entity yet connected because of being important parts of the one story of the Bible, the story of God's love for humankind.
If you have continued in your own reading and study of the Bible, both individually and with groups in your congregation, then you have had the chance to grow in your understanding of biblical text and learn more about these stories and how they fit together.
Continuing to read and study means that the stories you read as a child or youth may now be understood in new ways. For example, the story of Noah and the flood, a vivid reminder of the relationship between God and God's creation and the first time we hear the word covenant, can be understood as a universal story of loss and recovery. Who can't relate to that ancient story when you consider your own experiences of loss and recovery and God's abiding presence?
3. Current Challenges and Practices
Most homes abound with copies of different Bible translations. Are they on the shelf? Is there a favorite that is read? Do children ever see a parent open or read the Bible? Have you given up on reading it because it is not easily understood?
These kinds of experiences in the past and current practices provide the background for considering how to begin again with a child. What in the past experience of parents needs to be held on to and affirmed as a good building block for nurturing a child's growth as a Christian? What in the past needs to be let go so that some new practices of faith can emerge? How can a vocabulary of faith for both parent and child grow as they engage the Bible together?
Craig Dykstra, former vice president of religion for Lilly Endowment, has written that it is imperative that we help youth recover a religious language that is "clear enough to be comprehended by young people, rich enough to be meaningful, concrete enough to relate to the world as it is, and critical enough to keep open the dynamics of inquiry and continuing conversation." One of the ways this religious language is supported is through engagement with the Bible, that holy book that informs us and acts on us. Dykstra has said that "God is using the Bible not only to inform us but to form us and reform us, to shape us into God's own." Dean asks this question of parents, "Do we practice the kind of faith we want our children to have?" So before we begin to consider how we read the Bible with our children, it's important to begin with ourselves and our beliefs and assumptions.
Why We Read the Bible
Take a minute and consider your response to 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 ...
Dykstra's question about how we are being formed, informed, and reformed by our reading of the Bible is a great place to begin. Often I begin a workshop for parents and grandparents with this question: What experiences of reading the Bible did you grow up with as a child? The answers have become fairly predictable. A majority say they grew up with nothing in the home. Some remember a favorite Bible storybook that they read. One or two remember a parent or grandparent who told them Bible stories from memory. Few are able to remember ever seeing a parent reading the Bible.
Bible storybooks often include an opening statement about the Bible. These statements provide clues for parents about the hopes and purposes for inviting children into the stories. As you read these statements, what do you notice? What is most explicit about the statement about the Bible? What is more implicit or assumed? Is there anything missing, something you wished had been said?
Shine On: A Story Bible says in the introduction, "For Christians, the Bible is a rare and precious treasure, an inspiration and guide for our lives. It is a place where we come to listen to God." In describing the variety of kinds of writing contained in the Bible, it says: "These stories present anew the exciting, curious, wonderful account of a God at work in the world with flawed, genuine people. They inspire children and adults to discuss, question and act in response to the biblical message."
In theChildren of God Storybook Bible, Desmond Tutu reminds children that God wants us to love others and that is accomplished when we do three things: "Do what is RIGHT, be KIND TO ONE ANOTHER, and be FRIENDS WITH GOD. You will see these teachings and many more in God's stories, which we have gathered here for you and all of God's children."
The Candle Read and Share Bible includes a letter to parents in the beginning. "What you are holding in your hands is not just a book; it's a unique way to share God's Word with the children in your life, a way to help them come to know God's love, goodness, and faithfulness to us ... and to share that good news with others."
In The Jesus Storybook Bible, Every Story Whispers His Name, the author addresses two assumptions readers often make about the Bible, that it is a book of rules or it is a book about heroes. "The Bible is most of all a story ... one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them. It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name."
The Pilgrim Book of Bible Stories divides the selected stories it includes into nineteen chapters, "each has an introduction that reveals the developing thread of the story, linking history to interpretation, literature to life. This approach roots the stories in the historical reality of their times."
The Mystic Bible by Alexandra Sangster is a collection of stories of Jesus that begins with his birth and concludes with Pentecost. It is advertised on the progressive Christianity website as using inclusive language to tell "the ancient stories of love" through text, poetry, and illustrations.
The Deep Blue Kids Bible, which is the Common English Bible translation, includes age-appropriate notes for children. The editors remind the readers that "the Bible is more than just a big book. It's a gift to us from God! It's also a gift to us from many people. It took hundreds of years and thousands of people to bring us this gift. And like all good gifts, this Bible is meant to be opened, explored, and enjoyed. It's our hope that you will learn more about God, the Bible, Jesus, faith, and how it all fits into life today."
Excerpted from I Wonder by Elizabeth F. Caldwell. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 What Story Does the Bible Tell? 1
Chapter 2 How Can We Use Children's Natural Curiosity to Help Them Read the Bible? 25
Chapter 3 What Bibles and Bible Storybooks Do We Read with Children? 51
Chapter 4 Stories That Form Us for a Life of Faith 75
Chapter 5 How We Support Families with Children 111
Appendix 1 A Wondering Model of Questions 131
Appendix 2 Evaluating Children's Bible Storybooks 135
Appendix 3 Bible Storybooks for Children-A Recommended List 137