Bible Study

Anybody who’s been bothering to read these Editorials and/or my books or posts in the Forma[1] Facebook group over the years, is aware of my obsession with the issue of how we read and understand scripture, and how we teach our biblical story to children.  Obviously these two issues are mutually reinforcing: it is hard to help adults present scripture to children in ways that break out of the stereotyped distortions of its genre and message if those adults’ own grasp of scripture is subject to the same distortions.  Here’s a review of a rapidly growing 21st-century resource that holds great promise for the adult side of this equation.

Resource Review – THE BIBLE PROJECT (BibleProject: Helping people experience the Bible as a unified story that leads to Jesus)

Since the Reformation, we have been conditioned to think of the Bible as a book—a book to read, usually in solitude, with the expectation of gleaning tangible spiritual uplift or enlightenment from the act of reading.  The Protestant ideal believer was to be steeped in the Word through daily reading, over and over again in the course of a life.  Long immersion in the different genres and voices of scripture would bring familiarity and fluency and, in turn, the context for understanding and discernment. Reading would be reinforced by prayer and hymnody rich with scriptural allusions, and by preaching and spiritual instruction.

Photo by Alexandra Fuller on Unsplash

Books, however—and the act of reading—have undergone enormous changes since the translation and printing of the Bible, in tandem with the zeal of the Reformation and the rise in literacy, first placed the scriptures in the hands of lay people who had little, if any, other reading material and therefore were able, and eager, to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the scriptures. 

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In Search of a Children’s Bible

It’s now been thirty years since the publication of my book, Offering the Gospel to Children, which included a chapter on children’s Bibles entitled “The Distorted Canon.” In that chapter I spoke of the “subtle but genuine disjunction for most American Episcopalians between their idea of ‘the Bible’ and their experience of the Christian life through prayer, liturgy, and the community of faith.’” This disjunction has not lessened in the decades since I wrote those lines. 

The books depicted in the illustrations are among my personal favorites, either because they come closest to meeting the criteria below or because they have beautiful illustrations or other outstanding features . Several are out of print but (thanks to the internet) are not hard to find second hand. Later in this article I will briefly review another recently published children’s Bible.

New children’s Bibles come on the market every year, and those published in the US nearly all reflect an evangelical-fundamentalist approach to scripture. And even those originating in the “progressive” churches or the much more ecumenical European publishing environment, reflect a certain tradition surrounding the framing of sacred story for children that arises from the nature of the Bible itself—the fact that only part of its story arc appears in its original texts as narrative; the rest is embedded in other literary forms that are much harder to translate for children.  “Story Bibles” for small children are bound to limit themselves to the best-known narratives of scripture; the real challenge occurs when a writer and illustrator set out to recast the “whole Bible” in a form more accessible to young readers than the thousand pages of text that is the printed Bible.

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Written for Our Learning

In October 2021, Virginia Seminary’s Lifelong Learning program held an online symposium on the spirituality of children. (Registration and $45.00 required to access.) One of the speakers was Dr. Laura Alary, a storyteller, author, and educator headquartered in Toronto.  Her presentation, entitled “What is This Story Doing to Me? Biblical Storytelling for a Global Generation,” focused on the guiding principles behind her full-length story Bible for children, Read Wonder Listen, published in 2018. 

REVIEW: Read Wonder Listen: Stories from the Bible for Young Readers with the words of Laura Alary and the pictures of Ann Sheng. Kelowna, BC, Canada: Wood Lake Publishing, 2018. 239 pages.

In her presentation at the Lifelong Learning symposium, Dr. Laura Alary notes that the church (as also the synagogue) has historically understood that scripture is complex, nuanced, multivocal, and subject to continued reinterpretation.  For these reasons, she explains, “reading the Bible requires a framework or lens that allows us to measure individual texts in the light of the whole and its purpose.”  For Christians, this means a framework that is based on the Good News as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.

In the light of the specific context and challenges confronting the people of God today, she names six characteristics that emerge from the overriding arc of God’s self-revelation in scripture and are made flesh in Christ.  This “Rule of Faith” or ultimate message of scripture, she declares, is inclusive, universal, truthful, peaceful, open, and loving.

Scripture is complex, nuanced, multivocal, and subject to continued reinterpretation. How do we tell its stories faithfully, situating them in their context within the unfolding narrative, while always looking to the end point of that narrative, God’s full self-revelation in Jesus Christ?

But this message of the Bible is not consistently evident on every page.  And since we must break up the Bible into smaller parts in order to read or tell or teach it, especially with children, how do we tell its stories faithfully, situating them in their context within the unfolding narrative, while always looking to the end point of that narrative, God’s full self-revelation in Jesus Christ?

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Baby Bible Books

An overview of some of the many board books intended to familiarize toddlers with images and concepts of scripture and faith. I hope the assessments represented here can be helpful for readers looking to choose well for their children or church nursery.

“Board books” fill a niche as a specific genre of picture book for toddlers: short and simple enough to capture the interest of very small children, and durable enough to survive their reaching, grabbing, mouthing and handling.  Typically, board books consist of a series of spreads, each with a picture and just a few words naming or describing the pictures.  Some of the more sophisticated author/illustrators, such as Sandra Boynton, may successfully tell a story or feature humor or whimsy.  More commonly, board books are simply little galleries of pictures—of familiar objects, animals, foods, toys, or daily activities; or are organized around concepts such as numbers, colors, or shapes. 

Typically, board books consist of a series of spreads, each with a picture and just a few words naming or describing the pictures. 

This simple formula encourages publishers to issue board books in series, running into the dozens of titles.  Along with the galleries of Baby Animals and Cars and Trucks, the series may extend to themes or images from the Bible.  This is more common among publishers based in the UK or Europe, where the relatively small market for religious books for children is integrated into the mainstream publishing industry rather than being centered, as in the US, in a mammoth parallel industry dedicated specifically to Christian (primarily evangelical) materials.

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Diversities of Gifts

As the 2020-21 program year came to an end, I looked back on my unofficial role in our parish as the Bible study, arts, and liturgy person.  I got in touch with Sarah Bentley Allred of Building Faith, the Virginia Theological Seminary’s online journal for Christian formation, shared with her some of my thoughts about how we feed the flock of Christ, and asked her if she thought there was a potential article somewhere in there.  She patiently walked with me through several drafts, and the article came out the last week in August:  “Pandemic Times in a Small Church: Using Our Gifts to Celebrate Our Gifts.”

One of the “core values” of Building Faith, as Sarah explained to me, is “making sure each individual article we post offers something practical and replicable.”  This (and the guidelines for article length) meant that the personal feelings about vocation and individual gifts that had stirred me to want to write the article did not get into the final version.  Perhaps sharing them here might resonate for other people who are called to this kind of ministry.

Our parish is small, diverse, highly engaged in outreach, and its typical member is passionate about caring for people both within the parish community and beyond. Since 2018 the church has had a part-time priest-in-charge who is a very good fit for this spiritual style, has helped us become more visible and connected in the local community, and has topped it up by adding original music skills, mostly in a folk-rock vein.  He has also helped us open conversations on social and racial justice.  Our signature ministry is a weekly community supper, Dinner for a Dollar.

There’s a certain embarrassment in putting so much energy into a Christmas pageant or an Easter vigil when there are hungry people to feed.  But I keep coming back to the truth that like it or not, my gifts are for things like Christmas pageants.

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True or False

Some thoughts on the “war” between science and religion for those of us who do not think there should be any such war.

Just a year ago in this space, I noted the widespread casual ignorance and—worse—the widespread inaccurate stereotypes, about Christianity that are everywhere in American life and culture.  Specifically, there is the common assumption that the right-wing white Christians, both evangelical and Catholic, who have become so prominent in our nation’s political life are the normal or default version of Christianity. They themselves have actively encouraged these assumptions, making it easy for the so-called “mainstream media” to fall in line.  As I wrote last year,

… even a network like NPR routinely seems to accept, uncritically, the opinions of conservative evangelicals as representative of a “Christian” viewpoint, and even to seek out those organizations for a “Christian” opinion about some event or trend. 

In the same essay, I quoted Jim Wallis, who noted that “media illiteracy about religion and the personal secular bias of many journalists” have led to “an easy narrative” in which “the religious right and the secular left have one thing in common: They both want the world to think that all religion is right-wing.”

In the mere twelve months since then, we have seen a hundred-year flood of news events and social ferment, and this facile equivalency has begun to break down.  The Covid-19 pandemic, and the wave of protests in response to systemic racism and police violence, have encouraged reporters and commentators to look for a broader range of faith responses to spiritual issues such as human suffering, human connection; altruism, justice, freedom, duty, and sacrifice. 

As a result, the secular media have become more aware of the diversity, indeed the polarization, of American Christianity, reflected in the disparate responses of different churches to the pandemic, to public health measures such as wearing masks and refraining from gathering in person for worship, and to the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election. Ordinary Americans are no longer getting a simplistic message that “all religion is right-wing.”

The swift and forceful response of Episcopal Bishop Budde, and then of many other religious leaders, to President Trump’s violent dispersal of peaceful protesters in order to pose, awkwardly holding up a Bible, in front of St. John’s Church, provided a standout teachable moment for the media and the American public.  The lifelong Catholic faith of the President-elect, which he wears with the unassuming comfort of Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and sneakers, and coverage of the Georgia Senate campaign of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a preacher in the Black social-justice Gospel tradition, may also be helping to challenge some of the stereotypes about religious faith.

The divide between religion and science has a long and complex history, and is a fine example of the old adage, “When two sides can’t find common ground, look for the unexamined error that unites them both.”

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How to Grow a Welcoming Church

Longstanding readers of The Sunday Paper editorials and/or this blog, are aware that my daughter, Margaret Pritchard Houston, is a children’s ministry professional in the Church of England.  I have (with her permission) filched her articles as Sunday Paper editorials several times in the last ten years, and the Editorial for Fall 1 2013 reviewed her first book, There Is a Season: Celebrating the Church Year with Children.  (That review predates my blog, but I will post a condensed version of it as a comment on this post.)

Her new book arises out of her work since 2016 as diocesan staff member for children’s ministries in the Diocese of St Albans, and prior to that position, and overlapping with it, as Children and Families Minister at a London parish.  I should also mention, as I have before, that her blog, Living God’s Love, is well worth following. 

Beyond the Children’s Corner: Creating a Culture of Welcome for All Ages by Margaret Pritchard Houston.  172 pages +Afterword by Sandra Millar and 3 Appendices.  London: Church House Publishing, 2020.

I ended my review of Margaret’s first book with the paragraph, “Go out and get this book.  You’ll be inspired.”  The same recommendation applies to this one, which has a broader reach: it is aimed at parish leaders rather than children’s ministry staff and volunteers.  It is a guide to addressing the frequently expressed wishful hope of “attracting more young families to our church” by taking an honest look at every feature of that wishful hope.

What do we mean by “young families”?  How would we “attract” them?  And, for that matter, what do we mean by “our church”—what in fact is the church, what is its mission, what is the Good News it has to offer, and why would anybody (and particularly “young families”) in this stressful world get up and dressed and out the door on Sunday morning in order to be part of it?

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The Law and the Prophets

The readings for Proper 25, Year A, offer many insights at this time of compound-complex crises in our nation. 

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great Commandment, and the second is like unto it:  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

“Lord, have mercy upon us. 
Christ, have mercy upon us. 
Lord, have mercy upon us.”

For people my age who grew up in the Episcopal Church, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel slip effortlessly into the cadences of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, much as certain other Scriptures slip automatically into the words of Handel’s Messiah, or the words of Martin Luther King.  Every Eucharist would begin with the Summary of the Law:  “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith … On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  And this was followed immediately by the Kyrie:  “Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.”  Before the supremely simple Law of God—love God, love your neighbor—we would fall down in dismay:  “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

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Church in the Time of Permanent Emergency

Quarantine measures have raised to a new level of visibility issues that the local church has been facing for a long time.

An article in The New York Times put it succinctly:

One of the cruelties of the coronavirus is that it has led places of worship to not only strip away in-person religious traditions, but also modify or eliminate community gatherings all at a time when the faithful —still reeling from the effects of an unrelenting pandemic—need them most.

For families with young children, this presents an especially big challenge: Without in-person religious education or volunteer activities, how do parents keep kids engaged in their religion? How can a family “love thy neighbor as thyself” in a world where close social interaction is discouraged?

Christina Caron, “How Families Are Finding God, Grace and Faith Outside a House of Worship,” New York Times, August 4, 2020, retrieved 8/24/20

Some parents, especially evangelical Christians, are long accustomed to seeing the home and family as a school of faith.  They readily share family traditions of prayer, Bible reading, and spiritual practice, and filter daily interactions through a lens of testifying for their faith. But for families in the so-called “mainline” churches, especially outside the socially conservative South and Midwest, faith at home does not come as easily, even if they are active church members. 

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Diddy Disciples

Shortly before Christmas, a large, heavy envelope was delivered to our door, from Inter-Varsity Press, addressed to me, and proved to contain two hefty paperbound volumes, 8½ by 11½ inches, and a couple of cards from Inter-Varsity saying the books were sent “with our compliments.”  The books themselves bore the imprint of SPCK, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—a publishing arm of the Church of England—and because my daughter works in Christian formation in England, I recognized them as the documentation for a new curriculum for very young children that is becoming well known there.  So, “Diddy Disciples” is crossing the Atlantic, and I get to tell you about it.

Diddy Disciples: Worship and Storytelling Resources for Babies, Toddlers and Young Children, by Sharon Moughtin-Mumby.  London: SPCK, 2017.
Book 1: September to December, 262 pages + 20 pages of pattern outlines.
Book 2: January to August, 360 pages + 30 pages of pattern outlines (some of which duplicate the outlines in Book 1).

I’ll begin by getting this out of the way: I really, really don’t like the name.  I’m allergic to cute or twee names for church programs for children.  “Diddy,” according to Wiktionary, can mean “tiny” in British English—a discovery I was relieved to make after looking up the word in several reputable sources where the only definition listed was “Slang: a breast or nipple; var. of titty, diminutive of tit.”  Perhaps across the Pond it also means “pacifier” in some dialects?

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