Children's Spirituality: An approach to using the Bible
Let the Bible speak for itself... it is strong enough to do so...
Some children's writers seem almost afraid of the Biblical material, for they cannot let it stand alone.
They consider that it is too complex for children, too remote from children's own experience, and they worry that children may misinterpret the story and take away wrong ideas. They rewrite the story in a contemporary setting, or include details about the characters' thoughts and feelings that are left out of the Biblical original.
A typical example is the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father becomes Stan the supermarket owner. The sons are recast as mean, hardworking Sid, and idle, fun loving Stevie.
Already the story has diverged from the account in Luke's gospel...
We are told nothing about the younger son until he asks for his share of his father's wealth. We tend to assume that he is naturally lazy but perhaps he is a teenager desperate to determine his own identity or simply fed up with his predictable home. We are not told and we do not know. This is how it should be.
It is sometimes thought that children can only understand stories that are set in their own world and that the Biblical narratives are too remote in time and space to be understood by children today.
But this restriction could be applied to almost all stories – who has ridden a winged horse or found gold ingots in a tunnel under the sea - and who has not longed to do so?
Good stories are not simply vehicles for moral messages such as avoiding jealousy or being helpful to others. They take us out of our own world and set us free to explore others.
Their themes are universal and part of our own and children's experiences: searching, finding, loss, exile, recognition...
Our job as storytellers is to tell the story and allow the story itself to speak to the children.
As an adult a group of us were asked to look at Rembrandt's picture of the Prodigal Son and consider who we identified with. Not surprisingly there was a variety of choices: the father, the younger son, the elder brother, the watcher in the shadows.
We were all at different places in our lives and God met us in those places.
But somehow we do not believe this is true for children. We are reluctant to give children the story and let them take from it what they need. Instead of allowing children to engage with the stories, they are used as material for quizzes, wordsearches and panel games. The stories are trivialised and the meaning explained so that there is little room for discussion, reflection or response.
If we fill in the details of the stories for children we limit their effect. We have used our imaginations so children need not use theirs, and the story loses its richness.
How can we help children to engage with the Biblical narrative?
If we ask open questions rather than closed: "Is there a character you identify with?" "I wonder which part of the story you think is the most important?" then children have a chance to reflect on the story and its meaning.
Instead of giving them our interpretation, there is an opportunity for them to talk about the characters' thoughts and feelings, their motivation and actions.
We can encourage them to ask questions about the story and allow them to discuss these amongst themselves rather than giving them simplistic answers. We can create an environment that accepts that some questions do not have easy answers, and that we all at times have doubts and lack certainty.
We can also offer children an opportunity to respond to the story. This may be a chance to use art materials – or it may be a response using drama or music. A child might choose to rewrite the story in a contemporary setting – but this would be their own response to the story rather than ours.
We need to trust God to meet with children through the Biblical narrative as he meets with us.