I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible

Elizabeth F. Caldwell, I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2016)

Introduction

Elizabeth F. Caldwell, I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible Elizabeth F. Caldwell is Visiting Professor of Religious Education at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. She taught previously at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago for thirty years, 1984-2014, where she was Professor of Pastoral Theology and Associate Dean for Students and Academics.

At McCormick she taught a course for seminarians called “Reading the Bible with Children.” Her goal for the course was, as she writes, to “model good biblical scholarship with children (vii).” This book came primarily from that experience. Her most recent books before I Wonder include God’s Big Table, Nurturing Children in a Diverse World (2011) and Making a Home for Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children (2007). She is an ordained Presbyterian minister and in 2004 the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators selected her as Educator of the Year.

The Goal and Structure of the Book

“This book has been written to help support parents in taking a big step in getting started reading the Bible with their children (117).” The structure of the book involves three questions/answers and two statements, which shape this review.

I Wonder is a book of valuable lists. There are lists of developmental periods, lists of criteria for selecting Bible storybooks, lists of Bible storybooks selected, and lists of things the church can do to support and educate parents for reading Bible storybooks with their children. It is not always clear whether the audience is parents or church leaders, but these audiences are related.

Two mechanical things make the book’s flow hard to follow. There is no index and the footnotes are at the end of the book, so you will need to make your own index, as you read, and keep a finger in the back of the book for the footnotes. The publisher also decided to use “pull-outs,” which repeat sentences from the text in larger type. The type used is twice the size of the section headings, which makes the logic of each chapter hard to follow. It is better to ignore the pull-outs and follow the logic of Dr. Caldwell’s section headings.

Chapter 1. What Story Does the Bible Tell?

The beginning chapter is only vaguely about the story the Bible tells. It is more about why, how, and what to read, when we read Bible stories to children.

Why should we do this? We read the Bible to children to keep the story’s content and Biblical language alive. If children learn the Bible’s story, by reading or being read to in a loving environment, they will “develop a language of faith … that will grow with them (10).” Caldwell uses Craig Dykstra’s rubric to sharpen this point. We read the Bible to children to form, inform, and reform them (7).

How we read to children is shaped in four ways. The book uses Melody Briggs’ typology to show this. The goals for children’s storybooks are:

  1. “Value Driven”
    Bible stories are sometimes used to illustrate a moral. For example, the story of Jesus lost in the Temple is used to teach children that they should obey their parents. Sometimes the values taught do not emerge from the story.
  1. “Dogma Driven”
    The concern here is to develop correct thinking about what the Bible means, so theological conclusions are inserted. An example is connecting the story of Jonah with Jesus, as a story type, which is replaced or fulfilled in the New Testament. Not everyone subscribes to the theology of supersessionism.
  1. “Education Driven”
    This approach encourages children’s interest by adding dialogue and facts to the telling of the stories. It also fills in emotional responses. This sort of Bible storybook is conceived of as communicating Biblical “facts” that children need to know.
  1. “Engagement Driven”
    This editorial principle “invites the readers curiosity and imagination.” The writing style keeps the “ambiguity of the text alive (15).” This approach to the text encourages children to “ask questions, wonder about it, and even resolve it.” Children “resolve it” by understanding how the story is different from today and yet can be applied to their lives. Dr. Caldwell prefers this approach.

Why, how and what parents read is shaped by their personal history with the Bible. They need “to remove, de-clutter, and rearrange (20-24).” Some assumptions and experiences need to be discarded, because they frustrate a wondering approach. Parents also need to ask themselves what beliefs about the Bible they want to hold on to. In addition they need to make space and time for engaging the Bible with their children. These decisions need to be worked out by parents, because you can give no more than what you have (23) and you want to give your children wonder, not unconscious ambivalence or conflicting assumptions, about the Bible.

Chapter 2. How Can We Use Children’s Natural Curiosity To Help Them Read the Bible?

The engagement model for children’s storybook Bibles invites children’s “natural curiosity.” Dr. Caldwell discusses this in a section called “Concerned Parents Want their Children To Grow Up in the Christian Faith with a Love of God but in Ways that They Don’t Have to Unlearn Later (32-38).” This section does not actually discuss learning and unlearning in depth, nor wonder in relation to “natural curiosity” and reading texts. It does, however, describe how children wonder in an approach to spiritual guidance called “Godly Play” and how that might be applied to reading.

The wonder that occurs in spoken storytelling with movable objects in a circle of children in a carefully prepared environment is very different from listening to someone read a book or reading silently to one’s self. Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1962) discusses the difference between speaking and reading in detail. Still, the experience of wonder in Godly Play is something to reach for when reading a text. We will return to the difference between “wonder” and “natural curiosity” in the “Comments” section.

Dr. Caldwell suggests taking five steps for inviting wonder when reading. There are also five steps in the Godly Play process. They are entering the room with respect and anticipation, the presentation/wondering in the circle of children, additional wondering with an art response, a simple feast with prayers, and saying good-by in a way that is like a blessing. Dr. Caldwell translates this into the reading environment as: “Enter” “Hear” “Pause” “Wonder” and “Bless (38-42, 131-134).”

Wondering in Godly Play is distinguished from asking Socratic questions, which lead the student to the answer sought by the teacher. Wondering is also distinguished from asking factual questions, which have specific information as their answers. Wondering is different. If you know the answer to a wondering invitation, then it is not wondering. This discussion is important, because the kind of question you ask determines the response you get.

Dr. Caldwell suggests that after settling into the reading setting with respect and anticipation the text is read. A pause should be made before wondering about it. She advises that children and parents count on their fingers to ten in silence before beginning to wonder. This gives a moment to relax and open the mind, which is communicated by showing how to do this nonverbally. Her “wondering questions (40-41),” however, sound a bit like test questions in school for children from 9-12 years of age. Perhaps, she assumes a different phrasing for early and middle childhood. Certainly the tone of voice used and the presence of genuine wondering by the parent greatly determine the quality of engagement invited. These are the questions Dr. Caldwell recommends (40-41):

  1. “Who is in the story and what happens to them?”
  2. “What do you think this story is about?”
  3. “What kind of story is this?”
  4. “How is this story different from the time and place in which we live?”
  5. “Why do you think this story is important?”
  6. “How do you connect with the story or what does this story have to do with your life? Or, when would be a good time to remember this story?”

I Wonder values and touches on developmental issues. It introduces these concerns with a table for “abilities with the Bible (26)” and then summarizes James Fowler’s stages of faith development for 0-2, 2-6, and 7-12 years of age (27-28). Dr. Caldwell also uses Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s phrase about reading midrash with question marks instead of periods to introduce a section called, “A Wondering Model Invites the Child to Hear or Read the Story with Question Marks, not Periods (45).” The question remains, however, what one actually does as a parent during early, middle, and late childhood to do what Rabbi Sasso does to evoke wonder with her poetry and the illustrations in her books, as she responds to the Hebrew Scriptures with her wonderful books for children. How can a parent do the same when sharing the Christian Scriptures with their children?

In addition to the four types of Bible storybooks, mentioned in the first chapter, a binary system for evaluating children’s storybook Bibles is introduced in this chapter. This system is based on another chapter from Text, Image and Otherness in Children’s Bibles, published by the Society of Biblical Literature. Timothy Beal’s chapter is called “Children’s Bibles Hot and Cold” approximately follows Marshall McLuhan’s work. Beal describes how a hot text invites low emotional involvement. Hot children’s Bibles are those, which are well defined and filled with information. Cold Bible storybooks are “less defined, revealing more gaps in the narrative and thereby inviting increased participation and response from the reader (48).”  Dr. Caldwell prefers cold Bible storybooks in this semi-McLuhan sense.

Chapter 3. What Bibles and Bible Storybooks Do We Read with Children?

Chapter Three answers the question asked by its title. Bible storybooks are selected to help children become familiar with important stories, wonder about God, wonder about God’s place in the child’s life, and provide the child with the meaning of the text (59). Another set of criteria for evaluating children’s storybook Bibles is outlined as content, organization, layout, and art (61). The language should be inclusive, involve stories that critique power, and emphasize women’s voices.

The kind of art used is critical. Professor Caldwell writes, “The form of artwork found in Bible storybooks includes three styles: Child-friendly contemporary, drawings, and storybooks that include a mix of both (58).” Her criteria for selecting children’s storybook Bibles include art. She asks whether the art is realistic, contemporary, child friendly and how the art contributes to the story (61). At least half of the illustrations need to be women and girls and should include people of color (60).

I am not sure that parents can develop an eye for the kind of art that is “child friendly” from this chapter or how child-friendly art might differ during early, middle, and late childhood.

Should the art be realistic, so children can respond to the pictures as they do to the world around them, or should it be what adults think children see when children look at the world? This is part of the great conversation about expressive, romantic art versus the mirroring of nature in the classical tradition, as discussed by M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) with emphasis on literature. Howard Gardner’s Developmental Psychology (1978) thoroughly integrates the role of art in child development for those who would like to read more about this.

Dr. Caldwell quotes Sarah Hinlicky Wilson from an article in The Christian Century to raise the question about the Bible being “appropriate for children to read.” Wilson suggests that the Bible’s “unsavory parts” as well as “neutral,” and “uplifting parts” are not for children (59). This is why children need to be eased into the Bible. Professor Caldwell combines the criteria of Wilson and Melanie Dennis Unrau with her own to develop a master list to evaluate Bible storybooks by content, organization, layout, and art (61).

This chapter recommends storybook Bibles for children from 2-5. One example is about animals like a ram (the binding of Isaac), a big fish (Jonah) or a worm (Jonah). Perhaps, the greatest danger of Bible storybooks for the youngest children is reducing what is presented to something that will need to be unlearned later (32). The book says that children 6-8 “are able to begin to make connections between the very old story of God’s love for God’s people and how it can relate to their lives right now (65).” Many educators consider questions of time and space difficult for early and middle childhood, so how these stories are told is critical. This chapter recommends that children 9-11 use “maps, concordances, and dictionaries to help them access more information about the background and context of the Bible (68).”

Chapter 4. Stories That Form Us for a Life of Faith

The author advocates for “building” a “faith vocabulary.” She quotes Peter Gomes from The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Hearts (1996) to say that “most Christian adults live their lives off a second-rate Sunday school education, and that the more they hear of the Bible in church, the less they feel they know about it. (75).” To help correct this, parents and their children need to learn (77-99):

  1. “How to Get Around in the Bible (Understanding Kinds of Writings, Authors, Etc.).”
  2. “How to Interpret a Story”.
  3. “How to Wrestle with a Difficult Text.”
  4. “How to Rethink a Well-Known Story in New Ways.”
  5. “How to Make Sense of Stories That Are Hard to Believe.”
  6. “How to Get an Understanding of God and God’s Hopes for Humankind: Essential Teachings of the Bible That Will Grow with Children.”

Dr. Caldwell considers each topic and illustrates it with examples from Bible storybooks.

Chapter 5. How We Support Families with Children

The book’s audience definitely shifts at this point. The “we” in the chapter title is no longer parents but church leaders. This final chapter is about how the church can support families with children. Professor Caldwell makes suggestions about “workshops and conversations that churches can offer for parents and families (111).”

She suggests that churches offer the following programs (112-128:

  1. “How to Choose a Bible storybook.”
  2. “Conversations about the Bible.”
  3. “The Bibles we Give”
  4. “Conversations for Adults Who Are Waiting for the Adoption or Birth of a Child.”
  5. “Reading the Bible with Children: Telling a Bible Story.”
    There are three steps for telling a Bible story: read the text out loud, wonder about the text, and “consider the children” you are telling the story to.
  6. “Reading Bible Stories and Connecting with Language Arts Skills That Children Are Learning in Elementary School.”
    These skills are to identify “the main idea; analyze the text to determine the first-person point of view; identify different kinds of figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole); analyze the relationship among characters, setting, and plot in the text; analyze an author’s craft, such as word structure; identify different kinds of writing. These same skills are used at each grade level but with different instructional activities (118).” This chapter does not say how teaching these skills might differ during early, middle, and late childhood.
  7. “Give Laminate Bookmarks or Cards about Reading the Bible with a Child.”
  8. “Practices with the Bible at Home.”
    This involves such things as following the “church seasons” and “dinner table conversations.”
  9. “Coffee, Tea, and Conversation.”
  10. Bible Study Opportunities for Parents and Adults.”
    (Aren’t parents also adults?)

Appendices

Three key parts of the text are repeated in the appendices for handy reference. This includes Dr. Caldwell’s “wondering model” questions (34-43, 131-134), her criteria for evaluating children’s Bibles (61,135-136), and her list of recommended Bibles for children (62-73, 137-143). Her list of recommended storybook Bibles follows:

Children 2-6

  1. The Children’s Everyday Bible (DK Publishing, 2001)
  2. The International Children’s Story Bible (Thomas Nelson, 1993)
  3. Children of God Storybook Bible (Zonderkidz, 2010)
  4. Candle Read and Share Bible (Thomas Nelson, 2007)
  5. The Family Story Bible (Westminster John Know Press, 1996)
  6. Bible Animal Stories for Bedtime (Barbour Publishing, 2011)

Children 6-8

  1. The Lion Read and Know Bible (Lion Children’s Books, 2007)
  2. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name (Zondervan, 2007)
  3. Shine On: A Story Bible (Brethren Press, 2014)
  4. The Bible for Children (Good Books, 2002)

Children 9-11

  1. Deep Blue Kid’s Bible (Common English Bible, 2012)
  2. The Children’s Illustrated Bible (DK Publishing, 2005)
  3. The CEB Student Bible (Common English Bible, 2015)

There are seven “Additional Bible Storybooks” listed and ten of Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s books are noted.  Rabbi Sasso is the most quoted resource used in this book.

Conclusion

 Dr. Caldwell uses her experience, expertise, and analytical skills “to help support parents in taking the big step in getting started reading the Bible with their children (117).” This book does not make the choice for parents about what to read, but strongly recommends storybook Bibles that are “engagement driven (15)” and “cold” in Timothy Beal’s sense.

Comments

The title of this book and especially the title of Chapter Two raise a delightful question. Are the words “wonder” and “curiosity” synonyms? If they are not, does the path to reading storybook Bibles with wonder begin with curiosity or does it begin with wonder and move toward curiosity? Let’s examine these two words a bit more to consider this.

Wonder is experienced when someone or something is encountered in a way that stirs stunned surprise, overwhelms one, or produces utter amazement. Wonder is aroused by an experience that challenges one’s assumed world. The awful tragedy or sublime beauty experienced is beyond what is thought possible. This arouses something like astonishment and admiration. It evokes rapt attention and the scanning that begins the movement of the creative process to imagine a world where such a wonder is possible. Young children live with daily wonder.

Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something. Curiosity prompts questions, exploring, and investigating with the goal of learning more about something large or small that has stimulated your attention. It is a drive to reduce the tension set up by the experience of uncertainty, randomness, or unexpected movements. It is an urge to close a loop. Rewards and punishments kill curiosity, which flourishes in the freedom and safety of a community of inquiry.

There is enough difference between the words “wonder” and “curiosity” to argue against treating them too casually as synonyms. It is odd that some synonym dictionaries consider “curiosity” to be a synonym of “wonder” but “wonder” is not a synonym of “curiosity.”

If “wonder” and “curiosity” are not clearly synonyms, then, we must ask if you can really get from curiosity to wonder. Doesn’t the opposite path pertain? Wonder comes first and then as the overwhelming experience fades and becomes more manageable, curiosity begins to inquire what caused the wonder. One becomes curious about the object, event, or person that is the source of the wonder, so it can be better understood to satisfy one’s curiosity.

Why not make the first step to wonder about the Bible, begin by taking children to church to experience together the wonder of God in the liturgy? Let the liturgy introduce the Bible when it is read out loud with drama and mystery. Even if children don’t understand all they hear they might be struck with wonder by the event. Being involved in the shared action, words, and symbols of the liturgy can prepare parents and children together for the spiritual practice of reading the Bible at home. The beauty and drama of worship can arouse wonder, if approached with anticipation and an open mind, which in turn prompts curiosity to learn more.

My second comment is that sometimes children respond positively to the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, which is reading with prayer and reflection, usually out loud. The Benedictine Jean Leclercq carefully described the history of the difference between reading a text for analysis (the scholastic way) and prayerful listening and responding (the monastic way) in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. The Cisterian monk and prior of Tarrawarra Abbey in Victoria Australia has described the history and manner of Lectio Divina in Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

Jerome W. Berryman
Senior Fellow for the Center for the Theology of Childhood

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