Is it stating the obvious to say that a children’s bible is not a Bible?1 Perhaps. After all, a moment’s reflection reveals they are not the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible. They omit entire genres and books, and they add a great deal, not least copious and captivating illustrations. On the other hand the confidence we have in them suggests that we receive them as something like God’s Word. It says it is a bible on the front, and it tells all the best stories; so nothing to fear here. How else are we to explain the almost complete lack of resources to evaluate these works, even though they have been in production for centuries and are read as widely as any other form of Christian literature in the home and are deeply formative for their young audiences? And yet serious reflection on children’s bibles, academic or otherwise, is hard to come by.2When, for example, was the last time you heard a thoughtful review of a children’s bible at a church service? Where are the resources to help parents, should they find the time (and they should!) to read one carefully, away from the whirlwind of a bedtime routine, with a Bible in the other hand? Academic disdain for children’s literature may play a role, but I suspect for the most part that people do not examine children’s bibles because they assume that they are safe. The result is not just that in some cases children are exposed to deeply unhelpful material; (1) it leaves parents without any real guidance as to the strengths and weaknesses of story bibles, which are as numerous as they are in any other Christian book, and (2) the complexity of these works goes unnoticed and their potential unfulfilled.
In particular, the impact of story bible artwork on children goes unnoticed—an impact that my five-year-old daughter’s recent prayer expresses: “Dear God, thank you that you show us in the Bible all the pictures that you did.” Help is at hand, however, in the flourishing field of children’s literature studies that offers analytical tools for visual, as well as textual, narratives.3Such studies highlight what ought to be obvious: pictures in books designed for young children truly are worth a thousand words, influencing how a child interprets a story. These tools, however, require calibrating for use with children’s bibles since their focus is almost entirely on the relationship between word and image within a picture book. Children’s bibles, on the other hand, involve a more intricate web of relationships. As a “bible,” it stands in some relation to the biblical text behind it;as an illustrated work, it contains within itself a marriage (happy or otherwise) of word and image; and as a work of religious instruction, it is shaped by presuppositions regarding the nature and needs of the child in fronta of it.
This last point needs a disclaimer. This article is not overly prescriptive about what a story bible ought to do. The reasons for this are several. (1) It will take the length of this article just to establish what story bibles do— how they work—and this is an essential step. Only once we are equipped to see what a story bible is doing can we decide whether it is doing what we think it ought to do. (2) I am not sure there is a definitive answer to the question of what a story bible ought to do. Put another way, there is no perfect story bible awaiting publication; rather we should think of them like commentaries or bible translations: the best choice depends upon who it is for and in what context they use it. (3) There is a place for variety especially in the case of story bibles because many families will have several which they use in rotation and find that children at different ages and stages are able to appreciate different approaches. (4) Reflecting upon the broader question of what it means to bring children up ‘in the instruction of the Lord’ (in which story bibles play a small role) will certainly include the importance of biblical literacy, a personal response to the gospel, the formation of a Christian worldview and character, and more besides, but theological and denominational differences will cause the emphasis to fall in different places. It is important for you the reader to know what you want a story bible to do; this article may help you decide if a story bible is doing that. (5) Even if there is still work to be done, resources are available to help us come to a view on these wider questions,4 but, to my knowledge, no attempt has been made to lay bare the complexity of these books that seem so simple.5
This article, therefore, seeks to make two advances: (1) to integrate disciplines that have previously been kept apart by drawing literary and especially visual narrative theories into the conversation; and (2) to offer a more comprehensive model for evaluating story bibles by highlighting the significance of four relationships:
- The text of a story bible and Scripture
- The images of a story bible and Scripture
- Word and image within a story bible
- The story bible and the child6
We give illustrations, textual and visual, from the story of the fall in Genesis, drawn from surveying over fifty children’s bibles. 7Focusing on this one biblical narrative offers some welcome limits, given the limitations of space. We conclude by suggesting ways that the substance of this article can help assess story bibles, and a forthcoming review article in Themelios will reflect on two or three recent and popular children’s bibles.
The narrative of the fall commends itself for several reasons. (1) It allows for a wide coverage of story bibles since nearly all include it. 8 (2) It is clearly significant, standing as it does at the beginning of Scripture and setting salvation history in motion. As Bottigheimer notes, “profound and enduringly important relationships are established in these opening chapters of the canonical Bible: God and humanity, women and men, good and evil, knowledge and innocence, language and suffering.” 9(3) The biblical narrative is so enigmatic that nearly every story bible feels the need to fill out and interpret the events and to set them in the wider context of Scripture in ways that lay bare many of their presuppositions. As such it allows us to observe the importance of a story bible’s treatment of a narrative in isolation and its attempt to set it in a wider biblical context.
1. Did God Really Say . . . ? The Relationship between Story-bible Text and Scripture
The first task then is to ask how the text of a story bible relates to the biblical text it claims to summarise and explain. There are two parts to this question: (1) How does the story bible’s version of any given story relate to the details of the specific passage(s) where that story occurs in the Bible? (2) How does the story bible relate that story, if at all, to the Bible’s wider story? That is, does it connect individual narratives together as Scripture does, by highlighting, among other things, the fulfilment of types and promises? These two aspects of the question will be addressed in turn in what follows.
1.1. Story Bible and the Story in the Bible
In the course of discussing an 18th century children’s bible Bottigheimer outlines four possible changes to the biblical text which are helpfully concise and comprehensive, namely omission, addition, reformulation, and transposition.10
Even those story bibles which disavow the additions and emendations of others have omitted a great deal of biblical material, indeed whole genres, as a brief survey of any contents page will reveal. As Alan Jacobs observes, “some decisions come, as it were, pre-made: no ceremonial law, no prophecy, no apostolic theology, no apocalyptic visions.”11 Nor do the historical books survive intact, for they are heavily edited, and the common criterion for inclusion is apparently that they must either be about children or exciting to them. 12Should Jesus’ teaching about children really be so prominent at the expense of teaching about judgment or humility or self-righteousness? Would the NT support the view that if a child needs to know one thing about David, it is that he knew what to do with a slingshot?
There are, therefore, descending degrees of omission: whole genres, whole narratives, and details within narratives. In treatments of Gen 3, several omitted details are striking. Some, generally the shorter accounts, omit the character of the serpent entirely, any detail of the temptation, or any mention of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One simply states, “Adam and Eve did something God told them not to do. So God had to punish them. He sent them away from their home in the Garden of Eden.”13
The effect of this is to transform a failure to believe what creation has so clearly demonstrated—the goodness of God and the power and truth of his Word—into a generic act of disobedience. Consequently, in numerous children’s bibles, the fall does not explain what is wrong with humanity and the wider creation but is merely a cautionary tale on the importance of obedience, later complemented by positive examples such as Noah and Abraham. 14To be sure Gen 3 has both explanatory and exemplary power (it says to us “ this is how the world came to be like this” and “ this is how not to treat your Creator”), but this emphasis in story bibles on obedience tends towards a moralism alien to the Bible. In particular, several story bibles describe the events of Gen 3 in ways that echo how children disobey: Adam and Eve did something God told them not to do, broke a promise, or touched something they ought not have touched. The moral(istic) lesson seems clear: make sure you obey, or you might be sent away.
If one tendency is to omit details of Gen 3 in order to emphasise obedience in the abstract, another is to omit a detail which emphasises God’s grace.The biblical narrative balances God’s being true to his word— they will die— with his providing for and making promises to the fallen Adam and Eve. Yet many story bibles omit any reference to God’s clothing Adam and Eve with animal skins (Gen 3:21) or promising one to come who will crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15).15 The result is a distorted view of God, for much is lost if it is not clear that the same God who pronounces curses also makes promises. All of which is to say that in the writing of story bibles, as in life, it is possible to sin by omission.
Story bibles add to Scripture at several levels. First, even those bibles that take their text verbatim from Scripture add headings to chapters or sections, following the example of most contemporary English Bible translations.16 The ways story bibles title Gen 3 create quite different expectations: “The Serpent in the Garden,”17 “Adam and Eve Disobey God,”18 “Eve’s Temptation,”19 “The Terrible Lie,”20 or “ A Very Sad Day.”21
Second, some additions imaginatively supply extra information. For example, story bibles customarily describe the Garden of Eden in greater detail than Genesis does.22 At this level the judgments are largely ones of taste. Russell W. Dalton objects to filling any gaps where the biblical writer invites the reader to use their imagination, but this is not sustainable within the picture book genre, for the possibility of adding nothing to the biblical text disappears the moment one sets a picture next to it. 23 Dalton rightly highlights, however, a danger: additions may become so commonplace that story bible and Scripture merge. He observes, to the surprise of many, that Gen 6 does not mention Noah’s neighbours mocking him or animals entering the ark two by two.24 It is therefore important to observe how and with what success story bibles distinguish Scripture from their own text. Some story bibles have apparatus such as text boxes that quote Scripture. 25 Luther’s solution was to conclude most phrases with ‘etc.’ by which he signified a fuller text behind his own, an approach that hardly lends itself to reading aloud but demonstrates a healthy intent. 26
A third area of addition concerns the emotions of actors about which the biblical text is silent. Most prominent in the case of the fallis that some story bibles ascribe emotions to God when Gen 3 says nothing of his emotional state.27Genesis 3 does not describe God as angry or sad or grieved. That kind of language comes in Gen 6:6, but it is notably absent from the earlier passage. As a result the focus falls upon the measured way in which God interrogates and passes sentences upon the other actors. 28Story bibles, however, frequently omit the variegated curses and in their place report on how God feels:
- God was angry because they had broken their promise.29
- God grew very angry and put a curse on the serpent.30
- Filled with anger God punished Adam and Eve.31
- His voice sounded both angry and very sad.32
- Terrible pain came into God’s heart. His children had just broken the one rule; they had broken God’s heart. 33
What is the effect of such additions? At one level they are unobjectionable, provided that the story bibles make some attempt to distinguish this as embellishing the biblical text. This does, however, raise literary and theological questions.
In literary terms, there is a rhetorical pu