A couple of years ago as I was reading a popular religion/faith blog I came across comments from several parents who were so frustrated with their church or THE church that they had decided to take a break from church for a while and were using The Jesus Storybook Bible as a substitute for Sunday School.
The full title of this children’s Bible is The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. The “his” in the title refers to Jesus, and for each story, especially those from the Old Testament, there is a paragraph on how this story relates to Jesus Christ. I purchased it recently and found reading it a little like sitting through an extended children’s sermon where the children think the answer to every question asked is Jesus.
While there are many favorable reviews on Amazon for this children’s Bible, there are plenty of scathing reviews that mostly boil down to “this is not a Bible.”
In a review of the Brick Testament I did two years ago, I named three characteristics of a children’s Bible that we need to keep in mind every time we recommend, purchase, read, or gift one to a child. They are also the three things that make it different from the actual Bible. All three of them can be applied perfectly to The Jesus Storybook Bible.
First, a children’s picture Bible is never going to include every story from the actual Bible. It is inconceivable that it would. There are just too many stories. Some of them are not all that interesting, and some are not all that appropriate for young children.
The Jesus Storybook Bible, with its mission of telling a larger story of sin and salvation in scripture resolved finally in the life and death of Jesus Christ, chooses Old Testament stories that help to tell that story. The truth is not every story in the Old Testament whispers the name of Jesus, and so the ones that don’t are not included.
For example, most children’s picture Bibles include the story of Jacob and Esau and the struggle over Esau’s birthright. It is a good story for children because it is about relationships between parents and siblings, about making mistakes, and about living with consequences. The author of The Jesus Storybook Bible instead chose to include the story of Isaac and his two wives Rachel and Leah, with a focus on the struggle of Leah. Normally, I would be all about focusing on the matriarchs in a children’s resource. But the way this story is told focuses on Leah’s difficult life as the “ugly” sister which is soon forgotten when she realizes that she will be the great, great, great etc. grandmother of the Savior of the world. (The Bible never indicates that Leah knew this would happen.)
Second, a children’s picture Bible is going to paraphrase stories or other passages to make things shorter, to make the language more modern and easier for children to understand, and to simplify when there are extraneous details that don’t necessarily affect the overall story.
The Jesus Storybook Bible is entirely paraphrased. In my admittedly quick reading of it, I never came across language that felt biblical to me, though even through its paraphrasing I was able to identify the interesting ways that the author helped to characterize Jesus with Old Testament language: prophet, king, servant, prince.
The strangest paraphrasing choices came when the author includes paraphrases of both Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer which work so hard at paraphrasing that they lose the poetic beauty that has made them so meaningful to people of faith for thousands of years. The best part about including something like the Lord’s Prayer in its context of Jesus teaching people how to pray in a children’s Bible is that you can remind a child that this is the same prayer that we use in church today. Reading from this version, you would be hard pressed to convince a child that they had ever heard it before.
Finally a children’s picture Bible is almost always going to provide an interpretation of the story, resolve unanswered questions, and potentially provide a lesson to be learned-- which, frustratingly and yet liberatingly, the Bible rarely does.
The Jesus Storybook Bible is singularly focused on this particular feature of children’s picture Bibles. Characters’ motivations, including God’s, are presented very, very clearly. Everything that is included in this “Bible” is intended to provide either a reason for or a preview of the coming of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Every mistake made by Old Testament characters will be made up for in the saving death of Jesus Christ.
Reading the Old and New Testaments together are a vital part of understanding the Bible as Christians, and indeed there are many themes from the Old Testament that are carried over into the New Testament. For my taste though, this particular children’s Bible makes some interpretive leaps which, though I might be willing to entertain them in a conversation about salvation and our relationship with Christ, should not be presented to children as “coming from the Bible.”
In one instance the author inserts dialogue from God that is not a paraphrase or summary of anything in the biblical text but entirely an invention of the author. It is one thing to add interpretative information, but to represent that interpretation as the words of God leaves me a little anxious.
Here is the quote, which comes at the end of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden in the book of Genesis:
“Before they left the garden, God whispered a promise to Adam and Eve: ‘It will not always be so! I will come to rescue you! And when I do, I’m going to do battle with the snake. I’ll get rid of the sin and the dark and the sadness you let in here. I’m coming back for you.’”
This is a commendable (if not Christus Victor style) sentiment, but it is just not from the Bible. The author does nothing to make that at all clear. I would argue that even an adult not intimately acquainted with this story could mistake this quote as something that is actually taken from the Bible.
Children’s picture Bibles can be expected to add additional dialogue between human characters to explain motivations and points of view in order to help children better grasp the story. I also understand that these picture Bibles will have to paraphrase words the Bible attributes to God so that a child can better understand them. But please don’t put words in God’s mouth.
Would I include The Jesus Storybook Bible in a church’s children’s library? Yes. Would I use it as the official “Bible” that I would give to a young child from her church to encourage biblical literacy? No. Would I use this as the primary curriculum for my child’s religious education? No.
While that may seem harsh, I would answer “no” to those questions for the majority of children’s picture Bibles on the market today, because almost all of them fall into these tendencies of omissions, paraphrases and interpretations.
Here are links to my two favorite children’s picture Bibles, both of which unfortunately are out of print: My First Bible and Everlasting Stories. They are worth tracking down from independent sellers and used book stores - especially if you are looking for a children’s picture Bible that sticks pretty close to the text of the Bible and doesn’t add too many interpretive notes.
Picture Bibles are lovely and important vehicles to introduce young children to the stories of scripture through imaginative illustrations and creative storytelling. I think that children should be exposed to as many picture Bibles as they can be when they are young. I believe churches should have shelves packed with all kinds of retellings of the Bible created for children’s eyes, ears and hearts.
But the day will come, especially as their reading comprehension improves, when they need to be introduced to an actual Bible, and we should be mindful that our work is not done after we have read through a picture Bible with our children.
In two weeks I am going to share my experience of doing just that when we gave our son the Common English Bible:Deep Blue Kids Bible this past fall when he started 3rd Grade. This represents a new phase for our family and we continue to learn how to do it better with plenty of mistakes along the way.