Editing for Kids – Roots on the Web

Photograph of a ROOTS writers conference showing adults around a table smiling and talking

Sacred Texts’ Cath Kennedy talked with Clare Williams, the Children and Young People Resources Editor for ROOTS, the ecumenical worship resources publisher. How does a team of only six go about preparing original resources to be used with all age groups and backgrounds?

It always seems to be busy at ROOTS. When I called Clare to set up our chat, I asked if she was working on anything in particular, she commented that she is always working to several deadlines. Even without knowing this, it is easy to imagine that an organisation that is a partnership of denominations and organisations (The Methodist Church, The National Society of the Church of England, The United Reformed Church, Christian Education, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and The Welsh Sunday School Council) which aims to cater for the broad needs of faith communities, puts a lot of effort into co-ordinating and balancing differing requirements and expectations from users of varying ages and social backgrounds. Coordinating such a wide variety of essentials seems a complicated process, so how does a small team manage to produce an integrated package of resources every month without encountering any tensions?

Clare explains that the editorial process for an issue of ROOTS begins with the RCL (revised common lectionary) readings assigned for the relevant period, since this is integral to the liturgy in many partner churches. Bible notes are commissioned from a theologically qualified author, and these then serve to orient reflection and discussion when the team of writers meets for a writers’ conference. During the conference, the team considers how the lectionary texts apply to faith communities today and share ideas to form a plan which will be developed over the next few weeks, as they prepare their drafts and submit them for editorial appraisal. Several rounds of back-and-forth between authors and editors follow before the new resources are ready for publication.

Beginning with a discussion of the biblical text and its theological background serves several purposes: firstly, it ensures that any doctrinal difficulties or controversies have been anticipated and discussed before writers spend time developing their ideas. Secondly, it ensures that the team have a plan for producing a co-ordinated set of resources which can be mixed and matched according to local needs. Thirdly, it ensures that all the resources, (including those for children and young people) arise from the same quality of theological reflection.

In my own research I have often come across children’s resources which rely on tradition to select Bible stories and retellings and draw on notions of biblical literacy rather than theology. This can produce sessions themed around the patriarchs of Genesis, for example, with the result that Sunday school sessions bear no relation to what the adults are doing in the next room. Not only does this suggest that children are effectively not part of the church, but it can mean that the values implicit in teaching to adults are not reflected in the content being presented to their children. Clare recognises this picture, and is keen to point out that ROOTS’ commissioning process aims to prevent these issues in its materials. Beginning from a common theological reflection should, in theory, ensure that not only are all materials constructed around the same texts, but that they convey the same values regardless of the age group catered to.

Clare’s own background is in schools and youth work, and she has training in teaching and ministry. Before becoming Children and Young People Editor at ROOTS, she worked as Education Officer for St Davids Cathedral and Children and Youth Officer for the Diocese of St Davids. Currently, she works from home most of the time, but travels around the country for the writers’ conferences for each edition. Travel is necessary because the writing teams are deliberately recruited from around the UK, broadening the perspectives represented. This regional and social diversity is another strength of the editorial approach which Clare feels leads to more diverse content and ideas and brings varied applications to themes which tend to recur year on year. For example, rural authors often have a particular perspective on agricultural matters, leading to insightful treatments of some of the parables and Gospel stories, whereas authors from deprived urban communities often explore questions of discrimination and structural injustice from different angles to writers in the countryside. Clare considers that the variety of perspectives available from regionally dispersed authors amply justifies any inconvenience the travel may involve. She says it is a unique process which is also a fun and engaging way of bringing these resources to life.

Producing a package of materials which children/youth leaders and ministers can use and adapt for 52 weeks of the year requires more than theology; the practical and cognitive needs of adults and children need to be catered to. Although Clare and ROOTS writers spend a lot of time devising varied activities and ideas for worship and learning which are user-friendly for ministers and leaders who do not have specialist training to work with children, ROOTS anchors its materials on David CsinosSpiritual Styles (identified in his book Children’s Ministry that Fits, published by Wipf and Stock in 2011): ‘word’, ‘emotion’, ‘symbol’ and ‘action’. These four distinct yet overlapping avenues for knowing God emerged from a six-month research project that involved interviewing children about their spiritual lives. By applying this theoretical framework which specifically addresses children’s spiritual development, the writers and editors aim to ensure that the resources do more than occupy and amuse.

With around 12,000 regular users, ROOTS is clearly meeting needs and keeping its users happy. Many subscribers do leave feedback through social media or correspondence, and ROOTS recently surveyed users on all aspects of their experience. The results of this will be reflected in the reshaped formats of ROOTS which will be rolled out from January 2021. In the meantime, you can assess the materials for yourselves and email feedback (clare.williams@rootsontheweb.com) as during September, ROOTS are offering free access to all resources via their website which is accessible by clicking here.

"try the roots website free all through September ... www,rootsontheweb.com/freesept2020"

For more information about ROOTS editorial process click here.

All images provided by ROOTS and used with permission.

Shut up and Dance? Myriam’s Tambourine, and other modern Inventions

Painting of woman with tambourine, by Anselm Feuerbach

This is the second of two blog posts about Myriam with Dr. Kirsi Cobb of Cliff College. The previous one can be accessed here.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the baby in the basket story tended to be the extent of Myriam’s appearance in Bible stories. But in the ‘90’s, two other children’s stories became increasingly popular: Myriam’s celebrations after the crossing of the Red Sea, and her being struck with leprosy following some controversy about Moses’ wife. This last incident was overlooked in most children’s materials until relatively recently, but a quick google search will reveal that this is no longer so. Myriam’s leprosy has become as firmly established in the children’s repertoire as has baby Moses floating on the Nile, but more about that later.

The story of the Israelites’ celebration at the end of the Exodus is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, there is the way that retellings selectively draw on the Hebrew text. Secondly, there is the way this mention of Myriam attests to her importance in the children’s Bible story canon.

Kirsi Cobb observes that the Hebrew account of the celebrations after the crossing of the Red Sea contains nuance which English grammar does not allow for. The verb used by Myriam to encourage the people to praise God is in the masculine imperative, that is, the instruction is aimed at the people at large or the men of the community specifically. And the instruction is to praise, rather than to keep on praising; in other words, the instruction is to start praising, right now. On a less grammatical note, translations and retellings tend to give Myriam a “tambourine” for her singing, whereas in the Hebrew it is a drum or hand drum, which is a completely different instrument. (No-one directs troops with a tambourine!) Lastly, Myriam sings and gives the order to sing. Yet, the song of praise is rather bloodthirsty by modern standards, praising God for the multiple drownings of people and horses.

Retellings of the scene therefore distort the Biblical text by excluding the uncomfortable words of the praise offered to God, as well as by disguising what Myriam actually does in the Hebrew text and passing it off as something like leading church worship. Hebrew Myriam gives orders, imposes her rhythm on the proceedings, and glories in the death and destruction meted out on the Israelites’ enemies. Bible story Myriam dances with her tambourine so everyone can celebrate. The difference is considerable and speaks to a general unease among contemporary Christians with the text as it stands in the Bible.

But if the story is so unsuitable for children, why tell it? Why not simply avoid that scene, and cut straight from the Red Sea to the 40 years in the desert? Kirsi suspects that the inclusion of this scene in children’s Bibles today demonstrates Myriam’s stickiness as a character: she is problematic, but so much a part of wider Bible story tradition that many authors of resources just don’t feel comfortable leaving her out. This is a well-known phenomenon in children’s literature studies. When a reader encounters the story they are reading right now, they inevitably read it with all the previous versions along with all the related texts they have encountered contextualising and interpreting the new text. When I read a version of “Snow White”, I do so with all the previous versions I’ve read or seen jumbled up in my reading of this one. This remembered context makes my reading experience richer, but it also interferes with my experience of the new text. Were this the first version of the story I’d read I’d certainly interpret it differently than I will now. And so it is with Myriam. Authors know, consciously or instinctively, that their Bible stories will be read with all the other versions in mind, so if theirs is to relate well to the others, they need to include the key elements. And Myriam seems to be one of those key parts of the story people don’t want to leave out.

Myriam’s celebrations, however the retellings disguise them, would not be so sticky, or so widely included in children’s Bibles, without the third and final part of the Myriam story, which comes from Numbers 12:1-16. In this story, Myriam and Aaron are involved in “speaking against” Moses’ wife, and God punishes Myriam for it by striking her with leprosy. Moses and Aaron are horrified, Aaron pleads for Miriam and Moses prays to God; God relents, and the leprosy is withdrawn. I never heard this episode as a child, despite spending years in Sunday school and RE lessons. But it has become a common story for children, and this is evidenced by the array of illustrations available online (View some examples here.) Many of these pictures are designed for use with very young children, suggesting the story of Myriam being struck with leprosy is now seen as a crucial one for faith formation. Again, Kirsi points to the ways the retellings diverge from the Hebrew and the ancient context of the tale: differences which show the ideological tensions the story touches on.

All retellings and most translations of the tale state that “Aaron and Myriam spoke against” Moses’ “Cushite” wife, or against Moses “on account of” his Cushite wife. The assumption here is that Moses should not have married the member of a different ethnic group, in this case a black woman from Ethiopia, or the Horn of Africa more generally. And being products of the post-enlightenment West, readers are expected to assume that something like modern racism is at play: Moses should not have entered into an inter-ethnic marriage. Some interpretations of the story develop this thinking by emphasizing that in the Hebrew, Myriam’s leprosy is described as making her “white” as a punishment, an interpretation which suggests that God’s course of action has an anti-racist message. However, while Kirsi acknowledges this as part of the hermeneutic tradition, she suggests a different significance of a Cushite wife in ancient Israel: a Cushite wife may have been of high status, and marrying her could have been seen as a way for Moses to claim or emphasize his own superior position within the Israelite community: him getting “too big for his boots”. So could it be that the original tale of the controversy of Moses’ wife is not one where this Cushite lady is denigrated, but one where she is too good for Moses? If so, God might be angry at the controversy because he requires that Moses be held in higher honour than he is, in which case, a very high-class wife is exactly what God’s emissary should have. (Romance is conspicuously absent in this Old Testament text!)

Then there is the ambiguity of the Hebrew account. Where the modern versions state unequivocally that Aaron and Myriam spoke “against” Moses, the Hebrew has a more multi-purpose preposition which can mean “against” but also “with”, “through”, “about”, or just about anything at all, really. If the author had wanted to be specific, they could have used a more precise form of words. Leaving the phrase ambiguous suggests that what was actually said is not important. Perhaps, Kirsi says, Aaron and Myriam were not directly involved in the criticism, if it was criticism. Perhaps they were trying to act as intermediaries to resolve a conflict, or perhaps they were merely discussing the potential for trouble. In any case, the Hebrew seems designed to leave us guessing.

The one detail which the biblical text and the retellings agree on, however, is that Myriam is the only person who is punished. Even though the biblical text specifies that both she and Aaron are in on it together, there are only consequences for her, which seems illogical, and once again, gets the reader guessing. There are several possible explanations, but they all imply a bias against women. Firstly, maybe Aaron is exempt as high priest. However, even if he could not continue as high priest if afflicted with leprosy, there are other things God could have done to punish him had he wished, so this is not the most likely reason. Alternatively, perhaps by speaking against her brother, Myriam has committed an offense as a woman speaking against a male relative, and that is why God is angry. Although a gender hierarchy of this kind does not appear to be a major theme of the Exodus, women’s obedience to men does seem to be assumed in the Exodus and Numbers. However, there is no explanation given, so this cannot be taken as a clear explanation either.

Finally, perhaps Myriam’s punishment reflects the fact that she was doing most of the talking. After all, Kirsi remarks that the “speaking” which causes the problem is a verb conjugated in the feminine singular, which could make Miriam the primary instigator and Aaron a hapless bystander. This might imply that gossip is a feminine activity engaged in by women and effeminate men, in which case Aaron might be shamed by association with a feminine activity, implying a misogynistic attitude on the part of the author of the text. Perhaps Aaron is being shown by God to have been following his sister, failing to show leadership as a priest, or as a man. If so, then him not even meriting punishment might be extremely shaming, suggesting his participation was so ineffectual that it counts for nothing: this also has a misogynistic subtext.

The same should be said of the children’s retellings. They are generally accounts of how Aaron and Myriam get into trouble together, but Myriam is punished alone and must be rescued by prayers from her brother. And in the retellings, they always speak “against” Moses and criticise him (or their sister-in-law) and are illustrated with angry faces. It’s hard to find a reading here which doesn’t cast Myriam in a very negative light, or at least seem to be intended to. Because she is pretty much the only named female character in the Exodus or Numbers, the way she is represented is almost the only way women are represented in these books: Myriam represents all women by default, and the text makes it difficult to identify with her.

However, Kirsi suggests that there is a subtle parental theme in the Hebrew text which is always ignored in the retellings. When Aaron asks Moses to forgive him and Myriam, he describes Myriam as being “like a stillborn infant… with its flesh half-eaten away”. (NIV; Numb. 12:12) It’s a disturbing image, which is why modern authors don’t dwell on it. But it recalls Moses’ complaint to God in Numbers Numbers 11:11-15where he complains that God is behaving like a bad mother by neglecting his children the Israelites, and leaving Moses to care for them on his own. If this passage is intended as a development of Moses’ complaint, then it is possible that the incident is composed as an implicit criticism of God. Is he really justified in treating Myriam as he does? After all, Aaron reacts with horror, and seems to be reminding Moses and God that he, too, participated alongside Myriam, and possibly should be being punished too. God responds to Moses’ intercession like an abusive father: “if her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?” (NIV, Numb. 12:14a). This makes no mention of a wrong action on the daughter’s part, but only refers to her father’s anger. It seems that God is saying that he doesn’t need a reason, and that Myriam must suffer anyway. Which she does, of course, although after three days she is presumably healed and comes home.

The Hebrew story of the “sin” of Aaron and Myriam, and the punishment of Myriam, seems designed to provoke debate around the legitimacy of God’s reported response to an ambiguous incident. It certainly leaves sufficient ambiguity for that discussion to take place. And in Jewish exegesis, it is a lively discussion. However, Christian tradition devotes a lot of energy to defending the patriarchs as paragons of virtue, holiness, and intimacy with the divine. And certainly does not incorporate criticism of God’s reported actions. So much so that Christian readings of Old Testament texts sometimes fail to engage with the ambiguities of the Hebrew. In the case of Myriam’s leprosy, this leaves us with a rather flat account of divine misogyny which seems rather removed from the Christianity of the New Testament, or even of the idea of God as mother inferred in Numbers 11:12. So why do modern authors and faith formation programmes seem so attached to this story? If there are reasons beyond the desire to suggest to girls that they should beware of speaking up for fear of attracting disproportionate punishment and exclusion from the community, what are they?

Dr Kirsi Cobb joined Cliff College in September 2013, following her PhD graduation from The University of Wales, Bangor, the year before. Her PhD dissertation was on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read using different hermeneutic methods.

Kirsi’s main research interests are women’s studies and biblical interpretation, especially of the Old Testament. Her recent research projects centre on troubling and violent passages in the Hebrew Bible such as Hosea 2 and Miriam’s Song in Exodus 15:21, using lenses of trauma theory, autoethnography, revenge and abuse. Her research seeks to find ways to better understand such disturbing themes in the Bible and read women’s stories in more empowering ways.

Together with Dr Holly Morse of The University of Manchester, Kirsi is also the co-founder and co-director of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre. The Centre aims to foster research in biblical gender studies through various projects to effect change in the Church and academia, so both women and men can be empowered ‘to live life to the full’. (See the centre’s website here: https://cliffcollege.ac.uk/about-cliff-college/the-bible-gender-and-church-research-centre)

Kirsi’s latest publication is: ‘Reading Gomer with Questions: A Trauma-Informed Feminist Study of How the Experience of Intimate Partner Violence and the Presence of Religious Belief Shape the Reading of Hosea 2:2-23’ in K. O’Donnell and K. Cross (eds.), Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (SCM Press), 2020. (available here: https://scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780334058724/feminist-trauma-theologies) Kirsi can be found on twitter as @CobbKirsi, and her thesis is available at: https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.556084

Image credit: By Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3245209

Little Women and Little Girls: Talking about Myriam in the Bible

The biblical character Myriam, sister of Moses, features relatively prominently in children’s Bibles and Bible stories, despite only appearing a handful of times in Exodus and Numbers. Sacred Texts’ Cath Kennedy sat down with Kirsi Cobb who lectures in Old Testament at Cliff College and specialised in the portrayal of Myriam in the Old Testament for her PhD. Their conversation produced two blog posts. In this, the first, they discuss the story of baby Moses and Myriam’s role in it and find traces of sexism and antisemitism in the traditional form of the story.

Moses’ sister Myriam is well-known to children who attend Sunday school. She is the brave big sister who oversees baby Moses’ rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter. There may be no bulrushes in Exodus, but from the mid-19th century onwards in the West, the story was often entitled “Moses in the Bulrushes” and was the only episode of Myriam’s life which most children heard. So what is at stake in this traditional Bible tale, and how accurate is it to the biblical narrative?

Moses in the Bulrushes: the plot

A mother needs to protect her son from the henchmen of a wicked king who has ordered all baby boys from her community be killed (Exodus 1:22; 2:1-10). He is getting too big to be hidden (to be disguised as a girl??) so she devises a radical plan. She floats him on the Nile in a basket, and he is retrieved by a princess who decides to adopt him. The baby’s sister has been left to keep watch, and she suggests that the baby might be wet nursed by a local woman of the same ethnicity. And so baby Moses’ natural mother is employed by his adoptive mother to foster him. These elements are usually present to some degree in children’s versions of this story from Exodus chapter one.

Analysis and Discussion

How does this compare to the canonical text? Well, the sister is unnamed in Exodus, but Kirsi points out that there is a strong tradition in Judaism and Christianity associating her with Moses’ adult sister Myriam (Numbers 26:59; 1 Chron 6:3), who features later in Exodus 15 and Numbers 12. However, Moses’ unnamed mother is described literally in the Hebrew as the “daughter of a priest”, and here, translation tradition gets controversial. For example, where men are described as “sons of” prophets or priests they are translated as prophets and priests themselves. However, women are systematically translated differently: they remain daughters, rather than having roles of their own. Would it be more accurate to translate Moses’ mother as a priest(ess) than as the daughter of one? Such a translation would, in fact, accord with the overall narrative. Moses’ wife Zipporah, whom he marries in Exodus 1:21 is the daughter of Jethro the priest, and she performs the ritual of circumcision on their sons, saving Moses from divine wrath in Exodus 4:24-26. She certainly sounds like a priestly character. And then there is Pharaoh’s daughter herself. Pharaohs’ daughters generally became either diplomatic wives or priests/priestesses of various Egyptian cults. Perhaps, if we are very bold here, the transaction between the distraught mother and the princess was an arrangement between two priestly women who knew each other but possibly pretended not to. In the biblical text, Moses’ destiny can be read as determined and steered by priestly women, even if other interpretations are available.

Given that these female priests are soon replaced by the very male Aaronic priesthood, so I wondered if it would be fair to say that the Exodus is concerned to exclude women from the religious life of the community? Kirsi thinks not, or not necessarily. It is true that the Aaronic priesthood is exclusively male and that no formal role for women in worship is mentioned in the Pentateuch, but the Exodus is more complex than this one theme. For a start, in Kirsi’s reading, the Hebrews are saved by women’s actions in chapters one and two, with no angelic appearances or divine instructions. They simply do the sorts of things that women would do; they bear children, protect them and care for them, often as a team. This contrasts starkly with the male characters who require burning bushes, magical snakes, plagues, and constant divine pep-talks. As Kirsi puts it, “Moses seems almost incapable of thinking for himself!”

Furthermore, there are occasions in the Pentateuch where God is described in maternal terms, which are rare, but significant. Moses asks God if he, Moses, should have to care for “all these people”, since he did not give birth to them (Numbers 11:11-15). By implication, God did, and ought to be mothering them himself. God’s actions in the desert are also to do with providing sustenance, shelter and basic discipline to a very immature group. On the other hand, some of the threats to God’s people in Numbers could be read as a result of God not providing like a good parent, or not like a good mother: the quail he “provides” when the people pine for meat kills them (11:4-6, 18-23; 31-34). Yet, in Exodus 16 the provision of quail illustrates God’s care without the presence of any death threats. and snakes he sends punish the group indiscriminately for complaints which were made, but probably not by everyone. God is obviously capable of looking after the Hebrews, so the question must be asked why he at times seems to be prone to somewhat extreme parenting strategies? Ultimately, is there something about God being recognized as maternal that God, or the author, is uncomfortable with?

According to Kirsi, the story of the infant Moses being saved by three women can be read as a preamble setting up the major themes of the book of Exodus, establishing the things that women do spontaneously as not only essential to God’s plan, but participating directly in God’s own nature and action. While the story of the infant Moses can be read as signifying that women should stick to childbearing and childrearing, it also promotes a more subtle theological theme of a God who is more than just stereotypically male. A theme continued through the other appearances of women in the book, especially at the end of the Exodus narrative, on the other side of the Red Sea, as will be discussed in our next blog post.

            Kirsi and I discussed the implications of the children’s story at some length and reached some conclusions. In the ‘baby in the basket’ story, Myriam is presented as a child who charms a rather dim princess into returning the baby to his mother, at least temporarily. This contrasts with the suggestion in the biblical text that Miriam as a ‘young woman’ (Exodus 2:8) would probably be a teenager who understands the drama being played out and her role in it. The sister is neither named nor described, but she is bold enough to approach a princess’s entourage and speak directly to her. She is decisive and self-assured. The adaptations we present to children fail to reflect these more adult attributes, and make a formidable young woman, daughter to a (presumably) even more formidable priestly mother, into little more than a baby herself. Because of this, child readers and hearers of the story are deprived of a valuable assertive female role model. Although the story is charming, it falls short of passing on everything the Exodus narrative has to offer, especially in its portrayal of Myriam. Perhaps future retellings could engage a little more with adolescent Myriam, her Mother, and their royal ally, and showcase some female leadership for a change.

However, another issue tends to be obscured by this discussion of gender politics: latent antisemitism. It is worth bearing in mind that the story of the baby in the basket which is so familiar to us is mostly a product of Victorian Christianity, which developed the orientalist presentation of children’s Bible stories we are so familiar with to such an extent that we no longer question it. Before the Victorian era, biblical characters were often portrayed in contemporary dress, to prompt comparisons with the readers’ context. This was extensive in Judaism as well as Christianity, as the 14th century Haggadah in the Rylands library shows. (Pages viewable here : bit.ly/38afyKe) But 19th century Christianity moved away from this, picturing Bible stories as taking place in faraway lands inhabited by people wearing oriental clothing such as head cloths, who were often barefoot. The Jewishness of these characters was emphasized, associating Jewish identity with distant places and contexts, delegitimising Jewish participation in British national life, and subtly suggesting Jewish people did not belong in Britain. The dominant presentation of Old Testament stories for children continues to reflect this, although the anti-Semitism and racism of the Victorian era is no longer acceptable in mainstream churches.

The story of baby Moses compounds the problems of orientalist presentation when it presents Moses’ mother and sister as manipulative and sly, and the princess as too daft to see she is being played. It perpetuates colonialist tropes which applied sweeping negative stereotyping to ethnic groups, perceiving this to be the application of science. Today, we know better than to suggest that ethnicity dictates individuals’ moral failings, but the Bible stories told to children have not necessarily kept up with cultural progress. Beyond gender stereotyping and the failure of this children’s story to reflect the complexity of the biblical narrative, a greater sensitivity to outdated ideologies of a different kind would serve us well when we select materials for use in Churches and schools. Not all versions of the Moses in the bulrushes story perpetuate these problems, but those which do are possibly not what we would choose to use.

Dr Kirsi Cobb joined Cliff College in September 2013, following her PhD graduation from The University of Wales, Bangor, the year before. Her PhD dissertation was on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read using different hermeneutic methods.

Kirsi’s main research interests are women’s studies and biblical interpretation, especially of the Old Testament. Her recent research projects centre on troubling and violent passages in the Hebrew Bible such as Hosea 2 and Miriam’s Song in Exodus 15:21, using lenses of trauma theory, autoethnography, revenge and abuse. Her research seeks to find ways to better understand such disturbing themes in the Bible and read women’s stories in more empowering ways.

Together with Dr Holly Morse of The University of Manchester, Kirsi is also the co-founder and co-director of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre. The Centre aims to foster research in biblical gender studies through various projects to effect change in the Church and academia, so both women and men can be empowered ‘to live life to the full’. (See the centre’s website here: https://cliffcollege.ac.uk/about-cliff-college/the-bible-gender-and-church-research-centre)

Kirsi’s latest publication is: ‘Reading Gomer with Questions: A Trauma-Informed Feminist Study of How the Experience of Intimate Partner Violence and the Presence of Religious Belief Shape the Reading of Hosea 2:2-23’ in K. O’Donnell and K. Cross (eds.), Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (SCM Press), 2020. (available here: https://scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780334058724/feminist-trauma-theologies) Kirsi can be found on twitter as @CobbKirsi, and her thesis is available at: https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.556084

Image: via Wikimedia Commons. “Book of the Exodus Chapter 3 – 7” Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Using the Remembered Bible

children chasing hoops

I was a School chaplain for 8 years from 2010 to 2018 in a school in Yorkshire. For children aged form 3-18 years, this school was affiliated to one of the smaller Protestant Churches in Britain of which I was, at the time, an ordained minister. I am now retired.

When I became the chaplain I already knew something of the school as a Governor and Parent. My daughter was a student there from 2005-2012. The school had a daily tradition of short chapel services which were attended by all students at least once a week. Chapel services were also held on certain Sundays in term time and at the end of the school year.

As Chaplain I wanted to encourage the students of all ages to engage with the bible (I use a small ‘b’ as I’m talking about more than just a written book) in as many ways as possible and make it their own as a guide and source of inspiration and faith. This was a method of discipling that was founded on discovering and owning the bible in us. I call this strategy Remembering the Bible or RB and I have been using it now for 25 years with people of all ages and abilities.

In this blog post I hope to illustrate something about what happened when children and young people in a school community had the opportunity to talk about the gospel. This was the foundation of both the pioneering and the change that would be at the heart of the chaplaincy in this community. For this to happen, first, space was required. The chapel became an open space for children and young people to use at any time from 2010. They did not require permission to enter (as had previously been the case).  Some found a place to read in the otherwise unused pulpit, or liked to run up and down the steps.[1] Others sat quietly talking to each other or ate the biscuits which were usually available. This space was mirrored with the chaplaincy, a room in the main part of the school which was also the Chaplain’s office but was held in common for any who needed to use it at any time of the day. It became a place of settling arguments, mourning, resting, planning and celebrating. Of these spaces a member of staff told me about two years after we began: ‘When I was a first qualified as a teacher I went to work in a school on a new housing estate in the North of England. There it was said that the houses were for the families, the schools were for the children and the churches were for the old people, but you have made these children think that the chapel is for them’. This quotation illustrates that others too had come to appreciate the importance of the chapel as space for the children and young people to engage with the bible on their faith journey.

Of course not everyone thought that RB was a  good idea when I first introduced it to the school in 2010. Some of the reservations voiced at the time, from adults, were similar to those I have encountered in churches. There was the ‘They won’t be able to do it’ argument, which had already proved untrue in other places (see Lees 2007 and 2011) alongside ‘It will be chaotic’. That at least is true if your scale is normally calibrated with the passive unresponsiveness so often encountered in our dwindling and dying churches dominated by older adults. Of course there are more chaotic places, but chaos is an important aspect of RB and permission for chaos to happen, even in chapel for a few minutes, is an important energiser that gives birth to the shared remembered gospel. When it comes to RB disorder is the new order.

Introducing RB to any group is best done by ‘just going for it’ (Lees, 2007). A patchwork of methods was employed including drama, drawing, videos, photography, singing and conversations. There would be discussions about ‘What happened next?’, ‘Where did the gospel begin or end?’ and other activities like Jesus’ life on a piece of string (Lees 2011). There were no wrong answers although the Headmaster did once observe that there could be a poor one.  Other popular activities included a version of the BBC TV show ‘Pointless’ in which one group provided the data base of answers to a question like ‘The kingdom of God is like…’ and another group came up with responses that could be ‘pointless’ (i.e. in the bible but not in the data base provided by the first group). RB got into everything: classrooms and corridors, any place where people gathered.

‘Your mum talks about the bible more than the old Rev’ said one student to my daughter, then a pupil at the school,[2] about three weeks after we started RB in 2010. A few years later, a member of staff (he taught science) told me ‘I’ve never worked in a school like this before. The children here know more about the Bible than I do and they are always talking about it’. Clearly both the students and the staff had noticed the strategy and had engaged with it.

As far as the students were concerned, they didn’t just talk about it, they interpreted it themselves and use it to inform their engagement in the world. Here’s one example:

A 17 year old boy is showing some prospective parents round the school. He brings them into chapel and explains that we all come to chapel once a week (I am a silent observer blending into the wall). Then he says ‘Last time we were doing ‘Pointless’, you know, like the TV show. So Rev asked a question ‘The kingdom of God is like?’ That’s in the bible; it’s something Jesus said. We had to finish off the sentence. So I said ‘The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed’. That’s in the bible too. It’s something else Jesus said. I said ‘it’s like a mustard seed’ because that’s like our Tanzania Project. It’s something that starts very small, like a mustard seed, but it grows and grows and grows, just like the mustard seed in the story, and eventually we were able to do even more than we thought we could’. [3]

When we did RB together it is usually a collaborative group effort. Students participated in ways appropriate to each individual. So for example, the week before Holy Week, a discussion about ‘Jesus’ job description’ (it was career’s week!) with a group of year 11 students (aged 15-16 years) resulted in the following job description for Jesus.

  • Like fishing
  • Be able to walk on water
  • Story teller
  • Considerate of other people
  • Healer
  • A nice guy
  • Then get yourself crucified

There was a discussion about the list they had generated. One 16 year old boy queried the inclusion of ‘a nice guy’ on the list saying:

‘He was a discriminator’ and recalling the story of the Canaanite woman said ‘He called her a dog’.

This led onto a discussion of the last item on the list, ‘get yourself crucified’.

‘Get yourself crucified’ (suggested by a 16 year old girl) at first sight seemed humorous, but discussion revealed it actually pointed to a significant depth of understanding about Jesus’ mission. Jesus was taking risks from early on in his ministry right up to the final week, the entry to Jerusalem and the encounters of each day up to his crucifixion. Such behaviour would be recognised by young people and the ‘job description’ example suggested that they related to this risk-taking Jesus.

This series of observations resonated with a conversation I had with another minister about Jesus taking risks, who said:

‘I remember talking to a Methodist ministry student who works at a women’s project in Liverpool and does Bible studies with a group of self-harmers. She said that at a study on the Passion story, they told her that they recognised Jesus as one of them – clearly, he was a self-harmer who kept putting himself into difficulties.

I have also found that the more I return to the text of Mark’s Gospel the more I am convinced that Jesus is portrayed as stirring up trouble in Jerusalem. He takes on every group and faction in turn and stands on their corns….he finds every wasp’s nest and kicks it’.[4]

Using RB as a strategy has both individual and collective components. Whilst it is individuals who remember specific things they do so in a group or collective setting. What is remembered and how this happens is shaped both by the individuals themselves and the context in which they operate (Rodriguez 2010). There is feedback between what an individual remembers and how it is received and shaped in the group through interaction between the group members. Even so there remains a distinction between personal memory and the collective memory of the group. There is a play back and forth between these and in this social forces influence the sense of belonging an individual has with the group. Social memory is the outcome of the process of individuals remembering together and a cycle of reflecting on and living with those memories which are significant in the context in which they have occurred. It is this social memory that contributes to the construction of community as a place where this happening is accorded value.

Using RB in the school chaplaincy resulted in positive responses from both students and staff, people of all ages and abilities, and led to a sense of renewed community such as ‘God is out and proud in this school’ and ‘The Chapel is at the heart of the school’ (responses to denominational review of the Chaplaincy in 2014). I have used the RB strategy in a number of different locations over the last 25 years and more examples of this can be found in my work, much of which can be downloaded from Wild Goose Publication (www.ionabooks.com).

Image credit: Ethel Spowers (1890-1947) / Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

References

Lees, J A (2007) Word of Mouth: Using the Remembered Bible for Community Building. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications.

Lees, J (2011) Tell me the stories of Jesus: a companion to the remembered gospel. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications.

Rodriguez, R. (2010) Structuring Early Christian Memory. London: T & T Clarke.

Janet Lees, now a writer and Lay Benedictine, was a school chaplain in Yorkshire from 2010-2018. She has a PhD in Human Communication Sciences from the University of Sheffield. Janet’s books can be found via this link. She is on twitter as @Bambigoesforth. 

[1]     The pulpit was removed in 2012 as it is not necessary for anyone to be six foot above contradiction in a place where everyone’s perspective counts. Besides which it took up a lot of room.

[2]     An RB practitioner all of her life, Hannah Warwicker (OS) was Senior Chapel Steward from 2010-2012.

[3]     The Tanzania Project worked with an charity based in that country and a rural school to improve the educational opportunities for local children. It involved the whole school in fund raising, a team of staff and students who went to Tanzania and who learnt in that context about community development.

[4]     John Campbell, personal communication, April 2016

Holy Troublemakers

While we continue to be locked down and somewhat curtailed, here is an alternative approach to introducing children to notions of religion and the sacred. Frustrated by the lack of inclusive religious resources for her children, Daneen Akers wrote ‘Holy Troublemakers’ which features ’50 people of faith who rocked the religious boat on behalf of love and justice’. Ranging from St Francis of Assisi to Rabbi Regina Rojas or Bayard Rustin, these people challenge traditional notions of holiness, something which makes them a worthwhile resource for adult readers as well. If you are looking for alternatives to the usual books and resources for children, this is one to consider.

 

Visit the Holy Troublemakers website here: https://www.holytroublemakers.com/

Daughters of a Lesser God? Abraham’s Women in Jerome Berryman’s Complete Guide to Godly Play

This is the second of two blog posts by Cath Kennedy discussing the portrayal of gender roles in Jerome Berryman’s Complete Guide to Godly Play volumes 2 and 6. For more information about this, please refer to the previous post about the portrayal of Abraham’s masculinity here.

The Complete Guide to Godly Play portrays female and male characters very differently. The stories of Abraham and Sarah are clear examples of this. Unlike Abraham, whose life is turned outwards through his social interaction with God, Sarah is never spoken to and her life is inward facing, entirely focussed on childbearing. She is an object for male ownership from the outset, as can be seen in “The Story of Sarah”:

‘…there was a girl named Sarai, which means ‘Princess’. In the same city there was a man named Abram. They met and fell in love.’

These opening words link the female role to that of a ‘princess’: a juvenile fairy-tale trope which children will already be familiar with. According to media scholar Veronica Hefner, Disney animation is often the first ‘moral’ resource children encounter and from which they internalise normative life scripts.[2] The Princess motif should therefore be understood as deliberately linking ‘Sarai’ to the recurring Disney themes described by Hefner and others: sexual maturation, love at first sight, the hetero-normative ‘happily ever after’, and expectations of ‘dutifulness, self-sacrifice, and subservience to males’ which are intrinsic to princess portrayals.[3] It is no accident that survivors of child marriage in the US frequently name the Disney Princess as a factor in the grooming process they experienced.[4]

“The Story of Sarah” also includes the Genesis text’s first instance of sexual trafficking, from chapter 12:

‘Once they went to Egypt and the king of Egypt, called the Pharaoh, wanted her for himself. When he discovered that she was Abram’s wife, he made them both leave.’

It is traditional to elide Abraham’s clear (in Genesis) intention to trade on Sarah’s sexual availability. In fact, this entire episode is generally omitted from retellings. Berryman’s inclusion of it is therefore deliberate. Why exactly he feels it necessary to relate Sarah’s abduction (since Abraham is uninvolved in his version) is unclear, but it is entirely in keeping with his portrayal of female characters as men’s property. The repeated honorific titles attached to the king while Sarah is unnamed, defined as ‘Abram’s wife’, make it clear she is lesser; she is desired because she is beautiful, and defined as property. Neither the narrator nor the other characters ask how she feels, or how she experienced the incident. Sarah fell in love with Abraham, we are told, so her consent to be his wife, to remain so, and to be counted as his property are assumed to be for all time. Given Genesis’ silence regarding love or consent between Abraham and Sarah, Berryman’s portrayal of marriage here seems inspired more by Disney princesses than the Bible.

Sexual objectification is compounded by reproductive objectification when Sarah’s imminent pregnancy is announced to Abraham in her absence and is discussed with him by the three visitors as though she were absent. This contrasts with Genesis which has the visitors enquire as to Sarah’s whereabouts, and then proceed in the knowledge that she can hear them through the tent wall. The fact that Abraham fails to introduce her suggests he decides who she will meet. The visitors are therefore primarily interested in communicating with Sarah, and indeed, they make a promise to her, to be realised on their return. In Berryman’s version, however, Sarah is ‘listening by the tent’, which reduces her to childish eavesdropping, suggesting her knowledge of her imminent pregnancy is somehow illegitimate, something which Abraham, her husband, should rightfully control.

Likewise, in “The Great Family”, Rebekah is not addressed by the servant. He tells ‘her family’ about Abraham and Isaac. In the absence of any relationship with her future husband, Rebekah’s role can only be read as that of reproductive partner. She has given her consent in ignorance of the man she is to marry and the circumstances she is committing to. This is accurate with regard to Genesis, but for it to pass without comment implies such a situation is acceptable, and that Rebekah’s destiny to marry and have children is paramount, regardless of her opinion or feelings. Superficially this resembles a fairy-tale scenario, but at a time when society seeks to prevent forced marriage and child abuse this portrayal is questionable.

The most striking instance of female objectification is Abraham ‘taking’ Hagar in “The Story of Sarah”:

‘Abraham took Hagar, Sarah’s helper, for a second wife’.

The decision is allegedly justified and motivated by the perceived need for a child, but Hagar is not consulted and her perspective is not referenced. She is ‘taken’ as an object and neither the sexual content of the phrase nor its problematic implications for consent are addressed. Furthermore, she is ‘a second wife’, carelessly suggesting that these may be in the plural.

This disturbing abstraction of forced marriage and forced pregnancy is compounded by the Complete Guide’s construction of motherhood. Sarah is passive, discussed and disputed over by others. However, in matters of childbearing she is active, although not in the sense of her embodied experience of pregnancy and childbirth. In Berryman’s version, Sarah is anxious that the child promised to Abraham has not been born. She decides that Abraham should ‘take a second wife’ and later, that he should send Hagar and Ishmael away. These are the only instances of Berryman’s Sarah actively making a decision or communicating. She does not even address her son. Berryman presents Sarah’s motivation as impatience. However, given that at this point in Genesis Sarah is unaware of the promise, her suggestion to Abraham should be read as following the incident in Egypt where the biblical text is clear that Abraham manipulates her to cede her to Pharaoh.

In the Complete Guide retelling more generally, the life of the female characters is presented in negative emotional terms: Sarah ‘wonders’ if she will see Isaac again. She ‘worries’ about not having the promised child, becoming ‘angry’ and jealous when Hagar conceives. Hagar is ‘afraid’ and runs away. Female existence is introverted and essentialised, centred exclusively on childbearing in an abstract sense. The bodily, real experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breast feeding are totally elided:

‘Ishmael was born’, ‘Do you know what happened? Abraham and Sarah had a son’. ‘She did have a son. She named him … laughter’.

The only acknowledgement of pregnancy is ‘when Hagar was about to have a baby’. The Complete Guide’s excision of the women’s experience of motherhood from the account of their lives, when Genesis has Sarah verbalise these experiences specifically, adds to the sense of their being defined and objectified by their reproductive role. The Complete Guide portrays women’s reproductive capacity as necessary for the constitution of the family, making the female body a means to an end. Like the problematic absence of female sexual consent, this exclusion of female experience as a valid category is troubling.

Clearly, the Complete Guide version of the Abraham cycle has problematic aspects. However, I challenge any reader to find a retelling of it which does not present some of these in its own way. Jerome Berryman’s system is only unique in that it makes these regressive undercurrents, many of which are inherent in Genesis, explicit, and that he builds them into a coherent system. Beyond the details of any individual retelling, the question is why we continue to read our children stories about this dysfunctional family and tell them it is a model to be imitated. Perhaps the main objective of such narratives is to impress the principles of ‘male headship’ and obligatory childbearing on young minds. A cynic might suggest it is traditional to do this early on, before children start asking difficult questions.

Image Credit: detail, “Sarah, de vrouw van Abraham, Jan Saenredam” (attributed to), after Hendrick Goltzius, 1595 – 1599. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/RP-P-OB-27.275

[2] Veronica Hefner, Rachel Jean Firchau, Katie Norton, and Gabrialla Shevel, ‘Happily Ever After? A Content Analysis of Romantic Ideals in Disney Princess Films, Communication Studies, 68 (2017), 511-32 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2017.1365092

[3] Dawn Elizabeth England, Lara Descartes, and Melissa A. Collier-Meek, ‘Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses’, Sex Roles, 64 (2011), 555-67 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

[4] Aditi Wahi, Kristen L. Zaleski, Jacob Lampe, Patricia Bevan & Alissa Koski, ’ The Lived Experience of Child Marriage in the United States’, Social Work in Public Health, 34:3 (2019), 201 – 13 (206).

Bibliography

Scripts by Jerome Berryman:

“The Great Family.” The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 2 (New York: Morehouse, 2002) 57 – 64. (Or look here: http://www.incarnation-gaffney.org/Godly%20Play/TheGreatFamily.pdf or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P7MdmrDHnM)

“The Story of Abraham.” The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 6 (New York: Morehouse, 2006) 32 – 37. (Or look here: http://www.incarnation-gaffney.org/Godly%20Play/TheStoryofAbraham.pdf)

“The Story of Sarah.” The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 6 (New York: Morehouse, 2006) 38 – 43. (Or look here: http://www.incarnation-gaffney.org/Godly%20Play/TheStoryofSarah.pdf or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HsJ4NbHb8)

Scholarly Articles

England, Dawn Elizabeth, Lara Descartes, and Melissa A. Collier-Meek, ‘Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses’, Sex Roles, 64 (2011), 555-67 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

Hefner, Veronica, Rachel Jean Firchau, Katie Norton, and Gabriella Shevel, ‘Happily Ever After? A Content Analysis of Romantic Ideals in Disney Princess Films, Communication Studies, 68 (2017), 511-32 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2017.1365092

Wahi, Aditi, Kristen L. Zaleski, Jacob Lampe, Patricia Bevan & Alissa Koski, ’ The Lived Experience of Child Marriage in the United States’, Social Work in Public Health, 34:3 (2019), 201 – 13 (206).

Berryman’s Abraham: Friend of God and Spiritual Scientist?

This is the first of two blog posts by Cath Kennedy drawn from a 2016 article examining the retelling of the Abraham Cycle in Godly Play. The other will discuss the portrayal of femininity through Sarah and Hagar.

Godly Play is a resource for children’s faith formation from the United States. It is popular with churches across the UK and has a reputation for being progressive and inclusive. Despite this reputation, the research found systematic gender stereotyping and a distinctly conservative theology of male headship which users of this resource may wish to consider.

The research discussed here focussed on Jerome Berryman’s treatment of the Abraham cycle from Genesis 11 – 25 in his Complete Guide to Godly Play. The story is retold once in Volume Two as ‘The Great Family’, and twice in Volume Six as ‘The Story of Abraham’ and ‘The Story of Sarah’. An earlier version, ‘The story of Abraham and Sarah’ from Young Children and Worship by Jerome Berryman and Sonia Stewart, falls outside this project, and many of the issues I discuss here are absent from this prior retelling. This suggests that Berryman has deliberately orientated the story in The Complete Guide to reflect his teaching objectives. It is therefore likely that this is an orientation shared by his other stories in The Complete Guide.

This post focusses on the masculinity of Berryman’s Abraham and its theological implications. While there is a superficial equality between Abraham and Sarah in the repeated statement that God had made promises to ‘them’, and a tendency to treat the couple as a unit through the use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ wherever possible, this is not borne out in other aspects of the storytelling. For example, at the start of ‘the story of Sarah’ we learn that in Ur, a ‘girl called Sarai’ met ‘a man called Abram’ and got married.

This wording is not unusual in religious storytelling, but it establishes Sarai/Sarah as a juvenile and Abram/Abraham as a fully formed adult. Whether we interpret this to indicate a significant age disparity, a difference in status, or both, the relationship is henceforth constructed on the basis of male superiority. This continues throughout the three scripts, with the male being named before the female in every case where both are named, except where they are specifically ‘mother and father’. Furthermore, as we shall see, Abraham’s only genuine relationship in the modern sense appears to be with God, rather than with any human character.

The pattern of male superiority continues, with male characters, such as ‘the king of Egypt, the pharaoh’ receiving honorific titles, whereas Sarah is seldom named, more often referred to as Abraham’s wife than as a person in her own right. The spouses never exchange direct dialogue and engage in no shared activity. While the verbal script relates that ‘they walked’ from Haran to Canaan, the physical enactment of the journey moves the figurines representing the two characters singly, in stages, across the storytelling space. In effect, they travel together in name only, being separate while moving and meeting up when immobile. Progress is therefore an individual matter, and togetherness is associated with settling short of the destination.

Similarly, while the verbal script states that God makes promises to ‘them’, the physical enactment of the stories explicitly requires that the Abraham figurine be moved away from Sarah’s whenever he converses with God. Sarah is therefore visibly absent from these conversations, and the narration of ‘the story of Abraham’ narrates the process of Abraham firstly separating himself, and then feeling God close to him. This implies that Sarah’s absence is necessary for Abraham to communicate with God.

God’s exclusive communication with Abraham reflects the story in Genesis, but Genesis does not involve Sarah in promises made to her husband until a late stage, after the birth of Ishmael. While the phrasing implying that Sarah is an equal recipient of the promises is a feature of all children’s retellings of the story I have encountered, Berryman’s use of plural pronouns such as ‘they’ is applied to situations where God is visibly communing exclusively with Abraham. This stretches ‘they’ to undermine Sarah’s inclusion and apply it only to the male character and his viewpoint. This gender bias is often implicit in religious storytelling, but Berryman constructs it in a uniquely explicit way.

Abraham’s receipt of information and instruction is therefore private, something Sarah can have no knowledge of. Despite this, since Berryman does not show Abraham communicating any of this to Sarah, we must infer that divine instruction received by the male partner is valid for both spouses, even when the wife is ignorant of what has been imparted. Additionally, Berryman’s construction of his paradigmatic ‘Great Family’ renders this arrangement normative. God, it seems, speaks to men, rendering women dependant on those men to receive instruction.

Male leadership is intrinsic to the text of Genesis, but Berryman adds to this in his portrayal of Abraham. In addition to hearing from God on behalf of the rest of the family and leading the way across the desert, Berryman’s Abraham has an original method for establishing God’s presence. In ‘The Great Family’, the altars built by Abraham in various named locations in Canaan serve to demonstrate that ‘all of God was in every place’. This adds to the biblical text, giving the impression of an objective, scientific process. However, in the absence of any description, we must assume that the evidence of divine presence is Abraham’s subjective experience. By associating this so closely with an activity which is exclusive to Abraham, Berryman requires us to take Abraham’s word for it, so to speak. We, the audience, are in the same position as Sarah. Abraham has heard from God on our behalf, and we must therefore pay attention to him and what he represents. Effectively, Berryman is placing us under Abraham’s ancestral and spiritual authority, despite our implied gentile heritage.

Abraham’s primacy reaches its peak in the binding of Isaac, where God instructs him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. The Genesis text portrays this as a transaction between the two adult male characters which the child and his mother are excluded from. In God’s eyes, it seems the father owns the son. Berryman’s ‘the story of Abraham’ uncritically includes this episode. It does not portray Isaac’s experience or feelings once, but the knife, rope, and fire needed for the sacrifice are specifically included as part of the physical enactment. The fact that the story’s hero is prepared to kill his child is therefore inescapable. Quite what Berryman is seeking to achieve in emphasizing this is unclear, but the Godly Play method makes children responsible for making sense of the story presented. While they are free to criticize as they see fit, it is not necessarily appropriate to expect them to analyse structural bias of the kind described in this post, or to apply doctrine to the Bible’s most difficult passages.

The effect on little girls of reductive, infantilising models of femininity in children’s media are often discussed. However, poor models of masculinity are also potentially harmful. Do churches wish to communicate to boys that they should be detached, uncommunicative, authoritarian, and abusive? If not, they may wish to adapt resources such as Godly Play or seek out progressive alternatives.

Featured Image: Adi Holzer, ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’, 1997: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adi_Holzer_Werksverzeichnis_835_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg