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.

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