Danger Keep Out! The Ancient Near Eastern landscape in Jerome Berryman’s ‘Godly Play®’

By Jeremy Clines

There is a strangeness in typecasting the region stretching from the Levant to Mesopotamia as a ‘desert’ when it would more ordinarily would be described as the Fertile Crescent. There is an oddness in embodying much of this colossal continental land-bridge between Africa and Eurasia as an ephemeral dune-like place where the land itself is ‘always moving’. There is a peculiarity in depicting the waters of the region between ancient Jerusalem and Babylon as being only Tigris and Euphrates while forgetting the great Mesopotamian Marshes that these rivers feed, and the all-important Jordan river and the fertility of the section of the Great Rift Valley it travels down. It is bizarre to typecast this as a region so dangerous people ‘do not go into […] unless they really have to’. I wonder what leads Jerome Berryman in his depiction of this region of the world[i] to, in effect, place a ‘Danger Keep Out’ sign over a vast area more often called the ‘cradle of civilisation’?

This is the desert box. So many wonderful and important things happen in the desert; we need to know what it is like.

We can’t get the whole desert in our classroom, so here is just a little piece of the desert.

The desert is a dangerous place. It is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are. There is little water, so you get thirsty and you can die if no water is found. Almost nothing grows there, so there is almost nothing to eat. In the daytime it is hot and the sun scorches your skin. In the night it is cold. When the wind blows, the sand stings when it hits you. People wear many clothes to protect them from the sun and blowing sand. The desert is a dangerous place. People do not go into the desert unless they have to.[ii]

This reader, for one, senses sinister political over-tones in the declaring that this is a barren, undefined and shifting landscape, when we consider, for example that Bethel in Palestine on the West Bank of the Jordan (close to modern day Ramallah) is part of an occupied territory, hotly disputed, one of the great tensions being played out in the last 100 years of history. Bethel is in the middle of the fertile Levant and yet is somewhere Berryman claims contains ‘little water’, where ‘almost nothing grows’ and ‘there is almost nothing to eat’. The politics found here appears as the regurgitated myth of ‘the empty land’, a myth as old as the Hebrew Bible[iii] that permits the teller to justify the space as ripe for occupation by a newly found nation or state or suitable as a place for wars initiated and perpetuated by a greater power (whether ancient or modern). This article takes a deeper look at the nature of Berryman’s interpretations of the land.

The importance of providing analysis and critique of ‘Godly Play®’ becomes all the more important because of its rising significance in children’s Christian education.  When a person creates a scheme which repackages biblical ecclesiological stories for children, within a complex and sophisticated methodology, then places a registered trade-mark on it, requires its delivery to be identical wherever in the world the delivery occurs and it succeeds, it has become a schema. Such is the case with ‘Godly Play®’, the well-recognized and extensively deployed creation of Jerome Berryman who completed this work while working as an ordained episcopalian based mainly in Houston, Texas. Schemas that introduce elements of a religion to the young and very young are noteworthy for scholars of religion, and within this those interested in biblical interpretation and reception history, the opportunities for deep and sustained analysis are manifold.

An additional twist to what is ripe for consideration is that all of this schema is memorised and presented to children by adults who are inducted via training and published guides (not dissimilar to instruction manuals)—this creates a two-step process of adults assimilating Berryman’s thought-world and visualisations of the world of the Ancient Near East and purchasing all elements of the schema for a purpose-made classroom. ‘Godly Play®’ serves as introduction to both adults and children who are all asked to receive Berryman’s complete interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, archaeology, history, the New Testament, Christianity and a Christian perspective on Judaism and all this within the context of a broader narration of Church History including the lives of saints, liturgical studies and philosophy as the single authority on all these topics; since it is a total package, a complete room, a total environment.

Given that this schema is succeeding—with a raft of authorised books, resources and physical materials to accompany it and it succeeds especially in westernised countries of both hemispheres of the world—it really is time more scholars are asking tougher questions of the content, considering how widespread its use.[iv] Even from those who are supportive of the schema, new questions arise in the twenty-first century that were not being asked by the relatively passive recipients who accepted this method for congregational life in so many places. New questions that include moving beyond heteronormativity, ableism, sexism and gender binaries, for example. This paper seeks to focus on just one small detail of the breadth of questions that now must begin to put to Berryman’s ‘Godly Play®’, that of the depiction of the Ancient Near Eastern landscape in a set of principle stories from the curriculum.

The context in which such a large cross section of the Ancient Near East is described is in a curriculum that places the spiritual wellbeing of the child front and centre: it also, however, does seek to provide some introduction to the history, archaeology and geography of the region. All the attempts to describe and summarise landscape, societies, and their beliefs will reveal the political, geographical, historical and theological interpretations of past and present by Berryman. Just because child spirituality is a first order priority does not excuse Berryman from being open to a critique of what has been included and omitted in a curriculum that seeks to cover and explain the bible, the Christian religion and its liturgy.

The presentations on the Hebrew Bible for children, entitled ‘Sacred Stories’, by Berryman, present the landscape of the Ancient Near East (ANE) from Egypt to Babylon as, quite literally, a sandy desert. The method places the whole region in a sand-bag or sand-box, which is then used to place wooden figures, rivers, stones for altars and different pieces of blue to represent rivers and the Red Sea. This ‘sandy’ setting is always named at the beginning of the presentation as ‘the desert’, which is ‘a dangerous place’. People only go there if they ‘really have to’. Providing a uniform topography—a consistent backdrop for these diverse narratives—constructs a misrepresentation of both political and physical geography. To homogenize both the landscape and textual varieties raises a range of issues around the politics of interpretation.

These presentations posit Chrisitan theological meaning onto Hebrew Bible narratives. ‘The Great Family’, focusses on Abram, Sarai, Issac and Rebekah, omitting Hagar and Ishmael altogether; ‘The Exodus’ covers some of the arrival in Egypt and subsequent departure of the community, here named as ‘People of God’; ‘The Ten Best Ways’, interprets the Decalogue; ‘The Ark and the Tent’ includes details from Exodus 25–31 and 35–40. The curriculum then jumps forward to: ‘The Exile and Return’, which covers the building of Jerusalem, its destruction, the Babylonian exile and, very briefly, Ezra and Nehemiah! The final presentation using the ‘sandy’ landscape, ‘The Prophets’, names Elijah, Elisha, ‘three Isaiahs’ (each of the three are discussed in more detail), and then Amos is singled out among the listing of the latter prophets. The narrative concludes by returning to explain in a sentence each about Ezekiel (plus Baruch) and Jeremiah (all these texts appear in (Jerome W. Berryman, 2002, _The Complete Guide to Godly Play: 14 Presentations for Fall, Volume 2_, Church Publishing: New York).

Contemporary presentation of ancient settings makes ‘the remembered past […] a reflection of present interests and needs’ (Jens Bruun Kofoed, 2011: 124, “Saul and Cultural Memory”, _Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament_ 25.1, 124- 150). This stark reconstruction of the landscape requires the attention of the “mnemohistorian [who] is concerned not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered” (Kofoed 2011: 136). If there was any small excuse that could justify the presentation of the region as desert, then some fault lies with almost every English language translation of the Hebrew word midbar has opted for desert or wilderness, when it is neither. The editor of the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew explains, this is outdated and outmoded, midbar is more accurately translated to grazing place or steppe.[v] This is not linguistic gymnastics, it is the better understood nature of the landscape.

Three strange processes between dystopian and utopian readings of text, land and history occur in the exploration of landscape by Berryman. First, Berryman is reading the text in a utopian fashion, I would suggest, since the texts have been chosen, and in Godly Play® texts are selected and represented to epitomise the development of Christianity in a spiral curriculum, which suggests that the items chosen become ‘ideal’ moments from the biblical corpus. Uhlenbruch cautions interpreters “to investigate a historical reality of which a biblical utopia might be an inverse representation” (Frauke Uhlenbruch, 2014: 205 “Reconstructing Realities from Biblical Utopias: Alien Readers and Dystopian Potentials”, _Biblical Interpretation_, 23, 191-206).

Rather than question any positivist or utopian reality in the text, Berryman seems to select each ‘story’ to reinforce such a perspective. Consider for instance the title ‘The Great Family’—a most positive, utopian-esque interpretative gaze. Then it is worth noting the contrast, that both this story and five others are all placed on a surprisingly bleak backdrop, that changes this rich fertile cradle for civilisation into a barren and empty place. Whatever the utopian vision of the text, Berryman’s built environment has markedly dystopian flavour to it. The eco-critical reader would want to ask how the ecological complexity and diversity of a vast region of the earth has been reduced to a small pile of play sand.

A second dystopian feature of the Berryman texts, which is less the focus of this essay, but all the same creates a strange triangulation, lies in the re-telling of the narratives. In, for example, ‘The Great Family’ a nuclear family is created from four members of a much larger household: in the re-telling patriarchal perspectives are reinforced, misogynistic circumstances including forced marriage[vi] are re-shaped into something showcased as if it were palatable. The Berryman script strays well away from the original text, to ask all receivers of the script to understand this micro-group of four figures, as the ‘Great Family to which ‘we’ all belong.[vii] Who the ‘we’ are for Berryman seems simple to read, all within the Judeo-Christian tradition, but not the Abrahamic tri-umverate, since neither Hagar or Ishmael get a look in, so much for Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations!

So the construct of the landscape stands in dystopian contrast to, for example a utopian ideation of a ‘Great Family’. And even the utopian constructs of Berryman do not stand much examination before even those things fall apart. The realm of twenty first century interpretation wishes to deconstruct the models present in Godly Play®’s retelling as anathema within contemporary living. Recent feminist biblical scholarship from Letty Russell and Phyllis Trible asks us to step back from relying Abraham as a unifying figure for the Abrahamic religions and instead focus on those things that are grounded in the divisions and tensions embodied by Sarah and Hagar,[viii]—this is what Uriah Y. Kim describes as the ‘need to hold back Abraham from dominating the stage and push Hagar and Sarah on to the stage of interfaith dialogue and relations’ in re-telling and analysis of this story.[ix] How far, how ordinarily far Berryman falls short of these newer approaches by removing Hagar from view and allowing Abram’s direct dialogue with the deity alone to lead the way to inhabit an empty and desolate land.

It is not the responsibility of this analysis to guess Berryman’s intentions, whether they are inadvertent, subconscious or unaware, the task of this essay has been, rather, to examine the outcomes. The Berryman retelling has certainly wandered into the politics of land-rights by labelling the whole region as a ‘dangerous place’ with no more certainty than shifting sand; the figures prioritised in the one example looked at in greater depth suggests a sustained level of reinforcing patriarchal principles, disempowering women’s perspectives and voices. This, surely, I hope, leaves the way open for new writers, wanting to use Godly Play® in contemporary Christian child education to reform these scripts to make them better fit for the purpose of enriching child spiritual development, without reinforcing outdated, outmoded and dangerous attitudes to land and to women in particular.

[i] These descriptions are repeated in six of the ‘Sacred Stories’ in Jerome Berryman’s Godly Play®, that are the subject of this paper.

[ii] From ‘The Great Family’ Jerome W. Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 2: 14 Presentations for Fall (2002), pp. 57-64.

[iii] See Ntozakhe Simon Cezula and Leepo Modise (2020) ‘The “Empty Land” Myth: A Biblical and Socio-historical Exploration’, in, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, vol. 46, n2

[iv] See the Godly Play 2022 conference website: ‘Godly Play in Europe is steadily growing and is playing a significant role in a great number of churches and countries. [citation see 12 September 2022, https://www.kerknet.be/godly-play-vlaanderen/artikel/european-godly-play-conference-2022 ].

[v] See The Jewish Chronicle, ‘Sheffield’s dictionary triumph’, 19 January 2012, [citation seen 12 September 2022, https://www.thejc.com/news/uk/sheffield-s-dictionary-triumph-1.31182 ].

[vi] See Cath Kennedy (2022) ‘“Forced Marriage as a Recurring Trope in Jerome Berryman’s Complete Guide to Godly Play” in Michael Spalione and Helen Paynter (2022) Map or Compass? The Bible on Violence, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield.

[!!! Not sure which one to include!!!].

[vii] See Galatians 3.29 for Berryman’s likely theological basis for claiming those of Christian faith as children of Abraham.

[viii] Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell (eds) Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

[ix] p. 465 in Uriah Y Kim (2006) ‘Hold Abraham and Push Hagar and Sarah’ in Reviews in religion and theology, 2006, Vol.13 (4), pp.461-465.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Comments are closed.