Theology Toolkit: Taking Stories Seriously

Children are taught from an early age to critique stories in school, but rarely have the opportunity to do so in church. Nick Shepherd encourages us to create space for critical reflection on the Bible.

Yesterday my daughter sat me down for a literacy lesson. She likes to make sure I understand what she’s learning at school - so I often get to be a pupil in her class. In my line of work, I find these some of the best lessons possible! This term her year five class have been looking at stories - their structure, their beauty and their importance. Like many nine and ten year-olds up and down the country she will be learning how to create and critique stories. She will be learning stories from different cultures. She will be gaining an understanding of styles and genre. She will be being led into deeper relationships with plots and character. She will be reflecting on the power of story and myth, and why all human cultures revolve around stories and storytelling. She will gather that not all stories are true, but that all stories tell a truth or two. Of course she’ll do all these things - this is what most ten yearolds in schools across the land will be being encouraged to do. As I was doing the ‘must, should and could’ tasks of my homework - to deconstruct a story into plot sections, genre and messages - it dawned on me that this was not out of place with the Biblical studies course I had just taught.

When not teaching her dad a thing or two about literature my daughter will be glued to the other source of stories in our house - the TV. The other day I was forced to sit with the kids for a CBBC / CITV marathon – well, that’s what it felt like (it was only 50 minutes). In this time however I was exposed to at least four distinct sets of stories. The first was some episode or other of a The Story of Tracy Beaker series (don’t judge my parenting…). The next programme we watched was Blue Peter – my son’s favourite show. This show had at least three sets of stories in it. One was a factual news item about street children in Brazil - educating and campaigning in the run up to the World Cup. Another story is the ongoing relationship between the audience and the presenters. Correspondence aired on the things the viewers were doing and the activities and interests of the presenters. Putting my ‘academic’ hat on there is also an implicit story being told through this, and other, TV. The Story of Tracy Beaker and Blue Peter both tell a narrative about what it means to be an adult, and a child, and what the important values, milestones and issues are in children’s lives - both in respect to what children themselves contribute and latch onto, and what they offer and interpret.

Why am I telling you these things? Well, not to boast about the education system in Croydon, or to bemoan the state of kids TV. I mention these two areas of appreciating the way children learn to approach stories to provoke us to think a little more carefully about our teaching and use of the Bible. We need to be aware of two significant issues that the education and immersion in stories has on the way children learn about and live through the story, and stories, in the Bible.

Around the age of eight most children start to experience a key change in their capacity for thinking rationally. This is a developmental stage encouraged in our education system - though thankfully good education still fosters the imagination. It’s appropriate then for children to start asking some critical questions about the stories they read, or have learnt, from the Bible. If we don’t create spaces for children to critically reflect on Bible stories then, as one children’s advisor put it to me, we run the risk of forming ‘11 year-old atheists’. If we want children to enjoy and understand the meaning and message of the Bible then we need to embrace an education in stories and allow them to discuss and debate this as they would in the classroom. For most of us this is daunting. I wonder how many of you know of teachers who might be able to give advice on what children are learning about stories and how this might be able to be put into practice in their study of the Bible.

The second area we need to reflect upon is how well we are enabling children to live out the story of the Bible. Here we can take a tip or two from TV. First, in a programme like The Story of Tracy Beaker the point of the stories is not whether they are factual or not - in fact they rely on exaggeration and heightened situations. The point is that they are getting at key issues of growing up that children and young people are experiencing and questioning. Many of the stories in the Bible do similar things. Joseph. Moses. David. Mary. The second way we can help children engage with the Bible is to relate the story of how it challenges and changes us. More like Blue Peter, we can correspond with the issues in our world that matter and concern our kids. We can also relate our own examples and insights and invite an ongoing conversation about how the story of the Bible frames our understanding of the world we live in, the decisions we make and the values we hold. The Bible really is the living word, if we give it room to live a little!  If we don’t create the spaces for children to critically reflect on Bible stories then we run the risk of forming ‘11 year old atheists’

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