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Q & A: Jerome Berryman

There are few people who have influenced children’s ministry as much as Jerome Berryman. The founder of Godly Play – a reflective storytelling method encouraging children to explore the mystery of God – has brought about a shift in the way that we do and think about children’s work: from an educational model of old to a model of experience and encounter 

More than just a method for telling Bible stories, Godly Play trusts in the inner resources of the child and their innate awareness of the presence of God, and simply seeks to provide a language for what they already know. Premier Childrenswork’s co-editor Sam Donoghue caught up with Jerome while he was in the UK, to talk through the thinking behind the method, why it’s more than just storytelling, and how it took 30 years to write one lesson.

SD: What was the process that led to Godly Play?

JB: I was a theological student in a Christian education class at Princeton in 1960, and I was being disruptive. The professor very graciously and wisely asked me not to take the class. I was sent to the dean’s office to have a tutorial with him, which would preserve the rest of the class, and he assigned me the task of writing a theory of Christian education. I’m still doing that.

Being almost a child myself still, I didn’t know much about children. The process was interesting. The phrases ‘discovery education’ and ‘discovery learning’ weren’t common parlance then, but that’s kind of what I thought needed to happen. When I was growing up I discovered things about God. We weren’t doing that – we were being taught to tell children things. If they believed them, then they would be Christians. But that wasn’t the way that it worked for me; I’d run into God playing around the corner and burying animals that had died and reburying them when they’d been dug up overnight by other animals! That’s the way I learned. So, I was trying to do something about that, because instead of teaching people about God, I had already experienced God and was trying to find the language to express and identify what that experience was. That’s kind of what Godly Play is. It took ten years to figure out a method.

SD: Can you briefly describe the method for people who haven’t seen it?

JB: The assumption is that children already know the presence of the mystery of God - they just don’t know what to do with it. If that’s not supported and people don’t talk about it, it disappears. But if you find people who are interested in that and you talk about it, then you begin to develop a language. Godly Play tries to build the domain of Christian language. In a room the language is sitting on shelves all around, and so the child comes in, relaxes and enters into the domain of the Christian language. At Godly Play it’s not about teaching a Bible story. What happens is that parables, sacred stories, silent contemplation and liturgical actions are sitting on different shelves. The child sits in the midst of that and you’ve got the whole language being internalised. The three to six year-olds don’t know that, they’re just absorbing it. By the time you get to six the questions begin to come along with responses. The little ones do that too, but you see most of their response through their body language. Between five and seven the language begins to click. You can tell when it’s working because you can hear the laughter and it’s the laughter of delight as the children make discoveries and begin to sense the power that they have when they use that language.

SD: As you developed this you must have been criticised by people saying that it wasn’t educational enough and that the children weren’t learning. What was it that you were experiencing with the children that made you realise you were on to something and should keep going?

JB: What kept us going was the children and how it worked. What does it mean to say what really worked? You’d see deep concentration. You’d see people twisting their hair and wriggling their toes. They would often take their shoes off when they came into the room. We didn’t ask them to do that, they just did. With all of this body language, you could see in that, for three to six year-olds especially, a kind of shift from anxiousness and questioning to resolution. Resolution isn’t quite the right word. But, you could see a kind of incredible calm – the opposite of anxious. The opposite of anxiety is faith, a sense of everything really being all right and deeply okay. That’s what was going on.

The things that children say about God might lead us to say that they have a developmental disability. But if they were older, we’d say they were speaking poetry or that they were mystical theologians talking that kind of strange talk. When children do that, we just think they are being children. I trust what children say because they don’t trust language yet, because they are just learning it. They often don’t pay any attention to what we say – most parents have experienced that – they watch us and they pay attention to what we are and what we are doing. That’s kind of the level where Godly Play began. The idea was not to impose a language, but invite children to enter into the language so that it doesn’t distort their experience of God, but begins to be a way for them to express the experience that they have. 

Sometimes people teach conclusions; Godly Play has the confidence that children will find those conclusions 

SD: It’s interesting because I think most children’s workers would say that Godly Play is a storytelling method, but you’d say that it’s about children acquiring a language?

 JB: And acquiring a language in a way that doesn’t distort the language or the child’s experience of the presence of the mystery of God. That’s the art of it. If you can do that then the child will continue to grow decade after decade. If you just teach Bible stories they just get thrown out. If you’re really good at teaching a Bible story, or making art projects, and you’ve figured out good ways for kids to remember that: ‘Zacchaeus was in a tree. He was small like you, but Jesus saw him.’ That’s a nice Bible story but the story gets stunted and gets trapped in that. It’s not useful for the child and doesn’t contribute to the child’s growth. It’s a set piece. When you get to be 15 or 17 and you’re trying to deal with things at that age, little Zacchaeus in a tree who Jesus invited for supper doesn’t help you very much.

SD: Does it worry you that children aren’t getting the curriculum, that an evangelical would say is ‘essential’?

JB: Now we’ve really come to the heart of the matter. Sometimes people teach their conclusions. Adults teach adult conclusions to children, for the children to memorise or believe to be a Christian person. If you assume that the child already knows the presence of God, you don’t need to convince them of that; what they really need is a language to be able to develop that. Godly Play does not teach conclusions – it has the confidence that the children will find those conclusions. God is invited into the circle to come and play – that’s a big deal. God is okay. God can manage all this. The children are sitting in a Godly Play room and they are sitting in the middle of the Christian language. If I present a parable here and I see on the other shelf or wall the sacred stories or liturgical action it’s all in the context of the whole language. If they can learn that, then they can become the theologians and they can make their own conclusions. We don’t stunt their growth by giving them conclusions, we give them the ability and the means to make their own theology.

SD: What does a teenager who has been through Godly Play look like? What are the outcomes of this?

JB: What happens in most youth groups in the States, where teenagers haven’t been through Godly Play, is that the children have to learn how to speak the Christian language, because in early, middle and late childhood they have been doing all kinds of things but they haven’t really ever learned to speak the language like a native speaker. They can tell you what a Bible story is, or they can tell you the conclusions that other people have made and taught them, but they can’t make any meaning for themselves – that’s a disaster when children reach adolescence. They need to have pieces to put together so that as they are forming their new identity, they have the means to make part of that identity as a Christian person. If they just have conclusions they are going to pitch those with the other things. If they have the means to make meaning as an adolescent then they can make meaning in an adolescent kind of way. It’s just like doing science in that you have to learn how to do science before you can do science, so you have to learn how to speak Christian before you can think Christian.

SD: The big thing people talk about with Godly Play is eye contact. In Godly Play storytelling you look at the story and not the child, and there’s no eye contact. People find that very difficult and people see it as flying in the face of every storytelling seminar they’ve ever been on. Can you explain the thinking behind that?

JB: Well there’s a range of ways storytellers tell stories. There’s the kind of storyteller who stands up at the front and wears costumes and wants every eye on them. The other end of the spectrum is the storyteller in Godly Play where you want the eye on the story and not the teller. The storyteller in Godly Play disappears. You put the lesson in the middle of the circle as the common property of everybody and not just the adult who is going to tell the story to the children. It’s the common property of the children. Then you look with your eyes where you want the children to look and make the story with your hands. You try to become a disembodied voice that gives voice to the materials that are in the middle of the circle. The reason for that is that if I just tell the story, those words disappear immediately. The nice thing that comes from the Montessorians and long ancient storytelling traditions is that when you put something down, that is what causes the focus to happen. It also means that the child can later on go and get the story from the shelf and do the story themselves with that same kind of focus. 

If you assume that the child already knows the presence of God, you don’t need to convince them of that; what they really need is a language to be able to understand their experience  

SD: How precious are you with the technique? Would you rather people did it all to the script? Do you see a future where the scripts are used less and people use the defining characteristics of the open storytelling, the wondering and the free play?

JB: Here’s what happens: peop0le say, ‘We’re going to do Godly Play’ but they don’t take the trouble of really learning the lessons. They don’t use that kind of language. They make it their own and use their own language. They don’t bother to learn how to set up a room or how to greet the children and help them shift into the milieu that it is in that room. They don’t bother to do a lot of things; they do something that doesn’t work and then they blame Godly Play. That’s human nature but it’s not really very fair to the curriculum. You really ought to learn it because it’s really good and it has taken a long time and a lot of sensitivity and art to get the language right. So, what I would invite people to do is to really try to learn how to do it, then practise for about ten years and see how that goes! That’s not because I’m possessive of the language, I just realise how long it took me to figure that out and how many decades of mistakes it took before I got the language right. In volume eight there’s a lesson that I’ve worked on since the early 70s. I’m not going to say which one! I never really had it right. It took 30 years to make a lesson, it’s a very important lesson, and I couldn’t make it because I didn’t know enough about Godly Play yet to make the lesson. The first thing everyone wants to do is write their own lessons. That’s a complicated thing.

SD: It’s a small group method, how does it work if you grow? All the methods around working deeply spiritually with children seem to come with the assumption that you have 15 kids or fewer. How do I retain my Godly Play ‘ness’ while doing mission and trying to get to 100 children? Is that something that can fit within the model?

JB: Well, you just need more groups of 15 don’t you? That’s a problem because you need more storytellers. You need two people in each room. Some people do Godly Play in really big settings. At the installation of a Bishop in the States, the Godly Play people in the diocese did the faces of Christ, which is a Godly Play lesson with different faces of Jesus at different places in his life. They blew those up to six feet by eight feet! They processed with the faces of Christ into the church, but that’s not exactly Godly Play, that’s a processional. In another lesson there’s a long golden cord to show that the beginning is the ending and the ending is the beginning in keeping with the way that the Church keeps time. That was done on a big scale one time – the whole parish congregation made a really big golden cord. They presented the lesson about how the Church keeps time and they cut the cord up and gave everyone in the congregation a piece of the cord. What they found was that when people would come to meetings they would take out their piece of cord and put it on the table and it changed the way the meetings worked – because now we’re not going to keep time with a watch, we’re going to keep time like the Church keeps time. There are ways to do Godly Play big, but you have to think about it in a Godly Play way to make it appropriate. People do the lesson and they project the lesson on the screen sometimes. Now already you’re stepping away from the storytelling and the connection between two human beings.

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