Our childhood Bijbel

I found a treasure at the Thrift Store. It was an Anne De Vries Kleuterbijbel Vertelboek (Kindergarten Story Book Bible). Though the stitching is broken and some pages missing, Bob and I are taking turns reading it out loud after supper for devotions. Initially, we stumbled on lots of the Dutch words, but we are getting pretty good at phrases that bring us back to our childhood when our parents read these verhalen to us. Sixty years later, I still get choked up when Joseph reveals himself to his brother (“Ik ben Josef!”) or when the old Father can’t believe his eyes when he recognizes the limp of his prodigal son returning home down the lane.

How simple it is: two columns of characters – obedient, good (gehoorzaan) and bad (lelijke, boze), just like in fairy tales. Little confusion between right and wrong. David with his harp, but no Bathsheba. Judas with ulterior motives (but for three years he was a follower!). Mary chose the better way, but Martha should listen more. (Yet someone had to make the coffee and do the dishes!)

I wonder whether this simplistic approach to right and wrong behavior has damaged our way of thinking about morality by ignoring the complexity of behavior. It makes us so judgmental and unaware of the need for our own cleansing. Worse, we don’t dare to share our own darknesses because then our communities will place us in that “bad” category.

Anne De Vries’ Kleuterbijbel Vertelboek is written at about our level of proficiency in Dutch and provides us with a fresh look at many favourite Bible stories. It may be difficult to be more nuanced with little children, but I am struck by the general notion among adults as well that good people will be rewarded and bad ones punished. After all there is both a heaven and a hell, is there not? The problem with this simple binary moralism is that it is based on a theology of salvation by works that locates human worth in personal behaviour and self-improvement rather than in the inherently created value of all human beings who are saved by grace alone.

Moralistic stories are almost always didactic, teaching heavy-handed, transparent “lessons.” They tend to read like (bad) sermons disguised as stories. Secular versions of moralism are hardly different from religious ones in that they hold up specific exemplary individuals for emulation, although without the accompanying “God talk.” In fact, religious moralism is secular virtue dressed up in religious language. At the Sunday school level, it takes the “Heroes of the Faith” approach. “Dare to be a Daniel” is an example, and it is revealing that Daniel’s virtue rather than God’s protecting grace becomes the central focus of the story. Theologically, moralistic stories fail because they give glory to people rather than to God. As literature, they fail because they are transparently false to experience. Writing intended to delight has far more power to instruct than writing explicitly calculated to do so.

I’m not sure how you would include a Bathsheba story in a Kleuterbijbel. That has its own complications. Anne De Vries does manage to deal with the violence of the crucifixion. I love the wonderful account of Mary crying at the tomb, and the gardener asking “Vrouw, waarom huil je?” (“Why are you crying?”) – so like the voice of my mother when I had hurt myself as a child. When Jesus said her name, Mary’s eyes were opened. The men from Emmaus with their sophisticated theology didn’t recognize Jesus.

As we age, we see differently, mostly “through a glass darkly,” but we do grow in seeing the depth of grace, often in the places we least expect.


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