In Your Own Words

A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about what kinds of theological books work well with 2 1/2 year olds.  I mentioned that we weren’t having luck yet with The Big Picture Story Bible and I was wondering if she had any suggestions for Bible story books that resonated with her three children when they were my daughter’s current age.

She reminded me of Read Aloud Bible Stories (which, for some odd reason, I hadn’t yet introduced), but then the conversation turned from the topic of books to the topic of storytelling.  My friend suggested, especially at this young age, not relying exclusively on books to teach children the stories of the Bible.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my daughter Bible stories in my own words.

My first reaction was theological anxiety: what if I got it wrong?!  I wouldn’t want to mess up my daughter’s understanding of God just because my own biblical literacy isn’t quite up to par with that of a professional scholar.  From my perspective, one of the beauties of books is that I can pre-read them and give them some thought before sharing them.  If the book is a winner, I can just sit down and (without worry) enjoy the reading experience with my daughter.  Telling Bible stories in my own words seems like it would require accuracy in and depth of biblical knowledge – not to mention quite a bit of skill in the art of storytelling.

Or does it?

When I related my worries to my friend, she said I had misunderstood her suggestion.   She didn’t want me to think about telling Bible stories in my own words as formal theological education at all.  Instead, she was encouraging me to share my love of God to my daughter directly from my heart to hers.  She was encouraging me to tell her in my own words what it is about Jesus that moves me and makes me want to follow him.  “What do you love about Jesus?” she asked me.  “What do you think of when you think of  him?”  Those are the kinds of storytelling prompts that she thinks are most helpful.

The more that I think about this conversation, the more I’m convinced that my friend is right.  After all, we can’t theologically educate anyone into the Kingdom.  Following Christ isn’t just about believing all the right things in your mind.  Your heart has to be inclined to the beauty of the Trinity, too, and letting children catch a glimpse of what that looks like in your life has got to be one of the best ways to inspire that trait in them.   (Well, that and a lot of prayer!)  It’s not that right theology doesn’t matter; not at all.  It’s just that if we start to think about Christian education just in terms of a transfer of theological facts, we’re probably veering off course just a bit.

If any of you have experience in storytelling with your kids (particularly in reference to spiritual things), please comment and share your wisdom with us!  Once I’ve gotten more practice in it I’ll be sure to report back, but I’d love to learn from you all.  I’m particularly curious about any differences in children’s responses or follow-up discussions to reading Bible storybooks than to hearing you speak in your own words from your heart.


15 thoughts on “In Your Own Words

  1. Sunday school teachers have told Bible stories for years without deep theological education or understanding. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about communicating your love for God and His Word and what it means to you. It’s about telling Truth: The bible is God’s Word, God’s Word is True. And it applies to our lives, one truth at a time! Whenever you read a Bible storybook, consider that those authors are storytelling. (And some of them do it rather poorly.) And bear in mind that there is such as thing as spiritual imagination. (See The Jesus Storybook Bible.) You can tell a Bible story and wonder with your children what the people in it are feeling or thinking. What was Eve thinking as she reached for that fruit? How did that crippled man at the pool of Bethesda feel as he lay there every day? How about those men who brought their sick friend to Jesus, cutting a hole in the roof of someone’s house and lowering him down in front of the crowd? What did it feel like for Paul and Silas in prison, beaten and sore, hands and feet in stocks? Those are the things children can relate to and how they learn to apply Truth. And what an opportunity to introduce your children to Christ their Savior as you tell the story, what it means to you, and how you learned to love Jesus. As for storytelling skill – do you have story reading skills? Don’t you try to engage your children in the story itself and not just dryly read the words on the page? Same goes for storytelling. It’s quite similar to a good reading. I urge you to try it. I didn’t do this at home with my own now-grown children, but I have done it for many years in other settings. Children don’t require that you be an expert at this. Just be authentic. And bear in mind that telling stories without pictures is an excellent opportunity for children to learn to develop the skill of creating pictures in their own minds of what things looked like, instead of what someone else wishes them to see. I’d love to hear that you tried it and liked it!

  2. I really appreciate the idea of sharing our heart for God with our kids. In the past six months, my girls (3 1/2 year old twins and a 19 month old) have begun begging me to tell them stories from our lives – about when they were born, a cross country move, about mommy and daddy when they were little, etc. It has been an enriching experience for me as I’m able to share about God’s faithfulness to us in a far more personal way.

    • I love this idea, Katie. We tell our daughter stories from our lives at bedtime, which she loves, and you’re right that it’s a very natural way to weave in stories of God’s faithfulness in addition to her hearing the stories of Scripture.

  3. Yes, and yes. And while your friend sounds like she gave some good advice in encouraging you to tell your stories, I’m going to encourage you to tell some of the Bible stories, too. Talking about the Bible’s characters brings them into our lives–the stories are ours to use and to pass along to our children. Bringing in books adds a filter of focus and authority–which is often a good thing. But chatting about the stories of the Bible, even if you get some details wrong, lets kids know that the stories are on your mind and that the people of the Bible are old friends whose stories we turn to for everyday guidance.

    • Oh yes, telling Bible stories (in our own words) is primarily what I meant to convey in this post! I see now that I could have been more clear about that – sorry! When my friend suggested thinking about what we love most about Jesus, she was assuming that we would be led straight back to favorite Bible stories about him, and that’s what would be the backbone of our storytelling. Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. Haley, I LOVE your friend’s suggestion of sharing stories of God’s love from your heart with your children. And I agree, we can’t panic about imparting the most perfect theology to our children. Their theology will come from the love for God they see in us and as they experience Him. I get hit with questions I am unprepared for EVERY DAY. And I pray that I answer with grace and truth. Yesterday I got asked by my kindergartener, who goes to public school, why we pray together in church and before we eat, even when most friends come over, but never at school. Explaining separation of church and state to a kindergartener is not easy. Not that this is theology…but it touches on it. So all that to say, it’s an adventure pointing our children to Jesus, as you know. And it’s all about God’s grace. 🙂

    • Very true, Sarah! I think that resting in God’s grace, as well as making our own time in the Word a priority, are the only things that will equip us for the questions we can’t otherwise prepare for!

  5. You know, it’s funny: I think my daughter asks more questions when I tell her Bible stories than when I read them from books. Maybe I just sound less authoritative?

    Actually, now that I think about it (which I never did, before reading your post), I think with storytelling, you have a person right there from whom the story is coming. No absent author! (I would LOVE to see her get her hands on some of her favorite authors and start loosing her questions on them…)

    I think you’ve hit on something really, really true: that is, storytelling (both in books and in our own words) is an imagination-forming activity. A heart-forming activity. And that’s at least part of how we become disciples – we start to think, and see, and imagine, and live like our Teacher. I think this post does a great job of helping me think over what theological education is about: the formation of imagination and desire, so that we (in the words of the BCP) can “love what You command and desire what You promise.”

    • We should really try to do some author interviews to post here on the ol’ blog. It’s probably the next best thing to giving our children in-person access!

  6. In addition to what has been helpfully shared already, I’d also remark that storytelling has historically been THE dominant mechanism of Christian spiritual formation. Widespread literacy and access to the Biblical texts is a recent and geographically concentrated phenomenon (which I too often take for granted because 500 years of Western History FEELS like a long time).

    The spirit if Deuteronomy 6 assumes (I think) that to talk about these things when you get up and when you lie down and when you walk along the road is that they are on your heart, and that you are impressing them on your children’s hearts without the benefit of having a written text.

    Finally, one of the great things about storytelling with an older child (as I find with our seven-year-old) is that they push you back to the text! If I tell the story in a way that doesn’t accurately represent the original, Elisabeth (quite rightly) questions me. The practice of storytelling increases the importance of textual authority – and forces us to think like missionaries: how do I tell the most amazing, true Story of the cosmos to those whom I love?

    • Very helpful comment, Graham. I think you said it better than I did: storytelling in our own words increases (not decreases) the importance of textual authority. It definitely matters whether the stories that we tell are aligned with the words and intent of Scripture! Also, one of the things I love about telling the Biblical stories in our own words is that it means you have to be engaged on a deeper level. If you don’t know the Bible you’re not going to be able to talk about it with others, and the more you know it and love it the better you’ll get at the Deut. 6 kind of storytelling. Reading theological books to our kids, while it’s something I’m obviously firmly committed to, doesn’t require the same kind of depth of knowledge on the part of parents.

  7. I think the times where my oldest daughter (nearly 3) has “gotten it” the best are the times when we sit and look at pictures or figures and just talk about what God has done for us. That way, she has opportunity to ask whatever questions she wishes without “interrupting” or leaving the direction the writer has taken. And she sees that way, that this Bible, these pages and pages of ancient words, are more than just a story in another storybook. It’s a living reality.

    Thanks for this, Haley.

  8. I love this blog and this is another great one. Will be thinking about telling my daughter stories about my faith more often instead of skipping to the lesson part.

    I gave you a little award on my blog today. come check it out.

  9. Pingback: In Their Own Words « The Best Christian Kids Books: Aslan's Library

  10. Pingback: On Reading the Hard Parts « The Best Christian Kids Books: Aslan's Library

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