The Bible Story Handbook

The Bible Story Handbook
John & Kim Walton
Crossway, 2010

Sarah and I have written repeatedly about the importance of beauty in theological books for kids, but our blog tagline is “beautiful and true theological books for children.”  We are, to be sure, equally as concerned with the issue of truth.  If we believe the Bible to be God’s special revelation to us (and we do), children’s theological books that don’t accurately reflect Scripture are a big problem.

Today’s review isn’t of a theological book for kids but rather a book that will help us grown-ups do a better job in selecting and thinking critically about theological books for kids.  And who wouldn’t want that?  The Bible Story Handbook is an excellent resource that I think all families and churches, or anyone who reads or tells Bible stories to children, should have on their shelves.

Think of The Bible Story Handbook as a mini Bible commentary that’s written specifically for parents and children’s ministers.  John Walton is a Bible professor at Wheaton College and he and his wife bring academic expertise and practical church experience to this project – it’s a winning combination.  Most of the book is divided into 2-3 page long entries; the authors cover 175 of the most commonly told Bible stories from both Testaments.  For each Bible story, the Waltons follow the same outline: Lesson Focus, Lesson Application, Biblical Context, Interpretational Issues, Background Information, and (my personal favorite) Mistakes to Avoid.

There are a number of ways this book would be useful, but here’s one scenario.  Say your child was recently given a Bible storybook about Daniel and something about it strikes you as not exactly right, but you can’t quite put your finger on the exact problem even after reading the original biblical account.  Flip to the corresponding chapter in this book and you’ll find a brief, highly accessible discussion on how to tell the story faithfully and common pitfalls to avoid.  Most of the content is not altogether different from what you’d find in a commentary written for adults, but it offers some distinct advantages: namely, that it’s written with great awareness for how Bible stories are typically presented (for better or worse) in children’s storybooks and in contemporary children’s ministries.

As much as I love the reference sections of this book, the best part may actually be the introductory chapter, only 15 pages in length.  There the Waltons lay out their heart for children being told Bible stories in a way that preserves Scriptural authority, encourages belief response, avoids educational of behavioral agendas, and doesn’t extrapolate with details or themes that simply aren’t found in the original text.  It alone is worth the price of the entire book!  Here’s a sample of the wisdom they offer us:

Is there a “wrong way” to teach a Bible story?  Indeed there is.  If we set our own agenda above that of the text, we are teaching the story wrongly… It is not important to the author of John 6 (the feeding of five thousand) that the boy shared his lunch.  If we teach these things, we are telling the story wrongly because we are substituting what we want to teach at the expense of the biblical author’s message. A story is told rightly when we can confidently claim that it represents the intention of the author and the authority of the text… If we present something as God’s Word when it is not, we are misusing God’s name.

Sobering, but I couldn’t agree more.  You can be sure that this book is going to be used in my evaluation of books we’re considering reviewing here on the blog, and I commend it to you as well.

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8 thoughts on “The Bible Story Handbook

  1. Glad you reviewed this one, Haley! Dr. Walton was one of my favorite Bible professors at Wheaton. One thing I appreciate about him is his committed to uncovering the meaning of the text to the original audience, taking into account as many relevant cultural and contextual details as possible.

    In my experience, some of the stories typically taught to children seem to be even more prone to misinterpretation than more “complicated” stories or issues of theology. Because some of those stories (and parables) SEEM easy to understand, many adults assume they understand them (and might not even think they need a book like this!).

    So, I think it’s worth double checking oneself even for stories that you may think you do understand. We may not always pick up on things that are inaccurate because we are so used to them being explained in a particular way and to us, in our culture, explaining them that way makes sense.

    Not that Dr. Walton is the absolute final word on scripture, but he has a great deal of knowledge and experience and starting from scratch in doing the research necessary to check the theology on every Bible story you have or your children are being taught would not be feasible for most parents!

    • I should have recruited you to write this review, Katy. 🙂 Well said. Probably the main reason that this book is so wonderful is that, as far as I know, it’s the only book out there that makes that information (meaning of the text to the original audience, cultural/contextual details, etc.) so accessible to parents and teachers. And the Waltons do a great job of helping us understand what the stakes are in a compelling yet nonthreatening manner.

      You’re also right that most of us probably need this book even if (or especially if) we think we don’t!

  2. THANK YOU! This is exactly why I love reading your blog (and why my book-budget drastically shrinks when I do!). I love the proclamation of truth in the hopes of evoking a faith response. Definitely going to check this out…

    • So happy to hear you find our reviews helpful, Sarah! I’m with you in wishing for a larger book budget, but if you do buy this one I don’t think you’ll be sorry. It’s just an all around good resource – beyond being a sort of evaluation tool for books, I’m planning to use it as one of my go-to books when my kids have questions about the Bible and maybe even as a template for family devotions. Lots of possibilities!

  3. Okay, I am officially remiss for not owning this book. I’ve had a no-new-books-for-me policy going, until I start making a dent in the pile beside my bed. Haley, you are responsible for making me break it! Off to purchase now.

    One quick question, though: how do you evaluate the “lesson applications” the Waltons give? I’m typically pretty wary of any application that can happen in just a few lines, or that makes it seem like there is one correct way to appropriate the Scripture for everybody, everywhere. Would love to hear your thoughts on how they handle it.

    • Great question! I probably should have touched on this in my review because the Waltons deal with the issue of application so very well. They spend 3 pages in the intro section on it; I wish I could quote the entire thing here for you, but here’s a taste:

      “When we imply that godly living through biblical interpretation has to be accomplished in the short term to be practical, we devalue it and diminish its chances of success… Biblical application cannot be limited to “action points” for the coming week (though if there are some, that is fine). More importantly, we have to think about “belief points.” Much biblical teaching involves belief; as we learn stories, our belief should be affected. If our belief is affected, our behavior should change… The focus of these beliefs that we are learning is God. We are not learning an ethical system… We want our students to be conformed to the image of Christ and their behavior to have been embraced as a way to imitate God. We accomplish this by helping them know God better, not by telling them that they should obey because Abraham obeyed.”

      The lesson application found in each of their Bible story commentaries reflects their stated philosophy very well.

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