Thursday, July 11, 2013

I Love to Tell the Story

As parents dedicated to instructing our children in the ways of truth, we have "no greater joy than to hear that our children walk in truth." (3 John, 4)

So imagine my inward joy on an otherwise humdrum school morning, while I sat patiently listening to my son struggling through his reading, when he stopped and asked a question. "Mom, why is it so much easier for me to read the Bible than this book?" I was startled. It was true. Just recently I had been having him take his turn when we read aloud our Bible lesson, and he did not seem to stumble and hesitate as much with that unquestionably more challenging vocabulary and syntax. I immediately began to inwardly rejoice and had a suspicion as to the reason.

Since the first day this child was placed in my arms he has heard the Word of God read aloud to him. Certainly he hears it read publicly at church and referenced in conversation regularly. He was not struggling to read it because it was as natural sounding and familiar a book to his ear and mind as his daily bread is to his palate.

Imagine my delight to learn that Charlotte Mason insisted that children receive their Bible lessons in the undiluted words of scripture, not in Bible stories, or "watered down" renditions of the Bible.

"But let the imaginations of children be stored with the pictures, their minds nourished upon the words, of the gradually unfolding story of the Scriptures, and they will come to look out upon a wide horizon within which persons and events take shape in their due place and due proportion. By degrees, they will see that the world is a stage whereon the goodness of God is continually striving with the willfulness of man; that some heroic men take sides with God; and that others, foolish and headstrong, oppose themselves to Him. The fire of enthusiasm will kindle in their breast, and the children, too, will take their side, without much exhortation, or any thought or talk of spiritual experience." (Home Education, p. 28)

When children are regarded as persons capable of spiritual hunger and nourishment, it is discovered that their appetite does not require the simplification of the Word as God has seen fit to deliver it to any adult. We do not need to bring the Bible down to a level they can handle. They can handle it.

At the Charlotte Mason Institute conference last month, my daughter attended a workshop of Nancy Kelly in which she was delighted to hear affirmed that the Bible is the most imagination fueling book there is. This is why we who love living books and strive to educate our children in not only the knowledge of God, but the knowledge of man and the universe, pursue them. But the Bible is the only true "living" book, "living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword." (Heb. 4:12) The mind of a child brought up on the undiluted word is alive with more ideas than can be measured and is not only sparked by the stories of the Bible, but carries the habit with him into all other books full of living ideas. This is readily apparent to us as they take whose ideas into themselves and express their hold on them in conversation, play, retellings, and drawing. Their cravings for further such fare continue to intensify.

This is why when they are sparked by a picture of a person or event in history from a book, their interest drives them to reading other perspectives and accounts of the particular idea that has captured their attention. For example, hearing the rousing rhythm of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, will draw them to a story they find on the shelf called Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson, or And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz.

Precisely for this reason, I suggest that when children are fed with the actual text of scripture, who have their hearts and minds stirred by its powerful story, offering them fictional accounts of those unsurpassable stories is not unnecessary or harmful, but is actually further fertilizer of the already well-prepared soil of their spirits.

This fact was recently made apparent to me as I read Meindert DeJong's rich retellings of famous Bible figures in The Mighty Ones. My nine and fourteen-year-old boys did not react as I half expected, with patient attention and inward disinterest (perhaps thinking, "we know this already). Just as they never tire of hearing about Noah in his ark, or Moses at the burning bush, or Nehemiah on the wall from the pages of their Bible, the colorful and creative descriptions DeJong has crafted from these familiar characters apparently caught them up in the lives of their Bible acquaintances in a fresh and stirring way.

One of the imaginative ways DeJong accomplishes this is by telling the story from a different viewpoint, from the perspective of a different person than we are accustomed to hearing it from in the Bible itself, such as, from Japheth's point of view just before the flood. The truth and beauty of the old stories is not muddied or minimized at all, but powerfully rendered and brought into sharp focus. DeJong's skill with vivid language pictures brings the stories to gripping climaxes, breathes fresh and potent reality into passages we might tend to forget were once the very real moments of very real children of God.

In the retelling of Joseph's betrayal by his brothers, the famine, and rediscovery of their brother in a position of power in Egypt, DeJong approaches the story from the perspective of old Jacob, once the conniving and cunning deceiver, now a tired and care worn old patriarch. As the story unfolds, true to its Biblical account, the revival of joy, faith, and trust in Jacob's spirit is shown. It begins as he sits disconsolately in the door of his tent, brooding over the landscape of his life:

"Dust whirled above the land as far as the eye could see. In the sky, the sun was a flat, gray disk, trying to drill through the dust rising up from the land. The land was going up to the sun in dust. It swirled up to the sun in impenetrable miles of dust. 
"Jacob looked at it with hurt eyes. He loved this land. Other beings you loved with the heart, but land - land you lived on, walked over, worked over, scarred with your plow - you loved with your lifeblood, every day and year of the life you had given to it.
"As if he could stand the frightfulness no longer, Jacob turned away to the open doorwayof his tent. There was no one in the tent. Only a dust-covered coat hung against the one wall. Jacob stared at the empty coat - Joseph's coat. There it still hung, and there it had hung since Joseph died."

The poignancy of his bleak situation and lonely life touches the familiar man with new sympathy in the reader.  The drama of the story is at its peak when Joseph reveals himself to his famine-starved and still deceitful brothers:

"Judah's lashed hands fell to his sides. Behind him his brothers lifted their terror-stricken faces to Joseph, then in their terror actually tried to push themselves backward over the floor." 

Later, the joy reaches its height when Benjamin rides bursting with the news up to the door of his father's tent, "...yelling and waving at him, yelling again, "It was Joseph...the great man in Egypt is Joseph!"

Sometimes when we read retold Bible stories there is a sense of disappointment. Somehow it is just not as  powerful as we have imagined it to be before. But DeJong's versions strike us with force and freshness and rekindle our own images. There is a sense that the Bible stories have lived in the author's mind and heart and we are experiencing his own personal faith and belief in their reality. Time shrinks and we are there in the Garden with Adam and Eve, standing at the edge of the Jordan with Joshua about to enter the Promised Land.

Meindert DeJong was born in Holland and moved to the United States as an eight-year-old boy. His devout family upbringing in the Dutch Reformed tradition reveals the fruit of careful instruction and nurture in the Word of God. It is terribly obvious that the words of scripture were alive and active in him.

Take for example, his descriptive narrative of the struggle to overthrow the Canaanites taken from the book  of Judges. Note the strong word pictures. Again, rather than giving Deborah's, or even Barak's outlook on the battle, he directs your gaze from the eyes of Sisera, the Canaanite general:

"The iron chariots plowed on through deep sand of the dry river valley, but the crowd of hastily organized, poorly armed Israelites did not come down from the mountain. They stood out against the steep sides of the mountain like ants crawling along the sides of their anthill, but they didn't come down. Night was falling. Sisera called a halt in the Valley of the Kishon. The Canaanites camped.
"...God came in the night. In the night the rains came, a great deluge of outpouring rain. The water gushed and swirled and roared down the mountain. The rain roared.
"In the morning, when Sisera arose and looked out of his tent, the water still washed down the mountains. The Israelites clung like wet rats to the sides of the gushing mountain. The watery rocks must be as slippery as melting ice. The poor wretches clung to the mountain to keep from being washed down."

Living on the side of a mountain that has been "deluged" with rain this week, safe and dry with our cup of hot tea and Mr. DeJong's compelling illustration of the Israelites' predicament, my boys were as jubilant over the stroke of Jael's victory over Sisera as they ever have been over any man's. No wonder when read aloud time comes and they have their choice, of late it has been, "The Mighty Ones!"

Mighty ones indeed. Have you lost sight of them, those heroes of old who are our close kindred of faith? These striking narrations from the pen of Mr. Dejong might stir you to consider them anew.

I am not suggesting Bible historical fiction ever replace the undisturbed, regular reading of the scripture with your children. But, as a teen girl in my library remarked this winter, "When you read these stories about the women in the Bible, you kind of feel like you know them."

That is the way of truth.

There is a huge store of such books in our library. Here are the titles of a few of our favorites:

Collections:
The Old Testament by Marguerite DeAngeli
The Mighty Ones by Meindert DeJong
Stories from the Bible by Walter de la Mare
Story of the Bible by Jesse Hurlbut
The Nursery Book of Bible Stories by Amy Steedman
Aunt Charlotte's Stories of Bible History by Charlotte Yonge

Individuals:
Gideon, The Boy Who Learned to Lead by Gerald Battle
David by Max Bolliger
Joseph by Max Bolliger
David by Barbara Cohen
Seven Days of Creation by Leonard Everett Fisher
David and Goliath by Leonard Everett Fisher
Physician of Galilee by Sarah Elizabeth Gosselink
Hagar by Lois Henderson
Lydia by Lois Henderson
Miriam by Lois Henderson (and several others by her)
The Carpenter's Son by Rosemary Houghton
Joel, a Boy of Galilee by Annie F. Johnston
Run the Good Race by Amy Lillie
The Christ Child by Maude and Miska Petersham
Joseph and His Brothers by the Petershams (and other characters as well)
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare (historical fiction during the life of Christ)
Moses by Opal Wheeler
Victory on the Walls by Frieda Hyman (historical fiction set during the time of Nehemiah)
God King by Joanne Williamson (historical fiction set during the reign of King Hezekiah)

For the joy of reading,

Liz

4 comments:

  1. Good titles and I love DeJong. Absolutely.
    Every book he has written. Thanks for the lists.

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  2. Bonnie,

    Each book of his I read endears him to me a little more.

    Liz

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  3. Such a wonderful post. Thank you for introducing me to some new titles for our library. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of DeJong's The Mighty Ones.

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    1. Jessie Mae,

      Thank you for even reminding me about that book. It is a great memory with my boys learning of the heroes of their faith. I hope you can find a copy.

      Liz

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