Tuesday 9 November 2010

God's Story Reflected in Children's Literature

I have been an academic for 30 years and a Christian for 26 years.  At first when I became a Christian I struggled to see connections between the life I was living day by day, and my new life of faith as a believer in Christ. But as I grew in my understanding of the Bible I began to see the presence of God in my work and my study.  As an academic interested in how children learn I have maintained a long-term interest in literature and its power not just to teach about language and life, but also to enrich our lives and even transform the way we think about our world. Over time, I have come to realise that stories, even when created by non-believers in Christ, contain echoes of the central meta-narrative of the Bible.

The focus of the Bible is Salvation History, with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for his creation to be restored to a relationship with him. Salvation for those who repent of their sin, seek the mercy of God and in faith commit their lives to following Jesus. This is the meta-narrative of the Bible.

You don't have to go far to begin to see how literature often echoes (even if imperfectly) God's foundational story of salvation told in and through the life of Christ. J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative. The rescue of a pig by a spider in a children's story, which at one level might seem trivial, is a faint echo of the ultimate act of sacrifice of God in redeeming his children through the sacrifice of his Son. The real event ultimately fulfils the literary narratives and makes sense of them. After studying children's literature for over 30 years I have come to see the wisdom of Tolkien's comment. There appear at least 5 main ways that Christian writers of children's books can point their readers towards God's divine narrative of redemption:

Type 1 – Stories that directly present the Christian gospel explicitly, often in the form of the retelling of Bible stories suitable for children. Children’s Bibles and collections of Bible stories fall into this category.
Type 2 – Stories that allegorically present the gospel (e.g. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).
Type 3 – Stories that present or address essential biblical understandings and teaching; where the key elements of the Biblical plan of salvation are woven within the story, or can be seen as explicitly reflecting the key elements of the divine narrative (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis). While some would see the latter as allegory, Lewis denied this and instead claimed that the narrative came first and the biblical parallels followed.
Type 4 – Moral tales that have direct biblical parallels or that reflect moral principles consistent with the Bible’s teaching (e.g. evil will be punished; sin has consequences; honesty is better than falsehood). Nursery rhymes and many fairy tales fall into this category, as do many cautionary tales (of course not all such tales reflect biblical moral insights, but many do).
Type 5 – This is really a variation or extension of the above. Here the links or parallels are at the thematic level rather than in the form of moral teaching. Stories of this kind demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). These narratives parallel the gospel narrative without explicit commentary. Such stories can be read at one level as simply a nice tale, but at another level the key themes parallel biblical themes that can be discussed.

I have suggested before (here) that types 2-5 offer special potential for audiences beyond the children of Christians. The following demonstrate some type 5 examples of what I mean.

Example 1 – “Charlotte’s Web”, by E.B. White

This is a well-known book written for 6-10 year olds. It is a beautifully written tale about a group of talking farmyard animals, a spider, a rat and a little girl named Fern. While it makes no attempt to teach the gospel narrative, or even disguise it within an allegorical telling, it has themes that parallel key themes within the biblical gospel narrative. At one level, it is the celebration of loyalty, love and friendship. But it is also a salvation narrative. The story of a runt pig rejected by the farmer, sentenced to death but then rescued first by a small girl and later by the work of an intelligent and literate spider. At this thematic level, the narrative points to the power of faith, hope, love, charity, sacrifice and new life.

Example 2 – “Why do you love me?” by Martin Baynton

This is a beautiful little picture book written for 3-6 year olds. It is essentially a dialogue between a dad and his little boy, prompted by the boy’s question, “Do you love me?” This is one of those conversations that only a parent could full appreciate. The little boy asks, “Why do you love me?” “Do you love me because I’m kind?” “..brave?” “..funny”? “…clever”? “…good”? “…naughty?” To each question the Dad says “Yes”. “So why do I try to be good” says the boy. “You tell me,” says his dad. “Because I love you too”, replies the boy. The echoes to the biblical account of God’s grace are evident. Like God whose love towards us is an unconditional act of grace not linked to who we are and what we do, the father loves the boy in spite of who he is and what he does unconditionally. He loves him through the good and the bad. And the boy, in response to the love of the father, loves his father as well and seeks to please him.

Example 3 – “The Delivery of Dancing Bears" by Elizabeth Stanley

This is a picture book written for children aged 4-7 years that is essentially a contemporary fable, although it was written in opposition to the cruelty that 'dancing' bears had experienced in many countries.  The dancing bear is enslaved and mistreated at the hands of a cruel man who uses her to entertain people in the market square of a village in Turkey. The bears hope of freedom keep her alive until one day a noble peasant comes to rescue the bear by paying the cruel owner a ridiculous price (all he had in the world) well beyond what the bear was seen as worth by its keeper. This great act of grace frees the bear and the old man Yusuf takes her back to his humble cottage near a stream and loves it back to a life of freedom from the fear and pain of the past.

The story is centred on an act of great mercy from the old man, who gives all of his earthly wealth to rescue the bear.  This is a story of rescue from slavery, redemption due to the love, grace and mercy of Yusuf and the bear's ultimate restoration to the life she was meant to live.

The Special Merit of Children's Literature

There is great merit in Christians seeking to write literature in its many forms for children. Such writing needs first to meet the basic criteria for good writing – good tales well told; language used well; narratives that work at multiple levels; rich authentic characters; interesting ‘page-turner’ plots. But beyond this they should:
  • offer knowledge that is a celebration of God’s world and his purposes;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc);
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
What is important to stress is that Western literature is an essential communicator of cultural traditions that reflect the central biblical narrative of Christ. Good books, shaped by Christian understanding, offer an opportunity for the essential foundations of the biblical narrative to be communicated in stories that connect with children's contemporary world.  This offers a bridge to the biblical narrative and its life-changing opportunity to be repent and believe in Christ.

Related Links

This post appeared in a different form in a post I write in 2008 ('Christian writing for children - Part 1')

'Christian writing for children' - Part 2 (here)


Timaahy said...

Hi Trevor,

There is a big difference between a book that addresses Christian themes, and a book that addresses themes that happen to coincide with Christianity. And I think the difference lies in the author's intent.

It's quite easy to see that the Narnia books deal with themes that mirror aspects of Christianity, but what makes them truly "Christian" is that Lewis himself was a Christian, and set out to express his Christianity through his work.

Charlotte's Web is a great story, and yes, it is a story of salvation, but is it a Christian story? It may very well be (I haven't checked), but I think the only way to know for sure is to ask the author. Ditto for the Dancing Bear story.

That a story contains a salvation narrative as its central theme does not make it Christian. Die Hard is a salvation story too, you know.


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tim,

I think you've missed my point. I'm not claiming that these stories are all Christian stories. At no point did I say this. My point was that Christians believe that God makes sense of all things and that even a simple story written by someone with no purpose other than to write a good story can offer "...echoes (even if imperfectly) (of) God's foundational story of salvation told in and through the life of Christ".

That's all I said, no more, and no less. Story types 1 to 3 are written by Christians, Types 4 & 5 can be written by Christians and non-Christians. The examples that I used were Type 5 stories.



Timaahy said...


No, I understood your point perfectly well, and I certainly didn't accuse you of claiming all the stories as Christian stories.

I was merely suggesting that the author's intentions should be considered before drawing parallels with Christianity.


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tim,

There is no denying that authors have intentions, but my point is that while God allows his creation to act with personal intent and purpose that his purposes can be achieved in spite of our intent and purposes. As well, he can use even the most humble of children's stories to communicate truth, irrespective of the author's intentions.

Thanks for your comment.


Timaahy said...


God can communicate his messages irrespective of the author's intentions...? How would that work? If "free will" means anything at all, how, or why, would god insert his messages into someone else's story?


Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tim,

While I have no doubt that God could "insert his messages into some else's story" (to use your words) this is not what I was suggesting.

The Bible teaches that all people are made in the image of God. Each person is potentially a ‘spiritual’ being, created for worship of their creator. The writer of Ecclesiastes
(3:11) suggests that God ‘put eternity into man's heart’. John Calvin expressed his understanding of this idea by suggesting that in everyone there is a sense of the divine (but not necessarily a full knowledge).

What this means is that all humans have the capacity to relate to God even if this is obscured by sin and their own rebellion and rejection of him. So, in a sense, the ‘religious’ nature of all people (writers included) can lead them to express that which reflects the wisdom of God, even the writers of a children's story.

That's what I was suggesting, no more and no less.

Thanks for your questions.


Elaine said...

Hi Trevor. I found this post by searching "redemption story in children's literature." I completely agree with you. To follow on to your conversation with Tim, I would add that Truth is Truth, regardless of whether man acknowledges God as the source of all truth. I do believe that God speaks to the hearts of children (and adults) through stories, even when the author never thought of God or trying to convey anything about Him or the redemption story. There is something inside all of us that responds to the idea of being saved, the goodness of sacrifice made on the part of another, courage in the face of evil, and many other themes in the Bible. As I read the Chronicles of Narnia, I was stunned by how much more understanding I received of Biblical truths. But then I started reading books by Frances Hodgson Burnett, like The Little Princess, The Lost Prince, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. There is so much Biblical truth inside these stories, yet Burnett was not a Christian. However, regardless of what Burnett intended, God is able to use these stories to speak to us about His world and His truth. Last night we reread The Velveteen Rabbit. I see that as a picture of how this body we have on earth is but a shadow of the ressurection body we will one day have. I look forward to exploring more of your website.