This post bears the Curtis Dickson Spiritual Seal of Approval!
In my youth, when I went to the optometrist I was always happy to wait because his reception had several Peanuts books on offer. I still go to the same optometrist, but now his selection of reading material is markedly different. Apart from a few Goosebumps books, which brought back fond memories of Christmases where I had to pretend to be pleased with the RL Stine paraphernalia my grandmother thrust upon me, I was surprised to find that they had turned away from the secular world.
My optometrist had started to stock Christian books for children.
An unforeseen wait ahead of me, I chose the forgotten 1989 classic Sarah and Paul Have a Visitor which promised I would “learn about Jesus!”
And learn I did. Of course, I’m entirely familiar with the sanitised version of Jesus offered by this book, as I did have religious education in my earlier days (apparently I asked for it, and my parents were never one to complain about packing me off to church on Sundays and to my youth group on Fridays while they did whatever it is parents do while their younger son is indulging in the works of Christ). I’m even fairly, but not intimately, familiar with developments in Jesus study suitable for people over the age of twelve – which is useful when so much of Western fiction draws its inspiration from Judeo-Christian tradition, and when so much of Japanese anime and video game culture attempts to do likewise.
Sarah and Paul Have a Visitor is not the sort of religious education I was raised on. Oh no, it’s something entirely different. It turns out that Derek Prime’s thrilling epistle was redistributed in 2006, and so I can handily reproduce its blurb which was apparently unchanged in the sixteen years between printings:
There is much excitment [sic] in the MacDonald’s house when Robert comes to stay. He’s only four years old so there are many things he doesn’t know and can’t do. This means lots of questions and activities for the family. In the middle of of [sic] all the fun Robert and the twins can learn a few lessons about the Lord Jesus.
Now, I read this 75 page novel as I waited, and this is a vaguely accurate account of that which is contained within. What it does not encapsulate is the stultifying boredom represented by a book about a loving family discussing Bible stories in vague, clean terms for a week. One might suggest that a real family, instead of reading this book to learn about Jesus, could read and discuss an entirely different book in order to examine precisely what Christ means and what His role in this world is. That book, I think you’ll find, is called “The Bible”.
Now, I’m no theologian, and my personal Christianity is “lapsed”, at best, but I’m fairly certain that a child’s question of “why is it so?” is not adequately answered by saying “the Bible does not explain the why of this situation, but it does say that this is how it was and is therefore the truth”. They pull this one several times. The children’s parents also directly say that God wrote the Bible, and made sure it included some specific stuff and I’m just like “what?”
I think that part of what makes this book so boring, apart from the fact that it describes simple activities that people would be better served performing in real life (for instance, a fair bit of attention is given to Robert colouring in a religious colouring book, playing marbles with Mrs. MacDonald, and the family reading a Bible stories picture book [including loving descriptions of the illustrations contained therein]), is that there’s no real conflict.
The way that books that teach us biblical lessons probably should work is that something happens in the children’s lives and their parents compare their situation to something biblical because, you know, a good way to get lessons from the Bible is to make them relatable. Sarah and Paul (ages indeterminate) are rather indifferent to Robert coming to the house. They’re not infuriated or jealous or anything, they basically just think “excellent, let us tell this child how awesome Jesus is. Let us skirt around the issue of immaculate conception by assuming that the audience knows how reproduction works – and come on, this kid is only four years old anyway!”
Yes, it’s straight up lessons in very vague examples of why Jesus is great (hint: it’s because he turned water into wine, multiplied loaves and fishes, and died for our sins – although what any of that means, who knows?).
The explanation of Jesus resurrecting the son of the Widow of Naim, and not Robert’s grandmother, is “Robert’s grandmother was old”. This is basically teaching children that you can only really die after you reach a certain age, and Jesus will bring you back otherwise. It’s not explicitly stated as such, of course, but it’s a very strange example. Regardless of how literal you take the Bible, you can’t honestly state that the way the world inside it operates the same way that the world that we live in today. Actually, I suppose that you can, as there are some who believe that, because America isn’t directly mentioned in the Bible, that it is a cursed country. These people live in America, too.
I remember that when I was “in” to religion that it was something with which I could properly engage. It wasn’t simple, boring didacticism. If you want to teach children religion, I think that it should be done in an interesting way that they can understand, and not in a fashion that pulls all of the punches. It’s so easy to not understand the contents of the Bible, and books like this do it no real favours. I realise that it’s a long time since I’ve been a child, but I frequently believe children deserve better than they get. You may argue that my religious instruction never stuck with me and was therefore useless, but they were good enough years. You shouldn’t make a child religious by boring the Hell out of them. I don’t know how long it takes children to get through 75 pages, but there is absolutely nothing to compel them or the person reading to them to continue such a dull story.
I guess the point is I went to the optometrist, I recalled a better standard of religious education back in my day, despite the fact that this book was published when I was four years old. Hopefully this has been more interesting than I found this little book that was beyond mockery. Don’t worry: I imagine that “vaguely informed religious blather” – AKA Christian Book Review – is not going to become a common occurrence on Batrock.net, but the strangest place for religious instruction also proved to be the lamest.