Satisfaction

One of my daughter’s favorite books at the moment is Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go.  She wants me to read it at least once a day, and she also brings it up in daily conversation.  So naturally when she had a playdate with a friend of hers this past Wednesday, it was very important that I read the book to the two of them together.  (No worries about ADD with this one – she’s not yet 4, and her idea of a good time is reading a 70 page picture book from cover to cover.)

At one point in the story, Pa Pig wakes up, spots 3 gorillas riding in a car shaped like a banana, and declares, “I think the next car we buy will be a bananamobile.”  So I asked the two of them if they thought they might like a bananamobile.  Her friend said no, and remembering an earlier picture, suggested that he would prefer a crocodile car.  My child then said simply, “I like the car we have.”

While not the whimsical reply I was looking for, it was, in retrospect, no surprise.  This is the same child who cannot be persuaded by her teachers to tell them what she wants for Christmas – who when meeting Santa himself wanted only to wish him a Merry Christmas.  Not that she wasn’t excited to open presents on Christmas morning.  She just wasn’t too invested on the front end about what they might be.

I myself have a terrific problem with coveting.  It is enemy number one in my spiritual life.  Whether this is due to genetics, upbringing, media inundation, or demon possession I really cannot venture to guess, but somehow it has not infected my daughter.  She wants what she wants because she wants it – whether it is for Mommy to stay home instead of going out on a date with Daddy, or for us not to have run out of bananas – she does not want what she wants because someone else has it, or because someone has told her she should want it.  Praise God!

My husband is very much the same way.  He doesn’t need the newest gadget (which is a very big deal, given that he makes his living in the software industry – so he is out of step with many of his peers in this regard.)  He is content with what he has, and when he is not, it is usually because of some edifying reason.  He appears to be persuaded that the grass is greener on his side of the fence, or at least it is as green as his neighbor’s, or in any case it is his grass, and that makes it the grass he wants.  Perhaps grass is a poor analogy, on second thought.  Our yard may be the least satisfactory thing in his life.  But point is, he’s as far as I can tell not much of a coveter.  Praise God!

I’m not sure what it says about me that I can praise God about my husband and daughter’s contentment, rather than covet it – does this mean that I am getting better, or that I am so far gone that I do not even desire to stop coveting?

So – if you “just don’t get” yesterday’s post, it could be that you are more like my husband and my daughter than like myself, at least insofar as coveting is not your chief spiritual stumbling block.  Yesterday’s post was an exercise in, if not removing, then at least identifying the beam in my own eye.  If it spoke to you then congratulations, I guess – or maybe, good luck – or even, my condolences.  If not, then maybe that one wasn’t meant for you.  Praise God!

First, the good news

For a bedtime story tonight, I suggested that we read Corduroy.  My “too tired” daughter brightened at the thought of reading the book “I like that story!” she exclaimed, “It is a good story, I very like the back [end] when he gets the button!” Which then prompted her to make her own suggestion – that we read the story backwards.

We have been reading stories backwards for some time.  I had thought that it was just that she thought it was funny, or was experimenting to see what happened if she broke the rule of reading front to back.  And maybe it was.  But tonight I got my first inkling that sometimes, she wants to read the story from back to front because she “very like the back” – because the end of the story is her favorite part, and makes the rest of the story worth reading.

It makes a difference how a story ends.  The way I read Corduroy tonight was not terribly different from the way the movie Memento unfolds – but a grisly ending makes all that comes before that much more horrifying.  Whereas Corduroy’s resolution – a home, a friend, a hug – the acceptance of “I like you the way you are, but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened…” all these things make Corduroy’s hapless attempt to find his own button neither pitiful, nor scary, but endearing.  The ending makes the difference – what if Corduroy’s failure to procure his own button ended in his never finding a home, in his ultimately being consigned to a scrap heap?

Happy endings are not well thought of in movies.  They are seen often as contrived, as bourgeois – ultimately, as unrealistic.  Reality is ugly, messy – happy endings are escapist, and only satisfying to the intellectually weak.  Which might be part of why Christianity is seen as not a religion for thoughtful people – anyone who is telling you that life has a happy ending has been drinking their own Kool-Aid.

But I would suggest that grace is “the better story.”  (If I may crib for a moment off Yann Martel.)  Would you rather live in a world where you are brought home into the loving arms of one who loves you the way you are?  Or in a world where love is untrustworthy, home is fleeting, and no one even knows who you are?  A world where “atonement” can only be had in one’s imagination, and amends cannot be made, but only gestured towards.  A world without grace.

There is nothing banal about the happiest ending.  The problem with movies is that their endings are not endings, and their happiness is at best misinformed – or even misleading.  These romances have nothing on the remaking of all creation, of a redemption so thorough that Isaiah envisions vegetarian lions, and Gregory of Nyssa proposes even Satan will be mended and transformed.

“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store.  Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.”  What are we waiting for?

Children’s Bible Stories?

A year ago, a little girl told my (non-church-going) niece that she was going to Hell because she didn’t know a particular Bible story. This has all worked itself out in the meantime, with the two little girls each coming to a broader understanding of the world, and becoming friends. But one lingering effect of the initial trauma has been my niece’s conviction that in order to understand certain people, she is going to need to know about the Bible.
I would know just how to proceed if she were 14. But from what I have been able to see, the quality of younger children’s Bible story books is, at best, inadequate. Story lines are altered to suit rhyming schemes, works righteousness abounds, God is everywhere “He,” and the single thrust of most every story is that it is our bounden duty to tell everyone that Christ died to save them from damnation – even if the story is from the Old Testament. (See, for instance, Arch Books’ Zerubbabel Rebuilds the Temple.)
This may be an evangelical strategy, but it seems doomed to be an evangelistically ineffective one – families who are not churchgoers are going to be so turned off by these stories that they wash their hands of the Bible entirely and move on to Old Turtle. And so I had been fantasizing about writing my own series of children’s picture books from the Bible – that this might not be another lost opportunity to introduce children to Christianity.
It is a popular argument that the Bible is not particularly kid friendly. The stories we tell to children from the Old Testament are almost comically grim: the expulsion from the Garden, David killing and decapitating Goliath, Jonah swallowed by a giant fish, Ananias and Sapphira struck dead for lying… “Noah’s Ark” is a great example of this – not in reality a story mainly about a bunch of animals living peaceably together on a dear little wooden ship, but unavoidably a story about the death of all humanity except for 8 people (and all of the arguably blameless animals but two (or 7) of each species) at the hands of an angry God.

But even this is nothing compared to the stories we dare not tell children – Tamara raped by her brother, Jezebel torn apart by dogs… so I have begun to agree that perhaps the Bible really is not a book for children. My niece is right to think that the Bible is an essential book, but perhaps wrong to consider that she therefore needs to know all about it right now, as a second-grader. I hope that one day she reads Crime and Punishment, too, but by “one day” I mean “when she is sixteen or older” – and again every five to ten years. I am not in the meantime frantically scouring bookstores for the storybook version.
The Bible is a diverse collection of texts, so naturally there are passages which I would except from my “this is no book for children” dictum – but most of them are not the narratives. For instance, I recently came across a beautiful rendering of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 for children (To Everything There is a Season, by Jude Daly.) Certain Psalms would lend themselves to this sort of treatment, certain sayings of Jesus and passages from Paul and Isaiah.

But on the whole it seems that we are more in need of Tolkien-esque authors – writers who can write stories that illustrate the themes and truths of Christianity in new settings – settings that do not necessarily invoke Christ, but rather evoke Christianity.
What do you think? Are Biblical narratives suitable for children? What are some of your recommendations for books for readers under 10? Not only Bible stories, but also those books which point towards the insights of the Christian faith?