Saturday, August 06, 2016

Children in the Bible: Michael Ramsey Prize 2016 Shortlist 3

Review of Anne Richards, Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (SPCK, 2013).

This is the third of the shortlist for the Michael RamseyPrize, and wants to provide a new approach to working with children in the church.  She starts by reproducing a child’s question about God – ‘Who invented you?’  It’s an excellent question, which begs very deep and complex philosophical and theological issues.  Richards also offer’s the reply given by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.  She commends Williams for his ‘simplicity, generosity and directness’ (p. ix).  That the Archbishop takes the child’s question so seriously, is important.  That he tried to respond in a way that the child could engage with is equally important.

Richard’s contention is that ‘children are worth God’s special attention and … are deeply woven into God’s purposes’ (p. xi).  In particular, she finds that God finds children ‘worthy of calling, salvation, commission, healing and blessing’ (p. xi).  These are, of course, things that adults are worthy of as well.  By attending to children, however, Richards hopes to gain insight into the depth and riches of these important themes, following the way in which Jesus used children as examples to his disciples.

Each of these themes (calling, salvation, commission, healing and blessing) is illustrated with Bible stories, including stories about Jesus’ childhood, which show God’s interest in children.  Sometimes God’s interest in children is designed to teach adults something, sometimes God ignores adults in favour of the child.  Richards grounds her argument deeply in Scripture, and highlights an often ignored theme – that of the place of children in God’s purposes. 

This has clear and important consequences of the life of the church today.  A common soundbite has it that ‘children are not just the future of the church, but its present’.  Richards gives theological and Biblical depth to this saying.  It had me thinking hard about how we offer teaching and opportunities for children and young people to teach others, to follow God’s call and to be part of the church’s life in all of its aspects. 

There is much else to commend in this book.  Her account of a court judgment resolving a parental dispute over whether a child should be baptised is insightful, and left me with renewed hope in the judiciary!  Her insight that ‘There is a real sense … that children teach us adults how do die’ (p. 133) is both moving and offers great wisdom.

This is, of course, a book about children written for adults.  For the most part, Richards remembers the paradox that this engenders.  However, there are one or two gaps in her thinking.  One such gap is around the vulnerability and danger facing children.  Adults are children who have survived to tell the tale.  There are too many children who do not survive to be adults.  The Bible knows of them, but Richards glosses over the story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11, pp. 47-48) and I struggled to find anything made of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2.

This is a good book, easy to read and with something important to say.  It has a challenge for the church and its approach to children.  How can we allow the children in our church to teach us about the ways of God?

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