Secular Bible Stories For Children
Ask any four-year-old why the shepherds followed that star and the answer is likely to be entertaining. "They brought Jesus food after a fairy came down and said to Mary, 'You are going to have a baby'," said one this weekend. "No, I think they took him the gold he wanted," corrected his six-year-old brother.
Details of the events celebrated at Christmas can be rather blurred for young children, many of whom now spend as much school time studying Hindu, Muslim and Jewish customs and beliefs as they do the tenets of the Christian faith.
But does it matter if the nativity story is passed down the generations? Some parents without strong religious beliefs often welcome the mixed-faith basis of their local primary schools, but are less pleased to find their children are missing out on stories that are still the most influential in western culture: the tales from the Old and New Testaments. Now there is a solution for troubled agnostic and atheist mothers and fathers. They can read their favourite parables to their children at bedtime, alongside Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.
A growing number of children's publishers are bringing out books that re-tell the stories of the Bible so that children can read them at home, away from an overtly religious context. This Christmas, acclaimed author Jeanette Winterson has taken up the crusade by bringing out her own, unorthodox account of the nativity story told from the point of view of the donkey in the stable. Christian publishing company, Zonderkidz, based in the US, has also produced a series of children's picture books based on Bible stories, such as Jonah and the Big Fish and The Lost Son. One book tells the tale of two shepherds, Jed and Roy, who make their way to the manger. While these colourful publications could be used in conventional Sunday school classes, they also fulfil an important cultural function for many parents.
"It is a really important to me that they know these stories," said Diane Reilly, an atheist and mother of two from Sussex. "It is as much a part of the culture in this country as any other story. Rather like Aesop's fables, they are just traditional touchstones."
Winterson, whose Christmas book, The Lion, the Unicorn and Me, was published at the end of last month, was inspired by the same conviction that children should have access to stories that are central to the western literary canon. Many common English phrases, such as "to kill the fatted calf" and to "play the good Samaritan", rely on a knowledge of the Bible, as do many of the moral assumptions echoed in British society.
In Winterson's nativity story, her donkey hero wins the chance to carry the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem by answering a tie-breaker question correctly. It is a book full of humour, but with an evident sense of wonder, too. At the birth of Jesus in the stable, trumpets sound and the donkey joins in. "I tipped back my head, and I brayed and brayed to join the trumpets. My nose was so high and the roof so low, that the angel's foot brushed me as I sang," recounts the donkey.
The book, which has been described by critics as "a cross between the nativity and one of Rudyard Kipling's Just So stories", was prompted by Winterson's love of Christmas traditions and the telling of old stories, according to her publishers, Scholastic, and the author began to write it at a time of some personal grief, at the end of a six-year relationship. "I had split up with [former partner] Deborah Warner, and was feeling absolutely wretched," Winterson has explained. "It cheered me up."
The author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit does not call herself Christian, but is "one of the faithful". Brought up in a strictly religious household, she has rejected the formality of the church. "I believe in God as highest value, and I believe in a connection between all living things – humans, animals, and the land. We cannot know if God exists, but we can know what it is to want more than materialism and pragmatism," she has said.
Winterson is not alone in her take on the nativity this Christmas. Another author, Janet Duggan, a mother from Hertfordshire, has also written an account of events in the stable from the point of view of the donkey. Duggan originally wrote The Christmas Story as Told by Assellus the Christmas Donkey for her son when he was a child. Now, 20 years later, it has been published for other children.
"The nativity story is a lovely story, but it is getting a bit lost these days," said Duggan last week. "Children love the story and children love animals."
"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
--Hugh Latimer, October 16, 1555