Lessons from the children

12 July 2013

John Pridmore applauds a study of how the Bible sees them

Come unto me: a picture from the charming children's book, Bible and Prayers for Teddy and Me, by Christina Goodings, with illustrations by Janet Samuel (Lion, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-7459-6350-1). Simply told stories such as Moses in the bulrushes and the good Samaritan, as well as narratives of Christmas and Easter, are accompanied by suitable little prayers. Ideal for bedtime

Come unto me: a picture from the charming children's book, Bible and Prayers for Teddy and Me, by Christina Goodings, with illustrations by Janet Sa...

Children in the Bible: A fresh approach
Anne Richards
SPCK £12.99
(978-0-281-06688-9)

OUR "national adviser for mission theology, alternative spiritualities, and new religious movements" is Anne Richards. Last year she was given time out from this impressive multi-tasking - a period of leave she put to excellent use by drafting this wise and challenging book.

Until not long ago there was a dearth of theological reflection about children, but in recent years the desert has rejoiced and blos­somed. Only yesterday, it seems, we were pleading for a Christian understand­ing of childhood. Today we some­times wonder what more there is to be said.Children in the Bibleamply demonstrates that there certainly is more to be said, especially - and here is Dr Richards's "fresh approach" - if we ask what the implications of a biblical estimate of childhood are for the issues facing all of us, grown-ups and children alike.

Children, Anne Richards argues, are worthy of "calling, salvation, commission, healing, and blessing", and these five keywords set the tune for her five chapters. She begins with God's call to Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." The pages that follow on embryogenesis are not a superfluous excursus. They recall us, rather, to the place where, as Frank Lake taught us long ago, our primal vocation "to be and become" is already being fashioned. Should this notion seem far-fetched, we are reminded - if we had ever noticed - that the first individual to re­­spond to Jesus was an unborn child.

Children are worthy of salvation. That means that children should at least have a life. Not that you'd think so from the terrifying texts Richards turns to. We are reminded of the fate of Egypt's first-born; of the 42 little boys savaged by she-bears at the behest of Elisha; of King Solomon's proposal that two pro­stitutes should have half each of the newborn child each claimed as her own; of Abraham's readiness to cut the throat of Isaac; and - unloveliest of OT legends - of what happened to Jephthah's daughter. Dr Richards spares us unpersuasive pieties on these unedifying texts. Her emphasis is on the utter vulnerability of the children we meet in the Bible - and whom we meet down our road and around our world.

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God commissions children. Much more is implied here than that they should be given little jobs to do, handing out hymn books and the like. The call, uttered first in Eden, is to become fully human. Dr Richards insists that children - not because they are "cute", but because they are disruptive and subversive - con­front our content­ment with the less than abundant lives we settle for.

She concludes from the raising from the dead of Jairus's daughter that "God finds children worthy of healing." Such a miracle is a sign and a mandate, a directive that God's justice must be done for the children who needlessly suffer and perish in our own time. (I write these com­ments as world leaders meet in London to sign the "Global Nutrition for Growth Compact", a commit­ment to address the scandal that under-nutrition is responsible for 8000 child deaths every day.)

Finally, we come to the famous passages recording how Jesus bles­sed the children whom his disciples rejected. Richards's reading of these texts is particularly suggestive. She invites us to consider the angry words of Jesus in the light of his own experience of rejection.

A brief postscript concludes that children are "the words of God in the world". Here is a book to help us to listen to those words.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

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