Monday, 29 April 2013

The Family Story Bible by Ralph Milton

Ralph Milton's The Family Story Bible was first introduced to me in a Christian formation class at
Canadian Mennonite University and was highly recommended by our professor. Since that time I have come to appreciate the many gifts that we have been given through Milton's work. 

Some of the gifts I see in this Storybook Bible are:
  • The intentional concern for including stories of both men and women (even a story about Queen Vashti!).
  • The use of inclusive language when referring to persons and for God (avoids use of the masculine pronoun).
  • Stories from all types of biblical literature in both the Old and New Testament, even Song of Songs! Milton does a wonderful job of telling stories in an age appropriate manner from parts of the Bible that are often ignored, such as the prophets.
  • On occasion short notes to parents/caregivers are included in order to give adequate background or suggestions on how to approach stories that are particularly violent. 
  • A wonderful letter to parents and caregivers is included at the beginning of the book that explains Milton's own understanding of scripture, his embrace of imagination and passion for the biblical story, and his suggestions for how parents and caregivers can approach scripture as a living and dynamic story of very real people that we can wrestle with and wonder about in order to hear God speak (beyond simplistic moral lessons). He also includes a note that explains how the Bible came to be, fabulous information for those who have read the Bible for years and for those who are new to scripture themselves. 
  • Clear scriptural references for each story, whether the story comes directly from one particular passage, is based on one particular text, is drawn from a series of passages, or is a story that appears in multiple places in the Bible.
   I truly love this Storybook Bible. I know that when I read a story from it that I never have to worry that particular people groups will be presented as simple caricatures (often Storybook Bibles show subtle, or not so subtle, hints of ant-Semitism or other forms of racism, sexism etc.). Milton comes to the scripture text with a profound respect for the text, for the contemporary child, and for basic human experience (giving birth, nursing babies, cooking, eating, washing etc. are all simply parts of life). He does not whitewash stories, but presents them in an age appropriate manner while still allowing stories to retain some of their ambiguity and troubling nature (children were actually slaves in biblical times). In short, I love that while using age appropriate language, he allows the story to remain dynamic and complex. 

In terms of the stories, the only real concern that I have is that Milton still conflates many of the stories from the Gospels, so the unique perspective of each of the Gospel writers is lost. However, I have yet to find a Storybook Bible that does not conflate the stories, and perhaps it's not even possible in a book of this nature. Milton does have 3 other Bible story books that follow the lectionary texts from all three years in which there is less conflation.

The illustrations in the book likewise present a holistic understanding of the text and of human life. Characters are seen with scrapes, dirty knees and ruddy cheeks, eating, and nursing babies etc. The ethnicity of characters is often ambiguous, resisting attempts to use caricatures of particular ethnic groups, possibly making space for children of various ethnicities to find themselves in the stories. I also appreciate that the illustrations actively portray the story, without glorifying violence.

For me personally, the illustrations also represent one of the only real weaknesses in the book. I'm a person who loves depth of colour, bold use of shapes and dynamic characters. The style of illustration used by Margaret Kyle is more in the line of watercolour which I simply find less appealing. While some of the illustrations are larger full page pictures, many are small and only represent a small portion of the story or an object from within it. They are active, which I appreciate, but also somewhat vague. While the illustrations in this book don't really resonate for me, I do know many people who appreciate them.

For me this particular Storybook Bible represents a very solid basic for all families, one that provides strong theological grounding, and comprehensive coverage of the biblical narrative. Adults who find themselves with fuzzy biblical literacy would do well to read The Family Story Bible as well!

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