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The First Step Bible

| 20.1.03
The First Step Bible, by Mack Thomas (Illustrated by Joe Stites)

It was with some trepidation that I looked forward to reading the Bible for the first time to my two-and-a-half year old daughter. On the one hand, I wanted to make sure that she was steeped in the biblical narrative from a very early age, allowing it to unconsciously shape her attitudes and act as a spiritual touchstone throughout her life. But on the other hand, I was concerned about presenting God and the biblical stories in an age-appropriate manner that grounded my daughter in the image of God as Love. Anyone who has actually read the Bible knows that there are very troubling sections depicting violence, death, suffering --things hard enough for coddled and complacent 21st century American adults to understand, let alone children.

Enter The First Step Bible. Ambitious in its sweep, yet sensitive in its presentation, I found that Mack Thomas examines each story selected, mines it for its spiritual theme, and then presents that theme in a way young children can enjoy and understand. He is able to keep the stories simple, yet still teach remarkably profound spiritual lessons. Each page contains a few lines of text, richly illustrated by Joe Stites' watercolor paintings. Children learn the basic outlines of the Bible and some of the main spiritual themes as presented by kind-looking, expressive biblical characters of diverse ethnicity --all while having fun looking for the cute animals that seem to teem from each page.

A good example of this is The First Step Bible's approach to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Very young children don't understand death, so they won't understand the idea of raising someone from the dead. Instead of talking directly about death, the author draws upon the spiritual theme of Jesus calling us out of darkness into light as a lens to see Lazarus' raising. Children get the message that Jesus leads us into light, while skirting a direct discussion of death. Jesus' resurrection story is dealt with in a similar manner.

While it may seem a bit strange reading these oblique versions of the story as an adult, when looked at through a child's perspective things actually make more sense --leaving a foundation upon which to build at a later age. In the Lazarus example, when the child is older the darkness into light theme can serve as a useful way of describing death, and heaven. Or perhaps it could serve as an illustration for the Christian life of spiritual transformation.

On one negative note, The First Step Bible (like adult Bibles) is tilted towards stories about men and boys. I was surprised (and a little disappointed) not to see notable women such as Esther, Ruth, and others included. However, where stories with women were included (Sarah, Hannah, Miriam, Mary, Mary Magdalene), their depictions were affirming and showed sensitivity. In general, negative images are avoided entirely in The First Step Bible, included only when absolutely necessary to the story and then only described in very general terms ("some bad people" or "a bad king.") Misogynistic images of women are entirely absent.

Finally, The First Step Bible doesn't try to cover every detail of every story, which can actually provide a positive teaching opportunity for parents. Keeping things simple left me room to provide my own elaboration --I loved being the one to teach my young daughter that the food God provided the Israelites, according to the Exodus story, is called "manna." I enjoyed asking her to supply phrases at key points of repetition as she became more familiar with the stories and was able to supply names and actions depicted in the illustrations. The First Step Bible has become part of our bed-time ritual --a time looked forward to by both Dad and daughter.

PUBLISHER: Questar Publishers, Oregon. 1994.

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