Review: Picture the Bible Curricula (First Congregational United Church of Christ, River Falls, WI)

[1] Several years ago three beautifully illustrated children’s books about baptism and the story of the Bible landed on my desk. As I read the accompanying letter I was introduced to the progenitor of the books, Rev. Dr. Stacy Johnson Myers, an ELCA and United Church of Christ pastor from Wisconsin. And she told me there was more. She told me about Picture the Bible, an original resource developed by her church to help teach children and others Bible stories and to help them put these stories in the context of the larger story of the Bible. The eye-catching books on my desk derived from this resource. Her note led to a phone call and over time I was introduced to the entire Picture the Bible resource.

[2] Based on original artwork, Picture the Bible is a set of 36 images depicting 36 Bible stories. The corresponding student engagement pages use “conversational centerpieces” to foster biblical literacy and interpretation, and to facilitate creatively connecting the Biblical story to one’s daily life. The artwork has intergenerational appeal and the engagement pages offer a variety of approaches and activities that can be used with a range of ages. The resources are available from the website in multiple formats including art reproductions, books featuring the art, a CD of images for projection in worship, and permissions for downloading and printing.

[3] My work has revolved largely around facilitating the positive faith formation of children and youth both in parish ministry and in writing, publishing, and marketing faith formation resources for use in local churches. So like the author of Ecclesiastes I am never sure there is anything new under the sun in the realm of church resources. But with Picture the Bible I was pleasantly surprised. My criticisms of most curricula and faith formation resources is that they lead children and youth to one interpretation of the Bible story rather than inviting them to reflect on the story within their own contexts, allowing God’s Spirit to speak unrestricted. My second core criticism is that those of us who teach the Bible to children and youth are not very good at putting the Bible stories in the context of the whole of God’s story. Our various published curricula jump from Old Testament to New Testament and back again (largely due to the placement of Christmas and Easter on our calendars) without ever helping our students understand the development of the Israelites as God’s people with the foreshadowing of the coming Messiah or helping them see how the Epistles fit into the development of the Early Church.

[4] Picture the Bible answers both of these criticisms. Its approach to the Bible stories is one of exploring the stories through art work, reading the story from the Biblical text, explaining historical or contextual issues necessary to comprehending the story, and asking reflective questions about the story and what it might mean in one’s own life. Never does this approach tell learners what the Bible story is supposed to mean to them or what they should do because they have heard this story. Learners are allowed to let the story stand and figure it out for themselves. The artwork, an integral part of this resource, is designed to work as a Bible timeline. This approach, with the help of the Student Pages, teaches the overarching story of the Bible and works toward creating Biblically literate Christians. For these two reasons, alone, I would suggest that churches take a look at Picture the Bible.

[5] Picture the Bible has other innovative and creative features not often found in resources for children and youth. There is a strong emphasis on connecting the Bible stories with justice actions. Sometimes churches who are concerned that their faith make a sustainable and substantive difference for others in the world are less than vigilant about connecting this work with the work of God’s Spirit throughout the Bible and the words and actions of Jesus. Or they deny the agency of children and youth to make a difference in our world. This resource connects the two through short biographies of fighters for justice, service projects and other activities.

[6] In another interesting feature, each Bible story is connected to exploration of vocation. For example, the discussion of the creation story explores gardening as a means of creation care. The story of Jesus and the four friends of the paralyzed man invites children into the world of archaeology where discovery of artifacts can illuminate the Bible stories. Other activities tie the Biblical narrative to stories in church history or to discoveries in modern science. With a plethora of inventive activities designed to engage children in each Bible story, facilitators are encouraged to choose those best suited to the children’s ages and interests.

[7] While I’ve already mentioned Picture the Bible’s artwork, I would be remiss in not calling greater attention to it. Colorful collages are used to illustrate a pivotal scene from each Bible story. The collage approach to Bible story illustration is not something I’ve seen before and it adds depth and nuance to the resource. The professionally produced artwork stands out because it is visually attractive, contextually appropriate, and appealing to all ages.

[8] Flexibility is a helpful feature of Picture the Bible. Because a congregation can pick and choose among the activities for each biblical narrative this resource can be adapted to a variety of uses. It is appropriate as a weekly Sunday School curriculum or an enhancement to Confirmation classes. Use it in worship services to help your whole church explore the context and themes of Bible stories. Families will find it a welcome resource for in-home faith formation.

[9] One of the difficulties of teaching the Bible to children and youth (and adults, too) in mainline or more progressive churches is finding resources that fit the church’s theology. Faith formation resources with fun activities and beautiful art are plentiful if one wants to teach conservative theology and biblical interpretation, but high quality resources grounded in more progressive theological or biblical ideals are not so easy to find. As part of my work this past year I hosted a conversation with Children’s Ministry faith formation professionals from several mainline denominations. Much of our conversation focused on the kinds of resources we need in order to serve our churches well. This group was delighted to find Picture the Bible. And the people of First Congregational in River Falls, Wisconsin offer all of us a lesson: when a need exists, don’t sit back and wait for someone else to take care of it – take the proverbial bull by the horns and create what you need. And then be willing to share it with others.

Ivy Beckwith

Rev. Ivy Beckwith, Ph.D. is the Faith Formation Minister and Team Leader at the national offices of the United Church of Christ.