Tuesday, November 14, 2006


The stream of books issuing from the impetus of Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith (Jossey-Bass, 1997) has continued unabated, and includes a good many focusing on children. Here’s a look at two of them.

Let the Children Come: Reimaging Childhood from a Christian Perspective by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. Hardbound, 219 pp. including a study guide for parish use.

Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood by Joyce Ann Mercer (foreword by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore). St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995. Paperback, 291 pp. including bibliography and notes.

The first of these books is designed for parish study and use; the second is academic in orientation—for use in seminary classes and to advance the dialogue among professional theologians. The very fact that professional theologians are writing about children—that they can frame such a thing as a “practical theology of childhood”—is a sign of progress in the academy that is greatly to be welcomed. I can remember when a search for “children” in the catalog of the Yale Divinity School library came up virtually blank.

Neither book is an easy read. To begin with, neither book is about children; they are both about childhood. As Bonnie Miller-McLemore explains in her introduction to Let the Children Come:

It is important to clarify that this is not a book about how children think in general or about how children think about God. Nor is it a book on how to raise children in Christian faith. When I first received a grant for this research and news reached the general public, this was the general assumption of newspersons, my neighbors, and my kids’ teachers. … These are indeed important subjects, and the book’s reflections certainly have implications for those other three tasks. It even took me a while to become clear, however, that this is a book about how adults think about children (a descriptive task) and about how adults should think about children (a prescriptive or normative task). (p. xxv)

Miller-McLemore goes on to comment that before she could begin to write about “raising children from a Christian perspective” she had to address, and critique, “dominant cultural views of children.”

Both books are cultural studies first and foremost, and both place themselves firmly in a liberal, Reformed, feminist context. Both authors are painfully aware that one aspect of feminism—and of feminist theology, especially in the popular mind—has appeared to be the denigration of family life and children, the pitting of the interests, freedom and self-realization of women against the needs of their own children and of children in general. The addressing of this apparent paradox takes up a large part of both books.

Reasonably enough, the bulk of the authors’ critique is addressed to the all-pervasive commercial, consumerist culture that has commodified both children and faith. For parish clergy and educators who are trying to help parents find a Christian voice in the midst of what everybody already feels is a toxic culture, Miller-McLemore and Mercer provide a wealth of documentation and language that could bear fruit in preaching and newsletter articles. They also provide cultural history exploding the popular myth that the 1950’s style nuclear family, with father as commuting breadwinner and mother as homebound nurturer, represents in any way either a historical or a Christian norm; and they strongly critique the “family values” patriarchy of the religious right, on scriptural as well as historical-cultural grounds. Miller-McLemore, in addition, takes on the child psychologists, especially Alice Miller (The Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and a half dozen other books tracing adult unhappiness to profound childhood trauma at the hands of even “normal” or “good” parents).

Both books are fairly abstract and theoretical. They are not strong on vivid anecdotes, they contain no “case” stories; and the “practical” in Mercer’s title does not translate, as the lay reader might think, into concrete suggestions for parish liturgy or program until the last couple of chapters. Even then its readability for a general audience is hampered by the standard academic machinery of lengthy critiques of the work of previous scholars, hair-splitting about definitions, and a sometimes almost laughable postmodern bogging down in contextualization, politically correct circumlocution, and questioning of the validity of the simplest categories (including the category “child” itself).

For a parish with a critical mass of educated parents who would like some help in seeing their parenthood as a Christian vocation and practice, Let the Children Come could make a good jumping-off point for an adult discussion group. The discussion questions that accompany the book are excellent, and the book design is attractive, with wide margins that invite annotation (and, therefore, relatively short text lines that are forgiving of hasty readers who are just skimming, half an hour before class). Unfortunately, even with relatively few words per page, the six chapters are fairly long (25 to 30 pages) and do not readily subdivide into sections that could be assigned and discussed independently of each other.

My suspicion is that participants in an adult class using this book would be all too likely to come to class unprepared, or (unfortunately) to drop out because they hadn’t done the reading. If the parish culture made it clear that people are welcome in class even if they didn’t get around to the week’s reading assignment, I’m guessing that such a group could have a fruitful dialogue based on Let the Children Come if the leader him- or herself had read the book thoughtfully, used the discussion questions skillfully, and was open to letting the participants take their conversation where it actually led them. Heaven knows, such a dialogue is sorely needed.

For a parents’ discussion group about the specific issues of children’s faith, of how to organize parish and family life so that children are welcomed in the Sunday morning worship, and of how to institute and sustain specific Christian practices in the home (family prayer, holiday celebrations, and so on), you’ll want to look elsewhere. The best books for these purposes still seem to be the following, all from the 80s and 90s:

• Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth (Penguin, 1991);
• Joan Halmo, Celebrating the Church Year with Young Children (Liturgical Press, 1988);
• Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Paulist, 1986);
• David Ng and Virginia Thomas, Children in the Worshiping Community (Westminster John Knox, 1981).

© 2006 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

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