Children's Bibles in America
A Reception History of the Story of Noah's ark in US Children's Bibles
Series: Scriptural Texts
- ISBN: 9780567683922
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: August 2018
Children’s Bibles are among the most popular and influential religious educational publications in the United States (1). The story of the Genesis Flood and Noah’s Ark in particular has caught the imagination of countless people throughout time. Given how this story contains a “vast plurality of potential meanings that have been mined in creative and wildly diverse ways throughout American history,” it serves as a unique case-study to examine the way in which children’s Bibles comment on, adapt, and revise the canonical Flood narrative (1). In Children’s Bibles in America: A Reception History of the Story of Noah’s Ark in US Children’s Bibles, Russell W. Dalton writes, “This study examines the changes made from the Genesis account . . . to see how these changes have functioned to present children with certain lessons and . . . perspectives on life, God, morality, and the nature of the Bible itself (17).
While Dalton does not claim his work is exhaustive, the book boasts a bibliography of approximately four hundred children’s Bibles and, according to the author, “hundreds more” volumes were consulted but not listed (5). Since illustrations play a key role in interpretation, especially with respect to children’s Bibles, Dalton is to be commended for the impressive array of artwork included (twenty-one figures in total!). That being said, one (minor) critique is that Dalton fails to include any pictures to accompany the lengthy discussion of The Brick Bible (112–14). Many readers would have surely benefited from having direct reference to at least some accompanying images (see 204 for another example of where a graphic would be useful). That being said, however, the author’s judicious decision to offer extended quotes (rather than summaries) from sources is much appreciated, as it allows “the texts themselves to raise questions that others can explore from the perspective of their own area of expertise” (5).
Uniquely, despite Dalton’s title for the book, no faith or religious sect is excluded from Dalton’s book. The distinct contributions of Christian (both Catholic and Protestant), Jewish, and Qur’anic scholars are all noted alongside the not insignificant influence of the Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is notable that Dalton avoids making disparaging remarks concerning the beliefs and/or practices of any spiritual group. Dalton asserts, “the purpose of this study is not to criticize or mock those authors and illustrators who change the story of Noah from how it appears in the Book of Genesis, even if those authors claim fidelity to the text (44). This is, perhaps, clearest in Dalton’s discussion of Young Earth Creationism (YEC). According to Dalton, children’s books with illustrations of dinosaurs living alongside humans and other animals on the ark only began appearing at the beginning of the twenty-first century (253). What follows is one example of a YEC depiction of dinosaurs within the Noachian deluge narrative:
When the flood is over, the animals leave the ark without incident except for one moment of concern: ‘Noah turned with alarm when he heard the ramp creaking under the weight of the pair of behemoths. He was afraid the wood might splinter and injure one of them–but the strong ramp held fast. When these long-necked giants had come aboard, they were no larger than elephants. Now they even towered over the giraffes’ (254–55).
Dalton explains that what are labeled as behemoths are actually apatosauruses (255). Dalton asserts, “The scene not only adds a bit of drama to the narrative, but also provides readers with a rationale for how such large animals could fit in the first place” (255). Given the overwhelming acrimony directed toward literal readings of Genesis, Dalton’s courteous (even conciliatory) comments stand out. Despite this congenial even-temperedness, Dalton’s volume is free from the ad temperantiam fallacy, also known as false compromise or argument from middle ground, that is, that the truth is supposedly always a compromise between two opposing positions (225, 244).
One of Dalton’s most astute observations concerns Moral Therapeutic Deism (101–02, 114–15), which is the belief that the central goal of life is to feel happy and good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem (101). The widespread adoption of MTD explains why so many authors water-down and/or soften the all-encompassing, catastrophic nature of Noah’s Flood, using euphemisms and allegories to avoid saying directly that God killed people (99–102).
Two other noteworthy insights concern: (1) the influence of John Locke’s belief of childhood being a “blank slate” which led to the idea children are “malleable in their moral formation” (161, 262); and (2) the Benevolent Empire movement of the early 1800’s and its relationship towards cruelty to animals (202) and drunkenness (221–23, 33). Dalton’s comments against racism and the Hamitic curse (see Gen 9:18–29) are also exemplary (225–33). Lastly, the author’s section on how to effectively choose children’s Bibles is also quite helpful (260–65).
The book concludes with a seventeen-page bibliography and three indices: (1) children’s Bibles and other Bible-related books for children (sorted by eras), (2) authors (excluding children’s Bibles), and (3) religious works (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament, etc.) There is also a useful list of figures. The thorough table of contents compensates for the lack of a subject index.
On an editorial level, having complete bibliographical details in the footnotes alongside a separate, full bibliography seems unnecessarily redundant. A more significant criticism, however, is Dalton’s lack of specification concerning evangelicalism. To be sure, Dalton notes the Revivalists’ use of the story of Noah as a call to salvation (citing, for example, Jonathan Edwards and Dwight L. Moody as exemplars). Yet, one will search in vain for a clear delineation of the enduring characteristics of evangelicalism (as espoused, for instance, by David Bebbington) namely the Bible, the cross, the concept of being ‘born again,’ and activism. The author could have leveraged this well-established rubric in discussing this movement. Finally, commentator Gordon Wenham is inexplicably listed at times as “George” (see 181, 286).
Irrespective of these (minor) deficiencies, Children’s Bibles in America offers intriguing snapshots of America’s changing and diverse religious beliefs and values throughout its history by means of one of the best-known stories of Scripture (259). Experts in religious history alongside biblical/theological specialists are sure to appreciate Dalton’s work,
Dustin Burlet teaches at Millar Bible College (Winnipeg, MB).Dustin BurletDate Of Review:May 30, 2022