The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . all over the Interwebs!

After spending a couple of years reading quite a bit of theology, but not that much of the Bible itself, I was in the mood this year to get back to the core of things. So, in spring 2015, my book group at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church explored some of the parables of Jesus using Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus.

I enjoyed reading and discussing the parables immensely (of course, it helps that I have a fabulous group of folks to do it with!), and I liked the interpretations that Levine had to offer although getting to her main points took some slogging through lots of background and citation of obscure sources. If you are academically inclined or especially interested in learning about 1st-century Judaism, I recommend her book. I also enjoyed reading up on the parables in Robert Farrar Capon’s three-volume set Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

However, if you aren’t up for heavy reading but would like a refresher course on (or an introduction to) some of the parables, here is a list of additional sources that I assembled as we worked our way through the parables in Levine’s book, plus a couple more.

There are some standard interpretations included here, and some creative ones. If you are in the mood to be puzzled and provoked by Jesus’s stories, dive right in!

Parable Readings from around the Web:

Charles Spurgeon’s 1884 sermon on the parable of the Lost Sheep (long, but I found it interesting that his take aligns in some ways more with Levine’s than with Luke’s framing of the story as about repentance. The emphasis is more on Jesus searching for lost souls than on repentance).

James Buckley, “Seeking, Saving, Finding”: A blog post on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, using the parable of the Lost Coin. 

The Good Samaritan: A blog post with two contrasting readings of the parable–one Christocentric (The Good Samaritan = Jesus himself) and the other more along the lines of Levine’s interpretation.

“Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Be a Good Samaritan” by David Henson. This is a GREAT reflection on a possible deeper meaning of this parable – the logical next step from Levine’s analysis, I think. More from Henson below.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” (Parable of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, etc.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Faith, Doubt, and Mustard Seed Necklaces.”

Alyce M. McKenzie, “Strange Scripture: Reflections on the Five Parables in Matthew 13” (Contains the Parables of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, and Pearl of Great Price)


Parable readings by Episcopal priest David R. Henson (Fair warning: David does creative readings of the sort AJ Levine dislikes. I find them intriguing, but they should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt!):

The Lost Sheep

The Prodigal Son

The Good Samaritan (This is a link to the first of three retellings of the parable; you can get to the other two by clicking the links at the top of the blog posts.)

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Parable of the Talents

The Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Sower (I really like this one!)


“The God who Throws Seeds Everywhere” – Morgan Guyton on the Parable of the Sower

Moonshine Jesus Show Lectionary Cast on the Parable of the Sower (20 minutes of audio)


Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16)

Carl Gregg (Unitarian Universalist) – Jesus’ Parable of the Job Creator, the Day Laborers, and #OccupyWallSt Gregg hits upon a few of the same points as Levine.

Jack Mahoney, SJ (Jesuit) – “The Parable of the Living Wage?” – This one is a little dense, but it has some good points. It touches on some other parables that we have read as well.

Sr. Rose Pacatte (Catholic) – “What the Parable of the Vineyard Workers Really Says” – Another  social justice-oriented interpretation.

Allen Ross (prof. at Samford’s divinity school), “The Workers in the Vineyard” – A fairly standard, more spiritualized interpretation about grace.


David Henson, Radical Reversals: Lazarus, Abraham, and the Myth of the Righteous Rich (A Homily)

A Good Friday / Holy Saturday Reading and Playlist

Instead of writing something new for this already overly-busy Holy Week, I decided to take some time for reading and musical meditation on the death of Christ and the meanings that it has for me. If you also need to slow down and pause to contemplate the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, here are a few suggested readings and songs from my interweb wanderings on this Maundy Thursday evening. Wander along with me, or share your own favorite readings or musical meditations in the comments.

David Henson – “The Crucifixion: A Tale of Two Kingdoms (Good Friday Homily, John 18:1-19-42)” Reflections on how Jesus’s passion reflects a conflict between two types of two kingdoms: “One, the kingdoms of humankind, which come to power through violence and maintain it through oppression and the sword. The other, the kingdom of God, which comes to power through love and sacrifice and a towel.”

Fr. Stephen Freeman – “A Lesser Atonement” – An Orthodox point of view about how the work of Christ on the cross was about union, not about substitution.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro “Ten Thoughts on Good Friday” – A Jewish point of view on the meanings of Jesus and Good Friday and how even non-Christians can honor the day.

Mark Sandlin – “God Did Not Kill Jesus on the Cross for our Sins” – Mark Sandlin reflects on Jesus’s death as what the fullness of love looks like in action.

Brian Zahnd – “Jesus Died for Us . . . Not for God” – Zahnd approaches atonement with these questions: “Where do we find God on Good Friday? Is God found in Caiaphas seeking a sacrificial scapegoat? Is God found in Pilate requiring a punitive execution? Or is God found in Jesus, absorbing sin and responding with forgiveness?”

What Wondrous Love is This

Were You There When They Crucified My Lord

Beautiful Blood

He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

“See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

– Isaac Watts (1707)

Featured image

Del Greco, La trinidad (c. 1577)

How I Found Gay Cuban Jesus and became an LGBTQ-Affirming Christian

When I was a senior in college (that is, 15 years ago now), I took a Hispanic literature and film class in which we watched the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. It was an uncomfortable experience for me.

I didn’t know what to expect from the film because as a fledgling reader of Spanish, I hadn’t made much headway with the short novel that the film is based on (The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man by Senel Paz). For starters, I was a little shocked and embarrassed by a brief but strong (and very hetero) sex scene at the beginning of the film, and I remember surreptitiously glancing around at my classmates, thinking, “Did I really just see that in class?”

What followed left me even more unsettled, but for different reasons: A gay man (Diego) makes a play for a young straight man (David), and through various twists and turns of the plot, the two of them develop a genuine friendship and respect for one another. At the end of the film, they share an emotional embrace as Diego prepares to leave the country because of the communist regime’s repression of intellectual freedom and persecution of LGBTQ people.Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.18.58

It has been 15 years, but I still remember how that embrace bothered me. Despite the bright Cuban sunshine streaming in through the window, the act seemed sinister and threatening. Worrisome. The big bad wolf had somehow managed to get friendly with little Red Riding Hood, and that wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.

I didn’t really understand the film, but I knew that it contradicted what I had been taught: that homosexuality is a sin and that it should not be normalized and promoted, much less embraced. The film got under my skin despite the fact that Diego’s initial ploy to seduce David does not succeed; as Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Strawberry and Chocolate “is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind.” At the time, I guess I was not quite prepared for either possibility.

This all happened before the term “gay agenda” gained traction, and before a one’s stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage became such an important litmus test in certain circles for whether or not one is a “true” believer and practitioner of the Christian faith. In fact, the topic of homosexuality seemed distant and almost unreal as I grew up in rural south Georgia, far from the epicenters of the AIDS epidemic and blithely ignorant of any gay subtexts in the Queen songs that I learned from listening to the radio with my older brothers.

Homosexuality was a sin, but from my sheltered perspective it was a theoretical one, like making sacrifices to pagan gods . . . who did that? Not anyone that I knew! A year or two into college, I did have a bisexual friend (one of my best, in fact), but I was conveniently spared from having to confront the issue when she started dating a guy shortly after we met.

In this context, I wasn’t exactly homophobic, and I didn’t hate or gay-bash LGBTQ folks (that is, the two or three whom I knew at that point), but nevertheless, when I was suddenly confronted with having to think and write about gay men and their stories (we also read and watched Kiss of the Spider Woman), I was profoundly unsettled by the contradictions between what I believed and what I felt, and I was caught between the impulse to identify with the characters or to keep them at arm’s length as foreign and possibly dangerous others.

So, you could say that Diego was the first (albeit fictional) person to seriously challenge my beliefs on homosexuality and LGBTQ people, and that first time around, I couldn’t identify with him. I couldn’t accept that final embrace.

Several years later and quite a bit farther down the road of my Christian journey, I decided to rewatch Strawberry and Chocolate when I was choosing films for a Hispanic cultures class (mostly, I confess, because it was one of only two Cuban films that I had ever seen).

I was looking for relevant cultural content for my students, but what I found instead was Jesus.

Gay Cuban Jesus, to be precise.

That, and a change of heart.

As I rewatched (and then re-rewatched) Strawberry and Chocolate, I came not only to identify with Diego, but to love and respect him just as David, his young straight friend in the film, does. I learned to see his goodness and passion, and to see the evil of the regime that oppresses him and ultimately forces him to leave the country that he loves. I also noticed something that I think I completely missed the first time around: Diego’s identity in the film is not limited to that of gay man, or even that of passionate, oppressed intellectual.

Diego is also a creyente, a believer . . . one might even go so far as to call him a Christian. Not quite the same variety as most of us, for sure, but a believer nonetheless. When I first saw the film, I hadn’t known what to make of his odd relationship with the statue of his patron saint, or with the troubling and potentially sacrilegious statue of Jesus that is hidden under a sheet in his apartment, waiting to be shown at an art exhibition.

Screenshot 2015-02-04 15.34.01

The statue is a fairly standard representation of Jesus, but it is pierced in several places by the communist sickle, resulting in an image that I originally saw as a statement against Christ and Christianity on the part Diego’s artist friend, who is also gay. Oh boy, did I miss the point.

The statue is more likely a criticism of the communist regime that restricted religious practice and that spied on, discriminated against, and even persecuted people of faith . . . just like it spied on, discriminated against, and persecuted gay men like Diego.

Regardless of his love of Cuba and his desire to contribute to its betterment, Diego is pierced over and over by rejection and censorship. When he takes too firm of a stand for artistic freedom, his life, like the plan for the exhibition of the Jesus statue, is ruined. Diego, like the subversive statue of Christ, is forced to exist in hiding. When he objects, he loses his job and is blacklisted and forced into exile away from the country that he has loved so dearly . . . and that he still loves despite the rejection and persecution that he has suffered at its hands.

Kind of like Jesus, still loving the people who nailed him to a cross.

At one point in the film, Diego insists, “I am a part of this country, like it or not, and I have a right to work for its future! . . . Without me, you’re missing a piece!”

He was right . . . the Revolution lost something when it silenced his voice, when it ostracized him and forced him into exile.

How many LGBTQ people have been silenced or exiled by the church? What suffering have we caused, and what have we lost as a result?

How many times have Christians done the persecuting? How many times have we been the Romans with nails, the ideologues with sickles?

And how many times have we excused ourselves by talking about “sin” when none of us has the right to cast stones?

This is not a post about whether homosexual behavior is sinful or not (if you want to read more on that, check here, here, or here). This is a post, in part, about why “sin” isn’t the point.

The point is that people of faith–gay and straight and both and neither–are all part of the church. We all deserve the chance to be in community and to contribute to the future of our faith. We all lose when we exclude and ostracize others who want to be in community.

The point is also that LGBTQ people are just that, people, who have stories that we need to hear, respect, and find ourselves in. When I took a step back from my ideology and really listened to Diego’s story, I could no longer find it in myself to reject and condemn him. In the end, like David, I was seduced . . . not by “sin,” but by Diego’s quirky, passionate, flawed, and honest humanity. By the person behind the label.

Through Diego and David’s story, I understood how I was part of the regime–how I was the crucifier, not the crucified. I realized that I was on the wrong side.

I finally found the joy of that embrace, a joy which has been translated in my life from the fiction of a film to friendships that I treasure and people that I love.

Thank you for that, Diego. Thank you for being my gay Cuban Jesus.


This post is dedicated to my LGBTQ friends and students, and to the first same-sex couples being officially married in the state of Alabama today. Love wins!  


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On the Excuses that Some Christians Use to Discredit the Faith of other Christians

Note: This is a two-part post. “Me and My DCFs,” recounts how I was mocked and insulted during an online conversation with a pastor and his friends. If you want to skip the set up and get right to the conclusions, scroll down to the title “Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (And Why You Should Not Accept Them).”

Me and my DCFs (Dear Christian Friends)

Recently I dove into a debate with fellow Christians because I shared a blog post from David Henson that offers a view of salvation based on the incarnation of Christ rather than one based solely on the crucifixion. I liked the post because I have become much more of an incarnational Christian, with my faith focused on the miracle of incarnation that allows us to know and be reconciled to God and to participate in God’s vision for the world by following Jesus in faith and action.

A pastor friend of mine commented on the post by blasting Henson, who is an Episcopal priest and an earnest Jesus follower, as ignorant and a “false teacher,” and then he reposted the link so that his friends could second his opinion. I will try to recount parts of the resulting conversation without insulting the people who were participating, but in case I am not quite successful, I want to state up front that I consider them fellow Christians who are worthy of respect. I grew up and first came to faith in a tradition like the one that they represent, and although I have come a long way since then, I still value and even love many aspects of that foundation. This conversation left me disappointed that the same kind of good, loving folks that I grew up with could be not only be so rude and disrespectful toward a fellow Christian, but that in the end, they could also pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

I joined the conversation, commenting that there are different ways of understanding salvation that are as valid as the view of my pastor friend (basically, penal substitutionary atonement). Another pastor who has never met me (I’ll call him my DCF – dear Christian friend) showed up to dismiss Henson’s post as part of a “satanic effort,” adding that his response would probably not sit well with “Ms. Leslie.” Nothing like a nice touch of faux formality to make the degree of condescension crystal clear from the start.

Though I let the snark bleed through by suggesting that he could call me Dr. Kaiura (my actual title), I did not attack my DCF’s response by attacking his theology or his faith. However, I did maintain that there are alternate understandings that should be respected when the theology bears good fruit (which is the criteria Jesus gave us for judging the teachings of others in Matthew 7). For my trouble, I was told, “You seem to have a ‘Holy Chip’ on your shoulder that has possibly been placed there by intellectual pride.”

Later on, after I had very seriously (and in a totally snark-free manner) explained how I understand my salvation in Christ, my DCF openly mocked me, writing, “What a blessing it is to sit at your feet of intellectual wisdom! Gods infinite capacity is truly revealed in your propensity to exult in the monotonous intellectual humility you reveal per post.”

Throughout the conversation I was repeatedly accused of being prideful simply because 1) I am intelligent and articulate and 2) I would not agree to every belief held by my DCF and his friends. Furthermore, I got this reaction when I was intentionally refraining from attacking their beliefs because, as I was attempting to explain, I think that Christians should have more respect for the beliefs of others who profess faith in Christ.

I don’t claim to be 100% pride (or snark) free, but another Christian who observed this exchange (and whom I have never met) messaged me to apologize for the way I was treated and to comment: “I didn’t think you were in any way prideful. I actually thought you were the most humble in that conversation. Thank you for being a breath of fresh air and Jesus in that stifling Pharisee-like comment section.”

Nevertheless, I was accused of being prideful while my DCF and his friends felt perfectly within their rights not only in “rebuking” me, but also in questioning my faith and being openly insulting. The coup d’etat was this anti-intellectual and assumption-filled statement: “I have met many like you, ever learning but never able to come to conclusive truth. Maybe this is why Paul stated that ‘not many wise…are called.’ Don’t you know that even your intellect has to be processed through redemption and sanctification as well? Your mind may be sharp but has it been renewed? [. . . ] your unredeemed intellect is not a friend but should be brought under submission to the Spirit of God.”

So let me lay this out. I repeatedly affirmed that I have faith in Jesus Christ and that I believe in the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. And yet because I refused to agree that penal substitutionary atonement theory is the only way of believing or that the Bible is inerrant, I was mocked and relegated to the category of “apostate” (i.e. one who abandons belief and no longer belongs to the group). I had mentioned that I lead book studies at my church, and to this my DCF insultingly replied, as if from one Facebook thread he knew me and all of my beliefs: “No wonder many churches are in the apostate condition they are in…. I personally wouldn’t allow you to teach in the nursery.”

Ouch. Good thing I am confident enough in my faith not to be dissuaded from it by such rudeness and judgmentalism. I worry for those who are not.

Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (and Why You Should Not Accept Them)

I hope that my Dear Christian Friend (who is a lead pastor, remember) is kinder and more respectful to seekers and inquisitive, thinking folks at his church than he was to me. If he isn’t, then I am fairly sure that he has driven some away from the gospel instead of leading them toward it.

Sometimes I am astonished at how unloving and judgmental some Christians can be in their attempts to discredit other faithful Christians. In fact, most of the hate mail and vitriolic commentary received by progressive Christian bloggers comes from other Christians, and that is ridiculous. It is also in direct contradiction to how Jesus commands us to love, adding in John 13.35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Some Christians would do well to learn that objections can always be expressed in a firm but polite way, without compromising one’s own beliefs or insulting or demonizing another Christian (or anyone else, for that matter). (And since I sometimes have a tendency to let my frustration with black & white thinking turn to snark, I admit that I am still perfecting this approach myself.)

One of the final posts in the conversation described above lamented “I just hope an atheist doesn’t come upon this thread.” My DCF’s response reveals a total lack of self-awareness: “I think it is good that an Atheist or an Agnostic would see passionate believers passionately defending scripture.”

I’m sorry, my DCF, but all that a typical atheist would see on that thread is a group of Christians ganging up to discredit and ridicule another Christian who is simply expressing an alternate understanding of the exact same faith that they hold themselves. Not exactly inspirational or admirable. I am a dedicated Christian, and the only thing it inspired in me was a firm desire to never, ever walk into a church pastored by someone like my DCF.

However, the conversation did prompt me to reflect on the excuses that some Christians use to discredit other Christians. I critique some of them here in hopes of helping other earnest seekers and spiritual misfits and encouraging them to not let “well meaning” Christians belittle them or discredit their faith (or their attempts at understanding faith and making it meaningful) with these excuses.

1) The Attribution of Pridefulness: An accusation of pride is often code for “You dare to have a different opinion and refuse to submit to mine” by people who are prideful enough to believe that they are 100% correct about everything. I think that this accusation is probably applied more to women and young people than to others, but we all deserve more respect than that. It is true that we should not be unduly prideful and that we should be open to learning, but simply stating your beliefs and sticking to them (particularly when they are informed and thoughtful) does not equate to having sinful pride.

2) Criticism of Intellectualism: Christians who critique intellectualism or resort to quoting 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”) at you when you are engaging intellectually with faith are trying to force you to abandon your own ability to read, pray, think, and come to conclusions in favor of their conclusions. If a person or community will not honor your own earnest efforts to study (2 Timothy 2.15) and work out your own salvation (Philippians 2.12), then find one who will.

3) Insistence on Biblical Inerrancy and the Impossibility of Interpretation: People like my DCF will not only insist on the inerrancy of the Bible (a relatively recent and problematic belief), but 1) they will also reject the very idea that the Bible can be interpreted (all the while vociferously preaching the interpretations like penal substitution, which is also problematic), and 2) they will make believing in Biblical inerrancy a prerequisite for salvation. My DCF claimed in our conversation that “There is only one thing that produces faith…. The Word!,” and by this he referred to the Bible, not to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In my humble opinion, that is idolatry of the Bible and a deformation of the gospel.

Featured image(Image borrowed from nakedpastor)

Jesus called us to have faith in himself and in God. Don’t let anyone tell you that your faith has to be placed elsewhere to be valid, and don’t let anyone convince you that the Bible cannot be interpreted as a way of shoving their own interpretation down your throat. It is the nature of language that every spoken utterance and written word is subject to interpretation, but that does not mean all interpretations are equal. We can and should seek out faithful and intellectually honest interpretations that shore up and enliven our faith.

4) Claiming that because you interpret the Bible differently, you have “dumbed it down” or made it “easier” to follow for your own benefit. People who claim this are willfully ignorant of the fact that any genuine attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice. That being said, if your understanding of Christianity requires no sacrifice or transformation, you should perhaps take a second look at it what it means to follow Jesus.

5) Excusing their own rudeness and lack of love and grace by pointing out that Jesus and Paul rebuked other believers. There is no excuse for insulting a fellow believer (or any one else), particularly when you do not know the person. Assuming that you have a free license to rebuke others in any situation is a mark of pride, not humility or spiritual maturity. When we form loving and supportive relationships with other believers, there is a place for instruction, correction, and at times, even rebuke. In the absence of loving and meaningful relationships, those things are fruitless and often based on incorrect assumptions. Make sure that when you give a pastor, a mentor, or a community spiritual authority in your life that they know how to exercise that authority in a loving and respectful manner that allows you the freedom of thought and conscience to follow your faith.

Final Thoughts

To fellow seekers, I say this: Do not let anyone insult or belittle you out of their concern for your salvation (which usually masks a concern for being right and a desire for you to submit to their often questionable rightness). If you are looking for a vibrant and meaningful faith, there are reputable Christian leaders and mentors out there who will love you and respect you and your journey to faith. Don’t settle for leaders who use excuses to badger you into submission to their authority rather than to the authority of Jesus. Never let anyone shame or guilt you into giving up your quest for an authentic and intellectually engaged faith.

As for me, I have a lot to learn. I have beliefs and ideas that need to be fleshed out, tweaked, and perhaps even reconsidered completely. But I also have the capability to read and interpret scripture and to choose wisely which authorities (theologians, Biblical scholars, pastors, mentors, friends) I look to in order to shape my understanding and my faith. And not only do I have that capability, I have that responsibility.

And so does everyone else. 


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Happy Birthday, Santa! Adventures in Advent with Preschoolers

I love Advent and Christmas. I also love the nativity story, but apparently I’m not that great at explaining it to small children. On the first Christmas that my oldest (subsequently referred to by his nickname, Goo) was old enough to have a bit of a conversation, I pointed out every nativity scene on our street and talked about how Christmas was a celebration of Jesus’s birthday. I encouraged Goo to wish a “Happy Birthday!” to each baby Jesus that we passed.

I figured that this was the easiest way to begin to explain the meaning of Christmas to a not-yet two year old, but before I knew it, Goo was wishing an enthusiastic happy birthday not only to the wooden baby Jesus cut-out in the life-size nativity scene, but also to the huge blow-up Santa in one yard and to the jolly snowman in the next. “Happy Birthday, Santa!”

Oops.

I do cut myself a break on this one considering that he was only 20 months old, and I was in a fog of sleep deprivation (and possibly pain meds) from having delivered his little brother Roo via c-section the week after Thanksgiving.


Fast forward three years to our current Christmas season. The exact same nativity scenes, Santa Clauses, and snowmen have popped up on our street. Every afternoon when I pick up the kids, we make the obligatory trip around our block to see and comment on all the important sights: the neighborhood fire station, the backhoe loader parked by Publix, the bridge over the creek, and now, those familiar wooden cut-outs of baby Jesus in his manger. In this repetitive loop that is life with small children, I invariably say “Look! There’s baby Jesus! He was born in a stable. And there’s his mommy . . . ” and so on.

I was fairly pleased with the progress of these little conversations until I had to take Goo to the doctor early one morning. As we were leaving the office, he noticed this Christmas display outside:

Featured image

He excitedly pointed to it and exclaimed, “Look! There’s baby Jesus! He was born in an ‘O’!”

Of course, from my reaction, Goo realized that he had made a funny, and then for the rest of the day he kept saying with a big grin (and let me tell you, this kid has a grin), “I saw baby Jesus born in an ‘O’!”

Sigh.

But at least Goo has a sense of humor, and at 4 1/2 and 3 years old, Goo and Roo (collectively known as the ‘Oos) are at least curious and excited about the Christmas story even if they can’t quite get the details sorted.

To my credit, I recently searched the bookstore high and low for a good nativity storybook for young children because the books we had didn’t explain the story very clearly. I picked up one book after the other and put them all back only to leave empty-handed. Why?

Some told sweet and cutesy stories from the point of view of the animals in the stable, which is fine, but it isn’t going to help clarify the basics of Christmas for my kids.

Some padded the nativity story with theology that in my opinion doesn’t really belong there, especially in a book for small children. They don’t understand hints at the concepts of sin or atonement, much less what those ideas have to do with the Christmas story. Obviously, they have enough trouble digesting the story itself and giving it meaning!

Also, I have to admit that I put back a couple simply because the holy family was way too white (I mean, have you seen the Little Golden Book’s ginger Joseph?!). While I don’t have a problem with Jesus being depicted as white (or any other race), I do have a problem that depiction being so prevalent that people (like Megyn Kelly of Fox News) believe it to be a historical fact and forget that Jesus is quite foreign to us in time and space even as Christ is universal. My kids regularly see depictions of Jesus as white, and that’s fine, but on my book-hunt I was determined to inject just a tiny bit of diversity into that picture.

Picking out Christmas books was so much easier before I became a theology nerd! After much looking, though, I found two that the ‘Oos and I like. So if you are looking for simple and engaging nativity stories for your little ones, check these two out:

This is the Stable, by Cynthia Cotten, illustrated by Delana Bettoli. This colorful and beautifully illustrated book tells the events of the nativity with a gentle, repetitive rhyme reminiscent of “The House the Jack Built” (but much less annoying to read!). Mary and Joseph, who look like they could reasonably be from the holy land, appear full of love and joy as they gaze at their new arrival in precisely that way that new parents do. On another page, pale angel women in bright floral dresses fill the sky as they announce the news to startled shepherds who then gather with the wise men at the stable, which despite the season, is a bit overgrown with morning glories.

The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas with text from the King James version of the Bible. I love this book because it takes the oh-so-familiar language and cadence of the biblical Christmas story and matches it with wonderfully whimsical illustrations that feature a cast of surprising and ethnically diverse characters. The pictures are also loads of fun to talk about as you read and explain the KJV text. Gabriel arrives with torn-paper wings and unlaced work boots to talk to Mary over a cup of coffee. Mary’s belly (and her bottom, as Goo pointed out) swells to uncomfortable size and poor Joseph has a hard time boosting her onto the donkey. Baby Jesus peeps onto a page, fresh from the womb, and then Mary slumps exhausted as Joseph tenderly cradles the newborn. The illustrations tell the familiar story in a delightfully unexpected way, with a glimpse at the miraculous yet very human birth of Jesus.

It is a wonderful first glimpse of incarnation, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

Emmanuel. God with us.  

Do you have a favorite nativity storybook for young children? If so, please share in the comments!


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