I have fond memories from my childhood of curling up in my mom’s lap, in her big (ugly) green recliner and reading the Berenstain Bears’ books. They were classics that every kid my age loved.
I’ve loved introducing these books to my own girls, now 5 and 19-months old. We’ve even got some of my old Berenstain Bears’ books from the 80s that we regularly read to them, sometimes during our morning breakfast ritual, when the girls and I read both a picture book and a story from the Bible.
Typically, the picture books we read are seasonally themed. Right now, we’re enjoying Valentine’s Books. I picked up The Berenstain Bears’ Valentine Blessings on clearance last year. I eagerly grabbed it from my shelf the other day, without having read it previously. (I mean, it was the Berenstain Bears… Why would I need to preapprove it?)
My five-year old, Hope’s, eyes lit up with delight when she saw The Berenstain Bears’ book.
Things were going fine until we got ¾ of the way through the book. That’s when Papa Bear suddenly tells Brother Bear, “Having a crush is nothing to be ashamed about. All love comes from God. As the Bible says: ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud… Love never fails.”
What in the world?!?
I kept reading, but all I could think of was “Why?” Why ruin a good story with Scripture?
I mean, I agree with Papa Bear that having a crush is nothing to be ashamed about. But before Papa Bear said it, it would never have even occurred to Hope that she SHOULD feel shame.
Why must we ruin the Berenstain Bears by randomly quoting and inserting Scripture into an otherwise good story?
Because here’s the thing: There was nothing wrong with the Berenstain Bears books that I knew and loved as a kid. They were great stories, filled with colorful pictures, and age-appropriate messages.
They didn’t clobber kids over the head with out-of-context Scripture passages; They just trusted that kids would fall in love with – and maybe even see themselves - in a good story.
So where does this leave me?
Well, I’ve now done my homework and realized there’s essentially a whole new version of Berenstain Bears that are written by Mike Berenstain, the son of the Stan and Jan, the authors of the beloved Berenstain Bears books that I grew up with. They’re published by Zonderkidz and carry the logo, “Living Lights”: Living Lights Berenstain Bear books help children learn how God wants them to live every day.
I, for one, will no longer be buying Berenstain Bear books that carry this logo.
Don’t get me wrong. I, too, want my kids to learn how God wants them to live every day. I just believe doing so isn't as clear cut as Mike Berenstain and the folks at Living Lights seem to think it is.
Learning how God wants us to live every day requires more than just being clobbered with Scripture.
It requires knowing the stories of Scripture so that we can enter into them – so that we can see ourselves in them – and so that we can start to see those stories unfold in the world around us.
It requires a bit of detective work in order to spot God in things that aren’t overtly marketed as Christian.
The day after we read Valentine Blessings, we read LOVE, by Matt de La Pena. A non-Christian publisher, Putnam, publishes this book. It contains no Scripture and no mention of God. I have no idea what, if any, religion de La Pena practices.
Here’s what I do know. As I read this book, I encountered God – in the stunning pictures by Loren Long that featured a diverse body of kids – as well as in the words of this picture book, that talks about love manifesting itself in people, voices, and laughter… In relationships that hold you when you’re scared and send you into the world with love.
God is all around us: In the world that God created as well as in the things that we create as God’s image-bearers.
When we teach our kids to ONLY look for God in overtly Christian places and products, we do them a disservice.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus routinely hangs out with those on the fringes of society.
God – in Jesus – goes to the places where no one expects God to be.
The same is true today.
God is still in the places where no one expects God to be.
May we – and our kids – have the eyes to see God and the curiosity to discover the places where God sometimes hides.