Poems and Parables

Issue VII

by Catherine Maresca

The parable method of reading the Bible is a cornerstone af the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd developed by Sofia Cavalletti. This paper supports the use of the parable method with work of Louise Rosenblatt, a 20th Century leader in the field of literary criticism. Dr. Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading focuses on the interaction between the reader and the text as a creative process that must be respected by teachers and experts.

Guidelines for reading parables with children based on Cavalletti’s and Rosenblatt’s writing are offered. The paper encourages catechists to deepen their respect for both the text and its readers, and recommit themselves to the parable method.


Catherine Maresca is the founder and director of the Center for Children and Theology. She received an MA in Religious Studies from Howard University Divinity School. This paper was originally presented at the Middle Tennessee State University Children’s Literature Conference.

The Bible is one of our great pieces of literature. As such, can an approach to reading literary works strengthen an approach to the Bible as well? The work of Dr. Louise Rosenblatt, 20th century leader in the field of literary criticism, underscores the need for the utmost respect in reading a literary text with children. This respect for both the text and the reader is also a hallmark of the parable method of reading Scripture, articulated by Hebrew scholar and religious educator Dr. Sofia Cavalletti. This paper explores how Rosenblatt’s approach to literature, known as the transactional theory of reading, informs and strengthens Cavalletti’s work, offering catechists a deeper understanding of the effectiveness of the parable method. 

Rosenblatt’s work is best documented in her book, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, written in 1978. According to Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading, an encounter with a literary text is interactive. An author creates a text. The text is on the printed page. The reader then brings to the text her experiences. A poem, as defined  by Rosenblatt, is the aesthetic experience of literature by the reader, and includes plays, stories, novels, and poetry. These are created in the interaction between the text and the reader. The reader does not find the meaning of a poem so much as create it with each reading of the text. This is true for all readers, regardless of their age or experience, and all kinds of literature. 

The transactional theory of reading applied to the Bible suggests that a parable is created in the interaction between a parable text and the reader. This understanding is consistent with the Biblical structure and purpose of parables. A parable typically presents to the reader an object or a story from everyday life, which illuminates a metaphysical reality, such as the nature of God or prayer, without offering a definitive explanation. Because of this, and the unique experiences each reader brings to parable reading, parables lend themselves to interpretations that vary between individuals and over time. 

While one could see the age and limited experience of a young prereading child as difficulties to be overcome in creating a parable from the text, Sofia Cavalletti found the opposite to be true. She observed that the unique attributes of childhood—wonder, metaphoric thinking, love, joy, and sense of communion—engender not difficulties but aptitudes unsurpassed in any other time of life. Indeed, consideration of each of these characteristics will illustrate the creative process possible between young “readers” and the text. 

Children as Interpreters of Parables 

Wonder 

Wonder enables the young child to take the image of the parable and sit with it awhile. Slowly its treasures begin to emerge. Children are unhurried by internal clocks urging them to “do something.” And they are not too self-important to stop and enjoy a humble seed, or a bit of leaven at work in a dough. Wonder is the gift that sends the child down the path of a parable, with fascination and reverence, open to insights found along the way. 

Metaphoric Thinking 

The word “metaphor” is derived from a Greek word that means “to carry over.” As children construct their knowledge of life they “carry over” all that they know, and connect this knowledge to their new experiences. The physiology of the maturing brain actually enhances the potential for metaphoric thinking of the young mind (Elliot, 32). 

For example, Joshua, who had first heard the parable of the Good Shepherd when he was three, was introduced to the parable of the Hidden Treasure as a five-year-old. He decided to make a booklet of the Hidden Treasure and illustrate it. On each page he wrote part of the story in his own words. He drew a picture of the man who found the treasure as well. On one page he wrote, “He sold all he had and then joy came to him.” The picture on the bottom of this page was a happy sheep. His creativity in uniting ideas from two different parables is a testimony to the strength of metaphoric thinking in young children. 

Love 

Children’s wealth of love gives them a grace-filled lens through which they read a parable. The Pearl of Great Price (Mt. 13, 45-46), for example, speaks of a merchant who found one exquisite, valuable pearl, and then sold all he had in order to obtain that pearl. Many adults read the parable as a call to sacrifice all we have for the reign of God. Young children don’t hear this at all, however. Through their lens of love they have other ideas. One said, “I think we are the pearl, and Jesus is the merchant who gives everything to have us.” In a group of five-year-old children Paul said the pearl tells us the kingdom “is beautiful.” “You love it,” added Daniel. 

Joy 

During early childhood, Cavalletti writes, “the child is free from any [moral] preoccupation and open to the encounter with God and to the enjoyment he derives from it” (Cavalletti, 154). This joyful perspective is truly unique to the first six years of life. The gift of joy, uninhibited by moral preoccupations, makes young children open to interpretations of a parable not readily available to the adult. The Lost (and Found) Sheep (Luke 15, 4-6), for example, revealing God’s mercy in the face of our sin, becomes for the young child a parable of God’s joy, and the sheep’s joy, in the reunion that follows any separation of two who love one another. 

Sense of Communion 

The child’s sense of communion with all people and all of creation is very strong during the years of middle childhood. Children’s knowledge of how deeply and truly connected we are to one another and to the earth allows them to understand the communal images of some of the parables. Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10,11-16). Who then, are the sheep of this shepherd? Later Jesus speaks of himself as the True Vine (Jn. 15, 1-8), adding, “You are the branches.” To whom does “you” refer? Children after six years of age, hearing these questions, answer immediately and authoritatively, “everyone.” My daughter Julie at age 7 came home from school one day and said, “I know who the sheep are. It’s everything, trees, and birds, and animals, and we’re the sheep that are ‘not of this sheep fold’ coming too.” 

In summary, children are worthy interpreters of parables with their gifts of wonder and metaphoric thinking, and their sense of love, joy, and communion. Since these are not the same gifts adults bring the texts, it is not surprising that adults and children often “create” different parables. But the child’s understanding is not invalid. And the adult listening to a parable with children is privy to a fresh and blessed perspective. 

Guidelines for Reading Parables with Children 

Stance 

As we prepare to introduce parables to children we begin by choosing our stance, or purpose, when reading the text. Rosenblatt gives us helpful language to use as we consider our stance. She describes a continuum between “efferent” and “aesthetic” approaches to the text. “Efferent” is from the Latin “effere,” to “carry away.” The purpose of the efferent reading is to take away from it ideas and information. In contrast, an aesthetic reading focuses on what happens during the event of reading, on the experience of the interaction with the text. The same text may be read both ways, and most readers approach a text somewhere along the continuum. 

If we take our cue from the children themselves, we find that the aesthetic stance is most appropriate for parables. The youngest children, ages 3-6, are least likely to be efferent readers. They freely immerse themselves in the story or reality of a parable, without holding themselves apart from it, and without any concern for “learning” or “memorizing” the text. 

For example, before reading the Found Sheep with some three-year-old children, I narrate the parable. Then I take out the figures for the shepherd and the sheep. As I set one aside to be “lost” the children begin to express their concern. Why is she not with the others? What happened to her? I have to remind them that this is a story about a lost sheep. Then I read the text and move the figures accordingly. The children are transfixed. And they don’t relax until the sheep is “found” and returned to the sheepfold with the others. Then they are as happy as the shepherd of the parable for both the found sheep and the shepherd. These children experience the story with their whole beings, simultaneously inviting the adult to experience it as well, letting go of an efferent stance and an expectation that the children will “take away” certain information from the reading of the text. 

Children after the age of six move a bit along the continuum towards an efferent stance. They are in the period of their lives where they will receive and classify huge amounts of information, and their minds are eager for knowledge. Nevertheless, they continue to live the parable, sensitive to the feel-tone of the text. The adult can offer the cultural or religious background of the parable to help the children experience the text more fully, but must not create an exclusively efferent stance before the text. Rosenblatt writes, “Whatever knowledge or insights we might gain by nonaesthetic means will be valued if it enhances the work-as-experienced” (Rosenblatt, 125). 

For example, with the parable of the Good Samaritan, the adult offers the cultural context of the enmity between Samaritans and Jews. This allows the children to feel the hope with which the wounded Jew may have seen a priest and a Levite approach, the despair when he saw a Samaritan coming along the way, and the compassion of the Samaritan which compels him to assist his wounded enemy. 

As we begin to reflect on the parable with children, our stance will also dictate the manner of questions we pose. Will our questions help the children to live more deeply the experience of the parable, or pull the children out of the experience to answer questions of an efferent nature? Will we ask questions with a “right” answer, or questions that invite a deeper experience of the text? An aesthetic stance before the text allows the children to enjoy the revelations of the parable, and further, to create a meeting place with God therein. 

Selection of the Text 

The adult also makes decisions about the text. Should the whole parable be presented, or certain verses only? Should the Bible itself be used, or a paraphrase in simpler language? Cavalletti and Rosenblatt agree on both these questions. The whole text should be presented, and a paraphrase should not be used. The reason for both these answers lies in their respect for both the reader and the text. 

While the text is open to many interpretations, that openness is limited by the words of the text itself. As we change a text, delete phrases, add details, or paraphrase it, we create possibilities of meaning that may not be true to the text. Simultaneously, we respect the text by limiting ourselves to its exact words, and respect the reader by opening ourselves to their unique creation of the parable as they read the text. 

Regarding choosing or accenting certain phrases of a text, Rosenblatt writes, “The reader undertakes to see the work as a whole, yet in actual literary transactions it may sometimes be some minor part that has intensely personal reverberations” (Rosenblatt, 160). A certain verse may appeal in this way to the adult, who may then try to present the parable with an accent on that verse, to create the same appeal of the verse for the child. But the experiences of each reader determines which verses, if any, will have these “intensely personal reverberations.” 

Nor do we embellish a text to make it more appealing to the young child. Cavalletti writes, “We present the parables with the greatest respect for the text, without adding anything other than what is found there. I do not think that such a text, which is so rich theologically and so literarily valuable, needs embellishment or additions on our part” (Cavalletti, 65). 

Regarding the use of a paraphrase of the text, Rosenblatt speaks quite vividly. “No one can read a poem for you. Accepting an account of someone else’s reading or experience of a poem is analogous to seeking nourishment through having someone else eat your dinner for you and recite the menu…Only the relationship between the reader and the actual text, his attending to and synthesizing his own responses to the particular words in their particular order, can produce the poem for him” (Rosenblatt, 86). Cavalletti concurs, and prepares for the children Scripture Booklets, one for each text, with a phrase or verse on each page, to give the children access to the Biblical texts themselves. 

Preparation for the Text 

The Bible, like many works of literature, does contain language that may be difficult for young readers. In order to help them with this language, we do not remove access to the text but prepare the children to encounter it. Cavalletti suggests that before we read the text with the children we recount it, in language they can easily understand. In this way we introduce any difficult language the text may contain beforehand, so it will not impede the encounter with the text itself. A word or image foreign to the children’s experience can be explained briefly at this time. For example, before reading the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, a brief explanation of the roles of pharisees and publicans must be offered. This “sets the stage” for the parable itself, allowing the children to appreciate its content. 

Cavalletti takes another step before the actual reading. She begins the communal meditation, posing some questions that point to the depth of the text. If the children begin to answer these questions she makes it clear that many answers are possible. She then invites all the children to continue to explore the parable. “After the children have begun to understand that we are faced with a text that hides something to be discovered, then we read the parable with great solemnity” (Cavalletti, 67). 

Along with this reading, a manipulative material is presented that offers the child a concrete representation of the text and a means to continue to a personal meditation with their hands as well as their hearts and minds. Careful listening to and observation of the child during and after the presentation of a parable is the final work of the adult. 

The Aesthetic Experience 

Encounter 

The teacher within every adult is tempted to present a parable and then make sure that the child “gets it.” This requires an efferent stance on the part of both adult and child where the adult attempts to control and evaluate the understanding of the child. We are challenged, therefore, to abandon the familiar role of teacher, and allow ourselves and the children to freely encounter a parable. Some points from Cavalletti’s and Rosenblatt’s work may help us commit ourselves to this shift in stance for both ourselves and our young readers. 

Reflection 

Rosenblatt writes that the first and most important step of reading a poem is “registering or savoring the literary transaction. Whatever the reader may later add to that original creative activity is also rooted in his own responses during the reading event. His primary subject matter is the web of feelings, sensations, images, and ideas, that he weaves between himself and the text” (Rosenblatt, 136). 

Savoring a text, (in contrast to reading a menu), implies that the reader enjoys each bite, relishing its flavors and textures before swallowing, and pausing before the next bite to fully appreciate the present one. Consider that the presentation of a parable, with materials, is like putting a full plate before the child. Then, savoring the meal occurs when the child takes that material and begins to live with the image, read the words, and move the figures. 

Some children take the material as soon as it is presented and work with it for a while. Jonathan, age 3, did this with the Good Shepherd material for 45 minutes. Other children may come to the parable for only a few minutes during every session. One of the children in our school began each day by sitting with the Good Shepherd material first, and then moving on to his other work. Others savor the parable sporadically, over a number of years, moving the figures lovingly as many as five years after the initial presentation. As the children mature, their time with a parable takes different forms, including singing, illustrating the text, or writing it in beautiful calligraphy. The concrete and simple images of the parables become part of the interior life of the child, and are savored not just in front of the concrete materials, but in any setting. 

Articulation 

The means of reporting an aesthetic experience listed by Rosenblatt are typical of the older reader, and include describing a sequence of ideas, characters or emotions, summarizing a text, and discussing its structure. Reporting by young children is much more subtle, yet it is this reporting that has guided Cavalletti to those parables that nurture the young spirit best. Children’s silence after a parable is presented or while working with the figures may be significant. Leon, at age 4, moved the sheep around the Good Shepherd and then rested his head on the table to show that he was close as well. Their movement of the figures can constitute a response. For example, a child was seen turning the shepherd towards each sheep to show that he calls each one separately by name. The words of prayer or conversation that follow a parable (in ensuing weeks, months, or years) help us to appreciate the meaning the children find in it. Beth, at age 3, announced to her group one day, “The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice. The book is right!” And finally their art shows us their insights, or meaningful aspects of the parable. (See drawing, “The Good Shepherd rocking the sheep.”) 

Evaluation 

Because the experience of a poem or parable is both ephemeral and personal, both Cavalletti and Rosenblatt discourage attempts to evaluate or test the children’s understanding of a text. For Cavalletti, the personal nature of the experience is related to the child’s personal relationship with God. The parable can nurture this relationship, and provide a meeting place for the child and God. The reading must not be used to evaluate or control the relationship. 

Rosenblatt, makes a similar point about the poem, “The ephemeral personal evocation which is the literary work cannot be held static for later inspection. It cannot be shared directly with anyone else; it cannot be directly evaluated by others” (Rosenblatt, 132). 

Conclusion 

Literary critics, Biblical scholars, and classroom teachers have expertise in their various disciplines for working with various texts. But this expertise cannot and should not replace the child’s own role as creator of a parable. The expert who lets go of her “correct” interpretation and truly listens to the text with children will be helped by them to an aesthetic experience of the text, and to see many new layers of meaning within. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Ballou, Robert O. The Portable World Bible, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1972. 

Cavalletti, Sofia, The Religious Potential of the Child, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1983.

Eliot, Lise, What’s Going on in There, New York, NY:Bantam Books, 1999. 

Rosenblatt, Louise, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. 

Occasional Papers is a publication of the Center for Children and Theology copyright © 2001 

This paper is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the publisher’s written permission. 

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