One of the great challenges for churches that aspire to encourage young people into faith, is, in my own mind, making what is the greatest resource for our understanding of God, Jesus and faith, i.e. the Bible, a relevant book in their lives without resorting to literalism.
A number of incidents over the past couple of months have reawakened a deep awareness that we, as ministers, have a heavy responsibility when framing young minds’ understanding of God, the gospel, truth and critical thinking with relation to matters of faith. My question (as a minister and parent) is when do we remove the kid gloves when talking about the stories of God that are staples in many Sunday Schools?
While visiting family in the USA over the summer, I was struck by a brief interaction with my thirteen-year-old niece. Studying my 4-year-old son’s T-shirt (one of his favourites) with its images of a Stegosaurus and T-Rex and the script “I am millions and trillions of years old”, she stated, “That is not true!” I started to agree with her that indeed the dinosaurs depicted were only between 70 and 150 million years old, not trillions, but before I could go further I was cut off by my brother-in-law. When I asked him about this later, he told me that he didn’t want his daughter going into school saying “my uncle believes the earth is billions of years old”. Not Sunday School, bear in mind, but school itself, albeit a school run by their church.
Some weeks ago, having returned from the USA, my seven-year old daughter questioned my wife about what she had been told in the Sunday School at this same church. She had been taken away to a room on her own, away from the other children, and told that people did not go to heaven when they died, because everyone had done bad things and God could not be around anyone who had done bad things. My daughter was, of course, offered a simple prayer to say to ensure that she was one of the “lucky ones”. While I am aware that this is the super-condensed understanding of Jesus’ saving work that is held by many of my brothers and sisters, and, admittedly, not my own understanding of Jesus’ purpose, nonetheless the starkness of the approach and its inherent threat to my impressionable seven-year-old was an eye-opener. This teaching had clearly affected my daughter and her understanding of God.
During a discussion of the creation stories of Genesis as part of a series run both in our church and a neighbouring congregation using the excellent and stimulating “Living the Questions” material a recurring question was raised by a couple of the folks in one of the groups who were also Sunday School leaders: “If Genesis 1-3 is not literally true as history, then how do we teach it to our children? How do we use it in our groups?” It is a good question. When do you remove the kid gloves and treat children with the respect I believe they deserve so that they enter into the same understanding that many of us, as adults, use when approaching texts such as these? An ancient native-American approach to mythical stories was to begin, “I do not know if it really happened in this way, but I know this story is true all the same.”
My purpose is not to cause division with my brothers and sisters in faith who defend a literal reading of the Bible (and my apologies if this letter causes angst) but rather to stir those of us who approach biblical texts such as Genesis 1-3 with an eye for the poetic and metaphorical truths of the human condition, rather than their historical veracity, into considering how we approach these texts with the young.
The concern is two-fold: the relative lack of appropriate materials to help Sunday School leaders within churches to look at the stories of creation, the flood, Samson, the slaughter of Egyptian children, the Nativity, etc. beyond a literal reading, and that the failure to provide appropriate materials may lead to many of our younger people growing up to reject the God they have been taught about as youngsters. I have seen this happen first hand.
Taking the creation stories as an example, a literal reading of the Genesis stories generally goes hand in hand with an acceptance of a young earth of around 6-10,000 years age (as taught in my niece’s school) and “creation science” or its current iteration “Intelligent Design”. As a biology graduate myself, I remember being one of only two people working in a summer camp in Massachusetts that had any real understanding of how evolution by natural selection worked (the other was a medical student). Everyone else assumed, as they had been taught from an early age, that evolution was a lie propagated primarily to shake their faith. My attempts to question this understanding led to many wonderful discussions about bacterial resistance to penicillin over the dining table!
What happens when different interpretations of these texts arise? What happens when our young people are taught about the scientific method at school? The answer appears in the seeming success within the USA of the Intelligent Design movement despite its inherent God-of-the-gaps theology whereby the Designer (a.k.a. God) is posited wherever there appear to be gaps in our current understanding. That these gaps get smaller all the time as knowledge of the natural processes increases, and thus our understanding of God’s part in creation becomes ever more limited, is testament to the impoverished quality not just of this pseudo-science but also, I believe, of the underlying theology.
Would it not be better to start the process of critical thinking in relation to texts and truths at an earlier age so that no paradigm shift in understanding is necessary in order for our young people to remain faithful witnesses to Jesus while accepting what I would consider the true nature of these biblical texts and our understanding of the creation by natural processes of both this world and humanity? A paradigm shift in understanding can be frightening and disturbing even as it liberates one to a new understanding. Could we not alleviate this and the possibility of absolute rejection of God by helping both the leaders of our churches and our younger members to reach behind a literal reading of our Scriptures? In doing so, and removing the kid gloves, we would remove the need for unquestioning acceptance of the teaching of an authority figure, engaging instead with the questions, and in humility uncovering a more nuanced reading that emphasises the eternal truths that lie behind so many of these epic and awesome stories, while encouraging our young people to think about what a life of discipleship to our Lord Jesus means.
Interestingly, the local chaplaincy team of which I am a part has been teasing apart these same issues with respect to the nativity story as we try to help Primary 6 children see beyond the fluff of Christmas to the truths that lie behind it and devise a programme to help do that.
Encouraging the use of appropriate activity and discussion materials would be one way to start this process of developing greater biblical literacy, not literalism, within our congregations from an early age. If anyone else is interested in this challenge, I would love to hear from you with a view to devising age-appropriate materials that could be used by our congregations.