My children have grown up to the age of asking about what my childhood looked like in China. Occasionally, I would share a treasured secret with them. For example, in third grade, I almost drowned in a pond near my school. That story served as a warning for them to do well in Goldfish swim lessons.
In school, they were asked to draw pictures of their past, present and future for an exhibit. This exercise awakened a sense of history-making in their young minds. “Tell us something in your past, mommy,” they begged. In this way, the secret-sharing game remained, but with a different name.
I love how their faces burst with satisfaction at hearing my growing-up stories. Later, their curious minds began to dig out more about our past—Mommy and Daddy together.
“How did you meet?” they asked. When they learned how my husband and I met on a miraculous train ride (our term for it), there is more that was happening than fulfilling their curiosity—an emotional warmth and connection to their origin of life.
I recently finished writing a new book, titled Daughters of God in China. As an oral history project, it records how young Christian women, mostly born after post-reform China, remember their mothers who lived through Mao’s China. For these first-generation female Christian believers, the most effective way of bringing their mothers to the faith has been through sharing stories. This often includes relating God’s salvation story to an often traumatized history within the family. To some, the mother-daughter relationship became spiritually healing through storytelling.
Intergenerational storytelling is powerful because it carries on significant layers of kinship emotions and sometimes an awe-struck revelation of how life’s circumstances had unfolded under God’s providence. Stories of a previous generation help the next to see the flesh and blood of humanity. I see it as a deeply humanizing spiritual discipline. Eventually, our theology lands in our stories.
Intergenerational storytelling is about saving memories and finding oneself in a family lineage of stories. In a world of moral confusion and identity crisis, truthful and reflective remembering could serve the building blocks in restoring self-identity.
Augustine offers a theology of memory in his Confessions. He thinks memory is a truth-seeking mechanism within each person, which forces us to reflect deeper on life. He argues human memory is intentionally placed “at the juncture between past self and present self, and at the juncture between Self and God,” as commentator Paula Frederickson puts it.
Where a search for self begins, a search for God also starts. And he associates this truth-seeking with the human longing for happiness.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is also about remembering. The oral gospel tradition relied on intergenerational storytelling. In fact, even with written Scriptures and a variety of communication tools today, children still learn about their parents’ faith through this form of storytelling. As Calvin Seminary professor John Bolt’s favorite example goes, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for my parents tell me so.”
I often reflect on the question of what do we leave our children with in this confusing and fleeting world. To some extent, this thought has motivated me in writing. I found it deeply satisfying to dedicate a book I wrote to my children so that in the future, they can find a trace of storytelling from me, their mother. Sharing stories is about sharing life. What else can we give our children, if not life?