Saving the Story

What would happen if we taught our children to approach God’s story with thoughtful delight and humble uncertainty?

Try this:

Take a child on your lap. Nestle her close and tell her a story about God. Begin with “Once, a very long time ago . . .” Speak with an awe-filled voice; scroll out the story; paint vibrant word pictures. Pause. Let the words settle like autumn leaves. She’s listening, collecting. When you’re finished, wait. Answer her questions the best you can, but tell the truth. Sometimes you won’t know the answer. Pick her up and tuck her into bed. Listen to her prayers, kiss her goodnight. Tell her you love her. Tell her God loves her even more. Stand in the darkened room, your shadow a guardian watching over her. Tiptoe out, closing the door with a soft click.

Eighteen years later, open the same door, walk in, and sit on the edge of the bed. Look around the room. You see her on rare weekends. Mostly you talk over airwaves and cyberspace. She’s smart, nearly an adult. You’re amazed at what she knows and confused by what she believes. She rarely attends church. The Bible is a problem, its message mixed and difficult. You remember her enthusiasm, her spiritual confidence. You’ve read alarming statistics about evidence of a mass exodus from the church. You wonder what you did wrong.

According to a variety of sources, an increasing number of children raised in Christian homes abandon church in their twenties. Walking the main aisle of a Christian bookstore recently, I counted over a half-dozen new titles addressing this topic. Related articles appear regularly in Christian periodicals. Confronting our fears, we commission polls, interview college students, and strategize.

For the past few decades I’ve taught high school catechism classes. Each year I listen as church-raised kids express their views about the church. Usually a rebel or two will dare to challenge the old folks and their ways. The disillusioned, those most sensitive to our inconsistencies and petty judgments, remain silent. The majority generously absorb whatever they’re told. Believers by osmosis, collectors of spiritual memorabilia, they comfortably repeat canned truth.

Some years I find myself trying to make rebels, raising questions, shaking assumptions. Rattling the gates of apathy. Instead students often react with fear—a reflected fear, one we too often model.

I’ve watched this fear packed away to college and adulthood, stowed alongside the faith tools we’ve handed our kids. We believe strongly in equipping young believers, training them to critically engage culture with the Word. Careful testers of truth, we’re known for long battles over sticky biblical issues. Defenders of God’s Word, we pile up texts to prove our positions. The Bible becomes a battlefield overrun with fear—fear that often begins with what if?

What if the creation story isn’t factually sound? What if the Noah account models a pagan folktale, or the tale of Jonah is nothing but a wildly ironic fable? What if some of the Bible’s stories are just, well, stories? For some, the answer is summed up in the bumper sticker I saw the other day: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

For others, it isn’t quite so simple. We know the Bible is God’s true and certain Word, but we struggle sometimes to apply ancient texts to our world. We have help: historical and textual criticism, better translations, and archeological discoveries inform our understanding. We teach our kids to read the Bible in context, to consider the audience, to wonder about the author’s purpose. In a few years they advance from listening toddlers to junior scholars deconstructing texts. I wonder if in all the scholarly dissection, we risk carving some life out of the Word, leaving it neatly parsed and labeled, devoid of awe. Is it possible to look closely and achieve distance?

teach my class in the same church basement where I once fidgeted on a kid-size chair, watching my teacher shuffle paper shepherds across a flannelboard. Sitting in a circle of children, I absorbed the simple stories of faith. Later, we scribbled our crayoned interpretations, stick figures marching out of Egypt or riding flaming chariots into the sky. Growing up, I graduated from stories to doctrine, from Galilee to Heidelberg. At age 18 I professed my faith. By then I had left stories behind, exchanging them, I suppose, for the certainty of theology.

Today, I watch my four grown children encounter a world where ideas spread so rapidly we call them viral, like some infectious disease. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our kids. Have we handed them the right tools? Are they trained in their use, or will they wield them clumsily, causing harm to themselves and others? But what really worries me is this: Despite all they know, will they miss the point? Will they stand to the side like well-trained observers, or will they move near and truly hear?

Thinking back to that church basement, I remember my frustration with those cutout characters my teacher used to tell the story. Those paper patriarchs always seemed to face the wrong direction. Their sheep, legs folded in repose, moved offstage without standing. Jericho’s walls stood solid one second, disappeared, and then reappeared, shattered. I recall complaining to my parents one Sunday. “Well, then,” I still hear them saying, “just close your eyes and listen to the story.”

Maybe in our effort to preserve and yet reveal biblical truth, we try too hard. The story, after all, belongs to God. Most Christians believe Scripture is inspired, infallible, sufficient. We argue about the details. The most persuasive voices for each side swing Scripture like hammers, driving home their points. After all, we like our truths nailed down, immoveable. Meanwhile, our children watch.

Could we learn to be less sure? Not of the truth of God’s Word, but of our individual interpretations. What would happen if we taught our children to approach God’s story with thoughtful delight and humble uncertainty? Not dismissing centuries of scholarship or new tools of interpretation, but humbly admitting there are things yet unexplained. Less divided over uncertain matters, we may speak with more authority on certain ones. After all, Jesus didn’t condemn the religious leaders for searching the Scriptures, but for their own certain conclusions. To a community immersed in serious scholarship, he said, “Truly, truly I say . . .”

Given the chance, I may have written parts of the story differently. In my gospel accounts, Jesus returns after conferring with Moses and Elijah with tablets in hand. He hands over a clear and concise belief system to the religious leaders, instructing them to get it right this time. Instead, the real gospel shows Jesus descending empty-handed, trailed by three bewildered and awestruck disciples. Stepping into the pressing crowd, he asks, “What are you arguing about?” Then demons cower and humans learn a little more about faith. And soon he is telling stories again: “The kingdom is like . . .”

Sometimes I imagine a boat rocking gently under a bleaching sun. In it sits a storyteller, his hands floating with his words, his audience rapt. He’s telling stories about rebellious sons and robbers and generals off to war. He mimes a farmer tossing seeds, and then his hands become birds pecking and flying away. His message is a pearl of great worth, a lost treasure unearthed. I listen and wonder—and sometimes, drawing from a storehouse of story, I discover treasures, both old and new.

Web Questions

  1. Do you agree with the author that “The Bible is a problem, its message mixed and difficult”? Why or why not? What might make it so—or at least appear so?
  2. Why are so many young people leaving church? What factors play into that reality? How do you evaluate the author’s contention that “The Bible becomes a battlefield overrun with fear—fear that often begins with what if?” Is that an accurate assessment of the way we treat Scripture in our congregations/denomination? Can you give examples?
  3. Does our tradition’s scholarly, carefully-studied approach to Scripture rob it of its energy, immediacy, and impact? Give reasons for your answer.
  4. How would you answer Vander Lugt’s central concern: “Despite all [our young people] know, will they miss the point? Will they stand to the side like well-trained observers, or will they move near and truly hear?” What should we do to be sure they personally engage with the story/stories of Scripture?
  5. Vander Lugt wonders if the answer might be for all of us to be less sure of our own personal interpretations of Scripture and to approach the Bible with more humble uncertainty. Does that seem like good advice? Why/why not? Does it detract from our Reformed view of Scripture?
  6. Along with our desire to “get it right,” do we share enough with our youngsters a sense of deep, reverent wonder at what Scripture reveals? Or do tend to imagine too easily that we have it figured out?

About the Author

Robert Vander Lugt owns a hardware business and is a member of East Paris Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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