Parenting as Theological Exercise.

As the father of a 15 month old, I’m quickly coming to realize that being a parent works your theological muscles! There is so much about parenting that requires theological reflection and practice. Everything from education and schooling to bibles made for children.

One idea that I’ve been thinking about lately is how to pass on the faith to your children. When St. Paul talks about “passing on” or “handing over” the faith he’s literally talking about a traditioning. The Christian faith is not something we invent, nor is it something that simply falls out of the sky into our laps. You don’t get to make the Christian faith up, unfortunately. The life of faith has built into it a traditioning, a “handing over”.

Interestingly, the Christian faith is not dependent on having children. The survival of the people of God is not premised upon “being fruitful and multiplying”. Rather, the Christian faith is premised upon baptism. New folks, responding to the gospel and being baptized into the life of the church.

But what does this mean for children, once they are baptized? What does it look like for parents to “tradition” the faith to their children?

It seems to me that we generally understand this to be the job of the parents. But is this necessarily so? When a child is baptized they too are taken up into the life of the church and made a member of Christ’s body. Thus, the faith of the child is dependent, not upon the parents didactic teaching of the faith, but on the passing on of the faith to the child from the whole church. In worship the child learns the rhythms of a life in the hands of God. In the liturgical year the child learns that time itself is God’s very own creation and it’s fullness is found in the life of Christ.

Of course, this isn’t to say that parents don’t play a roll in all of this. Certainly they do. It’s just to say that the parents roll needs to be understood in light of the life of Christ as present in the church.

Yet, this is precisely the opposite message you most often hear (at least in Protestant churches as I am most familiar with). Within the wacky world of Western Evangelicalism you have all sorts of products geared towards children, products meant to teach them the faith. Take my latest annoyance, the children’s bible. This has been a sort of theological conundrum for me recently. What the hell am I to do with this thing? “Little Girls Bible Storybook”? Lord, come quickly! There’s all sorts of problems I see with this stuff. There’s the obvious selection of particular stories, the kind that look and feel good in a storybook. With selection, of course, comes neglect. There’s the sentimentalizing of the Bible: “Aww, look at Noah with his big boat and all those cute fuzzy animals!” There’s the glaring consumerism: Bible’s made and marketed to a particular demographic (i.e. little girls and their mothers) because there is money to be made, obviously. And of course, this all presupposes that the parents will sit down and read these shitty sentimental stories to their children. One-on-one, parent to child discipleship of sorts.

Let’s be clear, though, can we? This hurts our children more than it helps, I think. Children will not be formed in the faith via sentimental and consumerist products. Well, to be sure, they’ll be formed in a particular faith, but it’s debatable how closely this resembles the Christian faith. I’d like to see us recapture the life of the church here. This is where children are formed, this is where the faith is traditioned to children – not the faith of the parents, but the faith of the church.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh here? Unrealistic? Naive? I’m a first time parent, so I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  1. beth said:

    The Jesus Storybook Bible. Hands down the best. I am blessed while reading it, drawn closer to Christ, and moved to worship. And I’m almost 30. It’s aimed at 3-7 years or so I think, but I’d start it even earlier. I know you didn’t exactly ask for a recommendation, but I’m giving you one anyway.

    And yeah – the Bible for princesses? Makes me sick on so many levels. Ugh.

    • jt* said:

      Thanks Beth. Actually, a number of other folks have recommended that as well. We’ll have to check it out!

  2. John said:

    John, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the dumbing down of biblical stories for children. Obviously, we can be selective about which stories we share in our handing down of the faith, but a vast number of parents make the mistake of underestimating the intelligence and cognizant ability of small children. Make no mistake, long before they can speak words, children are capable of understanding at a level that most parents don’t realize, even when it comes to spiritual truths. Should we make the communication clear? Of course. But to simplify it to the point of blending in with other consumerist drivel for children is a mistake. Before our son Jalen was 5, he asked questions about the crucifixion, about evil, about the Trinity and other serious topics with big picture implications. We chose our words carefully, but would never shy away from answering. I honestly believe that a candid and careful approach to the issues of life, death and eternity, including the major stories of the Bible, can result in a strong and early faith in children, who are predisposed to wanting solid answers to the questions that are formed very early in this fallen world.

    • jt* said:

      Thanks for sharing that, John. Pretty wild that Jalen was asking such big questions. Did those come out of experiences at church, the Bible, or what? I’m with you on the importance of addressing our children’s questions honestly, even if that honesty means, “You know what, I don’t know. Let’s think about that together!” The cognizant abilities of children at an early age bring home for me the import of having them involved in the rhythms of the church.

  3. Non-parent here, but keen observer of others & rememberer of my own childhood… I really think it’s a joint effort between church-at-large and parents, but definitely requires active, intentional dialogues on the part of the parents.

    I’ve read parts of The Jesus Storybook and almost all my parent-friends own it/read it with their kids.

    Several other families I know have started to teach their children their preferred creeds/affirmation of faith from a very young age. This has sparked some huge conversations, like your friend John has had with his son. You’ll be amazed by the capacity of children to understand and ask about deep truths!

    Can’t wait to see how this shapes up for you and Christina and Charlotte 🙂

    • jt* said:

      Thanks Beth! What, if anything, stuck with you from your childhood?

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