I have spent a long time hating Bible story books. They tell a little story in isolation from the rest of the Bible’s narrative, and then they draw out some facile and vacuous moral, like: “Go be like Samson,” which happens to be awful advice. If my kids turn out like Samson, I may have to start taking drugs. But these little tellings of little stories is the way humans make culture. Am I short-circuiting the process by trying to dissolve the little Samson story into the big Jesus story?
Homo sapiens use stories to transfer our cultural DNA from one generation to the next. These stories we give our children are little mental models of how the world works. And because the real world is complicated, sometimes the stories give conflicting advice about what actions will produce what results:
- Jack and the Beanstalk: Breaking the rules –> Success
- Sleeping Beauty: Breaking the rules –> Coma
- Cinderella: Being patient and humble –> Success
- Puss in Boots: Daring big risks –> Success
- Hansel & Gretel: Going into the woods –> Gruesome Death
- Red Riding Hood: Going into the woods –> Narrowly-avoided gruesome death, but you might meet an attractive logger
- Lord of the Rings: Giving up power –> Success and Peace
- Spider-Man: Great power + Great responsibility –> Success against bad guys, but you’ll still live in a crappy one-room apartment in Chelsea.
The conflicting messages of these stories are a strength, not a weakness. Reflecting all the richness of real life, they teach us that all decisions require more than formulas; they require judgment. As children, we learn these cute little stories that are simple and easy to remember, and we learn small lessons about life from them. As our education progresses, we discover depths in the stories that we didn’t see before. And more importantly, we learn the art of deciding what stories apply to particular situations we are in. In other words, we grow in wisdom.
This is part of the value I find in individual Bible stories. I believe in the big cosmic story they tell together as a group, but also in the smaller stories they tell. I value the little mental models that they give me and my kids:
- Genesis 1: Being creative with the chaos life throws at you –> Good things
- Adam and Eve and the Snake: Violating boundaries –> Damaged relationships
- Joseph: Persistent diligence and integrity –> Success
- Jacob and Laban: Being a sneaky weasel –> Success
- Parable of the Unjust Steward: Being a sneaky weasel –> Success
- David & Goliath: Standing up to a bully –> Victory
- The Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66: Standing up to a bully –> Getting your ass kicked
I think it may be a mistake to dissolve each story into the larger Jesus story before letting it stand on its own, letting it say what it has to say.
For example, I think it may be okay for my kids to be exposed to the idea that God kicks ass, because that idea sure did matter to those slaves in Egypt. Yes, that idea will require some transformation once we get to the Cross. But it is there to be transformed. Like it or not, we evolved in a world red in tooth and claw. Our violent nature is a gift of eons of natural selection, and it is a gift from the God of peace we know in Jesus. It is a gift that is being transformed by the Cross under the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit. I am inviting my kids into the very human process of transforming this very problematic inheritance. That the beast inside us must be acknowledged before it can be tamed.
I started my spiritual parenting with the desire to never teach my kids things they will later have to un-learn. But what I am learning is that it is not my job to hand them a finished pile of knowledge, but instead to induct them into a process that’s been going on a long time and is not yet finished — the process of getting to know an undomesticated God who refuses to fit into a single story.