Doing Theology with Children: The Creation Story
"Everything the Bible says is absolutely true, absolutely true, absolutely true..." When my son was 2-years-old, he came home from his sweet little Mother's Day Out program patting his knees and chanting this phrase in time, as unsuspecting Mommy recoiled in horror! (Well, that might be a slight exaggeration.) But being the "emerging," theologically open-minded Christian that I am, trained at Perkins Theological Seminary, I was worried. No, I did not take him out of the program – there were SO many great things about it. But it sparked within me the realization and motivation that I was called to be his primary religious instructor within the walls of our little apartment, our Hyundai Tucson, and out in the world. Even if I don’t have all the answers.
So that evening snuggling in his twin "big boy bed," I delved into my first theological discussion with him, striving to communicate the nuances of the Bible, the concept that yes, it does present philosophical "truths" even though the details are not necessarily true in the literal sense. I was trying to un-do any propagandizing that his well-meaning fundamentalist pre-school teacher had planted within his little soul. I know, I know, he was two years old! I should have relaxed. But if you're like me, even if your theology differs from mine, you want YOUR perspective on God to be the one that your child takes to heart first (though he will likely rebel against it someday precisely because it's my perspective.)
I had not expected much more than "Jesus Loves Me," play-do, and finger paint from his 6 hours a week out of my influence. And knowing what I do about brain development in children, I feared that because this biblically literalist perspective was put into a catchy rhythmic pattern and paired with kinesthetic movement, sweet little Michael James would never be able to shake it! (Though I'll admit it does flow more naturally off the tongue than, "Everything the Bible says is absolutely...influenced by political-cultural context, human fallibility and interpretation, and literary style.")
Too bad the simplest answers don't often leave room for the gray-ness of Life and Reality. (Answers like, "Everything happens for a reason.") This would make our job as parents and church leaders easier, for sure. But then we would miss out on the enriching, engaging, thought-provoking, and spiritually enlivening conversations that grow our minds and faiths and bonds!
My very first week of leading Sunday School in my new job as Director of Children and Families here at NorthPark Presbyterian Church, I was faced with teaching the first story of Creation from the book of Genesis! (Yes, there are 2, a fact that itself says a lot about how you can't take the Bible too literally.) Thankfully, a story-teller was already lined up to present the story along with an artist who did an amazing job creating an oil-pastel sun and sky, flora and fauna, Adam and Eve into being right before our eyes and onto a canvas!
Still feeling out the theological ethos of this place and its people, and not wanting to ruffle any feathers right off the bat, I declined to say much to the kids about how it's just a "story." How you can be a Christian and still believe in evolution and science and dinosaurs. How it's one of many creation "myths" that ancient cultures created in a natural effort to answer life's biggest questions before science had provided any answers or even was "science."
Where did we all come from? How did the world come into existence?
But during my Children's Time that day, I did focus on what I feel is the capital "T" Truth to this story of Creation: the idea that God's creation is "good," and that we are created in God's image, each of us. And as each child looked into a mirror, we proclaimed, "It is good!" We looked at one another in the pews and proclaimed the Truth: "Boop-boop-dee-doo, I see God in YOU!" We sang a song I wrote to intentionally teach my children a theological message that I did want them to take to heart: "You are wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully made. You're a child, precious child of God!"
And I promised the parents that I would write a little something on how to talk to your kids about the story of Creation...kids like mine whose doctor-father does scientific research in a lab each day, who read non-fiction books about evolution, who marveled at the wonders of God's universe during recent family movie nights watching the "Cosmos" series on the Discovery Channel. And after teaching and parenting children over the years, here's what I know for sure: Children can handle a nuanced explanation. Children can handle mystery. Children can handle questions that illicit more questions instead of firm answers, as in "What a great question! What do YOU think?" Children are natural theologians!
Thinking and learning about God and God's nature through play and exploration and wonder, always full of questions...perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, "Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Mark 10:15) Maybe it's God's permission, even mandate, to have a faith full of questions!
So, here are some "talking tips" for you. This is how I talk to my children about it:
- The Bible is like a Library, filled with MANY books. (67!)
- The books are all different, just as in a library. The stories in the Bible are not written by God, they are written by people like you and me. People from different times and places and experiences, and all of them point to God! Just as in a library, these books fall into different categories: some are historical, autobiographical, letters, family trees, poetry, fables, "how-to," and more.
- The Bible is important and special to me and the Family of God because they tell “our story.” Scripture was and is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and can teach me "Truths" about God and God's love and what it means to be a child of God. When I hear and read and study stories from the Bible, the Spirit is at work in me!
- The Creation story is sometimes called the Creation "myth." Every culture has developed its own creation myths, and many have similarities. But what they all have in common is that they were created themselves LONG ago before humanity had made scientific discoveries that gave answers to long-asked mysteries. All myths are written as a sort of explanation for deep questions, as a way to explain something to posterity. (Have you ever told a story around a campfire or passed along an old family story at the dinner table?)
- Teach children to look for biblical "Truths." The "Creation Story" remains part of our important Judeo-Christian canon because it still conveys the Truth of God. "Truth" with a capital "T." Whenever I have difficulties with a story in the Bible – with the specifics, facts, sexist cultural references, etc., I look for the "Truth" with a capital "T." That is...the main message that God would want us to hear, a message that speaks truth to people of every time and place. As Brian McLaren says in his spiritually enlightening book We Make the Road by Walking, “The poetry and stories of Genesis reveal deep truths that can help us be more fully alive today. They dare to proclaim that the universe is God’s self-expression, God’s speech-act. That means that everything everywhere is always essentially holy, spiritual, valuable, meaningful. All matter matters.”
- What are the “Truths” in the Creation Story? That creation is good, and humanity is called to be partners in Creation with God, protecting it, nurturing it, not destroying it. And we are to enjoy it and rest, and give thanks. And to remember that WE are created "good," too. In God's very image!
- Now, What do YOU think?
Amen, good luck, and good "theology!"