Honesty in the Journey (or On the Raising of Young Heretics)

Nearly twenty years ago, my oldest was six years old. One of our bedtime routines was a brief Bible reading.

One evening we found ourselves in the Garden of Eden story—Adam and Eve, a piece of fruit, and a snake with vocal chords.

As I read, my son kept sighing, as if impatient with my reading. Being the only Old Testament expert in the room, I ignored him and kept going.

But he kept sighing. He even had the audacity to interrupt me.

“Daddy, snakes can’t talk.”

The woman said to the serpent, “we may eat fruit from the tr….”

“Daddy. Snakes. Can’t. Talk.”

With a sense of foreboding, I stopped reading and asked him, pray, to continue his remonstration. For the next few minutes I listened to a six year old deconstruct his faith, which amounted to the following:

Two naked people, magic fruit from a magic tree, and a talking animal. C’mon. This is obviously a story, not too different from the cartoons I watch or the other books you read to me, none of which you expect me to accept as reality. So, it seems to me that the Bible is a story, which gets me dangerously close to thinking that maybe God is a story, too. Hence—follow me here, Dad—I’m not sure why I should really believe God is real, which is to say, please stop reading, and can I have a glass of water?

My six year old was having a faith crisis.

Well that’s just perfect. I can see the headlines now: “Controversial Old Testament professor raises heretic son” (trial footage at 11:00).

My first instinct was fear: “Shhhhhh! Keep your voice down! He may hear you.” But, in one of those moments that for me constitutes sure proof of God’s existence, my mouth was kept from saying what my brain was telling it.

I tried a different approach: “You don’t really believe in God anymore? O.K., well, tell him.”

Let’s not talk about the problem, just tell God. Be honest with him.

My son wasn’t expecting that. He looked at me like I had spiders crawling out of my nostrils. He also looked a bit relieved.

Over the years, I have been thankful to God that I didn’t correct my son’s theology, for that would have been utterly stupid. Had I shamed him or coerced him into saying the right thing (so I would feel better about my parenting skills), I would have been responsible for creating another religious drone, another one who, at a young age, was already learning to play the religion game.

I would have taught my son a crippling lesson, that faith in God requires him to be dishonest with God and with himself.

I am proud of that little six-year-old, who trusted himself enough not to play games. And I am thankful that I, by a flickering moment of God’s grace, didn’t blink (too much).

Life in Christendom can sometimes feel like a show. We can be quite concerned to put on appearances—even though the Gospel humbles the proud and unmasks the hypocrite. Dishonesty cheapens the Gospel as yet another commodity to be controlled and manipulated for personal gain. It ceases being that which gives us our true identities to that which is manipulated, along with everything else, to hold on to our false selves.

We construct many reasons for maintaining a posture of dishonesty. For many, the failure to utter before God where we really are and what we are real think reflects a lifetime of corrupt spiritual teaching: God went through a lot of effort to save you, so the least you can do us have your act together so as not to disappoint him.

In a perverse twist, “holding on to the Gospel” becomes a motivation to hold on to self-deception.

I have learned that God, for our own sake, does not let that condition continue indefinitely.

 

This post is first appeared in December 2011 and was adapted from my commentary on Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 2011).

 

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  • http://themanisapoet.blogspot.com/ Michael Thomson

    This is good Pete,

    I have enough crises of faith on my own…I know my kids will too as their lives unravel prematurely.

    If I can model the Psalmist’s honesty and not pretend piety…allow the faith to be what it is, not what it isn’t and find that God is larger than our flickering ability to square the corners…

    Grace and peace for lent Pete,

    -Michael Thomson

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Michael. In a way, what you’re saying is that it’s OK to model a faith crisis yo your children. Interesting way of putting it.

  • Don Johnson

    And here is a crux. The intersection of faith and experience is different for different people. Some think the ultimate in faith includes denying all that experience teaches them. Some think the ultimate in faith includes embracing all that experience teaches them. And yet God can break both types of boxes.

    • peteenns

      Plus a few other boxes not on our radar screen, Don.

  • http://shirleykurtz.com Shirley

    Peter, it’s a lovely story. Now there’s a lucky son.

    • peteenns

      Lucky Dad, too.

  • http://tamarsredemption.blogspot.com Carolyn Ruch

    I’m so not a theologian, never have been, never will be, not even going to attempt to go there. But I’ve done my best to teach my kids to be honest with their faith and honest with our God. Thanks for your honesty, Pete. I respect it and appreciate it.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Carolyn. I think you’ve got some great kids, too :-) And congrats on your published piece!

  • http://www.evancurry.com Evan

    Pete, I appreciate your honesty, and I hope I can also have the same wherewithal when discussing these things with my children. It reminds me of a student I had in youth group who graduated and went to a state university only to come out questioning the Garden of Eden story. His parents thought he “was abandoning with his faith” and reacted poorly, but he was simply questioning, not abandoning. We could use more parents like the above and less like that student had.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Evan.

  • Terry

    I wish I’d wondered some of these things when I was younger — while still moving forward in faith in Christ — rather than waiting until I was a pastor in my mid-30s. It about took me out, all the while trying to keep the crisis from taking out my wife, children and congregation. Keep up the encouragement Pete.

    • peteenns

      We seem to create these problems for ourselves, Terry, by setting up a standard that God seems not to be interested in meeting.

      • Terry

        That is exactly the case Pete. Exactly. Better to know the God that loves us than the God we’ve made up to love, I always (now) say.

        • Matt

          Terry, as a pastor in my mid-thirties now and also with a wife and kids, I’d be interested in chatting. (If the moderator would pass my email address to Terry… thanks!)

          • peteenns

            WIll do if Terry approves.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise Porter

    This is such a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. I resonated with it for so many different reasons.

    In Jonathan Kirsch’s book, “The Harlot by the Side of the Road”, the journalist shares a similar type of account when he began to read the bible to his five year old son. Kirsch didn’t know what to do with the passage in Genesis where Noah is lying “buck naked and drunk as a sailor” so he began to paraphrase things. Kirsch writes, “My son, already media wise at five, soon began to protest. If I paused too long over a troublesome passage, trying to figure out how to tone down or cut the earthier parts, he would sit up in bed and demand indignantly: what are you leaving out?”

    Children call a spade a spade and maybe this is why Jesus asks us to become children again. I know I left the Catholic church in my heart by the time I was thirteen because questions weren’t being answered and things didn’t make sense to me. Thankfully, God brought me back in a profound way when my mother took her life a few years ago when I was in my late thirties. (What amazing grace). Yet those years of questioning were good for me. I just wish someone had engaged me in a dialogue so that I could have been on board a little earlier.
    It seems you did that beautifully with your son. Related, one of the things that struck me last year in an Old Testament class was the struggle some folks had in understanding that there can be great truths in story even if the story is symbolic or not real. While some issues of historicity are key to our faith, others are less so. God speaks to us in so many different ways. As Christians, I think we have to learn to embrace the ambiguous and abstract a bit more readily. It’s part of the great and beautiful mystery of Him.

    • peteenns

      Lise, this is why writing a children’s curriculum has been such a challenge, in a good way. They are very concrete and don’t put up with convoluted explanations. Thanks for your comment.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Brian LePort

    I appreciated this post! I don’t have children of my own, but I know that I had many, many doubts about Christianity in my early years and teens. Often adults tried to silence those with serious questions or make you feel like you were losing faith. I don’t want my children (in the future) to experience that.

  • jon hughes

    Pete,

    That’s a moving account. I think the danger for me would be if your son or my son said he couldn’t believe in a man walking on water and feeding five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Would we take the same approach in that instance?

    • peteenns

      I would allow them to think and remind them that God can handle their questions and doubts.

  • Just a dude havin’ a Glaubenskrise

    Thanks, Pete. I so needed to read that.

    • peteenns

      Glaubenskrise. Nice :-)

  • http://personman.com Danny

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see what’s so clever about your answer: “You don’t really believe in God anymore? O.K., well, tell him.” Isn’t that still feeding your son the not-so-subtle hint that God is real whether you believe it or not? It doesn’t seem to acknowledge your son’s genuine doubts and the possibility that he may be right. You could have done a lot worse, but you could have also addressed his doubts without shoehorning in the assumption that God is real.

    • peteenns

      You are bringing up a legitimate, but different, level of discussion, Danny. Often, people with a faith crisis think to themselves, “I’ll just go over here for a while and work out all this God business and then maybe see how or if he figures into it all.” I am taking a page out of things like Psalm 73 or Ecclesiastes where God is confrontable even in the disbelief, which I think adds a biblical dimension to this issue with young people. Still, I know what you are saying, but that is another post (or 2…or 10).

      • http://personman.com Danny

        Fair enough. Thanks for your response.

      • Ian

        “You are bringing up a legitimate, but different, level of discussion, Danny.” I dunno, it didn’t sound like different levels were going on in the conversation you report.

        Sounded to me like you found a clever put down. You managed to simultaneously find a way to take the possibility of genuine disbelief off the table, while at the same time allowing you to feel self-righteous about not being explicit about what you expected him to believe. And you’re still feeling rather chuffed with yourself about it 20 years later.

        If someone told you about their belief in fairies, and you said “I’m sorry I just don’t buy it.” and they replied “Have you told the fairies that? Its cool, the fairies have long said that they don’t mind being told that. You really ought to confess your doubts to the fairies.” You’d rightly conclude they were a) not respecting your position and b) trying to be a smart-alek.

        No ‘deeper level’ or ‘biblical dimensions’ needed. Just a bit of basic respect.

        • peteenns

          Ian, you seem angry. In any event, my son (now 24) he would get a chuckle out of your reaction. If as an adult he brought the same issue to me, he and I would have (and have had) a very different sort of conversation. I also hope you can see the difference between a parent speaking to a six-year old about a matter of religious faith and two adults talking about fairies.

  • JenG

    I’ve been listening to Peter Rollins lately – though I’ve yet to read his work – and can’t help feeling he’s on to something. Are you familiar with his work? Is he taking doubt too far?

    • peteenns

      I don’t know Rollins.

      • JenG

        http://peterrollins.net/

        I’ve listened through a couple podcasts off iTunes from different interviews he’s done. He’s a bit hard to understand because he’s 100% Irish : P But he’s brilliant and, dare I say, deeply prophetic for our times.

        “Life in Christendom can sometimes feel like a show. We can be quite concerned to put on appearances—even though the Gospel humbles the proud and unmasks the hypocrite. Dishonesty cheapens the Gospel as yet another commodity to be controlled and manipulated for personal gain. It ceases being that which gives us our true identities to that which is manipulated, along with everything else, to hold on to our false selves.

        We construct many reasons for maintaining a posture of dishonesty. For many, the failure to utter before God where we really are and what we are real think reflects a lifetime of corrupt spiritual teaching: God went through a lot of effort to save you, so the least you can do us have your act together so as not to disappoint him.”

        This quote sounded very much like Rollins so I was wondering if he’d influenced your thought at all.

        If you have a spare hour and 12 minutes, “Homebrewed Christianity” has a podcast of him speaking at Claremont. It’s called “TNT: Peter Rollins at Claremont” and you can get it for free on iTunes. It’s a decent intro to what he’s about. “Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot” podcast feed has an interview with him too called “The Role of Atheism in Christianity”.

        He’s a deconstructionist but I think he’s hit on something that a lot of us are thinking and feeling but not saying (although you are saying it and for that we’re all grateful!). The way he talks about Ecclesiastes reminds me of you too.

        Jen

  • Daina

    I think there is Grace in your son’s questioning, not just your “flickering moment.” But it is often so hard for newer believers being discipled to both become a member in a church, AND work through their own grow in understanding scripture.

    Genesis may be the toughest read in the entire Bible for us; it is for me. Through Noah it reads like an allegory, and from Abraham on we forget that it is written as a recounting of history by a man born some 400 years after the last events. Having just finished I & I, appreciate your efforts to open discusion of these things.

    • peteenns

      I agree. Genesis should not be addressed with young people, I think. Gen 1-11 especially is among the hardest parts of the BIble to get on board with. That’s why in my Bible curriculum I start with the Gospels for grads 1-4.

      • Dan

        As a 20-something fully comfortable with his framework hypothesis view, I’ve definitely done some serious thinking about how I want to present scripture, especially Genesis, to any children I end up having. As you said, children are so concrete – the unbridled literalism of children can honestly be a joy to observe. My mom’s explanation of “a day to the Lord is a thousand years” worked with my young mind who asked how the Genesis account was compatible with how dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, but I can’t imagine all children are the same.

  • http://missionaljourneyman.com Adam Gonnerman

    Hmmm…mighty articulate for a six-year-old…. ;-)

    I remember reading a children’s Bible by myself when I was a kid. I was fascinated especially with the stories and pictures from the first part of Genesis. Then, in grade school, I read up on evolution through National Geographic and some library books. One day it dawned on me that they were mutually exclusive.

    My upbringing was in the Roman Catholic Church, but I left that behind at age 17 to become “evangelical.” The RCC had no problem with evolution, but the evangelical movement sure did. Despite the evidence to the contrary, I took a “faith step” and embraced creationism.

    It’s taken me years to recover from that mistake.

    I’m grateful now to be part of a church that doesn’t make a particular viewpoint on origins a test of faith. I hope I’m doing better with my children’s questions than I did with my own.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your input, Adam. Such a common story, in principle even in not in detail.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog Kurt Willems

    Pete, this was great! I was having similar thoughts as ur son about an hour ago… I’m writing my senior paper this semester on evolution and theology so this issue is fresh on my brain… Thanks and shared!

  • http://www.arnizachariassen.com/ithinkibelieve Arni Zachariassen

    Thanks, Pete. Really, really good. My little girl is just 3 yet, but this will come in due time. Thanks for preparing me for that point. Or points, actually.

  • https://www.createspace.com/3553939 Tom Smedley

    An R-rated meditation on 5-point TULIP Calvinism and the parable of the Prodigal Son shaped the way we raise our children. In the George C. Scott vehicle Hard Core, the control-freak father discovers that his attention to detail does not after all protect his daughter. As home schooling parents, we simultaneously seek to protect our children, but desperately cling to God for His mercies. Ultimately, we must trust Him, rather than our sheltered environment.

  • http://www.brooks-joe.com Immaccon

    As someone who had my own decade-long crisis of faith and who is now a father trying to raise children, its comforting to see this process worked out in the life of another man and father. Had I been more open with my parents and pastor about my own crisis, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone down all the rabbit holes that handling it on my own took me. I just pray that, if my children have their own crises, they feel that they can come to me.

    • peteenns

      Great way of putting it! It comes It comes down to the risk of relationship with our children rather than controlling them out of our own fears and insecurities. Which means, we need to trust God with our children and do our best along the way.

  • Richard Maloney

    This article was rather disturbing to me, as it demonstrates the lengths that theists will go to in order to keep their kids theistic. The child in the article (although paraphrased) articulated logical, rational points for disbelief, the theist does not explain how the snake could talk, or how the more fantastic elements of his religion were in any way remotely possible.

    Instead, he pushes the blame off on his son. It’s not that the theist doesn’t have answers: his son is having a crisis of faith.

    It seems to me the theist is the one having the crisis of faith. After all, his assertion that his son is having a crisis is immediately followed by this quote: “My six year old was having a faith crisis. Well that’s just perfect. I can see the headlines now: “Controversial Old Testament professor raises heretic son” (trial footage at 11:00).” Heaven forbid a theologian be outwitted by a child! To this reader, the child is not having a faith crisis: the father is having an ego crisis.

    Finally, the theist uses a cowardly trick to fool his child into believing again. Rather than answer his child’s questions, the theist simply tells his child to tell God he doesn’t believe anymore. Not only does this kick the can down the road to the child’s teenage years (as such a bullying argument can’t stem the tides of doubt forever), but it’s a special pleading argument: “Believe in my deity first, then insult that deity you now believe in with your oncoming disbelief.” This is not the way that grown adults should behave around children.

    It’s one thing to explain one’s theological beliefs to one’s children. It’s quite another to use a rhetorical trick to avoid answering the tough questions and placate one’s ego for a few more years.

    • peteenns

      I appreciate your opinion, Richard, but I think you are reading my post from, perhaps, past wounds, and so not really seeing what I am saying–in particular you seemed to have missed completely my tongue in cheek humor. I was giving my son, even at that age, the freedom to explore his own spiritual development, but by challenging him to pursue God in the process. His questions, as pressing aas they are for a child, can be addressed in the adult level when the time comes. At that point he would see that a talking snake hardly constitues a crushing blow to theism.

  • Carol Stoner

    Appreciate this post more than you can know. Quick story to share….I was picking up some kids our group sent on scholarship to summer church camp (they were what we commonly label “unchurched”). A fourth grade boy with a VERY complicated home life (and no dad anywhere in sight) said to me as we were loading suitcases into the back of our van, “Carol, did you know David cheated on his wife?” I stammered something like, “yes I was aware of that part of the story.” Truth be told, I was thankful that another kiddo ran up and interupted our conversation, because I was lost in stunned-ville about where to take it. Weeks later when I checked in with all the campers to see what they remembered about their camp experience, this same boy said, “Carol did you know that David cheated on his wife?” I said to him, “you mentioned that to me while we were at camp. What is it about that part of the story that effects you so?” I don’t think I will ever forget his response (because it tells us precisely why we shouldn’t ever think the dirty little details don’t have the ability to speak)…he said slowly with great emphasis, “God FORGAVE HIM.” I am so grateful for the gritty little neighborhood where I hang (and most in my church are scared to tred), because it teaches me over and over that its not about getting it perfect (as if we ever could)…

    • peteenns

      What a great story, Carol. Thanks.

  • Terry M

    That was indeed a stroke of genius both in the writing and in the living.
    Sometimes we have to meet people where they are in the faith or lack thereof.
    I think that’s how God deals with it too. I’m certain God is not looking for automatons who regurgitate the theology they were force fed. I’m more inclined to believe in a God who will listen to my heart positive or negative and help me through it. I mean if you can’t feel safe having an honest talk with God, who can you feel safe with ? I also believe in a Supernatural God and Learning to separate the supernatural from the natural in a logical way can be difficult at younger ages.
    Great writing. I will be encouraging others to read your writings. God Bless.

  • NixonisLord

    I lost interest because this isn’t interesting; it’s boring songs an at early hour on Sunday and you expect me to pay you talk about something you’re not really sure of yourselves and which makes absolutely no difference to your moral lives anyway. Why should I run twice as fast to stay in the same place?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Perhaps I might have responded to such a question by saying “Since snakes don’t really talk, and it’s unlikely that a snake made by God would really try to rebel and undermine God’s plans for men and women, what do YOU think Moses was tryinig to say when he described the person who talked to Eve as a ‘serpent’? Have you ever heard a person described as a ‘snake’? Have you heard Jesus described as a ‘lamb’? What does an author mean when he tells a story and uses the name of an animal to describe one of the characters in the story?”

    I suggest that the concern should be about teaching our children to distinguish between what was written with the intent that it be understood literally, and what was written to be figurative or symbolic, as well as combinations of the two, when real people do things that are symbolic to transmit an idea. The baptism of Jesus by John involved real people doing something that was symbolic and figurative as a way of saying something that was very real.

    Making this distinction is vital to understanding Genesis 1 and 2 in the way that it was written. Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis, if you prefer) clearly was NOT present at the creation. What he wrote was therefore a description of something that God revealed to him, either by telling him in words or by showing him a vision or view of the events described. It is certainly a summary and leaves out details. For example, there is no reference to any of the planets, which were already well known at the time of Moses. There is no intimation of the larger structures of galaxies and nebulae, which were not known of at that time. It is not a first hand account, but one at second hand. For these reasons, to claim that it is a complete account, and that nothing that is not stated in the account could be real, is simply to make claims for the account that it does not make for itself.

    So this kind of a conversation should not be classified as a crisis of faith in God, so much as it is a crisis of an unwarranted assumption that all passages in the Bible were meant to be understood with facial literalness.

  • Beth D

    Great post! I have had similar experiences with my kids and handled it much the same way. Faith grows over time and Jesus (not parents) is the Author and Perfector. What can you do with tough questions but pray?

    Personally, I see no reason to avoid Genesis with kids though. The basic idea is that God made everything and he made each of us in his image — special and very good. That’s an important and basic tenet of our faith. We can’t always wrap our minds around everything God is, does, says — which is another useful thing to learn early on.

    • peteenns

      You are certainly right here, Beth. The big-picture of the Genesis story is important to communicate. Some of the details can get tricky, though.

  • Beth D

    I meant ‘very good’ as in fearfully and wonderfully made.

  • Beth D

    Dr. Enns, What do you think about Baalam and the talking donkey?

    • peteenns

      I think they were clearly miscommunicating :-)

  • Beth D

    I take it you don’t think the donkey spoke. Do you find that interpretation is unreasonable or troubling in any way? Not trying to debate…just curious about your view.

    • peteenns

      I was just having some fun with your open-ended question, Beth. I think the donkey is a literary symbol to make a theological point about Balaam’s spiritual insensitivity toward God–something even a donkey was able to perceive.

  • Beth D

    thanks for the answer!! So you don’t find it unreasonable that the donkey talked, you just don’t think he did.

    If a person thinks the donkey could and did talk, why not a serpent?

    How much of the Bible is literary symbolism and how much really happened. In considering something symbolic/literal, what are the criteria? If you think too much of it is allegory, symbolic, non-historical does that cast doubt on Infallibility?

    It looks like I will have to buy your book!

    • peteenns

      All those questions are great, Beth–and they also take a LONG time to answer with sensitivity. As for the donkey, it’s not just that a donkey spoke–but note Balaam entering into a casual conversation with it.

  • Nate

    Does your son still believe now?

  • http://dougandrhonda.blogspot.com Douglas E

    Pete – I know that you cannot answer this with a short response, or even a long one or perhaps even in book – but – what do you say to the 26-year-old who says the same thing? At face value it would be an angry giant, a talking serpent, a scientifically preposterous story, conflicting accounts, and a spiteful deity who curses the serpent, childbearing and the ground. How, or can one engage an adult who sees it this way in the Hebrew bible, some of which carries over into the NT?

    • peteenns

      Doug, I think at the adult level it is time to talk about these things in an adult way. To a child I think what can be done is create a culture in the home where questioning–which is inevitable–is not seen as hostile to faith but part of the faith journey. For those who have such interest (I don’t think such discussions should be forced upon people), the topic can turn to any and every issue of the Bible that needs to be discussed. And that is the best answer I can give without writing a book :-)

  • Anonymous

    Hey, I just read this somewhere else, and thought it may be an interesting read concerning the serpent in Genesis:
    http://discussions.godandscience.org/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=33083
    God bless.


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