Explaining Genesis to our children

by Steve Douglas

February 25th, 2010 | 20 Comments

I haven’t yet had the talk RJS asks about with my inquisitive, but trusting, science nerd second-grader, but I think she’s become aware of the science/creationism conflict, particularly as regards the age of the earth. She reads all secular books about science and we talk about science as though there were no such thing as creationism, but she is taught an adamant and somewhat polemical version of YEC at church. It won’t be long before I’ll have to address these issues, but I’ve been preparing for it for years now and don’t dread it anymore. Here is how I’ve imagined it going down.

Well, the ancient Israelites didn’t really know how the world came about. They weren’t scientists and didn’t try very hard to be; they were more interested in how to live life obediently to God. This was a good thing for them, and something we can learn from them nowadays.

So more than talking about how the world began, they wanted to understand why the world began. They created stories very much like other people in ancient times about the beginning of the world, like the Greek and Norse myths we read together.* These stories about the beginning of the world didn’t actually happen that way, but they helped them understand that it was our God who created the world and all that’s in it, not those cruel, weak, and often wicked gods that other people worshipped. It taught them that God is in control of the world and the world isn’t in control of God. The Garden of Eden story explained that things go wrong in life because people do things that are wrong, that we will be happy and enjoy fellowship with God if we follow His guidance, and that our lives will be sad if we rely too much on whatever we think is right or wrong.

*In my opinion, this is an important prior step.

I’m not making any claims that this will work universally, but it will no doubt assuage some of the confusion among most young children. If the child is very much younger and asks, “Is this story true?” the answer would have to be, “It teaches us something true,” followed by a simplified version of what I said before; this wouldn’t answer their question, but rather begin to open their minds to the inadequacy of the question as framed.

Another conversation, or a later stage of the one above, will include a subtle acknowledgement that the Israelites weren’t always right, without implying that we should have expected them to be. If I don’t ever make unwarranted claims about the Bible’s nature and authority – or for the authority of any source of information, for that matter – this won’t ever cause the conflict it did for those of us who were taught inerrancy and only later came to find out differently. Disappointment resulting from false expectations and a haughty disposition toward the virtue of doubt have much more potential to displace one’s faith than a conscious recognition of the epistemological limits of any human endeavor, from science to history to theology.

But for some kids, like my daughter, my words above will probably be enough for now.

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February 25th, 2010

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  • http://www.elementalcm.com/ Henry Zonio

    I applaud your desire to be intentional about teaching your children and passing on your beliefs and faith. I would suggest, though, that before trying to explain stuff for your children why not leave it open-ended? In other words, ask them what they think. Let them process in their own way. They may or may not see any kind of conflict. Even if they do, and even if they don’t line up exactly with what your ideas are, let them discover things somewhat on their own. Allow the Holy Spirit to interact with them and them with the Holy Spirit. Encourage them to seek out the Spirit’s guidance in figuring these things out.

    When we jump to explain or correct things, we invalidate children’s experience with God. Yes, it’s a scary way to do it, but I believe it’s the best way to approach spiritual formation.

    A great resource on understanding spiritual formation and how to go about it with our children is Don and Barbara Ratcliff’s new book called ChildFaith.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve

      Hi, Henry. I appreciate your thoughts.

      I agree that sitting them down and teaching them isn’t the approach to take. That’s precisely why I am waiting for her to ask questions. What I wasn’t explicit about was the questions I was answering in the post above. I’m answering questions about ANE literature and what the Israelites as an ANE people expected to get out of Genesis; whether the story is “true”. You seem to be referring to spiritual insights, theological revelation of sorts that are much more open-ended and which I certainly would feel uncomfortable dictating to her.

      But the fact is, if my young child asks me what Genesis means, I’m not going to say, “What does it mean to you?” What it means is tied to what it was intended to mean as ANE literature, and every bit as much as I intend to teach her any subject, I’m going to tell her what I am persuaded was that original intent. I will then encourage her to draw her own insights from that, but I don’t function with a view of Scripture that implies that it means whatever insightful thing can be gleaned from it.

      Do you see what I mean?

  • http://www.elementalcm.com Henry Zonio

    I applaud your desire to be intentional about teaching your children and passing on your beliefs and faith. I would suggest, though, that before trying to explain stuff for your children why not leave it open-ended? In other words, ask them what they think. Let them process in their own way. They may or may not see any kind of conflict. Even if they do, and even if they don’t line up exactly with what your ideas are, let them discover things somewhat on their own. Allow the Holy Spirit to interact with them and them with the Holy Spirit. Encourage them to seek out the Spirit’s guidance in figuring these things out.

    When we jump to explain or correct things, we invalidate children’s experience with God. Yes, it’s a scary way to do it, but I believe it’s the best way to approach spiritual formation.

    A great resource on understanding spiritual formation and how to go about it with our children is Don and Barbara Ratcliff’s new book called ChildFaith.

    • http://undeception.com Steve

      Hi, Henry. I appreciate your thoughts.

      I agree that sitting them down and teaching them isn’t the approach to take. That’s precisely why I am waiting for her to ask questions. What I wasn’t explicit about was the questions I was answering in the post above. I’m answering questions about ANE literature and what the Israelites as an ANE people expected to get out of Genesis; whether the story is “true”. You seem to be referring to spiritual insights, theological revelation of sorts that are much more open-ended and which I certainly would feel uncomfortable dictating to her.

      But the fact is, if my young child asks me what Genesis means, I’m not going to say, “What does it mean to you?” What it means is tied to what it was intended to mean as ANE literature, and every bit as much as I intend to teach her any subject, I’m going to tell her what I am persuaded was that original intent. I will then encourage her to draw her own insights from that, but I don’t function with a view of Scripture that implies that it means whatever insightful thing can be gleaned from it.

      Do you see what I mean?

  • http://atimetorend.wordpress.com/ atimetorend

    I like the way you discuss providing a context for children (stories like Greek, Norse…). I think that is very helpful because children actually already know how to take a non-literal story and draw meaning from it. It is just as you said, the problem is when they are exposed to hard core YEC teaching, the need to be deliberate with them stems from that, not from a problem with how they understand allegory.

    I’m on a similar trajectory with my children. I was going to add a comment in line with Henry’s above. I do a lot of asking the question, “What do you think it means?” or “What do you think it teaches?” And then we can discuss that, or when I put forward my ideas about what it teaches the discussion has been framed as a dialog, exploring what it means rather than me telling them what it means.

    Henry says that much better than I though. :^)

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve

      I do a lot of asking the question, “What do you think it means?” or “What do you think it teaches?” And then we can discuss that, or when I put forward my ideas about what it teaches the discussion has been framed as a dialog, exploring what it means rather than me telling them what it means.

      I like the way you put this. I agree wholeheartedly. i wouldn’t expect my explanation in the post to be “This is truth. Believe. Next question.” :)

      Thanks, Henry and attr, for making the important conversive aspect of this conversation explicit.

  • http://atimetorend.wordpress.com atimetorend

    I like the way you discuss providing a context for children (stories like Greek, Norse…). I think that is very helpful because children actually already know how to take a non-literal story and draw meaning from it. It is just as you said, the problem is when they are exposed to hard core YEC teaching, the need to be deliberate with them stems from that, not from a problem with how they understand allegory.

    I’m on a similar trajectory with my children. I was going to add a comment in line with Henry’s above. I do a lot of asking the question, “What do you think it means?” or “What do you think it teaches?” And then we can discuss that, or when I put forward my ideas about what it teaches the discussion has been framed as a dialog, exploring what it means rather than me telling them what it means.

    Henry says that much better than I though. :^)

    • http://undeception.com Steve

      I do a lot of asking the question, “What do you think it means?” or “What do you think it teaches?” And then we can discuss that, or when I put forward my ideas about what it teaches the discussion has been framed as a dialog, exploring what it means rather than me telling them what it means.

      I like the way you put this. I agree wholeheartedly. i wouldn’t expect my explanation in the post to be “This is truth. Believe. Next question.” :)

      Thanks, Henry and attr, for making the important conversive aspect of this conversation explicit.

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

    Great idea about reading Greek and Norse myths first. My daughter’s still way too young for even bedtime stories (she’s a year and a half), but I’ll remember that for sure. Also, since we’re from a Nordic culture, it makes extra sense.
    .-= Arni Zachariassen´s last blog ..Belief in absolute truth and likeliness of listening to others =-.

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

    Great idea about reading Greek and Norse myths first. My daughter’s still way too young for even bedtime stories (she’s a year and a half), but I’ll remember that for sure. Also, since we’re from a Nordic culture, it makes extra sense.
    .-= Arni Zachariassen´s last blog ..Belief in absolute truth and likeliness of listening to others =-.

  • Guest

    Fairy Tales and So-Called Science

    This is really funny and pitiable. As small kids, we listened to fairy tales and gospel stories and filled our minds and lives with visions of the pure, the beautiful, the wonderful and the impossible. No, it was actually the possible for as kids “nothing was impossible”. What we learned to recognize (later on as “learned” adults) as fantastic were to our innocent, non-scientific minds the ideal and the only acceptable world out there, one which we slowly gave up, like Peter Pan fading from our memory or Jesus becoming a mere historic figure, and replaced with dead and cold numbers, functions and theories (“so-called science”) conceived by well-meaning people who have lost that vision of the ideal (“spiritual”) world and have ended up scrutinizing the visible world, the only world they wish know.

    But those who remain kids at heart and in spirit know better. What we think is real is not real; and what we think is unreal or ideal is real. Reality is beyond reach of the human mind but within the grasp of the human spirit expanded by the Spirit of God.

    Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3 NKJV)

  • http://www.vinceragay.blogspot.com vince ragay

    Fairy Tales and So-Called Science

    This is really funny and pitiable. As small kids, we listened to fairy tales and gospel stories and filled our minds and lives with visions of the pure, the beautiful, the wonderful and the impossible. No, it was actually the possible for as kids “nothing was impossible”. What we learned to recognize (later on as “learned” adults) as fantastic were to our innocent, non-scientific minds the ideal and the only acceptable world out there, one which we slowly gave up, like Peter Pan fading from our memory or Jesus becoming a mere historic figure, and replaced with dead and cold numbers, functions and theories (“so-called science”) conceived by well-meaning people who have lost that vision of the ideal (“spiritual”) world and have ended up scrutinizing the visible world, the only world they wish know.

    But those who remain kids at heart and in spirit know better. What we think is real is not real; and what we think is unreal or ideal is real. Reality is beyond reach of the human mind but within the grasp of the human spirit expanded by the Spirit of God.

    Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3 NKJV)

  • like a child

    Great post. I share the same concerns, particularly since I have trouble reconciling how to interpret the stories myself. Biologos is working on some curriculum for older students, but I think the teaching should start from preschool. I don't want to teach them a story to be true, then later on tell them it is actually a myth and then reteach another story. Maybe I'm overthinking things. I choose not to do “Santa” and the “Tooth Fairy” because I felt that already there was going to be so much in the Bible they were going to realize to be mythical because of Sunday School teaching (i.e. unless I avoid church alltogether).

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Thanks for your comment! I agree that there need to be more efforts toward a
    carefully reasoned plan of attack for our youngest. Unfortunately, since
    posting this entry months ago I have still heard no rumblings of progress on
    that front.

    As a side point, I totally understand and respect your decision concerning
    Santa etc. The way I'm approaching it, however, emphasizes the shortcomings
    and unattractiveness of hyper-rationalist approaches to the world, as well
    as the potential of stories that communicate values (like giving) by
    illustrating them. My hope is that they'll learn that even though the
    Israelites may have believed stories that weren't true (as they apparently
    did, at least by NT times), there was nevertheless something of value in
    those beliefs that make them useful in a way other than history/science.

    Granted, there are probably lots of ways of doing this that don't include
    Santa. :-)

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • http://likeachildscience.blogspot.com like a child

    Here's what I've found so far. Pete Enns is working on curriculum for 1st grade through highschool. I'm not sure what the target audience is – I think it is probably mostly towards homeschooling or Christian school b/c of the format…maybe possibly for SS or teaching at home.
    http://peterennsonline.com/2010/07/05/new-bible

    ASA is working on something for Homeschoolers

    http://asa3online.org/homeschool/285-from-the-a

    And Biologos is working on something for Christian high schoolers.

    http://biologos.org/projects/curriculum

    Definitely progress, but I'm dissappointed at the lack of support for secular education, including public school parents like myself as well as support for secular university campus ministry.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Good sleuthing! Encouraging, especially for me as a homeschooling parent, but you're right that there is a need for those more immersed in the secular world to have specially tailored materials.

    Why don't you go ahead and get right on that? ;-)

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Good sleuthing! Encouraging, especially for me as a homeschooling parent,
    but you're right that there is a need for those more immersed in the secular
    world to have specially tailored materials.

    Why don't you go ahead and get right on that? ;-)

  • http://likeachildscience.blogspot.com like a child

    Check out “Who made the moon” by Sigmund Brouwer. I ordered it, but my husband picked it up since I’m currently focused on reading Polkinghorne. I’ll post his thoughts as soon as he finish reading it (and plan to eventually read it myself). So far, my husband has nothing but praise for the book.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve

      Ooh, good. Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve heard the name Sigmund Brouwer
      before, but I don’t know anything about him.

  • http://likeachildscience.blogspot.com like a child