by Bromleigh McCleneghan
My kids are inconsistent in their quest for truth. There are some stories they accept without question: Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Disney’s Descendants. My oldest daughter was adorably and surprisingly devastated when she realized that she couldn’t perform spells just like the anti-heroine Mal in the latter story. But there are still others they question and wonder about.
This inconsistency is both danger and gift when it comes to transmitting our faith and the stories of the Scripture. Were Adam and Eve really the first people? Did God really send plagues? There are those who were taught the stories of Scripture in childhood and build their adult faith out of the troubling or clearly ahistorical nature of some of them. There are others who were simply reminded in childhood over and over of Christian virtues and that God is love, who reach adulthood with a good relationship with the divine, but no knowledge of the rich cultural and scriptural heritage Christianity offers.
There is, of course, another way, which is to read the stories of Scripture as special stories, but stories nonetheless. Stories our communities of faith have been telling for centuries. Kids are often okay with this ambiguity in a way adults are not: they are not, before age twelve or so, overwhelmingly concerned with historical veracity. If you tell them a story tells us something true about who God is or what people are like, that matters more to them than whether it actually happened. For the most part this reading allows me to affirm God as creator without being anti-evolution, allows for the telling of Noah without inspiring fear of a God who wipes out that creation.
This is the way I usually go, but I was prompted to take a slightly different course after a recent conversation with my kindergartener. We were listening to Annie Lennox’s version of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” in the car on the way to school, and as the second verse began (“To Bethlehem in Israel…”), Calliope asked, “Is Bethlehem real?”
She assumed it was in heaven, home, still, to the holy family. She was flabbergasted when I told her it was a city, still in existence. Would we need to take a plane to get there?
We live outside Chicago, so in a word: yes.
I am comfortable with the idea of the stories of Genesis belonging to the time before time, to truth in myth, but our God is a God of history, a God who has walked with people through the ages. On Christmas, when we celebrate the eternal God born to a particular woman in a particular place in a particular moment in history, it seems all the more important to introduce my kids to those tangible, historical elements of this story.
So, as we approach Advent 4, I may well be taking out my good study bible, and reading up on Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55. I’ll also be pulling out a map or globe, to see if my girls and I can locate Bethlehem and the Judean countryside. We may take a gander at some internet images of the Holy Land. (Cal asked: Is the stable still there now? When I suggested it was probably gone, Fiona (8) was indignant: They should have saved it! )
I imagine this will only raise more questions, depending on the sort of photos we can find. Bethlehem is not a particularly peaceful place these days. I will probably hold back from pointing out the differences in the Gospel narratives, or that the Gospel writers had an interest in making sure the details surrounding the birth of Jesus matched up with those of messianic hopes described by earlier prophets. I do not wish to bore them.
But: by helping to fill out some of the details of this story, I hope to compete with, and even surpass, the level of detail Santa or the Tooth Fairy bring to the table. For those stories will fade with time, whereas my hope and prayer (and experience) is that the Christmas story – of God born among us, of hope in a hurting world – will only grow more vivid. This is a story that lasts, that transforms; that took place here, in this world, not in heaven, not at the North Pole.