August 23rd, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder, Editors Blog
As a parent of a toddler, I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories influence and shape us. Parents are natural storytellers. While most of the stories we’re currently telling our daughter Isabella involve cartoon animals rhyming and counting, as she grows older, we will add more substantial stories to the repertoire. I will tell her about her family history and how I met her mother. As a Christian, I will also tell her the story of God as revealed in Scripture and how that story calls us into discipleship of Jesus Christ. As it has often been observed, stories tell us where we come from, who we are and where we are going.
Along with the stories we tell her, Izzy will also encounter other stories. Many of us who live close to the dominant culture of “the World” often forget that we are surrounded by alternate narratives with their own assumptions about the world and what it means to be human. As Christians, we often compete with these other stories in our homes and churches. While some blame “Hollywood,” these alternate stories also take shape in forms not obviously recognizable as entertainment. I believe that much of American Christianity is a synthesis between Christianity and the other “stories” of capitalism and Enlightenment philosophy.
In the case of Isabella, this competition may already be starting. I’m amazed at the power that Sesame Street‘s Elmo has over her imagination. My daughter doesn’t sit still for much — including television — but will pay rapt attention whenever the red furry Muppet jabbers away. He’s helped us teach her the alphabet and now he gets her to sit still on the potty for more than five minutes while he sings about potty training. Yet we also live in a world where Tickle-Me-Elmo exists and despite the fact that Sesame Street does an excellent job teaching young children fundamentals in a clever and engaging way, it also exposes them at an early age to branding and marketing.
So how can I tell story of God that captures Izzy’s imagination in the same way Sesame Street does? Do I need to use puppets or vegetables? Do we need better production values in church in order to raise our voice above the noise of today’s media landscape? Or do I need to withdraw Izzy from the influences of these other stories and try to expose her only to the stories I want her exposed to?
I think the answer lies in an example from my own childhood. When my family lived in West Berlin during the 1980’s, I attended the German-American school on the other side of the city. In order to get to the school bus, I had take two subways (the ubiquitous Berlin U-Bahn) and my father often traveled with me in the mornings. In order to pass time, he read to me from an English children’s bible (with a blond, blue-eyed Jesus) that one of my aunts had sent me for Christmas. Now one of the quirks about my Dad, is that even though he’s an American, he prefers German and so he translated these bible stories as he read them aloud to me. Often other children (and adults) riding the subway listened to Dad as well.
There was something in the way that Dad narrated these stories — perhaps by translating and telling them aloud — that transformed them from being mere “Bible Stories” on the pages of a holy book. For me, they became living, breathing narratives that had the space and power to capture my imagination. While treating the scriptures with reverence is part of living out the story, we also need to make sure that we tell the stories in a compelling way that resonates with the imagination. I don’t believe we need better production values or separation in order to compete with the other narratives out there, but we need to be willing to tell the Christian story — to offer it to our children and “the World” through both word and deed.
I hope that Izzy grows, I can help her navigate these narrative landscapes. I hope she becomes not just a consumer of these cultural stories, but an active participant with the critical skills to understand how these stories function and the purpose they serve. Most of all, I hope that I can find a way to tell my daughter the story of God in a way that captures her imagination. I don’t want the Bible to be just another story for her — I want it to become her story.
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