After weeks of hanging on a thread my seven year old son’s tooth finally fell out. Later that night I silently crept into his room to deposit the tooth fairy’s money under his pillow. It’s not his first tooth so it’s a routine he has come to expect. I am not sure precisely when he stopped believing in the tooth fairy. I think it happened gradually. He is a bright kid and it didn’t take him long to reflect on the incredulity of a nocturnal visitor bearing a gift of cash. Still he is more than happy for the charade to continue and one in which he plays a willing part by reminding me to remind the fairy and then pretending to be surprised the next morning when he discovers money under his pillow. I don’t think there is a parent on the planet who at some point deliberately sits down with their child to disabuse them of this tenuous belief. It just sort of happens and it happens well before the child has lost all his milk teeth. Why do we continue to play out this charade? A psychologist or sociologist might have a sophisticated response but I think we continue because the game is harmless and it gives pleasure to our children. It costs nothing more than the pound or two placed under the pillow. There is no real emotional, psychological or religious cost to learning that the tooth fairy is actually one’s parent. It’s a game. Everyone knows it’s a game and our children outgrow it. All too soon
There is however another game that we tend to play with far greater consequences and that is how we teach our children to understand the stories in the bible; particularly those in the early chapters of Genesis.
While younger children will have no problem imagining Adam and Eve lounging in the Garden of Eden, a talking snake and a virtual zoo on a floating ark, older children, particularly brighter ones, are bound to question the veracity of these tales.
Where there really only two people at the beginning of time? Who did Cain marry? How was he able to build a city and who was the city for if there was no one else on earth ? Did people really live for centuries? How did Noah get all of the world’s animals onto the ark? These are questions that are bound to emerge as children read and reread the story. The answers we give them then are crucial to their relationship with, and respect for, this sacred scripture. All too often our bog standard answers are even more implausible than the initial questions. For example, Cain and Able married their sisters (who for some reason the bible does not consider significant enough to mention.)
The problem with this approach is that like the tooth fairy the kids just stop believing it. You know they don’t believe it; they know you know they don’t believe it and they suspect you don’t believe it either. So we enter into a charade except this charade is dangerous because it threatens our children’s life-long relationship with the bible and by extension with religion.
An honest approach is that these stories are not meant to be taken literally. The bible does not set out to write history. It is trying to communicate deep values and truths about God and the nature of human beings. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity, the Garden of Eden is not a geographical locale, it symbolizes a state of innocence and purity. While the story of the deluge might well be based on some historical episode its primary purpose is to draw attention to man’s capacity to destroy and to redeem. It also can be read as a counter-point to the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic.
Can a primary school child take all this in? Of course not. Which is why it makes sound educational sense to allow younger children to approach these stories at face value. There is a crucial point in a child’s development however when responsible educators must gently and careful begin to introduce the concept of non literalist reading. The cost of not addressing this issue is to widen a gulf between a student’s increasingly sophisticated secular education and his rather simplistic and childlike comprehension of the bible. When this happens the only recourse available to the thinking student is cognitive dissonance, or wholesale rejection of the bible.
I believe that the time to introduce non-literal thinking is in secondary school when children are still developing intellectually. Waiting any later is too great a risk. We must engage them before they wander away. What we need are religiously committed, Intellectually honest educators can find creative ways to introduce the idea of non-literalist reading without shaking the foundations of a student’s faith. They can demonstrate that while history is concerned with factual truth the bible is concerned with timeless truth; the truth of our relationship with God and our place in creation. If we are successful, our children will return to these timeless stories repeatedly, seeking and finding in them an inexhaustible source of wisdom, guidance and truth.