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Fact-checking

CA to WV - The Kids Perspective, Flickr: respres (CC BY 2.0)

CA to WV – The Kids Perspective, Flickr: respres (CC BY 2.0)

“Mom, I need to talk to you about something,” my seven-year old daughter announced from the back seat of our car. I had been told by friends whose children were older than mine that car travel would become, as my kids grew up, a place where conversation would become freer, my best source of truly ‘checking in’ with them. Sure enough, even at their young age, there is something about us travelling, our eyes resting easily in the same direction, not on each other, but on the road unfolding in front of us, something about the close quarters, the distractions limited, the possibility of leaving or ignoring what is being shared at a minimum, and yet also the lack of pressure to share anything at all, that combination of enclosed space along with a certain spaciousness in our encounters one to another, all of which conspire to allow a remarkable amount of disclosure. On this particular evening, I was driving Cecilia, my son Gordon, and their dear friend Mario, to a program at the church.

“Yes?”

“Mom, our teacher said today that most of the stories in the Bible that were written before Jesus aren’t true.”

Mario, a class-mate of Cecilia’s, validated that this had in fact been said by their teacher that day. Cecilia and Mario went on to describe how Noah’s Ark didn’t really happen, that it doesn’t make any sense, and that their teacher had told them so.

They were worried about their teacher’s words. They wanted me to weigh in on other Bible stories. Mario said, flat-out, that of course the story of Adam and Eve was fact. That one, in his opinion, didn’t need to be verified. They’ve been talking about Moses a great deal lately in Sunday School, so a lot of the questions and statements that they were firing my way – mostly too quickly for me to even properly respond – were centered around some of this Biblical leader’s escapades.

My response to them, I admit, was entirely inadequate. I wasn’t prepared. They go to Catholic school. They are in Grade 2. I expect them to be in the phase of life that involves a solid grounding in Learning The Story. I didn’t know that we could have already breezed past this important step into the quagmire of fact-checking. And so my response was something to that effect: the important thing isn’t whether the story happened or not, the important thing is what it means. And, I added: “Your teacher is wrong. She actually doesn’t know that these stories didn’t happen.”

I said that with an edge to my voice, because I was pissed. And that surprised me too. I would not define myself as a Biblical literalist. I have a healthy respect for science, I don’t think that affirming the theory of evolution negates my belief in God as creator, and I do not feel that, should some of the stories of the Bible be proven tomorrow to be one hundred percent un-factual, that this would in any way shake my faith. But I was left, after this all-too short car ride across town, feeling as if my children had been done a great dis-service.

I was also left with some questions for their teacher:

  • Are you sufficiently confident that you have mined the riches of our Biblical narratives with these children for their mystery and meaning, for an appreciation of their story-telling finesse, have you allowed these stories to become so ingrained in the memory and imagination of these children that they will know that these stories are, in fact, their stories, that you feel it is now your prerogative to consider the historical facts – or lack thereof — of these stories with them?
  • On what authority do you draw the conclusion that the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures deserve to be lumped into the category of ‘didn’t really happen,’ while the Christian Scriptures get let off the hook?
  • Are you equipped and prepared to teach my children the meaning of truth, and how truth can abide in a complex and surprising relationship with so-called facts?
  • Don’t you understand that you are teaching our children a form of Biblical literalism that is just as unimaginative, and even potentially soul-destroying, as the literalism that you think you are guarding our children against?
  • And, most importantly, how do you know?

How do you know it’s not factual? Whereas I too had a love-affair with the writings of people like John Shelby Spong, who give people of faith permission to say ‘it didn’t happen like that’ to the stories of Scripture and still have a relationship with God, whereas I, too, have defined myself as an enlightened liberal who can apply my brain to the Bible and realize I can approach it with a healthy degree of scepticism, my time as a parish priest for the past ten years has led me to be far less certain of these sort of left-leaning dictums. My experience has taught me that mystery and magic abound, sometimes just in the unguarded periphery of our vision, or in those moments where method, observation and repeatable outcomes break down, or even in a direct assault on our sensory capacities to see, taste, touch, hear and smell something inexplicable. If we don’t miss it. If we find someone, or several someones, who are just willing enough to be enchanted, just irrational enough to admit to extraordinary possibilities, that we share our experiences and find out we’re not the only ones.

It’s not just that this teacher pissed me off. It’s that she makes me sad. I am sad for a world which is seen (and then presented as the only viable possibility) as so narrow. I am sad for all of the wonder and joy and mystery that I want to share with my children and how inadequate it sometimes feels I am for the task, how many voices will fight against me to blind their eyesight, which even now is still capable of picking up on magic and responding with awe. I am sad that, if I try to share these thoughts and concerns with my daughter’s teacher, I will no doubt be dismissed in her mind as a raving fundamentalist. I am sad that a world shot through with the miraculous and the impossible can so easily – and with such widespread buy-in from the masses – be reduced to mere fact-checking.

About Martha Tatarnic

The Reverend Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines. Previously, she has served in congregations in Orillia and Oakville. Her focus in congregational leadership has been in empowering justice initiatives and outreach in the small church, starting a new service, the possibilities and potentials of Anglican-Lutheran partnership, and forming disciples through the power of music. As a young mother navigating family life through the continually changing waters of modern-day life, she is passionate about connecting the dots between faith – worship - Scripture, and exploring the concerns, joys, questions, stresses, worries, celebrations, of Right Here, Right Now.
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6 Responses to Fact-checking

  1. she’s right that no one knows for sure but the stories are myth and legend shared by word of mouth for generations before being written down in 6th century bce…the new testament is as much about the writers’ opinions and they are about documenting perceptions of events…and the translators’ bias

  2. To denounce the Ark and other stories of the Old Testament to a group of small children is akin to saying that Santa Claus is a myth. You just don’t. But I would like to call the author on the appropriateness of her language. Sure she was annoyed, upset and even perturbed by the teacher’s remarks but the use of “p****d off” in this article (twice) should have been caught by the Reverend…or at least her editor.

    • Matthew Griffin

      I’m not sure I can agree with you on that point, Pippa. I’m grateful to Martha for her honesty, and think that her piece would have lost some of its power if she’d written that she was “angry” or “irate” or some other, nicer word. I’m certain, hearing the way Martha writes about this experience that she wasn’t merely annoyed, upset, or perturbed. When we accurately describe how we feel, we invite others more deeply into our experience. That’s not always nice, or comfortable–but it is, after all, where Jesus goes again and again.

      I had a classmate in seminary who referred to Jesus cursing the fig tree as “our Lord’s hissy fit.” It was language calculated to shock, to draw us in, to hear with fresh ears what is happening in a story we knew–but needed to look at again and to question. Our faith follows Jesus into the messy parts of life, and if we limit ourselves to what’s nice, we’re not going to be able to get to what’s real in deep ways.

  3. First of all we have to look and see what people like Jesus and guys like Paul and Peter thought of what the bible say “scripture” what we feel about what the bible says is neither here nor there Jesus said “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.”, “…the Scripture cannot be broken” , “for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus spoke of the events in the old testament as things that actually happened .What did Paul say of his writing “If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. “, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God,” , “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” .If there a mixture of myths and reality in the pages of the bible , who in this world is wise enough and by what standard are they going to disentangle truth from fiction .If it is myth ,what authority does it have ,it is on the same level as Aesop’s Fables and the stories by the brothers Grimm . The bible is made up of a variety of literary styles e.g. historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, instructions and exhortation etc. . It is generally accepted that Genesis is historical narrative, a narration of what occurred in history ,so at what point does it go from myth to narration …at the point of our ability to believe, no . This kind of approach leads us to subjective faith rather than ojective.

  4. David Burrows

    Martha,

    Very fine blog this week. It is a difficult road to navigate, when dealing with Scripture, interpretation, education, faith, all in the growth and development of little ones that we dearly love. I will be sharing your blog with folks from our Church School and Confirmation Training as they care for young ones and offer learning and faith through stories of Scripture. you bring up many of the points that concern parents, children, educators, and persons of all ages as they deal with story, text, faith, and belief. David

  5. I guess my concern is that, why, at such a young age, when imaginations run wild, where children can feel like they are actually in the story themselves, would you feel the need to take that ability from them?? Why does it matter, AT ALL, if the stories are true or not?! Isn’t the whole basis of faith an interpretation?? Haven’t people, for thousands of years, been trying to figure out their lives, how they are to live, based on the teachings and stories of the bible?? By allowing children to interpret those stories, fact or not, is to allow them to engage with God. We are allowing, and helping them figure out the world around them, about how to be the kind of people they want to be. My response to a question like “are the stories in the bible true?” would be an honest “I don’t know… But wouldn’t it be so totally cool and amazing if they were?!” That way, we keep children’s interest, we allow them to continue to develop their own understandings of what it means to be God’s people. As those children get older, there will be plenty of time for discussion on whether it is true or not, but, at least at that point, they will have developed some kind of understanding, they will be confident in their faith, and will have the capacity to know that even if they are “just” stories, that they still impact our lives as Christians in a very important way! That teacher who said the stories were untrue has done an injustice to those children.

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