“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.
“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.