Felt-Board Faith and the Christian Imagination

Posted: Sep 24, 2014 12:01 AM
Felt-Board Faith and the Christian Imagination

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)

My husband and I recently welcomed our second child, a daughter, into the world. During a subsequent family visit, a relative asked when and how we plan to approach Christian education with our children. My husband and I are members of the Episcopal Church, while both sets of parents are self-proclaimed evangelicals. Not surprisingly, our different faith traditions give rise to many interesting, stimulating, and sometimes contentious family discussions.

The subject of Christian education was no exception. It just so happened that not many weeks before I had broached the subject with my husband. "How do you think we should present the faith to the kids? When should we start? What should we tell them? Do we want them to grow up with the same 'felt board' version of Christianity that we did?"

These questions had been vexing me for some time because, though I and my husband would both describer ourselves as "Bible-believing" Christians, we don't necessarily subscribe to a literal interpretation of Holy Scripture. We view the Bible, as Fr. Robert Barron of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries has described it, not as a linear account but as a library comprised of many different genres. Thus, the Book of Genesis may be interpreted as a literary account of man's fall, the Psalms as lyric poetry, the Gospels as eyewitness accounts/memoirs, etc. "Do you take the library literally?" he asks? "Well, it depends on what section you are in."

So, if my husband and I view portions of Holy Scripture through an allegorical lens, is it proper for us to teach our children the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the apple as though it were literally true? Do we teach them that Jonah really lived in the belly of a whale for three days? What about Noah's Ark?

My husband and I have known many young Christians who have experienced a profound sense of disillusionment when their literal understanding of Christianity is challenged in a way that they can't answer satisfactorily, when the faith of their childhood is too fragile to withstand the harsh realities of the world outside the protective walls of home and church. We don't want this for our children, but how to avoid it? Does fostering a mature, nuanced faith in our son and daughter mean that we must deny them the joys of traditional Bible stories? Should we eschew the tales of Noah and Jonah the way some fundamentalists eschew Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?

The answer, I think, may be found in an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien titled, "On Fairy Stories," (excerpted below from an article that appeared on The Imaginative Conservative in 2012) in which the author considers Christianity from a literary perspective. His articulation of Christianity as "the true myth" is powerful, beautiful, and persuasive.

"The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality.' There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be 'primarily' true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the 'turn' in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused." 

Of course, Tolkien is speaking of the Gospel story here, of the specific story of Jesus Christ and his Passion. But the concept, I think, holds true in principle for all of Holy Scripture. The story of Adam and Eve and their temptation in the Garden of Eden may well be mythical, but that doesn't mean it's not true. Noah may not have actually been 600 years old when God tasked him with the building of the Ark, and the great flood may not have covered over the entire earth as the narrative says, but that doesn't detract from the awful impact of the story and the lessons of faithfulness and obedience that we can draw from it. Jonah probably wasn't actually swallowed whole by a "great fish" only to emerge three days later, but the imagery of this event as a foreshadowing of Christ's death and resurrection is incredibly powerful.

Of course, the concept of Christianity as the ultimate eucatastrophe – the whole idea of faith as myth actualized – is a difficult concept to grasp, but as C.S. Lewis tells us, Christianity is a difficult religion. There will come a time when my husband and I will decide that the time is right to invite our children to join us on the journey to the heart of our faith, where so much is shrouded in mystery and paradox. It is my sincerest hope and prayer that they come out the other side of this Odyssey with a richer, deeper, surer faith.

In the meantime, we plan to nourish their moral imaginations with the same charming tales we heard as children, stories that communicated the tragedy of the human condition, the unfailing love and faithfulness of our God, and the hope of the Cross in a way that young minds can grasp. There might even be a felt board or two.