Teaching Story Transitions 6: Launching Teens Into Culture

Blog | | Friday, August 16, 2013
Rather than fearing these years, parents can encourage teenagers to practice story discernment and enjoyment for God’s glory.

(If you’re a parent, it takes time to teach your children how to engage with the culture and stories around them. The same is true if you’re coauthoring a blog series on how parents might better do this! We now present the conclusion of the Teaching Story Transitions series.)

Click to read the now-complete series.

Click to read the now-complete series.

Starting last summer, we hoped to answer two questions. First: How can Christians avoid jumping directly from “let your parents shelter you” to “parents, shelter your children,” with little emphasis on what transitions come between? Second: How might parents adapt the “trivium” method of classical education to teach enjoyment and discernment of stories?

We have explored un-Biblical and unhelpful “discernment” extremes, practicing personal discernment before discernment on behalf of others, and overviewed our practical motives based on knowing and loving God’s Story, the Bible. Then came our Trivium outline with its first two stages: for younger children, Early Tools for Truth, and for older children, Middle-Grade Exploration. Now we come to the final teaching phase, as children grow into adults.

Expanding the Trivium: Word and Image

However, both of us want to change the classical trivium a bit, by expanding its categories to cover how people use their minds to interact with all of life. We’ve noticed that classical education proper often focuses on words in books and less on pictures, videos, etc. So we suggest that in this final stage, parents must train older children (or teens, youth, whatever your favorite term) to approach all of life — including visual media — with discernment.

Here we find some objections. Some Christian pundits and scholars believe human minds must focus mainly on word-based communications and descriptions rather than seeing images. Images, they believe, are a lower form of communication that leads to passivity.1

But this needn’t be true for discerning minds. After all, culture is full of both words and images. So is Scripture itself, in which the Word (Christ) is also the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and though He does use words, yet often to encourage images. If we don’t address this, we will incidentally teach children to fear, trivialize, or even succumb to shallow, passive entertainment. So instead we should teach children to approach all of life — all stories, media and communications — as things with which we glorify and enjoy God.

This is especially vital for teenagers as they approach their adulthood. Parents may react as if teens should not enjoy, say, movies over books. The real problem is if youths are passively enjoying either form of storytelling — if they are simply sitting back and letting the product master them. Biblical discernment doesn’t enforce words over image or some media over others; it encourages us all to bring Jesus with us as we participate in any form of culture.

With that annotation complete, let’s explore the final stage of the (adjusted) trivium.

3. Launching teens into culture: Gradually release your grown children to discern and enjoy media and stories as adults.

The classical trivium’s final stage is known as the “rhetoric” stage. It starts in a person’s early teenage years and ends when her or she becomes an adult.

Yes, parents often dread the teenage years — that’s the stereotype, anyway — because here teens begin naturally to break away from parents’ authority. We do have a different view here than some Christian parents, for we believe this breaking away from parents is a natural stage in human development — that is, God-designed — that should not be stifled.

Of course, because we’re all sinners, sin often distorts this period into a rebellious time.

But youths and parents should both be encouraged, first, that youths can honor their parents while still pursuing adulthood; second, that parents can help their teenage children become God-honoring adults, rather than end up stifling their pursuit of adulthood.

Yes, parents may not like this, but if Christ tarries His coming and our children continue living, they will become adults. So we must help them by encouraging them to slowly break away from our authority — not for rebellion, but for God’s glory. Our children must learn to think for themselves and argue for themselves in adulthood. Thus, we must train them to think through others’ arguments, emotional appeals, logic use or misuse, and stories, and enjoy and discern them — and be able to reject and rebut what they see that isn’t of God.

In other words, instead of stifling a teenager’s argumentative impulse, let’s encourage them to harness that impulse for God’s glory. And in teaching them to discern and argue, let’s be careful to teach them to love God and their neighbor through this process (Matt. 22:37-39).

First, train teens to interpret accurately what others are saying.

Teens must be able to recognize what stories and media are arguing, and engage these ideas with a consistent Christian worldview (based always in Scripture).

In the words of John Piper, “Do unto authors as you would have them do unto you”2 Piper calls this “thinking an author’s thoughts after him”3, and though he applies it mainly to nonfiction, this is also the golden rule of reading, watching, observing, and listening to plays, movies, novels, songs, and any other story-based product.

By striving to understand what authors are and are not saying4, youths practice loving our neighbors as ourselves. They avoid the sinfully easy way to defeat an argument: creating and “defeating” a straw man — which only means defeating ourselves and in the process hiding the glory of God. Furthermore, this avoids attributing a belief to someone that he or she has not argued — to put it starkly, the sin of lying. Youths must know Christ will hold them accountable for every idle word they’ve said or typed (Matt. 12:36) — even if the story or other media product is made by sinful people and advocates sin.

Second, train teenagers to avoid needlessly offending others.

This truth has broader applications for general apologetics, yet applies equally to how teens learn to engage and debunk the stories and media they’ve heard. One of us (Stephen) vividly recalls practicing the wrong sort of media discernment in 2004, when he challenged someone who was reading the popular yet silly religious-conspiracy novel The Da Vinci Code. It was a “drive by” “discernment,” like Proverbs’s fool’s lips walking into a fight.

Christian teens, due to their legitimate joy in Christ and desire to uphold truth, can easily insult others. Like parents, teens may find other false worldviews absurd and inconsistent, because they often are. But we must recall that we too were once lost — and thus also preposterous and inconsistent. Only by God’s grace have we been saved (Eph. 2:8-9).

Moreover, we must make sure that if anything it’s the truth we share that offends hearers and not our rhetoric. One of my (Jared’s) professors, Stephen Wellum, ripped several of my papers apart in seminary due to my rhetorical garnish. We ourselves struggle with this, so it’s even more essential to remind teenagers that truth, God’s Word, “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). But our rhetoric is not. We don’t mean to diminish the power of excellently crafted words, only to exalt the word of God to its proper place. After all, the Gospel (the good news, the message of Christ) is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16).

Third, train teens to compare other worldviews to the Christian worldview.

Hopefully by now your teens have a basic understanding of logic, thanks to God’s Word and its application, and to the Trivium’s first two stages. Teens must take what they’ve learned and apply this to other worldviews, asking and answering questions such as these:

  1. What is the author’s or storyteller’s worldview?
  2. What arguments, images, and other art aspects reveal the author’s worldview?
  3. What lies (anything that disagrees with God’s Word) does he or she tell?
  4. What half-truths does the storyteller share — i.e., truth the storyteller does not connect to God, such as “You shouldn’t murder”?
  5. What total truths — truth connected to God in light of Christ — does he or she tell?
  6. Is the author’s worldview consistent with reality? That is, can or does a human being consistently apply this worldview to all areas of life?
  7. Can the author’s worldview sustain his or her arguments? Why or why not?

Fourth, train teens to craft compelling interactions and responses.

Of course, parents don’t need to force teens to write papers in response to media, stories and other pop culture because verbal conversations will suffice. In conversations, parents could ask the above questions, then discuss how to engage others’ worldviews. If the other view is inconsistent, then a thesis could be, “Bob’s worldview is inconsistent because …”, and then specific points. The rest of the conversation (or formal paper) would accurately represent others’ beliefs, then show why the Christian worldview is more consistent.

Again, the goal of the rhetoric stage is this: First, accurately represent other worldviews. Second, do not offend others needlessly. Third, compare and contrast other worldviews with Christianity. Fourth, rebut the view in a compelling way that is faithful to Scripture.

Series finale

Will this work perfectly, every time, every time it’s tried on your current or future children?

We don’t promise that. Some of this series is based on our own experience; some is closer to theory. But we’ve done our best to ground this in Biblical discernment, and to discern other modes of “discernment” that we find anti-Biblical. And we’ve striven to allow for what classical Christian educators have found works well with children’s natural growth.

But whether or not you follow a classical or classical-derived education model, these truths remains: that all of life and culture is grace-mixed idolatry. We cannot approve or reject certain stories, or other products for any reason other than careful, Biblical discernment. And we must enjoy stories only for the purpose of enjoying God Himself.

Therefore, let’s train our children to extract grace from idolatry and to connect this grace to its rightful owner: God. Teach them to reject lies of the flesh, the world, and Satan, and to connect God’s truth to Him by the creating, sustaining, and redeeming work of Christ.

  1. For more on this false dichotomy, see resources such as Popologetics by Ted Turnau.
  2. Think, John Piper, p. 45.
  3. Ibid, 45.
  4. Ibid, 45.

Teaching Story Transitions 5: Middle-Grade Exploration

Features | and | Sunday, Feb 10, 2013
As parents transition children from the early tools of discernment, they may challenge middle-grade children to discern more on their own.

(Real-life parenting and other tasks can sideline other efforts, as was the case for this series begun last year. Two other featured series, Speculative Politics and the first Speculative Faith Reading Group: The Hobbit installments, occupied the break. Now Politics is over, and we’ve caught up to The Hobbit book where the first film ended. We now return you to your irregularly scheduled program featuring Pastor Jared Moore: Teaching Story Transitions.)

logo_teachingstorytransitionsChristian books, family manuals, and other materials jump directly from the “children, be sheltered” stage to “parents, shelter your children” — with little discussion of what comes between. That’s why parents must plan how they will teach their children’s transitions.

First we must recognize un-Biblical story discernment. Second, we learn to practice our own discernment — not treating children as innocents corrupted by the world, but sinners who need Christ. Third, we begin not with seemingly practical motives to discern, but with knowing and loving God’s Story. And fourth, we may choose to apply this to teaching our children by using what’s known in classic-education circles as the “trivium” method.

Per the Trivium, a first teaching stage involves mainly teaching children how to use truth-discernment tools. This is the introduction process. As you guide them to some stories and away from others, you begin to train them to do the same for themselves. What do they think about what they see? More vitally, based on God’s Word, what does He think of it?

Then comes the Trivium’s second stage, into which parents and teachers gradually phase:

2. Middle-grade exploration: Challenge children to discern more on their own.

In classical education this is called the “logic stage.” It starts at about the fifth grade and phases out in eight grade. Here, one teaches children to begin thinking more analytically.

Quite naturally children at this age have already begun growing beyond memorizing all the tools of learning (tools taught through catechesis: memorizing the Bible, understanding how Scripture answers man’s basic worldview questions, and so on). Now they are starting to think through the “why” questions behind all arguments. We assume this growth of the human brain is God-designed because He created all things and holds all things together (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1-4; Col. 1:16-17). Thus we need to capitalize on this development by helping children think through the truth-claims they hear in any stories they encounter.

Our goal is to help children start discerning specific worldviews being presented in media. Remember the worldview questions we asked earlier in part 3:

  1. Creation: How did it all begin? Where did we come from?
  2. Fall: What went wrong? What is the source of evil and suffering?
  3. Redemption: What can we do about it? How can the world be set right again?

Remember also how Christians answer these questions based on Scripture:

  1. Creation: The only God who exists created all things, including you, for His own glory (Gen. 1; especially Gen. 1:26; Col. 1:16-17).
  2. Fall: Adam and Eve sinned against God, and all creation including humanity fell into sin (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:10-23; Rom. 8:20-22). Thus, all humans are sinners, which means that we are what is wrong with the world (Rom. 3:23; Gal. 3:22).
  3. Redemption: God the Son incarnate, Jesus Christ, came to earth to fix what Adam messed up. Jesus Christ — through His life, death, and resurrection — is the only answer for the sin problem (Rom. 8:1-39; John 14:6).

In light of these Scriptural truths, parents need to guide their children to understand how media and stories answers these worldview questions with their own “truth-claims.” Then parents teach their children how to correct the wrong answers with Scripture.

cover_diaryofawimpykidFor example, let’s take a brief look at one popular franchise of stories, in this case stories specifically geared for child readers: the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. My wife, children, and I have enjoyed these books (and film adaptations) about “wimpy kid” Greg Heffley, whose comical struggles are endearing to anyone who has endured the horror of middle school.

See if your children can recognize the stories’ worldview. Ask them how the series answers these questions:

  1. Why does man exist?
  2. What’s wrong with the world?
  3. How is the problem fixed?

Does Diary of a Wimpy Kid argue that man exists for God’s glory? Do the stories show that sin is what’s wrong with the world — that sinful humanity is part of what’s wrong with the world? Do they argue that Jesus is the only cure for the sin disease? If not, what do they say? What claims can we accept because they align with Scripture? What must we reject?

Parents and teachers must also encourage children to recognize immorality in stories, and know the reasons why immorality is in this series. Of course, the prime reason is sin; sin taints everything. Put another way, the characters refuse to love God with all their hearts, souls, and minds, and to love their neighbors as themselves (Matt. 22:37-39). Why? Because their hearts are wicked and selfish, in rebellion against God. They do not care about the things of God. That’s the real problem. What’s the solution? They need Jesus!

Of course this series doesn’t present sin as the problem or Christ as the cure. Diary goes askew by not correctly diagnosing our disease. Though some stories more closely align with Biblical truth about either — even without direct allusions to the Gospel — Diary of a Wimpy Kid argues the main character’s problems include, “I’m not having my best life now,” or “I’m not cool,” or “My brother is mean to me.” These are understandable. But they’re not our main problems in reality. They’re symptoms of our greatest problem: ourselves.

So what’s the solution? Even if you do “fix” such problems, you won’t live happily ever after because sin infects all creation and all human relationships. Children must face reality: even if people think you’re cool and your brother stops being mean to you, you’ll still die one day and stand before your Creator, and He won’t be impressed. To hell you will go!

That’s the negative side of challenging children to discern. But we must not end there, for if we do we would miss all the ways stories reflect the truth about God, people, and creation. So we must teach children to find these “fingerprints” — after all, all truth is God’s truth and all lies are Satan’s lies. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series encourages us toward humility, to laugh at ourselves. It values the traditional family. It doesn’t exalt rampant immorality. It says sin has consequences (though it doesn’t call it sin). It recognizes God’s fingerprints in people (we are His image-bearers). It encourages children to love their parents, brothers, friends, and neighbors. It values human life. It rejects superficiality. The list goes on.

What else may we find? You and your children in this learning stage can find out together as you evaluate the truth claims of stories you encourage them to enjoy. Of course, that can only happen if you are personally involved with media and stories yourself — still hands-on, still guiding your children and practicing your own discernment to avoid material that isn’t beautiful, good, or truthful. But what about the time when your children will finally begin taking the reins of their own discernment? We’ll discuss that last phase in part 6.

Teaching Story Transitions 4: Early Tools for Truth

Features | | Sunday, Sep 2, 2012
How do parents know when and how to teach children ways to discern? One possible answer is found in the trivium of the classical education system.

This summer is over. Children are back in home schools, Christian or private schools, or public schools. But their battle goes on to discern and enjoy stories Biblically. This is one of the most important lessons that you, your child’s first educator, must teach your children.

In this series we’ve overviewed why this matters. In part 1: Christians practice un-Biblical ways of story or media discernment: arbitrary legalistic boundaries, or no boundaries at all. In part 2: When and how to “shelter” children must take into account the truth that they are not innocent beings corrupted by the world, but little sinners! Finally, in part 3: Before we teach our children how to enjoy and discern man’s stories, we must begin with God’s Story.

All this sounds wonderful. Most of you would agree. But if you’re a parent, you may wonder how that works. How do parents know when and how to teach children ways to discern — from the 12-year-old who seems unfazed by written violence, and perhaps should be more worried about it, to the six-year-old who would have nightmares about simple cartoons?

We can’t claim this process will be alike for every family, and every growing and maturing child. We certainly can’t promise your children will be perfect or Christlike by following our advice! But we can say this this is a more-Biblical way of understanding human nature and how to fix it, and can suggest general guiding principles of teaching story transitions.

One possible answer is found in the trivium of the classical education system. The trivium is a three-part process used to train the mind:

  1. In early years, students are taught learning tools (such as facts and grammar).
  2. In middle years, students are taught how to think through arguments.
  3. In high school, students are taught how to express truths.

(More about the classic education model can be found in this essay by Susan Wise Bauer.)

Of course, these are not distinct stages — no more than if you were giving your children the keys to your car on his sixteenth birthday without first having taught them how to drive! Instead of a total separation between these three sets of principles, the trivium method includes a gradual blending from one principle to the next.

The trivium seeks to educate children based on their “natural” — that is, God-designed — development. Similarly, although every child is different, the trivium can be used by parents who seek to raise discerning Christ-like children. In each of the final three parts of this series, we’ll survey the three stages in the trivium, applied to stories and media.

First comes the earliest stage. In the trivium, this includes teaching memorization of facts — grammar and spelling rules, mathematical operations, and more. For stories, this means:

Stage 1: Early tools for truth. Protect children while teaching how to enjoy and discern stories.

In part 3 we delved into this crucial need before teaching story discernment: that to discern other stories, we must first discern, learn from, and apply the Story of Scripture.

To teach the Story of Scripture, you might consider catechism, teaching correct belief to children. When applied rightly, consistently, and intentionally, catechism is an essential part of instilling the tools of Christianity — the tools of discernment in your children.

My (Jared’s) family currently uses the Truth and Grace Memory Books from Founders Press. Each one matches a level of the trivium method: Book 1, Ages 2 – 4th Grade; Book 2, 5th Grade – 8th Grade; and Book 3, 9th Grade – 12th Grade. They include suggested songs, Scriptures, and Baptist Catechism questions. Their author, Tom Ascol, suggests:

The person who completes these three books will read (among other things) the New Testament twice, the 4 Gospels 3 times, Proverbs five times and the book of Psalms twice. He will memorize (among other texts) the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, 1 Corinthians 13, various psalms (including 119!), plus all the books of the Bible (iii Book 1).

For young children, building on that foundational knowledge of Scripture as the greatest Story will give them the tools of discernment. Teach these, not only about the truths of Christianity versus the contrasting falseness of other worldviews, but about how we seek to discern and enjoy the material found in man’s storytelling.

So, before about sixth grade and teaching about applications of discernment to stories:

1. Challenge your children to begin thinking through how to discern stories.

In other words, don’t wait until sixth grade to encourage children to apply such story-discernment. Instead, as your child approaches sixth grade, he or she should naturally think more about how one would discern stories in the future, with parental help.

2. Teach and engage in stories with your child, and beg for their questions.

Parents should never allow their children to watch, read, or listen to anything they haven’t participated in themselves (or that wasn’t recommended by someone with a consistent biblical worldview)! And contrary to perception, story-rating systems of unbelievers and even some Christians are often unhelpful. Scripture alone must be our “rating” standard.

That’s why you as a parent must help your children apply the truths they’re learning in catechism to the various stories they see and/or read, including Christian storybooks, Disney films, literary fiction, Looney Tunes, VeggieTales videos, anything. Then, as they near sixth grade and their story and media choices grow — and the media’s echoes of evil may grow as well — you may help them consistently apply Scripture to their story choices.

Children love to ask questions! The younger children are, the more they inquire of their surrounding world. So capitalize on this curiosity instead of silencing it. This will take some patience! You want your children to ask questions about everything — and you want them to ask you instead of other children. Get over being annoyed by the same questions, and answer your children for the purpose of training them to be discerning adults.

For example, when you watch a Disney movie with your young child, help him to see the clear good and the clear evil. Ask him or her: what is the source of evil in the story? What is the answer? The Disney movie will not say, “Sin is the problem, and Christ is the answer.” Thus you must add this truth, for He is the only Answer to the problem of sin.

What is sin? Remind your children of the two greatest commandments: First, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). Second, love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). If we’ve violated those, we have sinned. (And we know we have!)

Who is Christ? We’re back to the Story of Scripture again — the greatest Story ever told.

As children approach the sixth grade, ask them more about stories you see or read together, showing their pictures of sin, and pointing to our only Answer, Jesus Christ.

(Part 5: stage 2 of the trivium. How do we challenge children to discern stories on their own?)

Teaching Story Transitions 3: Start with God’s Story

Features | | Saturday, Jul 21, 2012
How do parents reject false discernment notions and replace them with truth? With none other than the truest “story” of all: the Scripture, God’s Word.

So far in this series, we have explored several don’ts — discernment methods Christians often practice that are not based in Scripture. Part 1 and part 2 explored these:

  1. Drawing “fuzzy boundaries” is not Biblical discernment. Parents and Christian leaders ultimately have no reasons besides “I said so” to say one thing is good and another bad. Children, as they grow, may soon see right through these “standards.”
  2. Having few to no boundaries at all is also not Biblical, and unhelpful to children.
  3. Both of these views are based on the false idea that children are basically good!
  4. By contrast, the Biblical motive for enjoying stories and media is instead to discern and enjoy such a story or creative work, for the glory of God and for our benefit.

How do we reject the false notions, and replace them with truth? With none other than the true “story” that every Christian professes to believe and follow: the Scripture, God’s Word.

Rejecting un-Biblical discernment

1. Protecting your child’s “innocence” is a myth. In fact, protecting your children from outside evils, in an attempt to protect their “innocence,” is not the gospel.

Your children are not innocent (Rom. 3:10-18, 23). Instead they’re merely one decision away from gross and immoral sin. So why may we think they’re “innocent”? Maybe because we don’t think lying and disobeying one’s parents are as evil as God says (Rom. 1:29-31).

So beware the temptation to think of discernment in terms of “protection” from outside evils. If you believe the Bible, evil desires have already infiltrated your child’s heart. You cannot protect your children from evil because they are already evil! You cannot save them from this evil world because you cannot save them from themselves. Even if you could protect them from sinful outside influences, you still cannot protect them from themselves.

The problem is not your children being exposed to evil, but that your children desire evil.

This is a common idea, but does it match Scripture’s portrayal of sin’s real source in the human heart?

The problem is not that evil exists; the problem is we are evil. Yes, we also need protection from this evil world, but true protection is only through being reborn in Christ. Our minds must be renewed through the Spirit’s influence of the Word of God to our lives. We must be reborn in Christ (John 3:3), and our minds must be renewed by God’s Word (Rom. 12:2).

As Christian parents, teachers, and leaders, we must realize that children are sinners. Thus, we must provide ways for children to see their need to submit to God through Christ, Scripture, and their conscience, so that regardless of what sins they encounter, they still have the tools to submit to God instead of succumbing to evil.

I have mentioned that Scripture is the key to discernment. Yet we must also admit that God’s Word itself details many evils! Some are so perverted that even most unbelievers reject reading about them: necrophilia, bestiality, incest, orgies, rape, murder, etc.

So why does God’s Word show them? To show our sin contrasted with our magnificent God, thus revealing our sin and sending us running to Jesus Christ for salvation.

Thus, should children of all ages be exposed to such evils in Scripture? The answer is not easy. That’s why Christian parents, teachers, and leaders must first themselves practice discernment. Of course, we will likely not always agree on when, for example, an eight-year-old should read a chapter like Judges 19 (although if you have given him a Bible, and he is a boy, chances are he has already found it!). That’s why what follows is my opinion as a Christian pastor, husband, and father. My words also must be compared with Scripture.

2. Parents may choose when to expose his or her children to various evils in Scripture, but if you wait too long, your surrounding culture(s) will choose for you.

As parents and Christian leaders, we must constantly examine and discern our cultures. Based on those, we can anticipate when our children will be exposed to various evils, and teach them how to practice Christian discernment, as preemptive strikes.

For example, recently in my church’s van, an eight-year-old boy asked me an inappropriate question about something he heard in a movie. Because of the constant barrage of media all around us, this kind of situation is already inevitable. That chance is more than doubled if your children spent time around older children, or especially children whose parents do not practice discernment. They will be exposed to various evils sooner than you want!

That’s why you must anticipate this exposure. You must be active to teach your children a Biblical worldview, before inevitable other cultures teach them an un-Biblical worldview.

Replacing with Biblical discernment

That sounds wonderful. Most of you are by now agreeing. But if you’re a parent, you may be asking how that works. How do parents know at what pace to move for the sake of their children? From the 12-year-old who seem unfazed by written violence and perhaps should be more worried about it, to the six-year-old who would have nightmares about cartoons?

We certainly can’t claim this process will be the same for every family and every growing and maturing child. But we can suggest some general guiding principles.

That brings us back to a concept introduced at the end of this series’ part 1. It is also the beginning of how we may think more positively, replacing the bad discernment principles and practices we may have absorbed from our cultures with good and Biblical ones.

3. To grow in discernment, we must teach children the entire true Story of Scripture.

Because this is a lifelong process, we need to provide our children with a basic summary of Scripture, a foundation upon which to build their entire view of God, His creation, and man. In other words, we must train them to answer man’s basic worldview questions.

Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth and tutor at Rivendell Sanctuary, lists three worldview subjects that all humanity examines, questions, and answers:

  1. Creation: How did it all begin? Where did we come from?
  2. Fall: What went wrong? What is the source of evil and suffering?
  3. Redemption: What can we do about it? How can the world be set right again?

Almost every movie, TV show, song, or book seeks to answer at least one of the above questions. Many try to answer all of them. Your or your children’s friends, family, and acquaintances also seek to answer at least one of these questions.

Of course, the problem is that most of these stories and real-life people come up with very wrong answers, or even worse, some wrong answers and some right answers! That’s why discernment is essential for Christians to live in our evil age, where wickedness and lies are placed side-by-side and interlaced with truth.

For the Christian, there is only one sure Word that answers these questions — the true and first Story that God, the ultimate Storyteller, has written. According to Scripture:

  1. Creation: The only God who exists created all things, including you, for His own glory (Gen. 1; especially Gen. 1:26; Col. 1:16-17).
  2. Fall: Adam and Eve sinned against God, and all creation including humanity fell into sin (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:10-23; Rom. 8:20-22). Thus, all humans are sinners, which means that we are what is wrong with the world (Rom. 3:23; Gal. 3:22).
  3. Redemption: God the Son incarnate, Jesus Christ, came to earth to fix what Adam messed up. Jesus Christ — through His life, death, and resurrection — is the only answer for the sin problem (Rom. 8:1-39; John 14:6).

To enjoy God through all stories, we must take captive all ideas to Christ. We must destroy all the evil ideas the world exalts, for the God’s knowledge to reign supreme (2 Cor. 10:5).

Thus, instead of “helping” your children by sheltering them, truly help them by teaching them a Biblical view of the world upon which to build their lives. Though the world parades its wrong answers, if you help your children answer man’s basic worldview questions with Scripture, they will be able to grow in discerning the difference between truth and lies.

On the other hand, if you keep believing the myths that children are “innocent” or that they can be sheltered and kept “uncorrupted” by the world, you will not provide them with the necessary Biblical worldview so they may learn to live Godly lives in an evil age. You must discern what the world tells your children about who humans are, what’s wrong with the world, and how to fix it, so that you can then teach your children how these lies disagree with God’s true answers (Deut. 6:5-7). Our children will then be able to remain distinctly Christian in spite of living in a progressively unchristian world.

Much of this takes a monumental education effort — sometimes a literal education. In part 4, we’ll explore how one education method, classical education, may offer parents guidance.

Teaching Story Transitions 2: Your Children Aren’t Yet Saints

Features | | Friday, Jun 29, 2012
“Don’t shelter children.” “Do shelter children.” What wrong belief does both views assume? How instead should parents teach story discernment?

Last time we explored two extreme views of discerning stories: setting up fuzzy, arbitrary boundaries that are based on tradition, hearsay, and legalism/moralism, versus setting up few to no boundaries. In part 2 of this new series, we’ll delve deeper into the assumption behind those extremes — and notice I said assumption. Despite the fact that these views seem opposite, there is a common view underlying them both. And it’s not a Biblical one.

All Christians may agree that we live in an evil world. In the midst of this evil world, parents long to protect to their children from evil influences, and rightfully so. Yet how do they do this? Often by choosing between those two sincere, but unbiblical extremes:

  1. Always or usually shelter.
  2. Never or rarely shelter.

Here’s what I mean. Some Christian parents try to shelter their children. They believe they can protect their children from this evil world by enacting boundaries, extremely limiting their children’s interaction with the world around them. Other Christian parents believe children should be free to explore this world — free to fail, but free to choose good as well.

But although these two beliefs seem to be opposites, they are merely two fruits of the same presupposition: The Christian parent who always shelters and the Christian parent who never shelters both believe their children are innocent, good, or neutral.

The “over-shelterers” long to protect their children from outside evil because they believe the “garbage in, garbage out” maxim — that if they put evil into their children, they will see evil coming out. The “under-shelterers” long for their children’s freedom because they believe their children are wise or good enough to make the “right” choices if uninhibited.

The answer for both extremes is not to take a little from one and a little from another, or to overcorrect for one or the other. The answer is to correct an unbiblical presupposition.

Buying the serpent’s lie

These truths should be familiar to Christians, but it’s vital to review if we hope to clean out the “garbage” we have believed about our children’s — and our own! — real problem.

The Bible does not teach that children are born innocent, good, or neutral, but that they’re born sinners (Rom. 3:23), who need a Savior (John 14:6). God  always meant man to be dependent on His Word, even before his Fall into sin (Gen. 2). Though God created Adam and Eve perfect, He never meant them to be independent of Him and His guidance.

That’s how mankind fell into sin — not by hearing Satan, and not by eating a wicked fruit, but by desiring independence from God. The Serpent told Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5). But Eve, and later Adam, believed the Serpent’s words and wanted to be like God themselves. This was their desire. And if one is “like God,” then one no longer needs God.

Thus, parents who either believe they can shelter their children without the Word of God, or who believe their children can make godly choices apart from the Word of God, have both bought into the Serpent’s lie: “[Our children] will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4).

That’s the lie many of us have bought. Now for the truth that comes from God’s salvation.

Believing the Scripture’s truth

Instead of assuming our children can have life apart from God’s Word, whether through our supposedly perfect protection or their own supposedly perfect “innocence,” Christians should pursue a middle path. Here, we do “shelter” children, based on the Word and their levels of personal discernment, only until they are able to completely fend for themselves.

As children grow in discernment, parents must gradually provide them freedom, preparing them to be a discerning Christian adult.

Christian parents must also remember: parenting is the process of raising adults, not the process by which we coddle children. Christian parenting’s goal is to raise future citizens — husbands and wives, fathers and mothers — not prolong adolescence.

In Deuteronomy 6, God was clear about how Israel would continue in multi-generational faithfulness. He said parents must teach their children God’s Word from sun-up to sun-down. The same is true for His Church. Our answer to our children’s sin-problem is not completely sheltering them from outside influences, or giving them complete freedom to exercise “innocence.” Instead we must encourage their utter dependence on God, His Word, His Son’s finished work, and the Holy Spirit’s application of these truths in our daily lives.

To raise one’s children to be Christian adults, parents must gradually transition their children from child-like discernment to adult/Christ-like discernment. This is a transitional phase, a process that leads from more “sheltering” to less, based on the child’s maturity.

But let’s not wrongly conclude the growing child is therefore not sheltered at all! Instead, we trust God Himself to protect the maturing child — just as He protected you and me, teaching us His lessons in His sovereign plan and even through our failures, when we began to drive, or went to college, or started our families.

How might this work in practice? Scripture is not silent in answering, though often we must practice wisdom in applying God’s general guidelines — true Gospel fruits — to our specific children and situations. We may also find wisdom in classic education methods, which are based on Scriptures that encourage mind-renewal transformation (Rom. 12: 1-2), and eating solid food so we may possess “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). We’ll continue exploring that, next time.

(Editing and additional writing by E. Stephen Burnett.)

Teaching Story Transitions 1: Mediating Extremes

Features | | Friday, Jun 8, 2012
“Children, be sheltered.” “Parents, shelter your children.” But Biblically, what comes in between? Introducing Pastor Jared Moore’s new summer series.

Summer is here, school work is over, and rest has begun.  Most children, however, will not rest from enjoying stories this summer. They will hear about new movies, television shows, or even books. And with each new offering you, as a parent, may consider two choices:

  1. You may take a mostly hands-off approach, letting your children read or watch whatever they like. Or, at best, you may rely on others (other children’s parents, librarians, friends, or Christian leaders) to let you know if a story is okay.
  2. You may apply arbitrary, legalistic boundaries to your child’s story choices.

As a Christian, father, and pastor of a Baptist church, I definitely don’t encourage any kind of hands-off approach about what your children read or watch. However, I also do not want to encourage applying arbitrary legalistic boundaries to your children’s media choices.

Option 1: Fuzzy boundaries

I say this from experience. When I was growing up, I attended a Southern Baptist church. At this particular church, other youths and I were told not to listen to any secular music or watch any R-rated movies. We even had random youth events where the youth would burn CDs of secular music. And by that I don’t mean they were making copies. They literally burned the discs. We would have a “CD burning party,” then in a few weeks, all the youths would buy more secular CDs. To this day I’m not sure of the spiritual value of this exercise.

Throughout all of these practices, the “rules” were hanging in midair. None of the youth or adults that taught us these standards practiced them on a consistent basis. As a result, all of us went back and forth between liberalism and legalism, with no personal discernment.

Of course, this is not limited to my experience, or to questions about music CDs. Arbitrary legalistic boundaries abound in evangelical Christianity when it comes to enjoying media and storytelling. People tell themselves, other Christians, or their children: “you can watch this, but you can’t watch this.” But what ultimate standard is there for such discernment?

Often, the answer is simply that one’s own conscience is arbitrarily forced on others.

One example is Todd Friel (whom I respect), host of Wretched Radio. In one radio episode, dated July 19, 2011, he condemned any Christian enjoyment of the Harry Potter movie and book series, while speaking positively of the novel Pride and Prejudice. What was his basis to condemn Christians who enjoy Harry Potter? He said, “It’s a sin. Deuteronomy 18. God hates that stuff. I’m not going to ingest that stuff, nor am I going to let my kids [ingest it].”

Is Friel correct? Yes and no. Harry Potter indeed contains evil elements, and these evil elements must be rejected. But where he is wrong is in the fact that Pride and Prejudice also contains evil elements that God hates! Anyone reading the Jane Austen classic novel (or watching the popular 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) will see this. In fact, the story itself is named after two very common but dangerous sins, which the Bible condemns, but which the main characters (at least at first) practice!

This is what I mean by arbitrary legalistic boundaries. If one sins by enjoying Harry Potter, then one also sins by enjoying Pride and Prejudice. If a little evil corrupts the whole form of story, and the witchcraft corrupts Harry Potter, then disobeying the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself in Pride and Prejudice corrupts the whole as well.

Furthermore, in the same audio clip, Friel rejects the hero Harry Potter as a Christ-figure because Harry is sinful. Of course, Friel is correct that the character of Harry Potter is sinful. But so is every other Christ-figure in Scripture. Is there any Christ-figure in Scripture who wasn’t a sinner? Think of King David, the main Christ-figure of the Old Testament. He committed the sins of pride, deception, adultery, murder, etc. Does this disqualify him as a Christ-figure? No.

So here they are again: boundaries that are legalistic, arbitrary, and ultimately hypocritical. No one consistently applies these standards for engaging storytelling books or movies.

But the cure is not simply applying our strict standards more consistently, such as rejecting Pride and Prejudice just as firmly as we reject Harry Potter. Rather, Christians must understand that God hates legalism as much as He hates liberalism. Legalism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin. Christians should also be encouraged that we do not answer to men for our story enjoyments, but to God alone — assuming you are loving God and your neighbor through your enjoyments.

Option 2: Few to no boundaries

The other common practice in evangelical Christianity is to drink deeply of all forms of media. Often, well-meaning Christians see books and movies as “neutral.” They may say, “It’s just a story.” They believe that seeing or reading that story is only entertainment, nothing more and nothing less — as if this action, apart from any other practice, is somehow outside of the realms of righteousness and unrighteousness.

But the apostle Paul says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Eating and drinking are the basic needs of all humans. From the foundation of human existence to the complexities of living in the twenty-first century, God expects Christians to live every second of every day in such a way that glorifies Him. Enjoying stories in books and movies does not escape this Biblical requirement.

Biblical balance: discernment and enjoyment

The answer to these two extremes of Christian story participation is to enjoy God through enjoying man’s stories. Our goal of participating in stories is not the absence of discernment or the mere enjoyment of “neutral” entertainment, but to glorify the Lord.

How do we do this? As with any spiritual habit, this takes study, practice, and help from others. I’ll spend this whole series exploring the concept. But I can summarize it here.

First, to glorify the Lord as we read or watch stories, we must learn to spot, and reject, Satan’s fingerprints. Second, we must learn to discern God’s fingerprints — the things that reflect His truths and beauties — and connect them to Christ’s creating, sustaining, and redeeming work.

For example, whether one enjoys Harry Potter or Pride and Prejudice, we must reject all of Satan’s lies in those stories. At the same time, we must also extract all that God has created true, and connect it to God through Christ. We must recognize truth, and bring more truth from the Word of God to all stories for the purpose of enjoying the Lord.

One day in the New Heavens and New Earth, we will enjoy the Lord without needing to fear Satan’s lies. There, we will always and forever participate in stories unto the glory of God. Of course today we live in this old Earth and old Heavens, but we are still citizens of the New ones, of that coming Kingdom. Our true citizenship is there. We must live that way now. And how we enjoy stories in this world is one way we either admit or deny that we are citizens of the New Jerusalem.

If we must live in an evil world, we must answer the question: “How shall we live unto the glory of God?” The answer is neither legalism nor liberalism, but the consistent application of a biblical worldview. This is God’s world, and all humans admit they live in His world. As we participate in stories, let us discern where they exhibit His fingerprints. Then, let us take these fingerprints and connect them to God through Christ as an act of worship.

For you, this may mean paying more attention to stories. First, you might start thinking about what stories you read or watch, and repenting of your sinful motives for doing so. Then, second, you might begin watching your children’s story-enjoyments more carefully.

Or your response to these truths may be more like mine: learning not to fear stories or to draw arbitrary legalistic boundaries, but to discern and enjoy stories for God’s glory.

As I have studied Scripture more and began to understand how all of creation, including humanity, serves to send humans running to God in worship, I have sought to participate in storytelling media for this purpose. Through over ten years of ministry, I learned that most Christians, regardless of age, are ill-prepared to live in a media-filled world.

To help remedy this problem, I wrote a book titled The Harry Potter Bible Study: Enjoying God Through the Final Four Harry Potter Movies. Its purpose is to help Christians exercise discernment as they view the final four Harry Potter movies. Yet the book also gives a blueprint for basic Christian interaction with any other stories unto the glory of God.

The principles in that book helped me to not only enjoy God through stories, but also to enjoy God through all avenues of life. An 85-year-old lady at my church, a lady who has been a Christian twice as long as I’ve been alive, read the book and rejoiced over enjoying God through all of life. It’s a tragedy that such a senior saint had never been taught that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Don’t force your hearers or children to wait until the New Heavens and Earth to enjoy God throughout life, and particularly in what media and stories they enjoy! Instead, start now.

To help, I’m writing this new Speculative Faith series: Teaching Story Transitions.

In part 2, we will explore these themes further. First, why do Christians often go from teaching “children, be sheltered,” directly to “parents, shelter your children”? What does the Bible say about what stages come in between? How might parents guide their children to discern and enjoy stories with God’s help?

(Editing and additional writing by E. Stephen Burnett.)