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by Mary Roe (reply by Elizabeth Ashton)
from Signs of the Times, No. 24 - Jan 2007
Theology is for grown-ups - but what about Mark 10:14, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them ..." Many people see no contradiction or even tension between these two concepts and this has led to an ever-widening gap between academic theology which takes account of modern scientific advances in knowledge of the world we live in and the presentation of a Jesus figure, friend of little children, who is still depicted by some clergy and Sunday School teachers as living "beyond the bright blue sky." I remember the tricky negotiations I had to attempt between a frustrated and furious Headmistress of a C. of E. primary school and her Vicar who insisted that, in the worship at the end of a whole term's space project, she include that particular hymn!
And what about the Old Testament? Most of the time we "grown ups" block off the path to exploration of metaphors and myths (in the true meaning of the word) - may Piaget and Goldman be forgiven! - and purvey stories about talking snakes, magic trees, giants and people who lived to be almost 1,000 as if they were history. We even pretend to believe them ourselves, as we do with Father
Christmas when our children are very young. (Of course, some people do believe them in the literal sense, but they are not the ones who bother much about theology - the study of God!)
The result of this dichotomy is, as everyone is always repeating, that children stop believing any of it when they discover that Father Christmas doesn't exist. Of course they do. On one occasion, in my capacity as Visitor to church primary schools, I had to sit through an assembly at which the whole school, pupils from five to eleven years old, was gathered. The story for the day, told well enough, was the story of Noah. The infants enjoyed it no end, picturing two tigers plodding up the gangplank behind two penguins, followed by two polar bears and then two giraffes, etc... But the top classes had either glazed over completely or were smirking cynically at the teachers, feeling quite grown up at colluding with the adults in hoodwinking the little ones.
At the end, I offered to talk to the older pupils, if they could be spared, about the origins and meaning of the story of Noah. We looked at the archeological evidence for a flood (of the whole of the known world) the technological skills of the Sumerians in discovering how to breed plants and animals from the best of the stock, combined with navigation by the stars, etc. and, of course, the greed which prompted them to over-irrigate the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates, to the point where it was, as we would say, a flood waiting to happen. It is highly probable in those circumstances that a man who was more in touch with the purposes of the Creator than his short-sighted and materialistic neighbours should size up the situation and try to do something about it. The pupils were all ears, and when I asked at the end whether they thought God was right to punish people with a flood, they all said words to the effect that "Miss, it wasn't God who did it - it was the greedy people. God just told Noah what to do. It's just like us and the rain forests." (The bit about God telling Noah came only from the children from Christian homes - of whatever sort - and the one Muslim boy. The rest agreed, but attributed Noah's wisdom to the insights of a great human being, however they would have described him.)
Let the children indeed come to Christ and let them learn about our Creator and the relationship between Humanity and God, Humanity and the environment, and of human beings with each other from a true understanding (at their own level, of course) of the old stories, from the opening chapters of Genesis to the epistles. I pray that God will give us "grown ups" the wisdom to stop hindering them with mis-representations of the Gospel and God's continuing revelation of divine, creative love, as fiction to be rejected at an ever-younger age., Otherwise, it would indeed be better for us that a millstone be hung around our neck (see Mark 9:42.)
My own teaching programme, from the beginning of Year 6 or 7, used to start with a Fact?/False?/Opinion? Quiz in which the pupils learnt to distinguish between different types of statement and then we would look at how what we believe to be true affects our actions. After that, we would study the different types of language in which statements are made, looking at metaphors, from Genesis, through Psalms, " The Lord is my Shepherd" to the hymns they sang in assembly, " Jesus, my Shepherd, husband, friend..." and poetry, e.g. which is more meaningful, "Ubiquitous H2O but zero ml. for ingestion" or the anguished cry of the Ancient Mariner. All this came before the actual Biblical study for their GCSE work because, without that foundation, however hard a pupil might work and however highly motivated she might be, she would be looking at the material through a (metaphoric) distorting lens.
Mary Roe is a retired RE teacher, lay reader, widow of a bishop, and member of the Modern Church Council.