So, what have Jack the Ripper, weight, mass, velocity, aboriginal art, tadpoles, trellis, soft furnishings, origins of the word ‘Blazer’, peonies and politics got in common??? Not sure, except that I’ve had to have discussions and try to answer questions about all of them so far this week, and more. We have children who ‘need to know’ all sorts of things, they want to understand, sometimes it feels as though they have never grown through the ‘why?’ phase.
Some of the questions spark from homework – I’m extremely thankful for the balance brought by Jack the Ripper alongside aboriginal art this week! But most simply come from things seen, heard, encountered. Nurturing an environment at home where faith is part of everyday life means of course that the questions and discussions are also about that too, which in a way is really encouraging – it means they are seeing, hearing and encountering it. My week began with a real humdinger of a question – ‘how can I make sense of God when I read the stories about wiping out whole people groups in God’s name in the Old Testament Mum?’. To make a change it came in the midst of the rush to get ready for school rather than last thing at night before bed, but even so – a real tough one – thanks A!
Image from ‘The Graphic Bible’ J Anderson & M Maddox
In that moment I think I remember expressing what a tough and real question it was, and how many other questions it gives us. I think I remember suggesting it’s not the only picture of God that we have even in the Old Testament – Jericho and the peaceful walking around the walls (though admittedly still a story of conquest which becomes less peaceful quite rapidly), Gideon and how God asked him to keep reducing his army, the story of the broken jars and the lights causing panic (Judges 8), Jonah being so disgruntled when God forgave rather than punished. And I definitely finished that short moment of discussion by introducing the idea that Jesus is the lens to understanding God – how Jesus himself said ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9), that we can’t separate the two. We both agreed that Jesus’ life showed us things in a different light.
We’ve not found a moment to pick it up again yet, but it will come. And in the meantime I’ve been pondering and wrestling (probably much like A has) what do I think? How can I explore that with A? What’s the best approach?
Despite the years of theological study it’s a tough one, there isn’t one clear answer that a majority of scholars agree with and the approaches that they take are varied. Some explore and discuss from a social history perspective, how what we know of ancient cultures contemporary to early Israel lived, helps us interpret the biblical accounts. For some this gets done in the light of archaeological evidence from sites of the cities in Canaan for example. Others take a literary perspective wanting to explore which bits of which biblical book probably have a similar source, how the accounts may have been passed down and then written and how that process might shape our understanding of the events behind the accounts. Different literary approaches might focus on the ‘why’ of the writing, and in the comparison between Israel’s way of recording it’s history and other cultures or people groups’ recorded history to see what defines it and shapes it, what makes it different? Some focus really closely in on the linguistic analysis of particular key words or phrases, asking how they have been translated, was there a cultural nuance in the original language that’s missed in translation, and how could we know that? Some in contrast focus on the ‘Big Picture’, asking what do these accounts mean if we see them in the context of the whole sweeping story of salvation – the story of God and his people? and of course there are different perceptions of what that story itself is, and different aspects of it that can be focused in on… and each of these approaches and questions can lead to different conclusions of course.
Was the history written down as it happened, very humanly, but with people justifying their actions by couching it with ‘God says…’? Did God say these events had to be this way to show us something about ourselves or him without which we would not be ready for Jesus? Are they there to teach us about purity, justice, holiness, God’s jealous love for us because there was no other way for us to learn those things?? Do these accounts of war and killing show us human imperfection in the midst of a story which has a focus on love and self-sacrifice?
When I pick up the conversation with A again, I probably won’t keep the complexity from him. He’s a deep thinker, and we try as parents not to gloss over or ignore the big questions however hard they are, and however daunted we feel going into those conversations. Equally I probably won’t go through each different school of thought in huge amounts of detail unless he shows an interest and a million other questions follow on! I’m imagining I will ask him as many questions as he asks me… what does he know about God that these stories seem difficult to match up with? what is it that’s a puzzle? where else could we look in the bible that might help us understand, or see it differently? what have we experienced of God, what do we know him to be like because of that? Do we always understand everything about him? If not I wonder why not?
Whenever these tough questions come up I remind myself that my kids are not content with superficial, smoothed over answers, and neither am I probably – though I’m tempted sometimes. Which leaves us in that uncomfortable place of unknowing and the difficult task of learning to live in that without clear cut, definitive answers for everything. But I hope that in creating a safe space for these questions to be asked & heard, and to be wrestled with that we draw ourselves and our kids to the heart of that safe space that we pray into our family life, we draw them into God’s presence, into the presence of the one who does understand all things and still loves us. I hope that by giving space for the wrestling rather than telling A my opinion as if it’s the only one will also model a pattern of growing in faith through the tough questions without being afraid of them.