Does Natural History Give You Nightmares? You Need a Good Story
Christians have no reason to hide from the messiness of the natural world.
For the last few weeks my kids’ bedtime read-aloud has been 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson. The book’s suspense has prompted more than the usual amount of pacing around the room from my second-born, and there have been plenty of frantic pleas for “just one more chapter,” even when it is already well past their bedtime.
Wilson is a Christian author who recently advocated telling scary stories to children in an article published by The Atlantic. Wilson argues that when stories are honest about the darkness in the world, children are better equipped to face that darkness with courage and hope. He believes the most impacting works of fiction tell stories of “worlds that are broken and brutal, just like ours,” stories “where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) are a reality.”
It struck me that there are some parallels between parents who want to shelter their children from unpleasantness in fiction and parents who want to shelter their children from what they see as the depressing history of the natural world presented by mainstream science. When it comes to communicating truth there are obviously fundamental differences between a children’s story and an overarching historical-theological metanarrative. But I would argue that, just as good fiction needs to honestly depict the unpleasant realities of our world, our Christian big story needs to deal head-on with the grimmer aspects of natural history.
For many Christian parents, the natural history of Earth described by scientists is a “scary story,” filled with millions of years of death, destruction, disease, disaster, and predation. Acknowledging the presence of violence and natural evil from time immemorial raises challenging theological questions. Who can blame someone for wanting to protect a child from the more vicious parts of Earth’s story?
I recognize that a genuine faith commitment to a certain interpretation of Scripture is what motivates many Christians to deny the story of natural history as scientists understand it. I don’t intend to imply that they are being dishonest. However, I have known Christians who openly admit their concerns about the creationist materials that they use with their children or students—they suspect these materials are misleading when it comes to historical or scientific facts. Yet they still prefer them because the theological story they tell is nicer and safer—the pesky loose ends are neatly tied up in a bow. They are not only concerned about the negative effect scientific reality might have on the tender hearts of their children, but they are also protective of their own spiritual well-being. They are hesitant to open the door to the chaos that they are worry will rush into the vacuum if they let go of the safer story.
In his 2014 Christianity Today article, N. D. Wilson says,
I would understand if hard-bitten secularists were the ones feeding narrative meringue to their children with false enthusiasm. They believe their kids will eventually grow up and realize how terrible, grinding, and meaningless reality really is. Oh, well—might as well swaddle children in Santa Clausian delusions while they’re still dumb enough to believe them. But a Christian parent should always be looking to serve up truth.
He recommends good stories as essential tools for truthfully acknowledging reality, while simultaneously putting darkness in its place.
Along with good stories, another vital part of our serving up truth to our children is facing—and then appropriately framing—the scary and disturbing parts of natural history. We need to put it in its place within the bigger story of God’s ultimate plan for the redemption and completion of his creation, and we need to clearly communicate our confidence that even though natural history tells a true story, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Parental anxiety about what may be taught in their children’s classrooms is not totally unfounded. The atheistic naturalism presented in secular schools can overwhelm children with a meaningless and frightening view of reality. Christian parents and teachers—understandably—want to prepare their kids to reject the counterfeit story of atheistic naturalism and choose one that has a clear sense of purpose and ultimate hope. But we need to ask ourselves: does a diet of theology that intentionally avoids scientific or historical facts or messy questions really prepare our children to reject hopelessness out in the “real world”? If a diet of sugar-coated escapist fiction poorly prepares them to deal with the realities of loss, rejection, bigotry, and betrayal, how much more inadequate is an escapist theology?
Our big story is beautiful, but it isn’t necessarily safe or pretty; its beauty is at times aching, perilous, and blood-stained. But it is a good story—one that puts the darkness of natural history in its place under God’s dominion. God brings chaos into order for his good purposes through his acts of creation. He alone holds ultimate power over all of nature’s untamed dangers and savagery. Our Savior’s voice of cosmic authority commanded obedience from the chaos of the stormy Sea of Galilee. And that was just a sign and preview of what is to come in the promised consummation of God’s creative work—a new creation where the sea, the embodiment of chaotic and restless evil in the imagery of the Old Testament, is gone. A new creation where God climatically brings all of the chaos of nature and all of the chaos of our own turbulent human hearts into perfect order and peace under his eternal reign.
We don’t need to shelter anyone from this story. We need to take shelter in its truth.
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