Saturday, August 29, 2015

This Summer Blog Series, in a Nutshell

This summer's blog posts were focused on how to have spiritual conversations with your kids. In case you missed an installment, here's the Cliff's Notes version.

Talking about God with kids isn't easy. But this seems to be a way not to embark on that conversation: by asking "What did you learn today?" Yet despite the fruitlessness of this approach, it's a go-to conversation starter - one that falls on its face nearly every time. So in the spirit of changing the conversation, these thoughts:

1. We need a better conversation starter. We need this not only because asking "What did you learn today?" usually leads nowhere, but because it prompts a certain type of conversation that's more like quizzing and less like dialogue.

2. Not only is it a shame that we fail to engage kids in spiritual conversations when we lead with "What did you learn today?", it turns out that talking about belief is essential to building faith. When kids have to put their beliefs into words, it crystallizes their thoughts and experiences into one body of belief that makes sense. But because it's difficult and because kids are unpracticed at it, that's all the more reason to avoid a confrontational question like "What did you learn today?" in favor of gentler approaches that open kids up to share about their personal impressions, not just give us "right answers".

3. When kids are asked what happened in church or what they learned, "I don't know" can mean many things. It can mean there truly was nothing presented (unlikely). "I don't know" or "Nothing" can mean, "I'm not sure" or (more likely) "I'm still thinking about it". It might just mean, "Ask me at a different time." Or it can mean there were no ideas jarring enough to cause disruption in their understanding of the world (the technical term is "cognitive dissonance").

4. Kids have thoughts about God that happen at random times and in random places. A better approach to engaging them is to start with what's already happening in their minds, rather than assuming the only spiritual thoughts they think are the ones we give them.

5. Kids' minds don't encounter the world primarily through words, but through experiences. So putting them on the spot isn't necessarily going to be the best way to open them up spiritually. What's more likely is that "teachable moments" will occur in the course of everyday life. This doesn't mean we abandon church-based approaches for kids, but that we think more widely about their lives and their worlds. God could be encountering them in a thousand places besides church. Why not start by asking your child where and when they feel closest to God, and go from there?

6. Kids' misunderstandings of biblical messages are occasionally hilarious, but they also illustrate an important truth: we cannot take for granted that kids will grasp spiritual truth merely through the words we use.

7. The Bible's message has a unity that should be respected when we teach from it. It's wrong, as children's curriculums so often do, to cherry-pick passages that support our own behavioral or moral agendas, call it "biblical teaching", and teach those without regard to the Bible's overall message.

8. While Bible stories generally are about one thing, and do have a meaning, the "main idea" extracted will vary from person to person. We should respect that. Just as bodies use nutrition differently, God knows what we all need, and so we shouldn't despair that kids don't come away with one main point that is the same for everyone who heard the story.

9. Developmental theories were never meant to be superimposed on spiritual ability or potential. They are not statements about what kids can't do; thus, it's wrong to conclude that children can't "own" their faith. What's different about them is their ability to express the faith they have in words. But we should not mistake that for spiritual immaturity.

10. Asking kids questions is a tricky proposition, because there's a power imbalance between adults and children that inhibits them sharing honestly. It is our job to diminish that barrier.

11. "Tell me..." is a great question starter. It begs for a narrative response. And it implies that we want them to answer openly and honestly.

To see the full series of posts, visit

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Inside Out: The movie for kids...that every adult needs to see

Animation studios figured out a long time ago that in order to make a hit, their movies needed to be equally entertaining to parents and children alike. Above and beyond the bright colors, slapstick comedy, and silly catchphrases, there needs to be a serious storyline that packs an emotional punch, with some clever one-liners thrown in for good measure.

In the case of the new movie Inside Out, it’s possible that Disney-Pixar tipped the balance too far. I honestly don’t know if this will be another Toy Story that kids ask to see again and again. In fact, parts felt more like a college psychology course than an animated kids’ film. But it does what few animated films can claim to do: it really makes kids think, and on that score, it earns an "A". With a plot that manages to break the mold of “believe in yourself” storylines, Inside Out tells a compelling tale that reflects life’s real complexity.

Riley is the movie’s 11-year-old protagonist, whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Despite a store of mostly joyful “core memories” from her childhood, her world – inner as well as outer – is turned upside down by the change. The film illustrates how that inner struggle to make life make sense again actually looks like.

No film I’ve ever seen has ever accomplished this. There have been plenty of films about preteens challenged to adapt to life changes, but they can only show us what everyone else sees – outward expressions of emotion. And perhaps they give us ringside seats for some intimate conversations in which the child experiences a breakthrough, often with the help of a Mike Brady-like parental figure whose sound bite wisdom saves the day.

In movies like that – and in life – the best thing we can do is play amateur psychologist, judging what body language and facial expression and tears mean. The inner processes that produce the outward behaviors are hidden to us. Inside Out jumps back and forth between the world of the characters and the emotional “head quarters” of their brains. Only animation could accomplish this. You get to see the fast-paced interplay between Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear, all vying to impose their filter of reality on the situation at hand, and hard-wire that understanding into a memory.

How accurate is all of this? I confess that this is the film’s main difficulty: how to communicate a technical subject in sufficient detail (it is brain science, after all) without becoming boring or preachy or making your own head hurt.  But this isn’t just a 90-minute Schoolhouse Rock primer on your emotions; there’s a real story here, too, about growing up and family communication and accepting things you can’t control. And we, the audience, are the real winners, because over and above the lessons learned by the characters, we know infinitely more, because we know the characters “from the inside-out”.

So you get to benefit from all that Riley’s parents don’t see. In the end –


though they are all feeling regret about their move, they do not “make it all better” by going back to Minnesota. Riley misses her friends in the movie, and at movie’s end, she’s still missing them. The furniture still hasn’t come. Dad is still working long hours trying to get his new company off the ground. We have no assurance that things will be roses going forward. But we do know this:

Riley grows. Through her sadness, she eventually experiences Joy. (And kudos to the producers for not calling that emotion “Happiness”). Riley becomes more fully alive. As sad as it is to see a happy little girl go through that, is there any truer way to tell the story?

To me, that’s the takeaway from this film: when joy manifests itself (kids are smiling, happy, playing contentedly), it doesn’t mean that sadness, fear, disgust, and anger are absent, or don’t have the potential to step on stage. And those not-joy emotions aren’t “bad” or even inappropriate. They are human.

Sometimes we oversimplify emotions by just telling people to “put on a happy face”. Or we think if we’re healthy, we won’t ever get angry. To be sure, anger is upsetting, and often a sign that something needs to be changed, but upset is a part of life. When we impose this on kids, either because we want them not to pout, or not to fight with one another, or not to complain or cry, we are pressing them into a mold that isn’t real. In fact, in Inside Out, we find that Sadness is necessary for Riley to experience Joy.

Our world worships happiness, so much so that when someone isn’t happy, it’s naturally assumed that they should take the quickest possible route back to happiness. But is that really what we want to teach our kids – make yourself happy, no matter the price? Think about where that could drive kids. The happiness rat race is no place to live. Either you’re constantly anxious that you don’t have happiness, or you’re constantly anxious that you’ll lose what you have.

Much better to help kids live to be who they are – which is a fully-orbed human who experiences the full range of emotions. Inside Out contains the powerful message that we are each more than meets the eye, and that even the “bad” emotions are not abnormal or something to be suppressed or wished away. It’s a much more realistic picture of life as a journey of growth, rather than the endless pursuit of thrill.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Can Good Kids Believe the Gospel?

Throughout the spring, I've been looking at the question, "What is the gospel?" It is not a you-can-do-it pep talk or the power of positive thinking. It's not character education, and it's not behavioral engineering. Instead, the gospel is a statement about spiritual realities: God is reconciling the whole world to himself through the forgiveness of sins, which was accomplished by the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

All of that requires belief: belief in spiritual things, like God and heaven and sin, but also the belief that appropriates God's saving power. As I noted in the first post of this series, the gospel is really quite "un-believeable". Which led me, as I prepared to teach Kindergarteners the story of Adam and Eve and the snake this weekend, to wonder whether it's something Good Kids can even believe?

To believe John 3:16 - that God so loved the world, he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life - is to believe not just something about God - that he is "mighty to save" - but about myself - that I actually need saving and that I cannot do this myself.

It's one thing to believe that God can save people - people who are bad, like Paul who killed Christians. It's another to believe he must save them...or they won't be saved. "God turned the life of that convicted criminal around" is something we can all celebrate. But "God turned me around" requires humility. I am admitting that I didn't have it all together and was receiving something I wasn't worthy of.

Can Good Kids believe this? We want kids to grow up Good, and they know it. Being branded "Bad" in elementary school is like the kiss of death. Everyone wants to be a Good Kid - at the very least, it keeps you out of the spotlight or the principal's office or the doghouse. At best, it props up your sense of worth - "You're a Good Boy!" - garners praise - "You were Good in the grocery store." - or brings rewards - "If you're Good, we'll go to the movie."

What does it mean, then, for kids to hear that humans are sinful? Does it even compute? Bonnie Miller McLemore, in her book Let the Children Come, traces the evolution of thought regarding children and their nature and capabilities. She identifies that in contrast to ancient times, when kids were believed to be hopelessly depraved, in modern times we have subscribed to a belief in the perfectibility of children. If we nurture them just right, they'll not only turn out ok, they'll be exemplary. (Think of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all of the children were "above average".) If we believe this about kids, and kids internalize that belief, how relevant is "sin" as a concept? Does it make sense to speak of misconduct or maladjustment as anything more than regrettable errors which could have been avoided?

The very fact of sin, and its strength and ubiquity, makes grace a necessity. It doesn't obligate God to act graciously toward us, but it does mean that if God is going to show us favor, there can't be any other way. None of the contemporary matras of childhood:
  • "You can do it!"
  • "Try again!"
  • "You'll get it!"
  • "Practice makes perfect!"
  • "Deep down inside, if you want it bad enough and believe it, you can achieve it!"
fit the grace equation. So as much as we want kids to grow up Good, to do Good and to be Good, I wonder if those expectations conspire against kids' belief in the gospel of grace?

Or can we somehow separate the attainment of goodness from radical individualism? Of course God wants us to be Good, because he is Good. But it's his Goodness that he wants us to assume. It's a partnership. That's a far cry from a Goodness that's birthed from inside ourselves. Jesus told his disciples, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

Do you believe that? Do you teach it? Do kids believe it? More importantly, can they?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

We Need to Ask a Better Question

[re-posted from]

It's natural that after an hour away from your kid at church, you would ask, "What did you learn about today?" or "What did you do?" And if that question is working for you - drawing a meaningful response from your kid and launching a dialogue on the things of God - by all means, keep asking it.

But if "What did you learn today?" isn't working so well, I have a suggestion:

Stop asking, "What did you learn today?"

Bold, I know.

There's no harm in asking The Question, I suppose, except that it leads to discouragement for parents: Why aren't they getting anything out of this? Are they not listening, or misbehaving in class? What's going on in this program anyhow? Should we look for another church?

And it's not just parents who aren't well served by that question.

I wonder what it does to kids' confidence in their own abilities to articulate ideas and talk about meaningful, personal things like their own spiritual lives when they are repeatedly asked a lead-in question that's difficult to answer?

We already know that the older kids get, the less willing they become to talk about their inner lives and beliefs. That's because they fear being embarrassed or patronized by adults. We all want kids to share with us their thoughts and questions about God, but we're not going to get there unless we ask a better lead-in question.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

God and Camo

“God is like camouflage,” announced my four-year-old nephew to his mom while jumping on the backyard trampoline, “because he’s everywhere, but you can’t see him.”

God is everywhere. But you can’t see him. Kind of like camouflage.

He is four.

Note that his observation didn’t come in response to a grown-up asking, “What did you learn today?” It popped out, totally unsolicited, while he was jumping on the trampoline.

So let’s acknowledge a few things. First, kids have thoughts about God. Deep, meaningful thoughts about him. They probably don’t think about things they can see and touch in the same way as they think about God. The very fact that God is invisible and somewhat mysterious actually makes him a greater object of curiosity.

Second, because God is not an object to be examined, thoughts about him can pop up in the most unlikely places – car rides, the grocery store, the bathroom, on a trampoline. Science museums can cause kids to think about bugs. Aquariums can draw their attention to sea life.  Books contain familiar and favorite stories.

But where do we take kids to think about God? In the coming weeks, we'll explore this question, because it's part of solving a larger mystery, which is how to talk with kids about God. It's not a science, it's an art. But it can be learned.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Wisest Thing a 15-year-old Ever Said to Me

C.S. Lewis wrote this about our choices:

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before... All your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself."

I was reminded of this at the National Day of Prayer observance last Thursday by a speaker...who was an 18-year-old student from Carlsbad High School. Young people get wisdom.

Now try this one: Speaking about the difficulty of living a life that consistently honors God, a 15-year-old high school student said to me, "I think of it this way: It's like becoming a Christian is one decision for Jesus, but living as a Christian is a million decisions for Jesus."
"Becoming a Christian is one decision for Jesus, but living as a Christian is a million decisions for Jesus."
This well-spoken nugget of truth is loaded with implications. The main one is that our job is not to teach kids how to follow directions, but to train them in how to make decisions.

Every Christian parent hopes their child will one day make a decision for Jesus - the big "D" decision, the one that they'll look back on all their life and say, "That's the day I gave my life to Him." Some people scoff at childhood conversions. "They're just doing it to please their parents," they'll say, or, "They don't really know what they're doing." Others spiritualize it: "God can use anything", while still others fatalize: "You never know - one day they might look back and it'll all make sense."

Without making a blanket statement that children's responses to the gospel either are or are not real, I think we can safely agree that no one wants empty decisions for Christ or decisions that are made under duress. Of course we want kids to understand what it means to turn over all of who they were, are, and will be to God for his direction and care. The question then becomes, how can a kid possibly make a decision of that magnitude (the big "D" decision) if they have no experience making decisions in any other part of their life? It's unlikely that when it comes to living a Christian life - the million decisions for Jesus-thing - kids will be successful if they are unpracticed at making simple, everyday decisions in their own lives.

So - give kids the freedom to make decisions. Lots of them. Life is loaded with choices, and we don't do kids favors when we unnecessarily short-circuit the process by always deciding things for them. Self-mastery develops when kids have to do it for themselves, and one of the first things that happens is they realize there actually are choices and decisions to be made at all, about everything.

Why wouldn't we let kids choose? Time is certainly one factor. Kids don't always choose quickly! But I would suggest that what's happening during those looong waiting periods as kids make up their minds is really valuable. Kids' minds are being stretched, to weigh options and foresee consequences, and that's a "mental muscle" that has to develop for moral decision making.

The other danger, of course, is that kids will make the wrong choice! But would you rather have kids make a bad choice when they're 5, or when they're 15? Or even 25? Usually the older we are, the more painful the consequences of a bad choice, because more is at stake. If you give your kid lots of experience at making decisions when the outcome doesn't matter much, the chances are better that they'll make a great decision when the outcome matters a lot.

I love watching families approach our check-in areas on Sunday mornings. Some parents allow and even encourage their kids to enter their phone number on the keypad. And you know what? The kids sometimes make mistakes. They miss a number. They forget their phone number. We have to start over. And - it's fine. Eventually we get the right combination, and we hand them their sticky nametag, and they smile. The world just became one step more accessible to them.

The freedom to make choices is messy. Sometimes kids do choose wrong. But sometimes adults choose wrong, too. Still, God grants us all the freedom to learn and grow and make mistakes, in the hope that we will eventually discover how good and right and satisfying it is to choose Christ - not just once, but in the million decisions of everyday life.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Battle for Your Son's Mind

The setting was 4th-6th grade summer camp last year. A breakout session for boys only. The discussion centered on believing the truth - about yourself, about God, about the world - and living according to it. I threw out the question, "Who here gets trapped in your thoughts sometimes?" And I couldn't believe the response.

Nearly every hand went up. I was expecting at least a few of these kids to relate to the idea that you can get locked in a negative thinking cycle. Turns out most of them knew exactly what I was talking about.

It reminded me that kids - even kids - carry around powerful self-perceptions that shape what they will and won't try, and therefore what they will and won't achieve. And that these image issues don't spring to life once a boy hits adulthood. They are deeply rooted. Girls also suffer from self-image problems, most of which stem from the cruel and unrealistic messages our culture sends about ideal body size and shape. But this week's post is about boys and how the tendency to get trapped in their own thoughts deserves our attention and care.

John Eldredge, in his book Wild at Heart refers to "the Wound" - the message, sometimes explicitly spoken, sometimes implied - that deflates a boy's self-confidence, causing him to question whether he is, or ever can be, a man. "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." Yes, except that the paradox is that once a boy takes a negative message in, it has nowhere to go - because boys are culturally conditioned not to talk about it! We assume girls are more emotional because when they're upset, they'll express it, and you'll know. But what if the negative emotion isn't allowed out? Does it just disintegrate? Or does it fester, fueling self-doubt, shame, and inferiority?

Releasing what's inside and talking about what's bothering them might be perceived as weakness, but it's really the medicine that will make them strong. First, because it requires courage, and secondly, because it brings the lie into the light: Lie, meet reality check. On the other hand, the longer that negative message stays inside, the more it gets rehearsed: I'm bad. I'm stupid. I'm ugly. I'm not _________ enough.

The fact that boys, even young boys, can harbor seeds of crippling self-doubt serves to remind us:

1. Kids have deeper inner lives than we give them credit for. As soon as kids stop exploring the world just by their senses, as a baby does, and start using language, they start storing memories away, memories that are laden with emotion. They develop concepts of how the world works and how it ought to work and who they are in it. We have to respect these inner lives, because they are the garment of the soul.

2. They need to be affirmed by us - often. A negative message will reverberate. A positive message needs to be reinforced. Why? Could it be the stain of sin in the world, that we are inclined - "tilted" - toward believing the worst about ourselves? Search Institute says all adolescents are asking three basic questions: Am I competent? Am I normal? Am I loveable and loving? I would suggest that it's never too early to begin affirming your son in these areas.

To be clear: I am not advocating false praise, nor am I suggesting that you delude him into self-centeredness. Everyone should hold a sane estimation of themselves (Romans 12:3) and everyone deserves the mirror of truth. But be aware that he's hard on himself, so criticism probably isn't news to him. Be gentle in correction. In contrast - "You're good at that." "That was a kind thing to do." "I'm glad your my son." "I'm proud of you." - are all messages he needs to hear.

3. Your son is thinking things he's not telling you... And he probably won't. Chock up the mystery that is your son's behavior to these things, but don't assume he's being secretive or rebellious in not baring his soul to you.

4. ...often because he doesn't have the language to express it. Boys know when something's wrong, and you might know something's wrong, but they can't always put their finger on it. They might be able to trace back to what happened - a fight, a bad grade, an embarrassment - but they can't articulate how it makes them feel. So they're trapped in a negative emotion, but it's unprocessed. And no one likes negative people, so he might be socially conditioned to "put on a happy face". That's strike two, because the crisis gets buried, unresolved.

5. You can help him develop an emotional vocabulary. Start with the emotions that aren't his, because it's hard to coach someone when they're in a state of fear, or upset. We're thinking with the non-rational part of our brain at times like those, so that's a time to empathize and be with them in their pain, not to try to have them analyze their way out of it. As you see emotions expressed, in everyday life or on TV, give them names: "That boy is sad. What do you think made him sad?" "That girl looks like she's frustrated. Things didn't go her way." "That was a generous thing to do." "Those kids in line are waiting patiently." Develop his powers of observation, because being able to read other people's emotions based on body language and facial expression improves communication skills, making it less likely that a message given to him about his own competence or efforts will be mis-read.

6. He probably has questions about sex. Answer them. If it hasn't happened yet, your boy will one day be curious and wonder about sex. Why? Because he's a boy. And Google is not a great place for him to take his questions. God's Design for Sex is an excellent resource, but use anything to get this subject on the table. Don't send either the message that sex is bad, and it's shameful to talk about, or that sex is rare and not to be talked about at all. You know how saturated our culture is with sexual imagery; get ahead of the curve on this one.

7. "Emotionally strong" is a myth. We assume that emotional strength = being unflappable. In fact, emotional health is not the ability to block out all emotions, feeling nothing (because what a great husband that would make, right?). Emotional health is the ability to experience the broad range of human emotions yet not be tyrannized by them. Is it weak for a boy to talk about disappointments, heartaches, or feelings of inferiority? Not if it gives him the opportunity to hear the truth about himself and believe it.

And that became a bottom line message in that camp breakout session, which was a session on ... "Becoming a Man of God". That's right - it wasn't about wilderness survival, how to fix a flat tire, or how to dominate the competition. It was all about avoiding the punishing negativity trap that lurked in their minds.

What wrong ideas about themselves are your kids carrying around?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

What you need to know about Veggie Tales

Phil Vischer says he felt responsible for what happened at Columbine High School.

Who is Phil Vischer? Is he the head of the NRA? Someone who designs violent video games? The lead singer in a death metal band? Nope - he's the founder of Veggie Tales, and (especially if you like to talk to tomatoes) his story is a good one.

I know that when kids are young, popping in a video can be a lifesaver. Sometimes you need a diversion for them because you need a few minutes of freedom or concentration, or to survive a very long car ride. I get that, so this is not a post about why it's wrong to put kids in front of screens. (Put down the pitchforks!)

But I do think everyone who is a fan of Veggie Tales or has every watched Veggie Tales or at least has heard of Veggie Tales (so in other words, everyone) needs to read and then carefully consider the words of its founder, Phil Vischer. Because when someone calls "oops" on their life's work, that deserves our attention - especially when that work has become so woven into the fabric of American kids' experience of Christianity.

It's a long story, but ten years after Veggie Tales debuted in 1993, Vischer lost the company. By his own admission, the Big Idea Productions grew too quickly, got overextended, and couldn't pay its bills. Shortly after the release of Jonah in 2002, the company was sold off in bankruptcy court. (This is a greatly condensed version. The full story is here.) In the process, Vischer lost creative control over Bob, Larry and the rest of the Veggie characters he'd created. Quite a blow for a man who'd pledged to make his production company "the Christian Disney".

Even in the midst of his company's rapid expansion, Vischer had a sense that things weren't right. His health suffered. He felt burdened to do even more. He sought out counseling to deal with his anxiety.
In a 2013 conference address at Biola University (go to about the 36:30 mark), Vischer recounted the day of the Columbine shootings, when he happened to have a counseling session already scheduled. The counselor noticed how upset he was by the news, and asked him, "What are you feeling?"
And I thought about it and then I said, "I could've done something...One of the reasons this happened is that the media that those boys were consuming, were just drowning in, was so, just, evil and then violent, and that's what God has called me to do is change the media, and make it better, and maybe if I had done more, maybe if I'd gone faster or worked harder, this wouldn't have happened." The counselor looked at me, stared at me for a while, and said, "Wow. That's quite a burden to carry." I said, "Yeah. Yeah it is."
I was carrying an immense burden to save the world, to make a difference. To offset the evil streaming out of Hollywood into living rooms across the country. To do as much as I could, as fast as I could. It was the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about at night - and it was making me miserable. It was killing me. I was not a happy person.
Later in the talk, Vischer says that this burden was like a rock he was dragging uphill, and it took losing his company to see that it was a burden God had never intended him to assume. "Only one person has ever walked the face of the earth who could save the world. And his name wasn't Phil."

Following Big Idea's bankruptcy, Vischer entered into what he calls a "forced sabbatical", during which he reevaluated both what he had tried to do (build a the Christian Disney in order to counteract the negative influence of typical media on kids) and the content of his product. He gave this interview to World magazine in 2011, in which he said:
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, "Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so," or "Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!" But that isn't Christianity, it's morality. (emphasis added)
Now, defenders of Veggie Tales will find all sorts of reasons why there's nothing wrong with Veggie Tales and why they'll continue to buy and watch Veggie Tales with their kids. They'll point to the fact that Veggie Tales is cute, and clever, and family-friendly (you can watch without your finger hovering over the fast-forward button on the remote), and funny (not annoying), and that kids can still remember Veggie Tales songs they were raised on 10 and 15 years ago. And best of all, it teaches morals and life lessons that kids need to hear.

And yet...Phil Vischer's reflections on his own work deserve to be taken seriously. Because when a guy who created something comes back almost 20 years later and says, "You know what? If I had it to do all over again, I'd approach it differently," he is saying that his films were actually about something different than what we believed they were about. Actually, scratch that - the films said they taught about courage and forgiveness and trust and perseverance and VALUES, and they did do those things. But they taught them in the name of Christianity. And that's the rub.

When we feed our kids a steady stream of "do this" and "be this way" and especially "God loves it when we _________", we shape in their minds a powerful conception of what Christianity is. Most kids misunderstand the gospel. They're socially conditioned instead to believe in karma. Whether we call it by that name or not, that's the idea: be good, and you get good; be bad, and you get punished. We've placed such a premium on being a "good kid" that kids view themselves and others through a black-and-white filter: There are "good kids" and "bad kids". I'm good, or I'm bad. Be good. Don't be bad.

This knocks grace out of its central position in our relationship with God, and replaces it with performance. And that's a trap. "Doesn't God want us to be good?" Well, yeah, he does. And I want to be able to fly. And I can - with the help of machines built by people with much greater abilities than I have on my own.

But we have a fatal tendency to divorce God from the equation. He is not just the reason for being good ("God wants you to...", "The Bible says we should..."), he is the way to be good. And kind. And patient. Which brings us to the fruit (not "fruits", as it's commonly misidentified) of the Spirit. I cringe every time a Sunday school lesson proposes to teach kids how to "practice the fruits of the Spirit". It's an easy lesson to teach - fruits are visual, kids will enjoy coloring them in and cutting them out, and they get to decide which fruit will stand for which character trait (because, hey, everyone knows a banana represents peace, right?) - and it utterly misses the point of what Paul was expressing.

Vischer says he discovered something key while reading Galatians 5 in the midst of his turmoil as Big Idea was expanding. "I'd always looked at it as an obligation, a duty: if you are a Christian, you have to act loving, you have to act peaceful, you have to act joyful. I looked at it like homework: Oh great, something else I have to do. But now I saw what Paul really meant: If you are filled with the Spirit, these attributes will flow out of you, whether you want them to or not."

The point of the fruit of the Spirit is the Spirit, not the fruit. The problem with any character education program is that it threatens to take our eye off the ball, so that the exercise of good "qualities" becomes the focus - "I can do it!" - rather than learning how to open ourselves, receive from, and rely on God - whose Spirit works the change inside of us. It's natural, in our human state, to veer off in the direction of thinking of character like a muscle - the more often we use it, the easier it will be to do the right thing again in the future. But that's not the Bible's message about character at all. The answer to living virtously isn't to strengthen my own self. It's to drop my resistance and create space in myself for the Holy Spirit to work - to bear its fruit.

The urge to major in teaching character is strong. We want 5 year olds who are exceptionally virtuous. Their behavior becomes the barometer of good parenting. Plus it makes them easier to deal with. But there's a grave danger in "convincing kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity," and it's this: One day kids will grow up and meet people of other faiths who are also humble, and kind, and loving, and who believe God has their backs, and it's not a far leap from there to, "All religions basically teach the same thing."

When NBC signed on Veggie Tales as a Saturday morning show, its standards and practices division required Big Idea to strip it of its Bible references (as Vischer put it, "every line that implied God or the Bible might have an impact on how we live our lives today" needed to be removed). This raised the ire of some conservative media watchdog groups - How dare NBC edit out God!?! - but that misses the point: if you can remove all God and Christian references from a show and the show still works, you've got a problem. An NBC executive said at the time, "There's a fine line of universally accepted religious values," he said. "We don't get too specific with any particular religious doctrine or any particular religious denomination."

But there's the problem: this business of getting specific on particular doctrines matters. It's what sets Christianity apart from other religions. It's what sets other religions apart from other religions:
  • God: an idea, or a being? One, or many? Intimately involved, or distant?
  • Jesus: teacher, prophet, or God-made-man?
  • Us: basically good, or corrupted?
  • Sin: real, or imaginary? Mere mistakes, or disobedience that carries a price?
  • Jesus' death: the result of a tragic misunderstanding, or a history-changing act that brought the possibility of our redemption?
Apart from these "particular religious doctrines", I suppose religions are the same, because apart from doctrines, you don't really have religion at all. The cautionary lesson of Veggie Tales is that you can, indeed, teach things from the Bible and not be teaching the Bible's message; you can teach kids how to behave like a Christian without really being a Christian.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Is Character Education the good news?

You've seen them, first on TV and now on billboards: ads sponsored by The Foundation for a Better Life promoting good values. These are usually heartwarming vignettes in which someone shows ________________ (fill in the blank with your favorite pro-social virtue), and which are tagged with "Pass it On".

The very fact that these messages move us suggests that doing the right thing is somehow contrary to our human nature. But that's not how the Foundation for a Better Life sees it. According to their website, "We believe people are basically good but sometimes just need a reminder." Claiming to be "nonsectarian and apolitical" and professing no political or religious agenda, the organization relies on donated media time and space to make its appeals.

What the Foundation for a Better Life does is extremely media saavy. It's character education, perfectly packaged for the 21st century. What used to be heralded mainly in schools and after school programs has now gone mainstream. And its purpose is to make you nod your head in agreement that, yes, these are good values, and yes, it would be great if everyone lived these out.

Character education is not a new idea. Aristotle's famous "Golden Mean" encouraged people to pursue a balanced "happy medium" between extreme manifestations of character (too much self-love is vanity; too little is self-hatred; just right is self-respect). From the founding of America, character was tied in with the Protestant work ethic. Modernist thinking downplayed the necessity of religion in shaping character. It was probably helped by the 1928 publication of Studies in Deceit, which found that there was really no difference between kids who went to Sunday school and those who didn't when it came to their propensity to lie, or to cheat. If Sunday schools were failing to teach kids values, the thinking went, let's ditch the religious component and just be blunt: Kids, be good. Here's how.

Yet, there's an optimism evident in the Foundation for a Better Life's stated vision and the vision of other contemporary character ed programs that borders on utopian thinking. We've been here before. Technological progress in the late 1800s and early 1900s led the world to believe that science and industry would one day solve all of the world's problems. Then came World War I, a crushing blow to this misplaced faith in human reason and the ever-increasing goodwill and moral perfection of the human race.

I wonder how the Foundation for a Better Life would explain what causes war? Or divorce? Or crime? Its website doesn't even seem to acknowledge such knotty problems. By blandly asserting that people are "basically good", it side-steps the inconvenient reality that the 20th century saw more deaths from wars than any century prior. And what is "basically" good? Does that mean we are innocent at birth but somehow slide into poor character because of - what? - endless cultural messages urging us to be nasty, and selfish, and cruel?

In fact, the opposite is true. No one had to convince you to look out for yourself, and as a result, to fudge the truth, to cut corners, to mistreat those who stood in the way of something you wanted, or to take the easy way out. This, in spite of a steady diet of be-this and be-that, from parents, teachers, and ABC After School Specials: be ambitious, be caring, be courteous, be forgiving (to choose only four of the 103 "inspirational values" listed on FBL's website).

The ideology of the character education movement is flawed. It seems to rest on the belief that with enough pep rallies, incentives, and role-playing exercises, we can teach kids to fall in love with good behavior. Unfortunately, the Foundation puts way too much faith in ourselves to make change - personal change first, but societal change by "passing it on" second. And that's problematic for Christians. Or at least, it should be. Yet there are Sunday school curricula whose chief aim is nothing theological, but rather teaching kids character traits. And it finds welcome reception, so anxious are we that kids will otherwise grow up to be surly, reckless jerks.

But we need not fear; and even if we do fear, we need not resort to the simplistic formula so common in character education programs ("The featured character trait of the month is ___________"). Instead, we would do well to understand the true origin and nature of character - as eloquently outlined in this David Brooks piece - as well as the points where character education ideology clashes with historic, orthodox Christian belief.

As I said in last week's post, if a religious idea isn't universally true and universally applicable, it isn't true at all. "But the Foundation for a Better Life says they're not religious." They're wrong. Any sweeping, universal claim about the nature of people and their ability to self-regulate is, in fact, a religious claim, because their whole existence depends on you believing it. As more people buy into the message that humans are basically good, they just need reminders to be good, the less relevant Christian concepts like sin and atonement and conversion and repentance and regeneration become.

There's nothing wrong, particularly, with upholding and celebrating virtue. But before you plop your kid in front of the computer to watch a stream of Foundation for a Better Life PSAs, consider the following:

1. What, ultimately, is the purpose of having good character? Because for Aristotle, it was to achieve happiness (in Greek, "eudaimonia"). The Foundation for a Better Life's aim is a little fuzzier: "We inspire people to live good values, seek out positive role models, and live better lives." Character becomes an end in itself. Some of the suggestions for practicing the values make it clear that it doesn't matter if your action actually brings any sort of good result; performing it for its own sake is enough. So, for instance, to practice Responsibility you might "Use an alternative to driving this week: walk, ride a bike, take public transportation, or carpool." Or you could "Complete a chore or task you've been putting off for a while." To practice this week's featured value, Appreciating Nature: "Take a walk outside today and focus on taking deep, full bellied breaths." There's no suggestion that some values might ever take precedence over others. There's no urgency, no imperative to act. "No time to attack world hunger today - I'm too busy taking deep, full bellied breaths."

Whether you accept Aristotle's pointed objective or FBL's slippery one, character ends up being something I do for me - to have a better life. The Twitter feed is full of self-improvement tips and insights from people who've seen the ads, such as, "Just watched on ABCFamily, reminds that we should make room to enjoy life and not always be working" and "Let your rock bottom be the foundation for a better life".

But character counts most when it plays a role in human interactions. It is something inside of me, yes, but just having it isn't enough; exercising it makes it count. To a Christian, being content and happy and feeling good about life and one's self isn't enough. In fact, it's not really the purpose at all. Life satisfaction flows from giving yourself away, from self-sacrifice. So in the interest of promoting "Unity", we are exhorted to "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love," which is other-focused and a far cry from "Accept someone's help today", which is what the Foundation for a Better Life suggests.

2. Just as true happiness is not a goal, but a byproduct of how we focus our efforts and direct our energies, in the same way character is not something deliberately built, but something that develops in the crucible of life. This is discouraging to people who wish we could turn out kids brimming with virtue by the time they reach middle school because they'd been systematically taught 12 character traits. The truth is that character gets built unevenly from one person to the next, and the opportunities to build it are brought on by life circumstances.

God's promise to sanctify us is not an invitation to sit on the couch, expecting to be transformed. Rather, it's the adventure of doing life tethered to him, drawing on all of the resources and power He has granted us by his Spirit. It's astonishing how many churches teach kids about the Fruits of the Spirit, yet completely ignore the role of the Spirit! A typical lesson will encourage kids to think about how they can "practice" one of the given "fruits" in their life. But in that case, love & joy & peace & patience & the rest are not fruits of the Spirit, but fruits of you! A better tack would be to teach kids how to pray, how to listen for the Spirit's leading and guidance - and then giving them real-world experiences are beyond their own capacity, so that they have to rely on God. Character develops around the edges of that, but it's not uniform, and you can't force it.

3. Finally, the idea that "people are basically good but sometimes need a reminder" also raises the question, "Why did Jesus have to die?" There is a theory that Christ's death supplied the moral "oomph" for all of us to live better. But that seems very thin to me. Instead, we have to reckon with the words of Paul in Galatians 2:21: "I do not set aside the grace of God, because if righteousness could be attained through the Law, Christ died for nothing!"

Well, Christ did not die for nothing. He died for you, for your sake, because you and me and everyone else were in a heap of trouble that we couldn't get ourselves out of. The necessity of Jesus' death and resurrection is an inconvenient truth for the character education movement. How do you explain it, if the cure for what ails humanity is merely the propagation of good values, not the death of the Son of God? Taking deep, full-bellied breaths is not going to bring relief to AIDS victims in Africa, any more than AIDS orphans simply need to Smile, or "Leave a bunch of extra change at the laundromat, or near the vending machine" (FBL's prescription for kindness) - as if they could.

Could it be that character education is the luxury of an affluent society in which most people's basic needs are already met? In that case, self-serving "values" make a nice toolbox for life satisfaction ("Pass It On!"). But the real world needs real good news, not the counterfeit message that naively holds that our biggest problem is the failure to believe in ourselves. "Values are more powerful than anything else," writes a commenter on the website. To the extent that they can either numb us with indifference to the world's larger challenges or motivate us to live radical lives, she's probably right. But as the letter of James attests, "Faith without works is dead." And it appears the character education movement has all-to-readily resigned itself to celebrating a rather mundane, underwhelming outworking of the values it claims to treasure, to its shame.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Power of Positive Thinking is not the good news

Expressing doubt in the power of positive thinking is like coming out publicly against puppies. No one likes a grump. So let's be clear: there's a difference between general cheerfulness and optimism and the movement spawned by the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking. It's a movement whose tenets have become so thoroughly ingrained in the way we think of ourselves, it's hard to believe they were ever considered novel or breakthrough when they were first articulated.

But they are not the good news.

The Power of Positive Thinking was authored and championed by Norman Vincent Peale, a Christian minister in New York City, who taught that our personal attitudes were not only important to a happy and prosperous life, but were in large measure the engine of such things - hence, the "power" of positive thinking.

To understand the appeal of this idea, think about the times in which it emerged. In 1952, World War II was a recent memory, and the Korean War was bogged down. We were scared to death of nuclear war and suspicious of the spread of communism. The young adults of 1952 would have grown up, and the middle-aged would have come of age, during the Depression. At the same time, living standards were improving. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, more young men and women were getting college educations than ever before. The American Dream was alive and well, but it was buttressed by two seemingly opposite realities: prosperity and upward mobility were within reach of many Americans, and yet the world could end. At any time.

Now think about today's reality, and it explains why ideas like the power of positive thinking have timeless appeal. Today's world finds itself caught between outcomes that are emotionally packed and apparently equally plausible. Affluence is back, six years after the Great Recession. We take great vacations. We amuse ourselves with technology that wasn't even dreamed of a generation ago. Large, flat-screen TVs, movies on-demand, wifi and iEverything devices are standard in most everyone's home. Life is good. And yet life is also filled with terrifying realities: ISIS. Ebola. Identity Theft. Sexual Predators. Underemployment. Corporate downsizing. Global Warming. Will life work out? Who knows?

It's this very uncertainty, along with a deep desire for inner peace and strength (which is almost a cry to "Make it all go away!"), that drives the appeal of the Power of Positive Thinking. Peale began his book this way:
This book is written to suggest techniques and to give examples which demonstrate that you do not need to be defeated by anything, that you can have peace of mind, improved health, and a never-ceasing flow of energy. In short, that your life can be full of joy and satisfaction.
Others have taken Peale's thesis and made millions of dollars off of it. If you run into any book or system that suggests you train your mind as a means of coping with life's challenges, chances are it's rooted in the ideas of Norman Vincent Peale. "If you can dream it, do it" or "I you believe it, you can achieve it!"- standard 1980s motivational faire - came out of this movement. If you suspect that the self-esteem movement and this one are linked, you're right - it's all about feeling good about yourself, in spite of any evidence indicating otherwise.

What's wrong with that? Why is that not the good news?

For one thing, sometimes we need to confront hard truths about ourselves, not wish them away. Sometimes our misery is of our own making. And sometimes it's imposed on us by others. In either case, it needs to be confronted, not recast as something that's "not really that bad" or "nothing I can't handle."

The deeper problem is how the ideals of positive thinking keep us from attacking the very real problems that are outside ourselves - problems of injustice, war, racism, poverty. Strictly applied, the positive thinking prescription would have every individual simply "deal with it", not letting it master them. So I, as a middle-class American living in a safe, affluent community, would endeavor not to let worries about epidemics or abuse of children or exploitation of workers get me down. And those who live under those conditions would either A. make the best of a bad situation, or B. visualize themselves rising above and create their own destiny. Neither option allows for C., which is that the very problems besieging you get confronted and fixed.

"Oh, but he couldn't have been saying that! He's not blaming victims of human trafficking for their own misery, or child laborers for working in dangerous conditions, or starving people for not migrating elsewhere. Surely he was talking to us - regular Americans and everyday problems we face." Right. And that's just the problem. When it comes to religious solutions (because Peale claimed the Power of Positive Thinking was firmly rooted in the Christian tradition), if it isn't universally true and universally applicable, it isn't true at all.

Which leaves Positive Thinking as a remedy available only to middle- and upper-class Americans, whose lives are largely untouched by some of the most serious threats to human existence, threats which are experienced regularly by much of the rest of the world.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the world is filled with tremendous challenges that call for courageous kids to grow into courageous adults who will confront those problems. What we don't need is merely compliant kids who grow into kind adults who grimace at the world's troubles and then distract themselves.

The Power of Positive Thinking casts you as the main character in the human drama. It assures us that we're all in this together - because life threatens to bum everyone out - but then lays the responsibility for overcoming at the feet of each individual. And all that's really overcome are perceptions. Looming debt, marital problems, my own inadequacies, interpersonal conflict - these are only solved insofar as I stop thinking of them as debilitating problems.

Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble..." which sounds like a preamble for the rationale for positive thinking. But he goes on to say, "But take heart - I have overcome the world." He conquered. He overcame. Jesus' counsel to the suffering was never, "Look on the bright side" or "Tell yourself it'll get better" or "Get over it". It was to mess with and grandly re-order a human system that was fatally flawed by sin. That he actually accomplished it - that's the good news. Resigning ourselves to suffering and hardship and "bucking up" to "get through" could be admirable determination, but it's not what we as Christians are called to. Our responsibility demands us to harness positivity not as a refuge, but in service of a greater hope - the hope of redemption.