Kids’ culture contains everything from Disney characters to Harry Potter hype. Is God’s Word being drowned out? How can we help kids discern biblical truth?
Kids all over the world are constantly pulled between traditional childhood culture and up-to-the-minute trends and fads. Fairy tales, popular movies, and fictional stories have powerful ways of illustrating specific ideologies. When kids’ culture contains everything from Aesop’s fables and classical mythology to Pokémon characters and Harry Potter hype, sometimes it feels as if God’s Word is being drowned out. Is there room for the Bible?
There’s more room than you might think. Christians often shy away from connecting Bible lessons to fairy tales or popular culture for the simple reason that we believe that the Bible is truth, while stories are only fiction. Yet throughout his ministry, Jesus used parables — fictitious stories — to explain in ways humans could understand the incomprehensible logic of heaven and the kingdom of God. While our human nature causes us to identify with the jealous older brother, Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son calls us to open our arms as the father did…and come home with humility as the son did.
The Value Of Story
Jesus could’ve instructed us about the kingdom of heaven with only commands and facts: “God values the lost,” “Forgive because you are forgiven,” and “Be prepared for my return.” But he knew the things of heaven wouldn’t make sense to human minds — Israel proved that. The Israelites forgot God’s saving hand in Egypt, quickly lost patience waiting for the Messiah, and constantly ran after other gods. Jesus knew we’d understand truths of heaven better if we could identify with a woman frantically searching for a lost coin, a servant who’d been forgiven much yet refused to forgive a little, and virgins who had (or had not) come prepared for a long wait.
The stories Jesus used had one thing that must’ve set them apart from the folk tales and oral traditions of the time. Jesus began or ended the parables he told with a statement that said, “This is the point. If you get anything out of the story, get this.”
“I tell you the truth,” he says in Matthew 24:47. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” he answers Peter in Matthew 18:23. There is truth, despite the inconsequential details of his story, and Jesus points out that truth.
Biblical truth exists even in stories and cultural tales that aren’t in the Bible because God’s truth isn’t stagnant. Our Lord still moves in our world, and even people who don’t believe in God are affected by his truth. Christians and non-Christians alike can experience humility, forgiveness, and brokenness. Something about the journey of the human race remains the same despite cultural and millennial differences. We’re still the Israelites in the desert, hoarding God’s blessings today in fear that he won’t provide tomorrow and making idols out of things that satisfy us only for the moment.
Separating Truth From Fiction
It may frighten Christian educators to hear kids say that Jonah’s big fish was just like Pinocchio’s whale or that the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” was the same as David’s Goliath. The perceived threat is that kids will see similarities in characters and stories and confuse fiction with biblical truth. In our ministries, we certainly want to lay the foundation of God’s Word as truth. Otherwise, what basis do kids have for understanding who God is?
During vacation Bible school, one teacher brought preschoolers to a room that was set up like the belly of Jonah’s big fish. She led them into the fish’s plastic body and recreated Jonah’s three-day experience in the fish by reading from the Bible and allowing the kids to experience the fear and adventure Jonah did. At the end, a paid child-care provider remarked, “Hey! That’s just like Pinocchio.” A lesson defeated? A blurring of truth and fiction? Perhaps, but definitely a teachable moment.
In this situation, it’s important to think about kids’ developmental stages. Kids around age 9 can begin to understand simple abstractions and are less likely to be confused by literary connections. To bridge from fiction to fact, ask kids, “How similar are the experiences of the fictional Pinocchio and the biblical Jonah? How are they different?”
However, kids under age 8 tend to think literally. You can still use hooks to introduce Bible stories, but it’s best to save abstract connections for older kids. Help kids around ages 6 to 8 make simple comparisons. Ask, “How do you think Pinocchio felt in the stomach of the whale? How would you feel if you got swallowed by a whale? Even though Pinocchio’s story is pretend, there’s a true story in the Bible about a man who was swallowed by a big fish.”