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 like 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.”
What Kids Know
It’s easy to take what kids know and help draw them closer to God because certain stories and themes are ingrained in their culture. Take for example the story “Cinderella.” Throughout the whole world, various versions of “Cinderella” share similar thematic elements. In China, there’s “Lin Lan”; in France, they have the story of “Donkeyskin.” In these stories, especially in the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella,” the story follows a plot similar to the book of Esther. Both Cinderella and Esther greatly need friends and mentors. They’re both left virtually alone and deemed culturally inferior, yet meeting their Prince Charmings dramatically redeems their situations. Each woman went from unvalued to invaluable and from ashes to glory — a vivid picture of Christ’s redemption of each one of us.
“Cinderella” can be used to introduce the Bible story of Esther and reinforce Psalm 40:2-3: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.”
Literary scholars often look for the Christ figure in literature.
And they find that figure in literature from cultures and countries all over the world. Why? Perhaps because writers have borrowed from the Bible. Or perhaps the very essence of our need for salvation is written into the fiber of our souls. Perhaps the gospel is written on our hearts. The point is not which came first; the point is that inherently, the story of the gospel contains something familiar, something we know we need — and it’s repeated in thousands of ways in hundreds of cultures and languages.
Fairy tales can introduce children to biblical truth just as other culturally specific media, such as books, movies, and personal stories, can contain elements useful for teaching truth. God can redeem the culture for his kingdom. Jesus used stories that first-century Christians could understand in the context of their culture, and we can do the same.
Finding The Gospel In Our Culture
Have you seen a movie lately in which one character gives up his or her very life for the sake of someone else? Do you know a story of complete forgiveness for unforgivable sins? Those are fibers in the tapestry of the gospel. The one doing the forgiving or “saving” in your story might not be the perfect Savior, but the threads of salvation and forgiveness can lead your kids into discussions of what it feels like to be forgiven and what it means to experience salvation. How can we do this?
Look for the gospel everywhere. Movies, fairy tales, cartoons, stories, and songs can contain traces of biblical truth that you can use to introduce Bible themes and stories. Tell or show the story. Let kids feel the emotions of the characters, understand the events of the story, and experience the outcome of the actions. Extract the truth. Use discussion and debriefing to help kids discover the core biblical truth in your story.
Emphasize the Bible. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” not the other way around. The Bible’s truth supersedes any fiction, and it’s vital that kids understand the difference. Emphasize the verse or passage that your story reinforces. Ask God to use the story to bring kids to a heightened level of spiritual understanding. Have kids look for God’s truth in their lives. Kids can identify forgiveness, faith, and kindness. Encourage them to discover God’s truth in their lives and share it with their families. The kingdom of God is here, and if we watch for it carefully, we can see God working in our lives and in the lives of others.
Making The Connection
Not all stories or movies in kids’ culture can be used in the same way to teach biblical truth. Some stories don’t directly follow the Bible but make great lead-ins for the Bible stories you’re teaching. Other stories powerfully illustrate a biblical point you want to emphasize. What’s the difference? Here are four ways to use stories to teach the Bible.
Some stories share objects or characters with Bible stories but don’t teach the same point or have the same plot; these reappearing objects or people can introduce your Bible story. You can point out how the whale that swallows Pinocchio is similar to Jonah’s fish and how Jack and David each had a giant to defeat.
For kids ages 8 and up, use stories, movie clips, or fairy tales to introduce your Bible lesson. In the Disney movie The Jungle Book, the characters encounter an antagonist seemingly lifted straight out of the pages of Genesis. Kaa, the deceitful snake who seeks to trick Mowgli, can remind kids to watch for Satan’s deceitfulness. After showing a clip of Kaa, say, “How does Kaa try to trick Mowgli? What does it feel like when someone tries to trick you? How can you remember what’s true?” Then turn to your Bible lesson by saying, “The Jungle Book is just a story, but in the Bible, Satan disguised himself as a snake just like Kaa and deceived Adam and Eve.”
Many stories have characters similar to Bible characters who experience similar trials. Amanda Deramus, Sunday school superintendent and teacher at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, Michigan, uses the character of Cinderella to help children who’ve never heard of King David to become familiar with him. Amanda tells kids, “David, like Cinderella, was always left behind to do the hard work. Both David and Cinderella spent their lives being overlooked and underappreciated. But God is faithful! In the end, their faithfulness made them shine, and they became the heroes of their stories. In God’s eyes, it is not the oldest, strongest, or most wealthy person but the one with the truest heart who makes the best hero.” Amanda helps kids understand David’s situation better because they connect with a similar story about someone else.
The Cinderella-Esther connection is an example of a parallel story. Similarly, the “Sleeping Beauty” (or “Briar Rose”) tale parallels the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Issac. Each set of parents wishes for a child and finally conceives after much hoping and praying. Then, although due to vastly different forces — one evil, the other good — the parents are compelled to sacrifice their children. Both sets of parents have a test of faith related to their children.
For preteens, use this type of connection to get kids to experience the feelings of the characters in the Bible. Have kids form groups and talk about the feelings and actions of each character in the fairy tale who also parallels a character in your Bible story. Then assign each group a character in the parallel Bible story. As you read the Bible story, pause to give the groups time to respond with actions and words about the feelings their characters may’ve experienced. Since kids know the fairy tale, they should be able to follow the Bible story even if they’ve never heard.
When guided with age-appropriate debriefing questions, kids ages 5 and up can talk about characters in stories as they explore how they might feel or what they might do in specific situations. Talking about “Hansel and Gretel” can teach kids to not be greedy. “The Red Shoes” can be a lesson about vanity. For older kids, check out the “Reel Time” and “Tuned In” sections of “Keeping Current” in Children’s Ministry Magazine for clips from recent movies and songs that you can use to teach biblical points.
Misty Anne Winzenried is a counselor and writing instructor at Seattle Pacific University.