I can sing a song, the lyrics of which are the books of the New Testament in order. My sister, being a better Christian, can do the whole Bible.
This is one of the, um, benefits of a Baptist upbringing. My sister and I were first taken to chapel when we were days old, and it defined a lot of my childhood. Chapel at 11am, Sunday school at 3pm, chapel again at 6pm. Every week. When I went to university I started going to a church that only had a morning service, and being free on a Sunday evening was a revelation. It was as if, after eighteen years, someone had expanded the week and given me an extra free evening. I responded to this epiphany by just going to the pub more often, but still.
There are definite benefits to growing up in a church like that. There was the example of the wise, older Christians who’d served God and the church year after year and prayed regularly for us kids. There were the preachers who, often without any qualifications in theology, could quote chapter and verse, leaving me with a knowledge of the Bible that’s pretty good for someone who doesn’t even have an RE GCSE. But I think most people brought up in church will eventually go through a time of “do I really believe what I was taught in Sunday school?” and for me the result of this soul-searching is that I’ve ended up with a faith that’s far more robust, but has far more questions and fewer answers.
When I was young it was easy. Why is there suffering in the world? Well, because Eve ate the apple in the garden of Eden, sin entered the world and injustice is the natural consequence. Are those people who don’t believe in God really going to burn in hell for eternity? Yes, but that’s because God is a judge who judges fairly and has to convict some; or it’s like a party that everyone’s invited to but some turn down the invite.
These answers don’t work now. And I’ve been fine with this for the last decade, but now everything’s changed.
My daughter was born a year ago. She, too, was taken to church by her parents at a few days old, and is already comfortable there – as soon as we arrive she’ll crawl off in search of our friends and when the service finishes we often don’t see her for about ten minutes as she’s passed around between a seemingly-endless succession of (dare I say ‘broody’?) ladies.
But it leaves this question: how do I bring a child into this progressive, post-modern, post-evangelical, post-Christendom Christianity? It was very different for me – one morning in Sunday school when I was ten my teacher told me about how those who didn’t “accept Jesus as their personal saviour” burned in hell forever. That night I “prayed the prayer”. Even if I did think that was a good way to share my faith with my daughter, I no longer believe in eternal torment, so that isn’t going to work.
And how do I tell her I don’t believe there was a garden of Eden and that Genesis 1 is actually an allegorical poem? Or that there couldn’t possibly have been an ark containing two of every animal? Or that, to be honest, Joshua probably did a little bit more than blow some horns to take over Jericho? And how about the bits where God is, well, not very nice? In the Old Testament alone God kills millions. I’ve got a grown-up’s answer for it, but it’s not really sensible to try to explain progressive revelation to a child.
So far I have no answers, but two crumbs of comfort. The first is that one of the great reliefs about parenting is that you don’t have to know everything straight away; you just have to know enough to get you through the moment. So, when you come home from hospital with a newborn baby, as long as you know how to feed, wash and change her, you can basically make the rest up as you go along.
The second is that I’m not the first parent to go through this, and I have friends who are further down this road than I am. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”, but there’s a parallel in that parents also develop in community. So when my daughter is a bit older I’ll speak to my mates who are a few years ahead of me, I’ll talk to those in church who are a generation ahead of me, and I’ll learn.
And if there’s ever a question I can’t answer, I’ll just make her practice singing the books of the New Testament again.