I love children’s books – I never would’ve made it through Moby Dick without the Great Illustrated Classics version. They’ve proved invaluable when teaching my ESL students, too – Ivanhoe becomes a lot more palatable to new English readers once you’ve removed the polysyllabic words and anti-Semitism, and I’m convinced that even the most apathetic reader will pick up The Count of Monte Cristo if they’re sure they’ll be able to finish it in an hour (which they certainly will, considering that the five sub-plots are condensed into one).
This is the genius of children’s literature – taking wonderful stories and new ideas and making them comprehensible (and hopefully, attractive) to young minds. Hence the proliferation of children’s Bibles and the VeggieTales series – we take the admonition to train our children up in the way they should go seriously, and we’ll use any and all means to those ends. It behooves us, then, to be very careful about understanding exactly to which ends we’re orienting them.
In the afterword to his new book, Halfway Herbert, Francis Chan writes that he hopes parents will be able to use the story to “teach them [their children] the commitment to which Christ has called us,” and to exhort them to “raise a generation of children who understand what it means to truly follow Jesus.” It’s a praiseworthy goal, and one which parents ought to take seriously.
The story is about a little boy named Herbert Hallweg with a viciously short attention-span that leaves him incapable of finishing any task, from hair and teeth-brushing to homework completion and soccer practice. Eventually, his lackadaisical attitude creeps into his half-developed moral faculties and half-pushes him into the realm of sin, and one day (in true Pharisee-fashion) to tell a half-truth to his father. The fully-brushed and meal-finishing Mr. Hallweg calls him out on it, admonishing his son that, “living [his] life halfway isn’t okay,” following up with the edifying maxims: “Jesus doesn’t want us to love Him halfway,” and “God doesn’t want us to live out of just half our hearts.”
Herbert may not be our go-to guy on personal hygiene or commitment-keeping, but his theology (as far as personal guilt is concerned) is spot-on. “But I’ve never been able to do things all the way,” he cries.
Mr. Hallweg responds with a sort of prologue to a sinner’s prayer for help. “God knows that none of us can love him all the way by ourselves. So He gave us a friend called the Holy Spirit to help us live out of our whole hearts,” Herbert’s dad said. “When we decided to follow Jesus all the way, God’s Spirit fills up our hearts and helps us obey God.”
I want to tread carefully here – as someone who isn’t a parent, it’s easy for me to sit on the pristine seat of emotional and physical detachment and wax eloquent on the need for sound theology in godly parenting. My biggest child-rearing problem is deciding where to take my nieces and nephews hiking. I sincerely admire the earnest wish to encourage children in their infant piety, and it’s because I believe it’s our (the church as well as the nuclear family’s) duty to nurture it that I think we ought to be careful in laying the proper foundation for it. My problem with Chan’s book isn’t that it emphasizes our obligation to live righteously; it’s that it doesn’t acknowledge in any way the fact that Christ has already lived righteously for us – the imperative is given without the indicative; there’s law, but no gospel – which is only half the truth revealed in Scripture and half the message children need to hear.
When Herbert acknowledges his failure to keep the law to his father, his father’s response is more law – decide to follow Jesus all the way, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you. Good advice, to be sure – but it must be prefaced with the blessed preface that Christ has fulfilled the law on his child’s behalf and freed him from his bondage to sloth and laxity, and that because of his obedience and the application of that obedience to Herbert, he’s made willing and able to implore the aid of the Holy Spirit, and make that decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly. Mr. Hallweg’s response leaves the impression that the Holy Spirit is a reward for obedience; an aid given through the means of a request, rather than a gift that must be and is given.
I’m told that parents suffer no incapacity in reminding their children about the need for active obedience – ‘Clean your room now!’, ‘Stop fighting with your sister!’, and ‘Come back here and finish your homework!’ are frequent injunctions imposed on youthful impulses. In her book Give Them Grace, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes that while we may know that we need to trust in Christ for our goodness, something happens when we apply that to our parenting. “We forget everything we know about the deadliness of relying on our own goodness and we teach them that Christianity is all about their behavior and whether, on any given day, God is pleased or displeased with them.” Foolishness certainly is bound up in the heart of a child, and the proverb truly says that the rod of correction will drive it far from him, but let the rod be tempered with the mercy of the gospel, lest we drive our children from Christ.