Teaching Church History to Children
A few years ago, after writing the nth article on the benefits of learning church history, I decided never to touch this subject again. Editors kept asking me to write more, but I thought I had said all there was to say about it. Until now, when recent events have brought the study (or ignorance) of history in the limelight, providing inescapable object lessons on the dangers of dismissing, over-simplifying, or distorting historical facts.
When some deface statues of abolitionists in an effort to speak against racism, while others defend the past by keeping it under a veil of comfortable silence, we wonder what happened to sound reason. To resurrect reason, we need a serious commitment to honesty, humility, and hope in our study of history—and in how we present that history to our children.
Few historians today would deliberately write a biased account. While it’s true that different authors bring different points of view to the same narrative, most try to present facts with some objectivity, offering various sides of each story. But this is not always true in children’s books, particularly in the Christian market. Although the quality of Christian biographies for children has improved from the largely fictionalized hagiographies of the 19th century, embellishing stories and using them to convey a specific message are still pesky habits that need to be recognized and fought. The temptation is strong; most people like a world with a neat distinction between good and evil, and it’s a distinction that children readily understand. But that’s not the real world. Even masters of depiction of battles between good and evil—such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—knew that the lines of distinction are not strongly marked, and the conflicts that rage within a person are just as important as those that are fought in an open field.
The main reason we tend to accept simplistic stories for our children is a belief that they can’t handle complex issues, problematic situations, or accounts of regretful behavior. But in reality, children can understand more than we think. The Bible is an excellent example of an honest account, and children who are kept with their parents during worship (rather than being sent to “children’s church” – a fairly modern invention) can benefit from hearing stories of the dysfunctional families, flawed heroes, and perplexing situations God has used in his great story of redemption.
It’s true that many Bible stories raise uncomfortable questions, but they also allow parents to provide prayerful explanations to issues their children may encounter on their own, probably sooner than expected. Honesty in retelling the past may make parents uncomfortable in more ways than one. Parents who hide their faults from their children and try to keep up an unrealistic image of perfection at home may have a hard time conveying the struggles, inner conflicts, and faults of historical heroes. Exalting some people and discarding others is a simple, time-efficient solution. Thankfully, the practice in most Reformed churches to have a weekly, common confession of sins where parents and children are on the same level before God is helpful in this regard.
Finally, an honest account will protect children from sore disappointments when their idealistic images of unspoiled heroes are challenged by evidences their books have ignored. What’s more, it will equip them to hold a frank conversation with unbelievers. Instead of retreating in denial and fear when confronted by uncomfortable facts, they can discuss them with fairness, objectivity, and confidence, in full assurance that God’s church is not a Jenga block tower or a house of cards, ready to crumble every time a piece is touched.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This is how L.P. Harvey started his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. While the novel is rarely remembered, this line seems to have reached an immortal status. In its simplicity, it holds a key to our understanding of the past.
After traveling to many countries and teaching the Italian language and culture to countless Americans, I see many connections between these experiences and my study of the past. My students are determined to travel to Italy without sounding or acting like the stereotypical “ugly Americans.” I am determined to survey our church history with the same humility and respect.
It’s not always easy. Preconceptions are a comfortable piece of luggage to tag along. They provide comfort when the past seems too alien. But they also prevent us from truly understanding what’s around us.
The past must be approached with curiosity, empathy, and eagerness to learn. The people we meet may think quite differently than we do, but they have much to teach us. Even the simple effort to understand them will help us to grow. By teaching these good habits of learning to our children, we can prepare them to view others – both in the past and the present – with compassion and understanding.
We will also foster the important knowledge that we still have much to learn, and that God uses other human beings to mature us. “Every age has its own outlook,” C.S. Lewis wrote in his excellent introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation.
“It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. ... Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go in the same direction.”
Those who think an honest look at our messy church history, with all its conflicts, disagreements, and outright misconducts, might be discouraging to our children need to think again. The reason why the Bible is such a comforting book in spite of all the messiness it reveals is that it keeps bringing us back to the only true Hero of history, our Triune God, who has never swayed from his perfect plan of redeeming a people for himself.
The same is true for church history. Rather than causing discouragement, the fact that there has been hardly a time when the church was not plagued by disunity, heresies, and inner struggles should make us even more grateful for Christ’s faithfulness to his promise: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).
Even the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, who has become famous for his irreverent and often racy accounts of the corruption of the church, has one of his characters – a visiting Jew – confess that the fact that Christianity keeps spreading in spite of all the church’s problems, seems like a confirmation that it “has the Holy Spirit for its foundation and support.” C.S. Lewis echoed this view when he wrote, “What is left intact despite all the divisions still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity.”
The blinders we often place on ourselves and our children in order to limit our view to what we find comfortable and safe can in reality become a source of panic when we are confronted with the problems of our day, preventing us from remembering that God has preserved his church and his truth through worse moments than these.
In the Bible, God often encouraged his people by reminding them how he had faithfully rescued them in the past. By looking back, God’s people couldn’t escape the uncomfortable truth that the situations from which they were rescued were a byproduct of their own sins. But neither could they escape the astonishing truth that the same God they had repeatedly offended kept coming to their aid.
The same is true today. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8) and is still building his church.
Simonetta Carr is a mother of eight and a homeschool educator for twenty years. She has also worked as a freelance journalist and a translator of Christian works into Italian. Simonetta is the author of numerous books, including Weight of a Flame and the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series.
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Christian Biographies for Young Readers by Simonetta Carr
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, p. 4
 Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, First Day, Novel 2, https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/texts/DecShowText.php?lang=eng&myID=nov0102&expand=day01
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, p. 73