By David Ney
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. —1 Corinthians 15:3-5
My daughters drew this cartoon. It was a gift for their little brother. I must confess my thoughts were somewhat dismissive when I first saw it. It felt to me a little bit like Veggie Tales, a well-meaning attempt at cultural accommodation: Kids like bouncing shapes that talk; kids are supposed to like the Bible; so let’s give them the Bible in the form of bouncing shapes that talk.
There is something like cultural accommodation going on here. But I now realize that there is also something more profound. The girls didn’t set out to catechize their brother. They set out to tell a story about their little brother’s world — a world inhabited by talking cars and trucks — and they ended up telling a Bible story.
They set out to tell a story, but they did not create ex nihilo. They used words and concepts they have learned and characters and events they know well. Biblical words are among the words they have come to know, and biblical characters and events are among those they are able to represent. The reason they ended up telling a Bible story is that the Bible is a part of their world.
Digging a little deeper, we might echo J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and suggest that my daughters proceeded in this way because the Easter story is the true myth behind all myths. They simply fell in line with those who have gone before them: they charted a course, intent on telling a story of their own devising, but they inadvertently ended up telling the scriptural story. Or, to use George Lindbeck’s turn of phrase, we might say that their cartoon is simply another example of Scripture absorbing the world. Scripture saw the story they were trying to tell and claimed it as its own.
I must confess that I have had a hand in helping my daughters toward this outcome. I had much more time before becoming a seminary professor, and I spent quite a lot of it playing with them. We would, for example, start playing with teddies and quickly find ourselves drawn into a drama of cosmic proportions. Maybe the Sun was about to explode. (More likely, Teddy was worried about her first day at school.) Whatever the story, it was quickly inhabited by family members, by Disney characters, and by Moses and Aaron, Esther and Mordecai, Paul and Silas. Biblical characters found their place quite comfortably among the rest.
I ordered our play times in this way because of my convictions about how catechesis works. But I will not take full responsibility. It was only natural for our stories to progress as they did because Moses occupied the same epistemological space for my daughters as Frozen’s Elsa and Anna.
My daughters and I were engaged, if only peripherally, in passing on what we received. The stories we relived and reinvented as we played, like the stories of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and appearances, were stories that could be located at different points along a chronological axis. But we experienced them all similarly, as prior to us, givens, which we transmitted to one another, and somehow to posterity. I’m not sure why my daughters turned to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I don’t remember teaching their story, or playing it. But my daughters know it well — well enough to now pass it on.
According to English philosopher J. Ellis McTaggart, there are two ways of understanding time: A series and B series. A series is the way adults customarily think about time: past, present, and future. B series, on the other hand, doesn’t line up events on a timeline. It simply claims that the temporal relation of two events can only be understood as earlier and later (McTaggart, “The Unreality of Time,” Mind , p. 458). While historical thinking sometimes requires that we think conceptually about time as being an A series, we do not experience time in this way. We encounter time phenomenologically as a B series, and it is thus the more probable ontological account.
My experience of reading a book that was written in 1985 is the same experience as the experience of reading a book that was written in 1984. I experience both books as “earlier” than me, even though I want to regard them as chronologically ordered. They are both scenes in a drama already going on as I quietly slip into the theatre and slide into my seat.
This is something my daughters understand because it hasn’t yet been unlearned. It would have been senseless for me to explain that although it was reasonable to play with Elsa and Anna because they are a going concern, Moses died thousands of years ago. They receive the world as it comes to them. As Eugene Peterson puts it, they take for granted that they are always walking in on something that is already going on. And they are thus more receptive than I to what theologians call “prevenient grace.” Is this part of what it means to enter the kingdom as a child (Matt. 18:3)?
My daughters understand what is meant by “He is not the God of the dead, but the living” (Mark 12:27). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead to them. They have yet to be murdered by a well-intentioned education. This is no small thing, for it means that my daughters know something of catholicity that I struggle to grasp. They inhabit the cloud of witnesses phenomenologically.
Yet, when I begin to despair my educated state, I am reminded that there are still some adults who manage to live in the cloud. These are often Christians from faraway places. My conversations with them, I find, tend to move very quickly to the state of affairs in the Church. We talk about the Jehu who has seized control of the vestry, or joke about the Simon who was trying to profit from the Lord. I always leave these conversations inspired to believe that the secular world I inhabit still belongs to the Lord.