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Stories Disciple Your Child’s Moral Imagination

Great stories can cultivate your children’s hearts and show them what the normal world should really look like.
on May 27, 2021 · 1 comment

Planned Parenthood had to delete its original 2018 tweet that called for a brand new kind of Disney Princess: one who’d had an abortion.1 Of course, the tweet illustrates several social and political realities.2 However, Planned Parenthood clearly recognizes a big truth that the Christian community might keep missing: stories disciple our children. As Christians we should understand this truth even more clearly: stories disciple our children by God’s design.

You and I, our loved ones, and our neighbors all live and move and have our being within a story. That is because we live and move and have our being within the God who is a storyteller.3 History is His story of His Son. This is a story told in four acts: creation, fall, redemption, and glorification. It’s a small wonder, then, that stories have such powerful pull on creatures like us.

Of course, some of the brightest Christians have recognized the power of story and harnessed it explicitly for God’s glory. We quickly think of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. But before them came George MacDonald. And before them came two Johns: Milton and Bunyan. And before those men came Dante Aligheri. Behind and above all those shine the parables told by a Nazarene carpenter of some repute.

Today, people use stories to disciple others

Perhaps the most useful picture of this principle—using narrative to drive discipleship—is the real-life story of C. S. Lewis’ switch from propositional apologetics to a narrative approach:

“I wish your project heartily well,” wrote C. S. Lewis to Christianity Today, “but can’t write you articles.” Carl F. H. Henry, founding editor of the magazine, had in 1955 invited Lewis to contribute to the magazine’s first issue. Lewis declined. Henry was not, as the saying goes, “a day late and a dollar short.” He was over a decade late, and no dollar amount would have mattered, as Lewis gave the lion’s share of his royalties to charity.

There was a time when Lewis would have said yes: namely, when Nazi soldiers marched into Poland and threatened the stability of the world. Adolf Hitler’s influence on Lewis’s apologetics is an irrefutable fact. The Führer’s evil campaign paved the way for the clear-speaking Lewis to engage listeners of the British Broadcast Service. Even as bombs fell over London, Lewis’s baritone voice boomed on radios across Europe. His evangelistic approach was tailormade for men at war.

Thus, Mere Christianity was born in the fullness of time. Published in 1952, the classic was taken from transcripts of his broadcasts from the early 1940s. By the time the book was available in print, Lewis was already changing his approach.4

In Lewis’s 1956 article for The New York Times, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” Lewis explains the shift in his methodology:

Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.5

To Lewis’ questions, we would offer their assumed answer: Yes, a well-told beautiful story offers something that insists on our allegiance to its meaning. Such a story is powerful, gripping us in a way that naked assertions of that same meaning simply would not.

This doesn’t mean that assertion of truth is useless. Mental tools like assertion, argumentation, and defense do great and necessary work. The point here is that narrative, by design, can slip past our ability to suppress truth in unrighteousness. In this way, narrative helps us feel the goodness and beauty of truth even when we reject that truth as a proposition. This feeling of truth’s goodness and beauty doesn’t necessarily win our allegiance to that truth. But, in God’s providence, that feeling often plows up our hearts’ hard ground, leaving us receptive to truth in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise been.

God also uses stories to disciple his people

Think how regularly God commanded his people to tell their children the stories of His work among their nation (such as a story told for relief in Psalm 78 and a story told for judgment in Joel 1). For example, when the Israelites crossed the Jordan river, Joshua instructed the nation:

Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.”

And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the Lord told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.6

Imagine the story that these stones in the river “told” to future Israelite children: “This mighty river is subject to One who is even mightier. This One intervened on behalf of our people because our God is a promise-keeper. He is a Father who knows how to care for his children. The natural world of our senses is impressive to behold, but there is more to existence than we can see with our eyes. In fact, what we can’t see is actually in charge of what we can.”

As my friend Haven Koehler has written,

Imagination is the first step to learning how to believe in something you cannot see. A child who can imagine something is there is more prone to actually believing something is there. Isn’t this the most important thing a Christian parent would want for a child? …A child who is taught to believe in the impossible things that are invisible are so much better off than a child who is only taught [to believe] in what they can see. This belief in something you cannot see is not to trick your children, but instead start to teach them and prepare them for the one thing that cannot be one hundred percent proven [by sight]: their faith.7

Dan Taylor has beautifully summarized how God’s design for storytelling powerfully affects God’s human creatures:

God is telling the world a story. It begins in eternity past and stretches into eternity future. It climaxed two thousand years ago when God entered into his creation in a new way. It could reach its temporal conclusion today — or in five thousand years. The theme of the story is shalom: all things in their created place doing what they were created to do in loving relationship with their creator. And, amazing grace, it is a story into which God invites you and me as characters.

Human beings are story-shaped creatures. We are born into stories, raised in stories, and live and die in stories. Whenever we have to answer a big question — who am I, why am I here, what should I do, what happens to me when I die? — we tell a story. The Ur-story, the foundational story, is the story of God’s love for his creation, and all other stories are to be measured against it. The single best way of conceiving of faith, and of a faithful life, is as a story in which you are a character. Your life task is to be a character in the greatest story every told. It is what you were created for.

If faith were primarily an idea, the intellect alone might be adequate for dealing with it. Since it is instead a life to be lived, we need story. Story, as does life, engages all of what we are — mind, emotions, spirit, body. Faith calls us to live in a certain way, not just to think in a certain way. It is no surprise, then, that the central record of faith in human history opens with an unmistakable story signature: “In the beginning… ”8

Stories disciple us for great benefits but also great harm

However, as with most natural goods, we find a powerful inversion of this truth: narrative can be used to shape the heart in a way that leaves our hearts less receptive to truth.

Consider Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which (by the author’s design) functions as a sort of anti-Narnia:

In Pullman’s trilogy, [protagonists] Lyra is the new-age Eve, and Will is the modern-day Adam. God is a wizened spent force of an “Authority”. And “The Fall” is to be celebrated as the defining moment of mankind, rather than the source of all worldly evil. Little wonder that His Dark Materials has been denounced by some religious zealots.

Pullman, though, expected more. “I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak. I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people – mainly from America’s Bible Belt – who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.“9

Pullman isn’t alone. As Nancy Pearcey has pointed out,10 everything from The Berenstain Bears (reflecting Darwinism) to Hank the Cowdog (reflecting more conservative ideas) is used, by their authors’ design, to shape what readers will see as normal. The power to set the default view of the world can powerfully impact the arc of a child’s entire life. Children will be trained to see the world as either “my Father’s world,” or else, “a meaningless physical world that continues only as a product of random chance.”

When we as parents grasp this reality, we see that the stories that shape our children have incredible importance, for good or ill. If your children believe the Berenstain Bears’ claim that “Nature… is all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE!”, that matters. Or, after Baloo seems to be killed defending Mowgli from Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967), and Bagheera takes Mowgli aside to tell him, “greater love hath no one, than he lay down his life for his friends,” that matters.11

Parents can skillfully use children’s films as discipleship tools

Parents, grandparents, and other guardians should see movies from any studio—be it Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, DreamWorks, Cartoon Network, Lucasfilm, or Netflix—as tools. They’re capable of great good, if parents work them skillfully for good purposes, or great harm if parents use them foolishly or negligently.

If Pixar is like a table saw, then parents must put safeguards around these tools to maximize the good and minimize harm. However, if you hand your children the Netflix remote so you can sleep on Saturday morning, you might as well be turning them loose in a tool and die shop, with all the machines’ sharp blades plugged in and spinning.

If we viewed child-directed films this way, I conclude that families who engage with secular movies should put Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) on regular rotation. Personally, I also think no good can come from regularly watching Disney’s Zootopia (2016).12

But whatever you decide, if you’re a Christian parent, you simply aren’t able to treat these kinds of story-disciples as morally neutral. As disciple-making parents, we cannot be so passive. We need to use stories to help cultivate whatever normal (biblical!) ways our children see the world.

Seeing the world in light of healthy storytelling

For instance, consider that deleted tweet calling for a Disney princess who had an abortion.13 Does this notion strike you as bizarre? Did you imagine how ghastly it would be to see a Cinderella (perhaps wearing her most beautiful ballgown) singing to her furry woodland friends about her post-abortive perspective? If any of that struck you as grotesque—good! This means you have been rightly calibrating your own moral imagination. It means the stories of princes and princesses whom we met as children (and as adults) have discipled us well: abortion doesn’t belong in the world of fairy tales. Instead, the fairy tales rightly taught us that abortions should be as unnatural in the real world as they are in the imaginary.

We and our children live in a world where such dragons not only exist, but have access to Twitter and politicians. Jesus calls us to help children learn, through the best stories, an awareness of reality. If they have that kind of awareness thanks to the discipleship of good stories, then if they ever do encounter a Disney princess shouting her abortion, they’ll be rightly repulsed. They’ll know, “This is not normal.”

  1. This article was originally published under the title “Kids Movies, Disney Princesses, and the Moral Discipleship of Children” in April 2018 at Pop Culture Coram Deo.
  2. Another reality: Planned Parenthood may be our greatest cultural example of the Sin Makes You Stupid principle. This article makes that point even more forcefully.
  3. It is delightful that this pagan phrase from an ancient storyteller is caught up into the inspired text by the sovereign choice of the one true storyteller God.
  4. Why C. S. Lewis Didn’t Write for Christianity Today,” Christianity Today (web version), December 2012.
  5. C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” The New York Times, Nov. 18, 1956. Times subscribers can read the article at that link. You can also read a lengthy excerpt here, or here if you prefer book form.
  6. Joshua 4:1–9, ESV.
  7. From an unpublished paper on the importance of developing a child’s moral imagination.
  8. “The Life-Shaping Power of Story, God’s and Ours,” Dan Taylor, DesiringGod.org.
  9. “The shed where God died,” The Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 13, 2003, emphasis added.
  10. See Nancy Pearcey’s essay “Darwin Meets the Berenstain Bears: Evolution as Total Worldview” in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing. See also chapter 1 of Pearcey’s book Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning.
  11. Crosswalk.com has a listicle documenting some of the surprisingly Christian texts that show up in Disney movies.
  12. I can testify that, from my early age, Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) discipled me into believing that good guys stand up to the powerful on behalf of the weak, and that we can cultivate this virtue within healthy male friendships (such as Robin and Little John) and the Church (as shown by Friar Tuck).
  13. My thanks to Christie Wright for the point about how helpful stories help us form appropriate negative reactions to any calls for a post-abortive Disney princess.
Jeff Wright pastors a church in the Southern Baptist Convention and cohosts the Pop Culture Coram Deo podcast with Dr. Jared Moore. He and his family live in Tennessee.
  1. Thanks for this article, Jeff! When you said Hank the Cowdog reflects conservative values, I was intrigued. My seven-year-old is obsessed with Hank right now, but she’s reading them alone, and I haven’t gotten to witness the catechising aspect of the books firsthand. In what ways would you say Hank teaches conservative values? Thanks again! 🙂

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