Last year I gathered the a group of young Sunday school children into class. We sat in a circle on the floor on big cushy pillows and talked about the two stories of Christmas—the Luke version and the Matthew version. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 7, so we didn’t delve into deep philosophical discussions, but we talked about how two very different stories get smooshed into one. We told each one separately, and we told them as they are usually woven together.
Inevitably, our road led us to Bethlehem.
“Is Bethlehem a real place?” a girl asked.
“Yes, it is.”
Gobsmacked, she rocked back on her pillow. Her mouth dropped open. Other eyes around the room also regarded me curiously.
“What do people do there?”
“Well, they do a lot of the same things we do,” I said. “They get up, wash themselves, eat food, go to school if they’re lucky . . .”
The children digested this information. In the brief period of silence that followed, I watched a transition on their faces. Before the girl asked the question and I answered, we’d been living wholeheartedly in the land of story. Before she asked and I answered, we’d been thinking about what the stories meant.
Then we crashed to earth. The minute I told them Bethlehem was real, their brains began to tick. They moved from the teaching wonder of story to literal dissection. “If Bethlehem is real,” they were thinking, “then how could all that other stuff really have happened?”
Inwardly I sighed. One second we’d been pondering possibilities and thinking about how two stories from thousands of years ago could help us live our lives today, and then—boom—we stumbled into analysis.
It’s not my place to tell them what to believe or not believe. My job is to present them with the stories handed down to us and start the discussion so they can work through it themselves over the course of their lives. I couldn’t (and most certainly wouldn’t) tell them that two different, often contradictory stories, are factually true. I couldn’t (and most certainly wouldn’t) tell them those same stories aren’t true in their own way.
“Oh yes, Bethlehem is real,” I carried on, “but let’s talk about what we can learn from these stories.”
Real Bethlehem, Story Bethlehem. Starting points for contemplation.