Sanitizing church & state

by Kristin on February 21, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by moriza

The other day I was interviewing a Newberry Award-winning author for a freelance article I’m writing. Our conversation covered many topics, but after we concluded the interview, I was left pondering one particular, surprising question: Where and how do I want my children to be learning about religion and faith?

The subject came up because the author, Gary Schmidt (The Wednesday Wars, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy) weaves religious themes into his stories, in tandem with other themes like racism, family, and war.

When I asked Gary about the religious themes, he acknowledged that most authors and publishers of adolescent literature tend to avoid them, mostly for marketing reasons. He didn’t say it, but I imagine school libraries and classrooms can be tricky customers, thanks to church-state issues.

I thought about it more after our interview, and sort of panicked. What if ideas and situations that hinge on religion eventually cease to exist in the best children’s literature? What if, in an effort to respect differences, everything that really matters gets sanitized?

A long and hard search for balance

Personally, I feel like I spend a lot of time and mental energy searching for the perfect balance between the secular and religious. On one hand, I’ve always been a staunch supporter of public schools; the separation of church and state makes sense to me.

But at the same time, I believe God is in everything and everyone, whether we all recognize it or not. While we might think we’re neatly separating things into different compartments, we aren’t and we can’t.

This push and pull is a part of my day-to-day life. Here on my blog, I write about all of the issues that affect my life, whether they’re directly about faith or don’t appear to be about faith at all. I don’t want to write a blog or a book for a specific, well-defined audience. Sending out bits and pieces of real to an ill-defined audience feels more like what being “halfway to normal” is all about.

While I’m sure Gary Schmidt has never considered the phrase “halfway to normal,” I get the sense that he’s made a home as a writer in that neither-here-nor-there place.

What do our kids really need?

Gary told me that he integrates religion in his stories not just because it’s an important issue to him, but also because faith issue are important to adolescents. They’re sorting through and thinking about what they believe, he said, even if no one’s talking to them about it at home, or at a church, temple or mosque. Kids are searching for something to anchor those thoughts and questions to—a core they can use to begin building their own constructs and understandings around.

Literature can serve that role, or certainly supplement it. Recognizing this made me realize something else: I don’t want my daughters to learn about religion and faith only at home and at our church. We can put in place a foundation, but they need to be exposed to other ideas and perspectives if they’re going to end up building anything meaningful on that foundation—something they’ll want to hang on to.

Exposure to people who aren’t like me

Toward the end of my interview with Gary, I asked him what he hopes his young readers walk away with after reading his books. He said that all of his books explore a single, central question—a question that in the end binds all of us together: How do I live next to someone who isn’t like me?

In order to ask that question, and truly explore it, we have to be willing to step outside of our neat, orderly subdivisions, and to let our kids do the same.

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  • Joy

    What an interesting post. I like the end question that Gary poses and it also makes me think and extension of that is do I accept myself unconditionally so that I may accept others unconditionally as well. How do I live with me, and *then* how do I live with others?
    As far as Faith, it’s such a part of my life/my essence that there is no separation and I raise my children to be the same. Sometimes that makes us stick out in a world that can be a bit jaded, but I’m the bright Spirited one in whatever circle I’m in, and that Light touches all around so for that I am most appreciative.

  • Eva Lyford

    Newsweek just covered a similar topic re: Harvard university not having religious classes:

    Any thoughts on how to teach children about those who are not religious, or those whose religions are very different than what might be common in your community?

    If you approach others with a “God is in everything and everyone” motif when that’s not what they believe, then it seems any rapprochement will be unlikely.

  • Dave

    As “sad but true” as it is, our children are amazingly adaptable at being who they need to be for different people they come across. Perhaps that’s even truer in today’s world where they are constantly coming in contact with people with different worldviews. Our children, and my wife and I, have been blessed with a strong faith family. A church that not only teaches but develops strong relationships.This affords our children access to a large group of faith mentors they can turn to when those difficult questions come up. Questions they don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking with us about. And it gives my wife and I an incredible sense of comfort knowing they have that “large cloud of witnesses.”

  • Derrick

    I’m with Dave as far as the adaptability of children. In some sense we beat it out of them as they age, which is good and bad. A strong foundation will help later in life, but if that foundation is built by stamping out “non-conforming” world views, as opposed to pulling them in as points of understanding, the narrow-mindedness that results ranges from unfortunate if isolated to a serious problem for all of us if allowed to seed and germinate in others.

  • Kristin T.

    Joy, that’s a great point—the question “how do I live with myself?” is one we don’t ask in a straightforward way often enough (even though I think most of us grapple with it daily). If we can’t answer that, it’s hard to accept others.

    Eva, thanks for the link. That’s a really interesting article. As far as teaching children about those who aren’t religious, I think that’s a really important piece of this whole puzzle—it’s something I want my kids to understand and be aware of. When you posed the question, it made me think that this is something that can be better addressed through children’s literature than any other format/discussion. What do you think? And when it comes to the way I see people, it just is what it is—it’s the lens I see them through, and my particular lens helps me see everyone with more joy/compassion/love than I might otherwise have (knowing my tendency to be impatient/annoyed with others). I try not to cross that line and expect others to see themselves through the lens I understand them through! Does that make sense? (Maybe I share too much on my blog? :)

    Dave, I think I get what you’re saying. I guess my thought is that while kids today have more opportunities to interact with people who aren’t like them, that doesn’t mean they do—at least not in any meaningful way. And most kids in the US tend to go to school with kids who are a lot like them. It’s rare to find a school that’s truly diverse, in terms of religion, race, education and socio-economics. So I guess if I had to worry about one thing over another, I’d worry more about kids being sheltered, and thinking about things in really limited ways. Everything you said about a strong faith family/church/mentors is really important to me for my kids, but I don’t want it to end there.

    Derrick, I think what you and Dave are saying is that kids will fit in and adapt to the people they’re around? So if they spend a lot of time around kids who don’t have any particular religious belief, they’ll gravitate toward not having any themselves? Sorry—I don’t mean to be dense. I just want to get what you’re saying so I can respond in a meaningful way. But I do think I get what your point about “stamping out ‘non-conforming’ world views” and “narrow-mindedness”—we seem to be looking at that problem from the same perspective. (Not that sharing the same perspective is the goal, of course!) :)

  • Dave

    My point is that kids are adaptable and they can and do adapt to who’s around them. Without some roots, like faith, they could easily be in a constant state of confusion or become lost.

    As my “kids” are now young adults, 21 and 18, there are many worldviews that they are now exposed to. I have a daughter who seeks out and explores to understand different worldviews and how they all have some value. Yet she knows who she is. I have a son who can be friends with anyone but tends to stay focused (gravitates as you said) on one direction at a time. His roots keep him from losing himself in any given direction.

    Two sides to the same coin and I am very proud of both of them!

  • ed cyzewski

    It is very easy to move from religious advocacy zealot to the other extreme of creating a sacred/secular divide. That, in a nutshell, is the fundamentalist/liberal problem that hit Christianity in the 1900-1930′s time frame and continues to show up in our culture. It’s exciting to know that some authors are bridging the gap without becoming too polarizing in the process. It’s easy to overcompensate, which is why your post here is so important to consider.

  • ejly

    “Maybe I share too much on my blog?” KT – my friend – isn’t that true of any blog?

    I’m not sure how children’s literature would address this without falling into the “Heather has two mommies” palaver or the tokenism rife in such material. For my kids, I try to give them a wide circle of acquaintanceship as a subset of my social circle so that they can form their own opinions. If they have actual knowledge of a Muslim, a gay, an African-American, then that gives them a better framework for understanding generalizations about such people than anything I might read to them. That is one concern I have with religious communities – there’s a lot more intra- and inter-faith dialog nowadays but very little extra-faith communication, and thus the viewpoints get polarized. Partly I participate in your blog community to ameliorate that – I’m the outsider here but the discussion is respectful so I can participate. (The other part is that I can use words like ‘ameliorate’ and be understood, and the other part is that you’re an interesting writer and have a nice bit of community discussion going on here on topics that interest me.)

  • Kristin T.

    Dave, it sounds like you have two examples of great kids. My biggest concern is that not all kids are given the kind of foundation—or the kind of openness to exploration—that your kids have been offered. It just isn’t the norm, I’m afraid. Books are one way to reach kids who aren’t exposed to those kinds of discussions at home.

    ed, that’s a great historical summary of how we got to this place—thanks for putting it in context! I do a much better job at observing what’s in front of us than I do at analyzing what came before it. And yes—overcompensation is exactly what I’m talking about. I have a tendency to react against parenting styles and approaches I don’t agree with, and can end up swinging too far in the opposite direction. I’m sure it works both ways.

    ejly, I’m really glad to call you a friend, and glad you feel like this is a place you can participate in discussions that you don’t always agree with. I can’t express how satisfying and important that is to me. Regarding our kids and books, etc., I do think the best authors (like Schmidt) are able to bring all of those ideas together without tokenism. It’s much more possible in books for middle and high school students than it is in books for younger kids. And yes, the ideal way for our kids to learn about all of these viewpoints is by being personally exposed to them. I am so grateful that I live in a town where my kids can go to public schools and have a truly diverse experience—not just in terms of race, but also in terms of socio-economics, education, and sexual orientation. They see and personally know kids from every combination, in such a way that blows all stereotypes out of the water. (Someone can be poor and a minority and their parents can be earning PhDs, etc.) Unfortunately, once again, that’s not the norm. It’s not even close. Most kids in our country are going to school with kids who are a lot like them (and they’re certainly hanging out with kids who are a lot like them). Maybe the only way we can fix that is to first fix schools and neighborhoods, eh?

  • suzi w.

    Madeleine L’Engle starts to answer this question in her book “Walking on Water,” that all “great” art is somehow Christian art, because great art relies on the artist being submitted to the piece of art, and therefore something/one bigger than (I don’t know how people of other faiths would take MLE’s particularly Christian take on things.) I think MLE in both her fiction and essays was a master at asking questions that dealt with heart and to some degree God without saying “and on Sunday, all the children went to church, synagogues, or mosques.” (I actually had an argument with someone who said that Harry Potter would be acceptable to him if it just that sentence every once and a while, “and on Sunday, Harry went to church.”)

    And right now, we have a Presbyterian minister’s wife and Newbery Award winning author as the Ambassador for Children’s books (Katherine Paterson.) So it is a good time to be asking these questions. An up and coming writer that deals well with “church” is Sara Zarr. If her protagonist doesn’t go to church, one of the characters does, and there is this wondering, of, wow, how does faith work, in each of her three novels. Her latest, “Once was lost” does actually feature a PK (preacher’s kid) dealing with her faith struggles.

    As I begin to get back into writing, it is a struggle–how will I convey my faith in my writing, whether in front or between the lines or a little bit of both. It is good to have people with whom you can bounce these questions to and from and around. Thank you for being one of those people.


  • Kristin T.

    suzi, it’s been several years since I’ve read anything by L’Engle—I feel like I’m a different person now—but I think what you’re saying about her is right: she’s “a master at asking questions that dealt with heart and to some degree God” without being didactic or prescriptive. Although finding the right balance (both within friendships and as a writer) can be SO tricky, it’s also a very exciting and, I think, important struggle to be engaging. I’m glad you’re someone who is doing just that.