Simonetta Carr interview William Boekestein about children and church history, the challenges of writing instructive material for children and much more.
1. Some time ago, you wrote an article on appreciating church history (“Avoiding Chronological Snobbery”). How is church history important for children today?
I was recently asked to speak to a local Rotary Club on the topic of “Turning obscure history into children’s books.” I told the audience that if this didn’t strike them as a stimulating topic…it gets worse. The books I have written are about obscure theological history. The “claim to fame” of the main characters in my books is that they wrote religious dissertations and catechisms! But I believe this kind (and other kinds) of church (and secular) history is important for children for several reasons.
First, history is a great teacher. It provides greater perspective than our experiences allows. It provides negative examples of what we should avoid. We learn through our mistakes. But how much better to learn through the mistakes of others. History also provides examples of valor and courage. Fiction can do the same thing (and we love fiction!). But history can appeal more powerfully to our sense of reality. History also helps us to resist unhelpful fads by highlighting the tried and true.
Second, church history is important for children because they need to know that ideas have consequences. The stories I have written describe a time when people were more honest about the significance of ideas. Sixteenth century folks would have laughed at the notion of ideological relativism. I do not endorse the extreme lengths to which people of varying convictions have gone to defend their positions. But we lie to children today when we say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe” or “all ideas are equal.” People in the sixteenth century agreed that what you believe about the mortality of man, the existence of God and the reasons for doing good really matter. The protagonists in these stories dedicated their lives to, and sometimes lost them in, defending ideas.
Third, church history is important because Children better grasp ideas that are connected to people. Suppose you wanted children to catch a vision for Rotary International. You could try expositing to them the four guiding principles by way of explanation and application. But can you imagine a young child saying, “Please tell me more about, ‘The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian’s personal, business, and community life’?” Or you could tell them the stories of famous Rotarians like Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the intrepid Arctic explorer, the first to reach both poles by air, or aviation pioneer Orville Wright, or the famous founders of Walmart, Walgreens and J.C. Penny’s who were all active Rotarians. No doubt their stories would provide concrete and vivid expressions of service in action. If we want to teach our children of the importance of wholehearted service to God (as well as to man) we can tell the stories of people who modeled this devotion in a way that we might never do. Guido de Bres wrote, “Since we have the [awe] of God before our eyes…we offer our backs to the whip’s lash, our tongues to the knives, the mouth to the muzzle, and the whole body to the flames. For we know that whoever will follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.” He went on to practice what he preached. When children see hear of that kind of devotion illustrated in living color and written in words they can understand, it makes an impression.
Finally, I believe church history is important for children because they need heroes who lose. Life is hard. And we do our children no service by only providing them with stories where everything works out nicely at the end. At the end of “Pollyanna” her rude aunt gets nice, marries her secret love interest, and Pollyanna overcomes a crippling accident by learning to walk again. We love “Pollyanna.” But that’s not always how life works. The protagonist in my first book, Guido de Bres, dies at the end of an executioners noose. Prior to that he was hunted by authorities simply for what he believed. Members of his own congregation were burned at the stake for their faith. In this particular story, I believe that Guido de Bres ultimately won. He had committed his life to the God who promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life for those who believe in him. But his life was hard.