Before we can discuss the titular question, allow me to lay out a very brief but necessary biblical framework for the importance of passing down stories to our children.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is a foundational text within all of Scripture for, at least, three reasons. First, it provides the great confession of the Old Testament: “The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (v. 4). Second, it gives God’s people the greatest commandment: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). Third, it emphasizes the necessity of teaching those first two truths to the next generation:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.vv. 6-9
The Israelites were instructed to instruct their children constantly in God’s Word because discipleship is not automatic. Just as we are prone to forgetfulness individually, so too is forgetfulness societal as well. Assumed religious belief is either dead or dying religious belief.
This is also why, at key moments of Israel’s redemptive history, God commanded the people on how they were to teach their children about what the LORD did for them. We see this in Exodus 12 as God institutes the Passover as God told the Israelites:
You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’Exodus 12:24-27
Likewise, the Feast of Unleavened Bread was to remind them of their quick flight from Egypt, and the Feast of the Booths was instituted to remind the Israelites of their wilderness wandering. Then in Joshua 4, the LORD commanded a memorial of twelves stones to be made after Israel crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan.
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.”Joshua 4:5–7
We could certainly keep going with examples, but it would perhaps be best turn to the Lord’s Supper as a chief example of how this basic call to remembrance is still present in the church today. Just as the Passover pointed back to the chief redemptive moment of God’s people in the Old Testament, the Lord’s Supper sets our gaze back upon the chief redemptive moment of all history: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to liberate His people from their bondage to sin. Thus, God has always implemented physical acts of remembrance to keep His works upon His people’s hearts. Particularly, God wants parents to actively immerse their children in the storyline of Scripture, in the grand narrative of how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem all things.
My fear, however, is that most children today are being immersed far more in the narratives of their favorite films and shows than in the truths of God’s Word. I wrote some time ago that my wife and I do not intend to introduce fantasy narratives to our children until they are seven years old, since their very conception of reality is still forming. In that article, I made a very brief argument largely from a physiological standpoint. However, the more I wrestle with wanting to introduce books like Narnia to my four-year-old, the more I am becoming convinced that there is a spiritual wisdom in refraining from such fantasy at these earliest ages.
Entertainment producers like Disney, after all, have a tremendous financial incentive for lodging their characters into the imagination of children. Of course, the more fully they are able to catechize children into their narratives the more merchandise they are then able to sell. Yet on an even deeper level, if their tales can become core components of the child’s childhood, then he or she is likely to actively look forward to sharing whichever film or show with his or her own children. In other words, Disney and similar companies are in the multigenerational discipleship game.
I should note that I mention Disney specifically only because they have the largest market on childhood imagination catechisms, which (again) is exactly what such films, shows, and merchandise are. But I certainly know that they are not the sole source. There does, however, seem to be a particularly zealous affection for Disney, which I have often discovered after offering my critiques of the company and its properties. Furthermore, at least within my peer-group of millennials, I am highly certain that most would think first of Pinocchio as a warning against lying rather than of Ananias and Saphira or of Gehazi, just to give one example. You see, movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast have replaced the Bible as the defining narratives of society. Thus, I mention Disney by name because they already have a significant grip upon our societal imagination.
But can we truly call such entertainment catechisms? Isn’t that taking them too seriously? After all, they’re just entertainment; they aren’t intending to teach anything, right?
I remember well the great hype that came alongside the release of Frozen as people applauded the film’s turn away from the stereotypical love story to emphasize the love between two sisters. Despite those who argue that movies are only entertainment, that groundswell of approval revealed that virtually everyone does, in fact, expect their entertainment to contain a message and a moral to be taught. We also all know intuitively that lessons are better taught when they are embedded in a story. Thus, no film or show can escape from teaching something. So, because Disney and other such producers of children’s entertainment are targeting their products at children’s imaginations, they are, in essence, developing cultural catechisms. With the hope of much financial gain, they actively hope to graft their narratives into children’s still-forming vision of reality.
And that is exactly what they have done.
Disney’s intellectual properties have largely cornered the market on childhood orthodoxy. And I know by experience the great difficulty in breaking away from something so ubiquitous. Indeed, having intentionally withheld Elsa, Ariel, Belle, and the rest from my daughter, I know well the incredulous looks whenever my great heresy is uncovered. Some encounters have even felt like they would have gone smoother if I had said that I only feed my children every other day!
Yet I believe that my family’s present rejection of the cultural stories is worth it. You see, my daughter has resolutely reached the age of pretend play. In fact, it seems most days that all she wants to do is pretend to be something. Most of the time, she wants to pretend that we are pilgrims making our long journey to the Celestial City, since Little Christian’s Big Journey (which is a children’s adaption of The Pilgrim’s Progress) is the only fantasy-type story that we have introduced so far. We then reenact without end scenes like Christian’s battle with Apollyon, Christian and Hopeful’s escape from Doubting Castle, and the sleepy daze of the Enchanted Ground.
However, whenever we are not pretending to be pilgrims, we act out Moses and Pharaoh during the plagues, the Israelite spies sneaking into Jericho and being hidden by Rahab, the battle of Jericho, David’s fight with Goliath, and other biblical scenes. When she wants to pretend to be a princess, she walks around with Moses as Pharaoh’s daughter, with grain as Ruth, or as beautiful Queen Esther. Just last week we were able to tour some caverns and pretended to be David and his men hiding from Saul. With Christmas fast approaching, she now wants to pretend to be Mary journeying to Bethlehem and searching for a room to stay before giving birth to the Word made flesh.
Because we very consciously keep her away from Disney-style stories, the biblical stories are becoming the foundation of her imaginative framework, which is worth every single unwatched minute.
But of course, please don’t take from this what I’m not saying. We will not keep her from fantasy forever. Indeed, we will not keep her from fantasy for very much longer. And I am happily using this time as an excuse to ‘prescreen’ series like The Wingfeather Saga, The Green Ember Series, and the 100 Cupboards Series. But even when it comes to those stories that very consciously contain Christian themes and overtones, right now she needs to continue grasping the basics of the biblical narrative that will help her to notice those themes and overtones.
And lest you write me off as forsaking secular media entirely, my wife and I have a running list of films to watch with our daughter, beginning with Ratatouille and the How to Train Your Dragon Trilogy. We love the latter series so much that my wife and I watched the third film in theater three times in three different countries (the U.S., Colombia, and Sweden, by the way). And, yes, that means that I will eventually show her The Lion King, Aladdin, and some other Disney properties. So, I am not advocating a permanent withholding of such things from our children, only for the first seven-ish years at least.
To wrap all of this up, perhaps the problem is lies most fundamentally at the feet of parents. The question of whether we are feeding our children’s imaginations with the true tales of Scripture or the fantasy of the world likely involves two important factors.
First, are we, as parents, familiar and enraptured enough with Scripture to display its glorious treasures to our children? After all, if we find it a boring but necessary task to read the Bible, why would our children ever desire it themselves? Before we can ever hope for our children to delight in the God’s Word, we must first foster a love for it within ourselves.
Or perhaps more deeply, it may be that Disney-esque stories are more foundational to our own imagination than Scripture is. Ask yourself this question and answer it with the utmost honesty: Do you have a more visceral response to the thought of not showing your children Disney programs or of not reading the Bible to them? If they already watch something Disney more often than you read Scripture with them or to them, then the stark reality is that Disney is catechizing your children more than Scripture is.
Second, do we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture to capture our children’s imaginations, or do we think we need the world’s supplements? Again, I know that it is, indeed, possible for Scripture to hold a young child’s imagination. My daughter and I are nearly finished reading the Child’s Story Bible, which you should get if you don’t already have it (I’ll have a review posted whenever we do finish it), and I am amazed at how excited she is to start again from the beginning because she wants to hear again about Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Samson, and our other brothers and sisters in the LORD (whom I repeatedly remind her that we will one day meet either in heaven or on the New Earth). God’s Word, brothers and sisters, is truly and wonderfully sufficient, even for capturing and (certainly) for forming our children’s imagination.
Let us conclude by recalling the great words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. We serve the LORD, the true and living God, the Maker of heaven and earth. He demands and marvelously deserves our love and total affection of heart, soul, might, and (as Jesus added) mind. Let us, therefore, be diligent to pass these truths down to our children. Let us not indoctrinate them in the mindset of the world but in the truth of God’s Word.