Two years ago our family story time included readings of The House of Dunraven, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and The Green Ember. About three chapters in to The Green Ember, our then-eight-year-old daughter asked me, “Are you and mom hiding something from us?”
I didn’t understand her question at first; she’s more observant than I am, but I soon recognized that all three of these books are about children who have parents who conceal vital information from their kids about their family’s role in a much larger story. In each book the children find that the safety and predictability of life as they know it is not the whole truth.
I recently re-read The House of Dunraven, by Steven Lympus, and with each passing chapter my daughter’s question resurfaced. Like all good stories Dunraven is as effective for parents as it is for its intended tween audience and ultimately this might be the question Lympus is wrestling with: How and when do we tell our children the truth? The truth that the world is not as safe as the pool floaties and five-point harnessed, titanium car-seats make it out to be. The truth that there is much out there that would steal away wonder and joy and hope. And the most haunting of all–the truth that living in light of the True story means losing our lives as we know them and yet trusting against all current evidence that only such a life is worth the living.
I’m guessing this question also lurks somewhere behind the Wingfeather Saga and the Green Ember series. I was first going to suggest that these books have been written because we do not know the way to tell our children these truths. And so these stories and others are offered to pick up our collective parental slack. But perhaps it is more accurate to say that these truths can only be revealed in stories like these. There is no other way. Betrayal is only a word until you read about Edmund giving up Peter, Susan and Lucy to the White Witch. Courage is a mere abstraction on a vocabulary test until you see Neville Longbottom risking his life for his friends by standing up to Lord Voldermort.
The House of Dunraven is a semi-dystopian adventure story that takes place between the fictitious New England town of Bard’s Cove and the frozen tundra of Nunuvut in the deep north. It has multiple snowmobile chase sequences, which, in itself, is a rare literary feat. Benjamin Story, the 13 year-old narrator arrives home from school one afternoon to find his house in shambles and his father missing. Ben’s father is a bookmaker and a rare book collector and each night he would have Ben “remember” bedtime stories–something Ben assumed all families did. “Remembering” is the ability to re-tell these stories in his own words but to keep all the critical parts of the story intact. Readers familiar with the Old Testament will recognize these bedtime tales as delightful paraphrases of Biblical passages.
The great stories have been lost. Ben and his family are part of a resistant remnant known as the Storyguild striving to keep them alive. The House of Dunraven is sort of The Book of Eli meets Fahrenheit 451 meets The Giver but takes place on a hundred inches of snow-pack and is a lot more fun. There is no mention of the Bible. Nor is there any reference to the transcendent or supernatural in this the first of the Benjamin Stories. But Lympus reveals a world that clearly has a grander metanarrative than the one in which The Organization offers its citizens. Ben’s parents introduce him to this larger reality but only implicitly, through the telling of stories. They never mention the resistance, their role in it, or the unique part Ben will play.
This parental subterfuge was apparently (at least it was apparent to my eight-year-old) the shared theme of our family’s 2017 book selections. It also nicely locates my daily struggle as a father of three. I look for the restoration of all things and the life of the world to come even as I witness and participate in a world stunted and stumbling in its own grave clothes. I want to protect my children from the latter while pointing them to the One who enables us to live brightly now. This tension brings me back to my question: When and how do we tell our children the whole truth? The question is not one of ethics; of course we want to be honest and forthright with our kids. The question is one of means. How do we teach in a way that not only informs but equips our children to live with courage, grace, and wisdom?
The question of “When?” is not always an option. For many, suffering comes early and often and is no respecter of persons or ages. Benjamin Story is adopted which brings its own set of thorny questions of parental transparency. His mother dies before he turns thirteen. His father is missing. The safety net of Bard’s Cove unravels quickly and all of a sudden disorientation and distrust sets in. No amount of bubble wrap will protect our kids for long.
This past Thanksgiving my mother died un-expectantly of complications following a massive heart-attack. Our children, ages 10, 8 and 3 were all of a sudden face to face with the reality of death in the loss of a beloved grandmother. Life does not wait until we are prepared; it is its own instructor. But life is deceptive about the whole truth, which is why we must be diligent. As C.S. Lewis once wrote,
“Since it so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.1”
Death still stings but it pierces less deeply when it has been set in the context of a world ruled by the King who calls dead men out of tombs.
The question of “How?” we teach these truths is perhaps the more challenging one. Ben is angry that his parents didn’t divulge the whole truth and feels betrayed in the midst of his disorientation. But, without revealing too much, it turns out Ben is far more prepared than he knows to walk out on his own in wisdom and courage. Bedtime stories prove to be enough.
What if the way to combat the darkness is as simple as telling stories? Should this surprise us? Is this not the upside down way of the Kingdom in which God has worked from the beginning? An elderly, barren couple is told that their offspring will one day outnumber the stars and bless all the families of the earth. A young shepherd defeats a giant-warrior with a stone and a sling. The King of the world is born in a no-name town on the outskirts of the vast Roman Empire. A cross is his throne. A small collection of failed and feeble disciples begin walking in the Way of the servant King and start a movement that has spanned two millennia and found its way even to the far coast of Washington state where a small collection of us, equally failed and feeble disciples, gathered just this past Sunday to pledge our allegiance to this same servant King. In a world of bombs and bulldozers it is mustard seeds and a pinch of yeast that pack the biggest punch.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
How do we combat the competing stories of our day that seek to de-humanize us and our children into merely producers or consumers? How do we overcome the discord and violence that marks our time? How do we nurture imaginations that reflect our unique role as image-bearers and co-creators of the God who thought up banana slugs and cutthroat trout and fresh snow in February just for the pure delight in it? How do we trust that death and its long dark shadow will one day be given over to endless light? The answer: by telling our kids better bedtime stories.
At one point in The House of Dunraven, Benjamin asks, “Isn’t a story just a story?” Nicodemus, the leader of the resistance replies, “No, no child. A story is never just a story. A story is the most beautiful and powerful thing in the whole world.” Then he leaned in very close to me and whispered, “And the most dangerous!” (pg. 157)
The answer to my daughter’s question is both yes and no. Yes, we are hiding some things from her or at least not telling her everything all at once. But we are telling her all the truth, we are just “telling it slant,”2 implicitly, through the very stories that prompted her question in the first place. Could there be any more delightful way to prepare our kids to live well than by telling bedtime stories? And in our telling we hope that “perhaps, over time, [they] are shaped by them.” (Dunraven, pg. 177)
* Quotations are taken from, Steven Thomas Lympus, The House of Dunraven, (Eugene: Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016). Book Two of the Benjamin Stories, In the Land of Forgetfulness, is due out soon.
1 From C.S. Lewis’ essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.”
2 “Tell it slant” is a line from Emily Dickenson’s poem 1263 and the title of a Eugene Peterson book.