This article first appeared on desiringGod.org.
How the Best Stories Point Kids to Christ
For the past two years, the realities of life in a pandemic have posed enormous challenges for parents. In the best cases, masks and testing, remote learning and limited childcare have strained family rhythms and routines. In the worst, COVID has claimed the lives of loved ones, stirring our kids to wakefulness as they grieve and wrangle with questions that cut to the heart of their faith: Why would God allow a pandemic? Why didn’t he save my loved one? Is God really good?
Such questions are so vital to our children’s faith that parents can buckle under the pressure of how to respond. During such moments, we can first and always turn to Scripture, all of it breathed out by God and profitable for teaching (2 Timothy 3:16). When their own questions arose during the pandemic, a deep dive into the book of Job helped my kids appreciate that God works all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), even when we can’t comprehend his specific designs. I’ve been grateful to God for how his word has guided our kids during hard moments, anchoring them in the storm.
And in between the hard moments, I’ve also been grateful for another gift, far less weighty, but one that reflects the truths my kids read in Scripture: a hobbit, whose adventures in Middle-earth point our kids back to God’s word with every reading.
No fiction can replace God’s inspired word. Yet during these strange times, the right stories — those that applaud goodness in the face of terror, hope against all hope, and celebrate the just, true, and lovely (Philippians 4:8) — can help point our kids to the one true Story: Christ crucified and risen for us.
I first glimpsed the power of great stories to enrich our gospel teaching while reading The Fellowship of the Ring with my kids. My son and daughter munched peanut butter and jelly while Frodo and his companions fled across the bridge of Khazad-dûm. As Gandalf wheeled about to face the Balrog, my kids paused mid-bite and leaned in, enraptured. The bridge gave way; my kids leaned in farther. Then the Balrog’s whip lashed around Gandalf’s ankle. The beloved wizard urged the fellowship to save themselves, and then he sank into the abyss.
I paused and studied my kids warily. Finally, my son spoke up. “I think he gave himself for the others, Mum,” he said. “Kind of like Jesus did for us.”
Dozens of similar moments have since burst through our read-aloud time. An abridged version of Oliver Twist elicited comments about how we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36–40), and are to extend compassion to the poor (Zechariah 7:10). The Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings inspired conversations about sin, how it entices and then enslaves us, and how it burdened Frodo just as Christian’s pack encumbered him in Pilgrim’s Progress.
As we read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on the couch, my little girl paused between mouthfuls of goldfish to smile as a gleaming albatross appeared in the sky to guide Lucy Pevensie out of danger. When Aslan’s voice boomed, “Courage, dear one,” my daughter remarked, “It’s kind of like the Holy Spirit appearing.” I wiped away tears.
J.R.R. Tolkien believed that such moments in narratives occur because the very best stories resonate with gospel truth. In his essay On Fairy Stories, he writes the following:
The peculiar quality of “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. . . . It may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. (77–78)
In other words, good stories delight us because they reflect the true Story — the Christian Story — and point us to the hope of the ultimate happy ending: our adoption as God’s children through Christ’s death and resurrection.
How do we reap these joys and wonders for our kids? How do we make the most of our read-aloud time, and point them to the true happy ending?
The fact that Tolkien has an enormous secular fan base illustrates that great stories alone can’t instruct us in the gospel. Stories can enliven the imagination and fan the sparks of a child’s understanding into flame — but we need to light those sparks first. Great stories will point to the gospel only if our kids first know God’s word.
The Bible is clear that we’re to infuse our kids’ days with Scripture, allowing it to spill over into every moment as we walk in the way, lie down, and rise (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). It’s to seep into what we read with them, what we laugh about, what we share. The Bible informs how we live, not only during devotions, but in every moment of the day.
Teach your kids that God’s word is a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Psalm 119:105). Then help them to perceive glimmers of his truth through stories.
How do we discern whether a story we read with our kids reflects the world, or the One who has overcome the world? Paul’s words on discernment can guide us:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Seek books with pages that overflow with the true, pure, and lovely. Educator Charlotte Mason referred to “living books” as the sustenance for children’s minds, and described such literature as “the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life” (Parents and Children, 263). Search for such books that explore our sinful nature with humility, point to our hope in Christ with reverence, and highlight the victory of good over evil. If you’re not sure, sites such as The Read-Aloud Revival offer helpful booklists and reviews.
As you read with your kids, be alert to biblical themes. Look for the redemptive arc in each story — the character arc or plotline that points to our salvation in Christ. The following brief list includes some examples of redemptive arcs:
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Aslan giving his life to save Edmund
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Aslan saving Eustace from his fate as a dragon
- The Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf giving his life for the fellowship
- The Return of the King: Aragorn returning to rule over a kingdom made new
- The Wingfeather Saga: Janner giving his life to save the Cloven
While these examples reflect the works of Christian authors, even less-overt literature can prove instructive if approached with discernment. Shakespearean tragedies vividly portray the destructive power of sin. Dickens stirs us to compassion for the poor, for widows, and for orphans (Deuteronomy 10:18; James 1:27). The Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web highlight love for neighbor and hope in despair. And Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson (we read the abridged versions) illustrate God’s faithfulness and provision.
Even the bad guys from Greek mythology can offer teachable moments: when we openly discuss the brutality and lasciviousness of Zeus, the false deity withers before the majesty, mercy, and holiness of the one true God.
Great stories leave imprints upon the heart and mind that linger long after “The End.” Stories shape us, leaving marks that never fade. And when Christian themes weave through stories like glittering threads, those marks point our children to the hope that endures in the face of even the deepest darkness. The best stories point us to the one true Story, the greatest Story of all. The best stories point us to Christ.
And the ending of his Story is perfect. It will never disappoint. It flows like a cool cup of living water, ushering us to eternal life. The King, the One who bore our burdens (Isaiah 53:4), will return. The cursed ring will burn up. And in this ending, the greatest of all happy endings, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).