I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, but it has really threatened my Christian faith. It’s a book unlike any other, challenging my worldview and giving me nights of tossing and turning in a cold sweat. The book is The Christian Mother Goose Book by Marjorie Ainsborough Decker, and it’s enough to make anyone an unbeliever.
No doubt in good faith, Mrs Decker has ‘improved’ the nursery rhymes you and I know from childhood into ones she feels better communicate the Christian message. So, ‘Lavender’s Blue, Dilly Dilly’ begins:
|Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly
Teach me to say, dilly, dilly
I am not making this up. The Old Woman Who Lives In A Shoe has so many children “And loved them all, too”. And as Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall, he shouts: “God can put me together again!”. You can probably compose Little Bo Peep and the lost sheep for yourself (if you have any Bible knowledge to speak of).
While I don’t resent the theology in the main, I deeply resent the artistry, and I also resent the cultural implication that everything outside the Christian ideal has to be rewritten, reshaped and ‘Christianised’ within an inch of its life.
This seems to me to speak of a cultural fear that some Christians have, where Christianity needs to run away into its own cultural corner, rather than sit alongside other worldviews just being itself and letting the watching world make what it will of it.
While I was cringing over The Christian Mother Goose, I was also reading Morris Gleitzman’s recent novel for young adults, Grace. It, too, made me sad, for related reasons. The novel tells the story of a young girl, Grace, who is a member of a lovely family who belong to a closed Christian community. They attend church, where the elders control who says what and when, and to disobey them is to disobey God Himself. They are forbidden to have contact with unbelievers; even to touch them is to be defiled.
Grace is in trouble for a creative school assignment in which she has rewritten parts of the Bible, casting family members in the place of Bible characters. It’s a gorgeous idea—The Family Bible, she calls it—but the elders of the church think it is blasphemous. Trouble unfolds for the whole family, as the father is evicted from the church for liberalising his children; he is forbidden to see his family, and eventually forcibly divorced from his wife and treated as if he were dead.
The story is heavy, but it is written from the perspective of the resilient and resourceful Grace, who is convinced that this is not right, and that there has to be a better way to obey God than the one her church and its elders are suggesting is the True Path.
At the end of the book, Morris Gleitzman pays tribute to “the people who enriched my childhood with their loving and compassionate Christianity”, so presumably he has seen better expressions of faith in action (despite adding that he doesn’t “share their religious beliefs these days”). Thank God for that. I do know closed Christian communities like the one he describes in the novel, but they are not the normal expression of Christian living (never have been, really), and they tend to go pear-shaped in a short period of time.
Regardless of how rare such closed religious communities are, Gleitzman’s novel highlights a significant problem of perception for Christianity today: it is seen to be legalistic, world-denying and psychologically cruel. When it is practised in the manner outlined in Gleitzman’s novel, it is indeed these things. But that kind of Christian practice is an aberration, not true New Testament faith and living. ‘Separationist’ Christianity seems to me to miss the central significance of grace (and, of course, the girl’s name in the novel is no accident). The Christian idea of grace means that God can ‘live with’ the messiness of real life, the best and worst of human behaviour, and the intermingling of those who line up behind Jesus Christ, and those who don’t.
The problem with the closed church community in Gleitzman’s novel, Grace, and presumably the attitude behind a book such as The Christian Mother Goose, is not merely one of aesthetics nor even prudery. Rather, it is born of an anxiety about the wider world, that it will crush Christian faith unless it is either avoided or reinterpreted. To my mind, both approaches are mistakes. Christianity exists within the world, as a way of understanding life and its meaning. To some, it makes the best sense of the world we live in and of our thoughts, hopes and dreams. To others, it is a foreign way of viewing reality, and getting more foreign by the day.
Christians who hope to persuade others of the beauty, truth and goodness of the Faith will need to do so within the culture, living alongside those who think differently, who live differently, and whose actions may even bring discomfort to those who follow the way of Jesus Christ. But that’s what grace is all about, and any true Christian knows that he or she needs grace as much as anyone else.
Dr Greg Clarke is Director of CPX
This article originally appeared at The Punch