Q & R: Real or Pretend?
Here's the Q:
I always thought I'd have some sagely advice to give my kids about Old Testament literalism, but when my 3 year old daughter asked me if the story about Elijah going to heaven was real or pretend, I froze up and had no idea what to say. It's so hard to get the complexity across. I want to communicate the idea that scripture is real in the sense that it really points us to the mystery of God but pretend in the sense that odds are, nobody ever got into a flaming chariot and actually flew away. I don't want to crush her spirit or make her think religion is pointless by just saying its pretend, but I don't want to be dishonest. Any pointers?
Here's the R:
I'm deep into the writing of my next book (which will be a kind of re-catechesis), and was just grappling with this question yesterday when I read your question. It's easier to answer for 30 year-olds than 3 year-olds in some ways. Here's what I wrote yesterday (incorporating your question into my next book, for which I thank you, as I do all my responsive readers whose questions help me greatly as a writer) ...
Because the rules and standards of ancient storytelling don’t conform to modern standards of reporting and recording history, it’s tricky to try to correlate the most ancient Bible stories with modern timelines. We frequently find ourselves in the position of a mother whose little girl asked her if the story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was “real or pretend.”
The question, of course, can’t be answered in a way that is simultaneously full, rich, and nuanced on the one hand and simple, clear, and satisfying for a three-year old (or some thirty-year-olds) on the other. A full and nuanced answer would require us first to explain that even so-called "real" stories are told from a point of view, with a rhetorical purpose that causes some background and details to be included and other information to be omitted. In other words, no "real" event can be reported without being interpreted - and interpreting events often involves moves that look a lot like pretending. (note - pretend that we don't need to know what happened 3 hundred years before, etc.)
Second, we would need to explain that both real and pretend stories can be told for a wide variety of purposes. On one extreme, they can be told to deceive, oppress, pacify, manipulate, and hurt people, and on the other, they can be told to challenge people to think, to liberate and encourage them, to heal, comfort, and otherwise help them. Sometimes a "pretend" story can do a lot more good than a "real" story - as Jesus' parables exemplify so powerfully. And sometimes a "real" story can do a lot more harm than a pretend story - as gossip exemplifies so powerfully. So the binary option between real and pretend quickly becomes complexified into four options (with all the gradations in between) - real-healing or real-harming, pretend-harming or pretend-healing.
We would also need to acknowledge that stories that begin as real often are embellished with pretend elements (and vice versa), as any salesman - or preacher - knows!
For a three-year-old, I think a good answer would be, "That's a great question! Some stories are real, and some are pretend, and some of the very best ones are a mix of both. I think that story is a mix of both. What do you think?" Such an answer would invite the child to join the interpretive community rather than remain a passive consumer of interpretive products churned out by grown-up interpreters - who often could learn a lot from three-year-olds about interpretation!
So we might say that the stories of Genesis and Exodus are a mixture of fact and fiction, re-told and re-interpreted generation to generation. We might call them formational ancestral fiction - imaginative tales about a community’s ancestors that were created or adapted with a serious purpose in mind: to form character, faith, identity, solidarity, and shared values in a community.