Remember Veggie Tales, the popular Christian videos produced by Big Idea featuring the likes of Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber, Junior the Asparagus, Silly Songs, and Bible stories acted out by anthropomorphic vegetables? These characters and their antics were everywhere for well over a decade. For a while they were even featured during the Saturday morning cartoon slot on NBC. Phil Vischer, the co-creator of Veggie Tales and former "top tomato" at Big Idea Productions, has his own podcast. A couple of years ago he discussed the book A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. During the episode the following exchange took place between Vischer and his co-host, Skye Jethani.
Vischer: Here’s what I want to do. I want to encourage parents and Christian educators to teach critical thinking skills… do you know why we don’t do that?
Jethani: ‘Cause it’s hard.
Vischer: ‘Cause we’re afraid our kids will actually use them.
Jethani: And they might come to a different conclusion.
Vischer: And they might come to a different conclusion than we have come to.
For far too long educators in the church have felt like it was their job to teach those under their care what to think. The unspoken line of logic usually goes something like this...
"If we want 'the faith' to continue, then we must make sure that those who come after us understand the faith in the same way we understand the faith which is the same way that those before us understood the faith. We must teach our young what to think and how to think it 'rightly'. We must encourage conformity if the faith is going to survive."
This is a great approach if the goal is to create automatons running around who think and act exactly alike parroting the pet lines and pithy catchphrases that have been handed to them. There is no room in this approach for the free spirit, the nonconformist, the individual, the critical thinker.
The amazing children and youth with whom we are privileged to share life are not empty vessels to be filled with platitudes and easy solutions.
They aren't stagnant beings who will stay the same once they understand the faith 'rightly'.
They tend to continue to grow and learn, and they interact with other ideas and philosophies.
They won't sit still.
They won't stay the same.
They won't think the way they "should" think.
That's kind of what it means to grow up.
It is past time for us to do things differently. What would happen if instead of simply teaching our young people what to think, we committed ourselves to the task of helping young people discover how to become critical thinkers? Just imagine what kind of environment this would create for our children and youth.
It is a difficult task but is more than worth the effort. We cannot be afraid of the questions that will inevitably come with critical thinking. Those questions are there whether we acknowledge them and give them space or not. We must not shy away from the depths into which we may be pushed as we think critically about the faith, the Bible, the traditions, the teachings of our faith, and life itself and encourage others to do the same.
Life is messy. We all know that. It is more than the easy answers that we spout from our familiar religious jargon lexicons. Faith in the midst of this mess is the example of those who have gone before us. That is the witness of the stories we find within our sacred texts. It is vitally important that we create a space for the young people (and adults) in our lives and our churches to engage this messiness. If we do not I fear that we are only fooling ourselves and attempting to sell snake oil to the masses.
when a young person's parent dies;
when a teen wakes up wondering why they are the way they are;
when a young woman feels like she has to drink in order to feel alive;
when a young man would rather not exist than go through another day struggling with the emotional pain he carries;
when a young person wonders where this God that they have heard so much about is in the midst of their pain;
When all of this and more happens, these incredible young people better be armed with more than simple answers of convenience and saccharin sweet Jesus loves yous.
What are we afraid of?
Are we truly afraid that if we help young people discover the joy that can be found in engaging the difficult questions and the deep well of faith that can be discovered within the struggle they will "come to a different conclusion than we have come to"?
If so, then perhaps we should examine the object of our own faith more deeply. Perhaps we only believe in the Plasticine idol of easy answers we have created and not the living God who meets us within the wonder-filled beautiful mess that is life.
As Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, wrote in Struggling with Scripture, "this is your faith. Your living faith. I'm trying to give it back to you. This is how the first Christians did faith, aggressively using it to interpret, not just recite their traditions. The Spirit was alive, and the Word of God was on the move. You couldn't catch it, and you couldn't hold it so you'd be safe an secure. You had to move on dangerous ground with it."
In David Foster Wallace's commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, This is Water, he says of critical thinking and engagement, "It's hard. It takes will and effort...the alternative is unconsciousness."
It is a more difficult road for sure. However, if we really want our young people to develop a faith that is alive and is more than just a treasure of the past, then it is imperative that we help them discover how and create the space for them to think critically even when it makes us uncomfortable.