I was born a Christian. “Impossible” say most Protestants, “no one can be born a Christian, but you have to be born again.” Christianity, after all, is a faith of Knowledge and Ideas. It’s a set of beliefs you must opt, that you must “confess,” which then manifests in a distinct way of life. Or at least, that’s the popular self-conception. Yet still, when I look at my life I really can only draw the conclusion that I was born a Christian. More specifically, I was born into the community of white evangelical protestant Christians, which is a very distinct culture. It is one riddled with paradoxical ideas, suppressed anxiety, good intentions, and mixed results.
I’ve thought about explaining my spiritual background to you, my readers, because it is integral to my view of the world and is very relevant to contextualize my interests and reactions to the Quran in my Quran project. But with each attempt to lay such out, I have always gotten hung up on needing to explain the context for my context. So here is my attempt to lay a foundation for a later personal self-exploration. Grant me a little grace and patience as I try to introduce you, briefly, to the paradox of being born into a confessional faith.
Something Old or Something New?
Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”John 3:3
The idiom “born again” has been worn into a threadbare cliche in American religious language, but does not cease to be held in America as the quintessential Christian experience. The basic meaning as understood by the people who genuinely use the term is that epiphany moment in life when you confess to being a Christian. “Confess” in this context means admitting belief. To be born again is to start a new life, wherein that starting point is spiritual and not physical. Though the words “born again” get associated with a certain kind of Christian tradition, the individual’s need to change or go through an epiphany is quite central to Christianity. Maybe instead of “be born again,” the commands will be “convert,” “repent,” or “confess,” but the basic idea of changing your identity to one defined by faith is the same. (Also, there’s debate about whether the ritual of baptism is required and how that baptism must be performed, but I’m not here for that debate today. Just assume that for most Christians this all includes baptism and for many it does not.)
This finds its roots in the Christian scriptures. I know that academics argue about the dating and exactly how many generations have passed by the time these accounts were written down, but nonetheless the accounts as written only cover the first-generation experiences of Christianity. The New Testament is almost entirely about adults reacting to the teachings of Jesus. Our scriptures are chock-full of people having epiphany moments and making drastic changes in their lives and outlooks, but it is all as a reaction to new information. Moreover, these epiphanies are all experienced by adults. Several times in Act of the Apostles we find whole households being baptized, but the generational composition of those households is unexplained, and again they are reacting to novel information. Their concern is the immediate growth and survival of the community through converts, not through governance and reproduction. The Christian scriptures do not progress in time to address a world and culture where the ideas of Christianity are commonplace and passively learned. Timothy is the closest thing we see to someone who was raised by Christians –not a from-scratch convert– but even he would likely not have been so young at the advent of Jesus’ teachings and his mother’s/grandmother’s conversions, and it’s not clear how his own conversion happened.
The query this poses to Christians is how are we to raise our children?
While Jesus teaches repentance and the necessity of rebirth, he doesn’t speak upon the practical questions of raising children. Jesus welcomes children into his presence and elevates their wonder and innocence, which again reinforces the need of adults to start a new life and reclaim those child-like qualities. Jesus teaches us to go out an make disciples of all mankind and he models to us teaching and service to the disenfranchised; you never hear him say things like “Family is Key to the Future of the Church.” But making disciples of all men surely includes one’s children. How do you raise a child to believe Christian things and do Christian things… and then not call them a Christian until they have… changed their identity to be Christian?
Generational Christian families situationally have more in common with the familial teachings in the Hebrew side of the Bible. For Christian parents and Christian children, Jesus’ teachings are no longer new but are old information that must be transmitted faithfully through the generations. In the Hebrew side of the Bible, conversion stories of people finding new information (or new-again information) are exceptions to the central principle of conserving old information. If you need to repent/convert, as the target Hebrew audiences frequently did, then that is because you failed to conserve the information you had been given. The knowledge was a heritage, a legacy to be passed through the family. You cannot choose your faith any more than you can choose your parents, thus the symbol of circumcising sons to mark the nigh genetic identity of covenant with God. Ongoing repentance of inevitable failures was wrought through cycles of ritual and spiritual practice, rejecting departure from the ideal identity you were subscribed to. The point of Israel was to be a people who were in a relationship with God and to build a society that reflected and perpetuated that commitment. The Hebrew Testament highly emphasizes the passing on of an explicitly faith-based culture, holding both parents and children responsible for this conservation.
Yet of course, this example still falls short for Christian parents because it implies there being no need to change one’s identity. “Conversion” in the religious sense of “change identity” should be unnecessary for someone raised in such a culture. But the central message of Jesus is a call to change, and a denial that mere inheritance and conservatism accomplishes the spiritual rebirth that inherits the coming Kingdom. If you are maintaining a practice and set of beliefs that you were instructed in from birth you’ll have to repent from some inevitable human failures, but is that exactly the “born again” experience that Jesus demands?
There is another anxiety latent in the parents of confessional faiths that is ever-present but rarely mentioned: what makes a valid confession? Or to put it a different way: how complete must someone’s brain be before the confession is valid? This anxiety concerns both the physical development of the brain and the educational development. Since early church history, there were questions about how much a person needed to know before their confession really meant something. How many implications to their confession must they have thought out before you can say that they’ve actually committed to it? Does an invalid confession ultimately defame the faith being confessed? Does the bright-eyed naivety of youth understand what it’s confessing? Are children making their own choices, or just enacting the choices of their parents, with no personal conviction? And can an illusion of an invalid confession prevent a person from making a valid confession later?
The Bible sometimes contrasts youth and adulthood, but it never concerns itself with the process or point of transition. And of course, in the Hebrew side of the Bible there’s not really any reason to do so. By the legacy terms of the Hebrew covenant there is no point where one has to distinguish between the child and the adult because both are equally covenanted and accountable. There is no transition point where conversion is expected, because the assumed status is one of continuation. A person transitions from learner to practitioner/teacher smoothly, as in any apprenticeship, achieving their independence by demonstrations of competence and by the gradual obsolescence of their mentor. A confessional faith, however, hinges upon a point of transition, that epiphany moment wherein one changes one’s identity. So when can that happen? Or does it not matter when it happens and how complete the confessors brain/knowledge is so long as they continue in that identity? Maybe it’s best just to play it safe and wait a little later an longer till you feel really sure that there’s development enough to validate the confession. Except–
Christians are haunted by Hell. In America, most Christians don’t like to talk about Hell, because our lives are comfortable here and thinking about Hell makes us uncomfortable. And I’m afraid that those who do talk about Hell often do so with a little pride in the self-image that they are not so queasy as to avoid unpleasant realities (or at least, unpleasant realities that only concern other people). There is a point, however, when that unpleasant reality starts to singe the average Christian’s comfortable insulation from thoughts of Hell, and that’s the question of children. Now, Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the likes of little children. Most people take that to refer to the “little children” of spiritual rebirth, but many also take that to imply that little children also are automatically qualified. But little children don’t stay little forever, so again we come to the point where people get antsy as to when children age out of that assumed protection and start needing that spiritual rebirth.
So herein we find the great gamble of Christian parenting. By and large, most Christian communities want their converts to “know what they’re getting into,” to make the confession as clear and spelled out as possible, and to do a little gate-keeping to make sure that converts don’t reflect poorly upon the community through either ignorant action or apostasy. But then again, no one knows the nebulous span of time wherein youth grows into accountability. You don’t want to risk your child postponing their confession so long that tragedy sends them to Hell. But you don’t want them to confess too early and make an invalid confession! You want to control things for your child’s best welfare, but you don’t want to meddle and mess things up! Hellfire’s at stake!!! Ahhhhhh!!!!!!
Direct or Lateral Control
As you can see, Christian parents might have some control issues, as do well-meaning parents in general, but Christianity has some high stakes in play. Some of you, however, might at this moment be feeling a little superior and above it all. I’m looking at you…
Okay, I single out Catholics only because I have Catholic friends who read my blog, and they know that I know that they know a solution to this paradox. Besides just Catholics there are many Christian communities that embrace the solution of infant Christening. Rather than sitting on the time bomb of their children’s salvation, they take preemptive action and start their children’s rebirth right after birth. There is in this a recognition of modern Christianity’s more Hebrew-style situation, wherein most Christians come from Christian families rather than new converts. It emphasizes the communal responsibility to perpetuate itself, and recognizes the role of internal transmission between generations as well as outside conversion. I don’t think it’s an accident that the churches that adopt this practice tend to have hierarchical institutions that outsource religious education from just the family. The family is important, of course, but the institutions are just as responsible for their own self-perpetuation. So both parents and community commit to make the child a Christian, and the child’s role is not to change their identity but to accept it. Most children go through a rite of passage ritual when they reach the institutionally decreed age of maturity, wherein they confess their faith and officially adopt a spiritual identity. Sometimes it’s at that point that they get baptized, if they weren’t baptized as an infant. The “change” of conversion is reflected in the ongoing rejection of the one’s selfish identity in favor of the spiritual ideal of one’s faith. It is a Christianization of Old Testament wisdom.
I am not here to attack or defend this idea, only to explain it. Because there is a lot of diversity in Christian thought, and I want to make that clear.
There is a lot in common too, and different communities are often just rocking back and forth between different emphases and responses to the same issues. If I were really to take the time to explain the different theologies you would find a lot of the same ideas and anxieties.
So some communities embrace and make more explicit their employment of Old Testament wisdom on the matters of passing faith through the family. My community is not that community. Though Christians as a whole defy the confines of universal labels, there are various groups whose similarity in culture, theology, and practice can be generally talked about as “White Evangelical Protestants.”
- White: descended from European patterns of thought
- Evangelical: Insistent on individual reaction to the Gospel/Bible (“gospel” and “evangel” are twins from the same Greek origin).
- Protestant: non-Catholic, non-Orthodox
Not all groups that are White Evangelical Protestants are my community, but my community is White Evangelical Protestant. On the matter of raising children, however, it doesn’t matter that my own community is not like others on some things in that we are all quite alike on these things. 1) We demand that our children undergo life-defining spiritual rebirths by their own volition. 2) We put the onus on parents to set up for their children an inevitable climax to that experience. For surely: “Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.“
So if your children need to make their own choice to become Christians, you –as a loving parent who doesn’t want your child to go to Hell– will do everything in your power to make sure that your children only have ONE choice. It has been noted that White Evangelical Protestants are obsessed with exerting control on the world, and a lot of verve for this work comes from a desire to make sure that that children can only ever look, act, and think like Christians.
Though no one can make you choose to be “born again,” they sure can try to make sure that it’s the easiest and most inevitable thing. And any parent –particularly any mother– who fails to make their child’s conversion inevitable… Well. It must be their fault, mustn’t it? They mustn’t have taught or trained their child right. They mustn’t have loved their child enough. They mustn’t have insulated and conditioned them against The World enough. They let their child be rather too individual, didn’t they?
Many churches call themselves “family friendly.” My husband passed on to me a quote from some other source that “when you see the name ‘family church,’ you know the signal that this is a church for families, not a church family.” Joining a family church is frequently a mechanism of insulating your children in a culture wherein they will learn to think, talk, and act like Christians. But once you’ve insulated your children from all non-Christian influences, what’s a church to do? Ideally they’ve got bunch of kids who think, talk, and act like Christians. If it walks, talks, and looks like a duck, how do you not call it a duck? But you need those growing children to be “born again” to be really Christian, if you hold that faith starts from a point of epiphany and spiritual rebirth. You’ve taken away all other choices from those children; now how do you get them to make the choice? How can you make them feel it?
One common thing is to find something for your kids to repent of. Why do kids get so much moral scrutiny and so many lectures on purity? Because if you can convict them of their sinfulness, then they have something to repent of and a new identity to take on. Maybe they are already disgusted by their sin, or they have a really disgusting sin that they need to overcome, and you can impress upon them the forgiveness and hope of rebirth offered by Jesus. Nevermind that this leads to increasingly meaner and more hair-splitting criticism in the lives of vulnerable youths who are already struggling with self-image and self-respect in their years of transition. Nevermind that the adults doing this are guilty of the same or worse sins, betraying that their own past repentance has failed to heal them or restore their innocence. Nevermind that children aren’t idiots and can see this. You need that youth to repent, to have some epiphany in their life driving them to confess faith and devote themselves to a life of the Good News. And if your scrutiny only drives them to be more pure, then surely you’ve done a good thing in preempting sin, and surely their purity will only make their conversion more inevitable right? There’s no other reaction this could incite in kids, right?
Or, given how cruel and pharisaical that method of purity culture and guilt-hunting can get, maybe you’re keen to avoid that approach. There are other feelings to turn to. A lot of communities go to great expense and effort to form groups and hold events that excite children. Loud music, bright lights, whooping enthusiasm. Or maybe just simple campfires and a silly good time. Maybe a service project that takes a lot of youthful energy and gains back a lot of thankfulness. Build the kids into a tight community of shared experiences and emotions, so that they have an intense sense of belonging. Get some peer pressure to start a wave of confession and adoption of Christian identity. Give them the best sales-pitch of church as a place of community, belonging, service, and joy. Nevermind that those levels of energy are unsustainable for a whole lifetime. Nevermind that these things can inflate the ego of the child and make them entitled to attention and feel-goods. Nevermind that the church doesn’t actually look like that once they’ve gotten your confession out of you and you’re too old to be treated with such focused expense. Nevermind that the church often doesn’t have anything better for you to do as an adult except have your own kids. If you’ve taught them that church could be more exciting and networked, if you’ve left a void in their social lives that will always bring them back to church, then that’ll inevitably lead to their conversion, right? There’s nowhere else they can go for sensory overload and community, right?
Now of course, these things can also work with kids who didn’t grow up in an insulated culture, and these things can have good outcomes. Maybe looking for guilt and offering repentance will help save a kid from self-destructive habits and give them a new hope for life. Maybe that kid really did need a safe place to belong when they couldn’t find it elsewhere. Maybe that youthful zeal will become part of that grown kid and they’ll work to build joy and belonging into every community they enter. It is not that I don’t believe there are good results and that people make genuine, self-derived choices regarding their faith under these circumstances. It’s just the inconsistency of the culture, and the reality that people always have another choice and can choose that too. But if you, the individual, do the individual thing and choose not to adopt what the community offers, then not only are you condemned, but your family too. And we call ourselves family friendly.
I’m the Paradox
So this paradox of the un-optionable option of Christianity was very much part of my upbringing and provided some very formative ideas and insights. I bring these charges against my own community because that is the community I’ve experienced and the community I’m still a part of. I don’t think it’s a flaw exclusive to us, and I don’t think it’s a flaw I’m exempt from. But since it is my community, I’ll critique it, and I’ll challenge it to be more honest with itself. Jesus did not promise us a world that was shaped to make our lifestyle easier, our conclusions more obvious, and our children our natural inheritors. I walked, talked, and thought like a Christian long before I chose to be one –in fact, it was all too easy– yet I kept being told to choose to be one. What does that say about the identity we’re calling “Christian”?
And of course, I can’t help but include the quality insights articulated by Andrew Henry on things relevant to what I said today. I hope you find them interesting. Though they start with Christian example they comment upon religious upbringing in general.