Although I am an atheist, there’s a whole lot of religious music I really really like, from holy music to old time spirituals to the Statler Brothers (select songs) to Christmas songs. I don’t think I sing a whole lot normally, but get a soaring rendition of O Holy Night going and I find it really hard not to ruin it with my own caterwauling. L got a little kid’s karaoke machine type thing from her granddaddy for our early Christmas gathering, and in anticipation of this, M had been practicing Christmas songs with her in the week or two preceding our visit. On the drive to Dad’s, we had the music going, and everybody was enjoying it (F even does a pretty good Deck the Halls Fa la la la la). At a break after Away in a Manger, L piped up and asked who Little Bo Cheeses was. It was really hard not to laugh (in a “that’s so precious” way), but it also kind of hit me in the face with the fact that she’s getting old enough to begin to be exposed to this whole side of our culture — a very dominant part of it, no less — that we haven’t introduced her to overtly before. We’re not interested in teaching her that the stories in the Bible (and particularly the ones that we take to be supernatural) are all true, but it would be a real disservice to her not to provide at least a fair history and culture lesson.
This turns out to be tricky when you’re trying to do the following things:
- Provide an unbiased report of what most people in our culture believe to be true
- Not do too good a sales job when telling her about it (she can figure out what she really thinks when she’s a bit older)
- Explain why we don’t believe this stuff when, for example, her granddaddy does, without being patronizing or painting Granddaddy in anything but a positive light
- Accomplish all of this using language and concepts that a four-year-old can understand
So, who’s this Little Bo Cheeses guy and why are people always singing about him? Here’s more or less how we handled it (given in something resembling a monologue).
The name is actually Jesus, and he was this baby that a lot of people believe was very special. Well, not just special, because all babies are kind of special, but it’s almost like he was a magical baby. (Here I get a little uncomfortable because this could very well be construed by an adult as our making sort of a mockery of what people believe about Jesus, when we’re really honestly just trying to find a way to explain it that a little kid can grok.) And so people think this baby is so cool and special and almost magical (really, we didn’t want L to show up at her granddaddy’s asking what’s up with this magical Bo Cheeses because that could really come off as if we’ve been denigrating the belief, and that’s no good way to kick off your Christmas gathering), so they think about him a lot and even write songs about him. Now, we don’t believe the baby Jesus was magical or anything. We think he was just a regular baby, special like all the others. But we grew up with the stories and songs, and the songs are very pretty, so we like to sing them. It’s sort of like the stories we read. Do you think Liza Lou (a story from M’s childhood that we still read from time to time) is 100% true? But we still enjoy reading it, right?
At some point, I think L asked why Granddaddy believed the stories when we didn’t, and I think we said that it was just the way he’d grown up and that we simply developed different opinions as we got older.
She seemed to sort of understand it, and I think and hope we were pretty sensitive all around (to friends and relatives who are religious, to our own desire not to indoctrinate our kid into religion, to our desire to maintain L’s innocence and openness).
When we got to Dad’s, she pretty quickly found a nativity scene and announced that the baby was Little Bo Cheeses. Over the course of the evening, M taught her the names of the other figures, and it wasn’t at all traumatic for anybody. She hasn’t recounted the tale to me yet, but I understand she knows the basics of the whole Christmas story now.
It’s kind of a hard line to walk. I do want her to understand the culture she’s rooted in. I don’t want her to get saved or whatever at a young friend’s church before she can really understand what it means. And I’m in fact very iffy on the notion of letting her go to any church while she’s young. But on the other hand, I don’t want to stunt her intellectual and social growth by refusing to expose her to the stories even at a young, impressionable age.
I think for the moment we’ve done well. I understand that people I value whose beliefs are at odds with mine may recoil at some of what I’ve said here and will think we’ve done anything but well, surely having consigned our daughter to the fires of Hell. Within my own context (which I know those folk would say is irrelevant, for the only context is God’s; which I call out here not in order to argue against or anything but merely to acknowledge that I understand the schism between worldviews and that providing my own context isn’t useful to all), I’ve done what I wanted: I was fair to a belief system I don’t buy; I exposed my daughter to something of a pillar of our culture; I didn’t compromise my own beliefs in any way; and I believe I explained things in a way that was sensitive to the fact that most people around L do believe the Bible to be at least largely true and often literal.