It’s actually kind of not really a Bible. It’s a translation put out by the American Bible Society that is heavy on illustrations and selective on stories, with occasionally heavy-handed theological interpretations at times. (Did God really have a plan for Joseph the whole time? Or did Joseph just think God had a plan?) Whole chunks of the actual Bible are skipped completely. Want to guess how much of Leviticus and Numbers are illustrated for your child? That’s right: zero percent. (Which, honestly, is probably a good call.) So it’s not a real Bible. But it feels like a good start. And we found it used for fifty cents, so there’s the savings to consider.
Our purchase of a Bible, along with intentional reading from it – every night, we read three or four stories to her – coincides with a recent study published in the journal Cognitive Science suggesting that kids “from a religious background” have a harder time differentiating between fact and fiction. Three types of stories were told to children: 1) obviously real stories, 2) religiously themed stories featuring divine intervention, and 3) stories without religious themes but still featuring some magically impossible event. “Secular” children distinguished the second and third stories to be fiction, whereas children who “went to church or were enrolled in parochial school” were less likely to describe the second or third stories to be fictional.
The age range of these kids was five- and six-year olds. Which is an odd range to choose from, given that it’s exactly the cusp at which children move from preoperational thinking into concrete operational thought. Or, put another way, this is exactly the age in which children start to question whether Santa Claus is real. The authors of the study seem to think that religion encourages magical thinking among children. Which, each night that I’m reading the Bible to my four-year-old, leads me to a couple of thoughts:
A) What is the context in which we tell our children biblical stories?
B) Aren’t children magical thinkers anyway?
C) Is magical thinking such a terrible thing?
My guess is that “religious” kids means kids who are taught that stories of faith – hell, who am I kidding, if this study took place in America, then we mean stories from the Bible – are literally true. Drawing a strict line in the ground about the factual bases of certain biblical stories probably does get confusing to children. If we teach our children that Jonah was a real person who was actually swallowed by a real whale, then I don’t suppose it would be much more of a leap for that child to believe that Santa Claus really fits in the chimney, or that a prince was actually turned into a frog. Children really aren’t developed enough to distinguish between different types of magical thinking like adults are.
This is because children are magical thinkers by their developmental nature. If the researchers really wanted to alarm me, they should have done their study with nine- and ten-year-olds. You know why they didn’t? Because kids that age, even kids who believe that the Bible is literally true, know how to distinguish between reality and fantasy. I dare you to go to the most conservative church you can find and ask the ten-year-olds there if real people can do impossible magical things, and they will probably say no. Perhaps a literal biblical education might delay the transition into concrete operational thought, but I hardly believe that the strictest of churches is raising children who cannot differentiate reality from fantasy.
Last of all, I find myself circling back to the question: what’s so bad about magical thinking? Because, let’s face it, we never grow out of that. I don’t just mean adults who believe the Bible is literal; I mean everyone relies on some kind of magical thinking. You remember that relationship where you were sure if you worked hard enough you could change the other person? Magical thinking. Do you eat “super foods” in order to cleanse unseen toxins from your system? Magical thinking. Do you ever talk out loud to a loved one who has died? Or think that you have control over what happens to you? Or that your life on this earth has a purpose? Magical thinking, all of it.
Do you believe in the power of love? Because, folks, thinking doesn’t get more magical than that.
I could spend a lot of energy parsing the ways that magical thinking could be both negative and positive. There are lots of ways that magical thinking has contributed to pain and suffering; just look at the anti-vaccine movement. There are also ways that magical thinking makes a difference for the better. I daresay that not a little bit of magical thinking inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to believe that a hatefully segregated country could change for the better.
Instead of trying to categorize magical thinking into good and bad types, I’d rather just sit with my daughter in her magical worlds. She isn’t quite old enough to be asking if the stories we read are real. She doesn’t care; they’re books. She loves the stories and it doesn’t matter to her if they are factual or not; they’re real in the sense that they are stories she loves. She is old enough to ask about things that happen to us are real. If I tell her I saw a dragon at work, she’ll ask, “For real?” And I’ll say, “Not for real.” And we’ll laugh. But she doesn’t point to the dragons in her books and say, “Are these real?” They’re real to her in that moment.
This is why I love the Bible. The stories of the Bible are real to me. Not literally, factually real. But real in a deeper, more powerful sense. Yes, even a magical sense. The ways I find myself in the biblical narratives have changed over and over throughout the years of my life, depending on who I am and how I’m growing and changing. That’s why I’ve learned to call the Bible the “living word.” If it were just a book of facts, it wouldn’t be alive. If I have to choose between inanimate data and a little bit of lively magic to determine the meaning in my life, I will choose the magic. Because, come on – who wants to live a life deprived of magic?
It won’t be long before my daughter does start asking of the books we read, “Is this real?” That will include the Bible. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll say, but it will probably be something like, “What do you think?” That’s not a dodge; it’s an invitation to soak in the stories. I don’t fret about the day she questions whether or not the Cat in the Hat exists, and I’m not going to fret about the day she questions whether or not Adam and Eve are real. It’s not that I think these stories are equally important in my life. I haven’t shaped my life around the stories of Dr. Seuss (although that would probably be a life well lived). We all choose the narratives that inform our lives, and there’s a very real communal power in joining together with narratives that are ancient and have informed centuries of people’s lives and movements, for better or worse. I’m glad to pass down the narratives that have informed my life, but if those stories are going to enrich my child’s life, I have to let go of my need to control them. That’s how she reads stories – as beautiful living things that invite her into new and magical worlds, not sets of files to be manipulated and monitored.
I consider myself a scientific person. I’m not one for superstition or illusion. I am, however, one for imagination. I’m all for dreaming, for being visionary that extend beyond what I can touch, for embracing whimsy and creativity. These things don’t conflict; most scientists are deeply imaginative, curious people who look high up at the stars or deep into the atoms and wonder. This is the magic invitation of stories: to wonder. Peace, hope, love – these things are magic. When I sit down each night to read with my daughter, whether it’s about taco-loving dragons, or Max sailing in and out of days, or Moses parting the Red Sea, I join my child in wondering about and over the world. I join her in living a magic-filled life.