Battling for the Minds and Hearts of Our Children
A Christian Parenting Round Table Discussion with Frank and Barbara Peretti, Bob and Gretchen Passantino
Copyright 1992 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
The brilliant blue of the sky contrasted with the deep green of the fir trees spiking the horizon as the sun climbed above the islands of Washington's Puget Sound. Seattle lay across the water, the tall buildings of downtown looming above the water as constant reminders that urban confusion was only a few minutes away. In the quiet of the small island hideaway, that social ambiguity was the topic of Christian discussion.
Frank Peretti, America's best-selling Christian novelist, and his wife of twenty years, Barbara sat opposite each other. Frank's two novels of spiritual warfare, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness (Crossway), together have sold more than 2.8 million copies. His new novel, Prophet, broke industry records with advance orders of almost 500,000 copies. Not since C. S. Lewis has any Christian fiction author touched so many lives, both Christian and non-Christian, with the exciting dynamics of God's intervention in the world.
Bob and Gretchen Passantino, veteran Christian cult-watchers, journalists, and authors of several books, including their recent book for parents, When the Devil Dares Your Kids (Servant), joined Frank and Barbara for a fascinating, practical discussion of the underlying threats facing children in Christian families today. What follows is the heart of their far-ranging discussion, practical wisdom and clear direction for Christian parents facing the battle with the world for the hearts and minds of their children.
Passantinos: Family relationships are integral to your books, and this is especially noticeable in your new novel, Prophet. While your themes are as far ranging as spiritual warfare, abortion, ethical absolutes, and the media, your seem to relate each theme to a very personal, individual, and family level. How did you come to see broad themes entwined in specific family dynamics?
Peretti: I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in society today is to assume that "the big picture" is somehow over-reachingly more important than the intimacies of personal life. I am not society, and no individual is. Instead, individuals relate to each other, first in a parent-child relationship, then in the family, then with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and, finally, nation-to-nation. We can't expect our nation to promote eternal values, peaceful coexistence, and mutual love and support when our individual families neglect values, bicker among ourselves, and have no internal commitment and stability. Although Barbara and I have no children of our own, we were both children, I was a youth leader for a long time, and we see first hand both the good and the bad in today's families and how that affects society as a whole. For example, anyone who says abortion is a social issue and not a family issue is forgetting the mother and unborn child who are the focus of the battle in the first place.
Passantinos: Christian families face intimidating challenges to their faith. On every side we see the threats of the world, and too often, we see those threats making inroads in Christian families. Christian marriages fail, our children are abandoning the faith as boring and irrelevant, and parents feel guilty that they can't afford to take their children out of public school. What kind of a battle is this?
Frank: First of all, what you've said is only part of the picture. Many Christian marriages succeed, many Christian congregations are warm and loving, and children are also looking for a vital faith.
But I agree with you that there is a fierce battle raging, one that started back in the beginning with Adam and Eve: do we want to worship and serve God, or worship and serve ourselves? The players may change over the millennia, but the script remains the same. But I think the battle has become more evident over the last few decades, especially in the American church, because many Christians have succumbed to the world's shallowness and no longer build our strength on spiritual depth. Instead of Bible study we have spiritual warfare video games, instead of worship we have staged musical extravaganzas.
I tried to project some of this concern even in my books for children. They developed out of stories I told when I was a youth camp leader. I felt frustrated that we were trying to "fix" a childhood full of problems in one inspiring, emotional message a day at church camp. I wanted to try to show that the Bible's answers are a way of life, not a grab bag of options. I didn't think I could do that in one short message, so I started giving a new installment of my story at every session, until the kids couldn't wait to hear what happened next. That anticipation and sense of continuity from one message to the next gave me freedom to express the total lifechanging power of the Bible.
Passantinos: Let's bring this down to a practical, family level. What is wrong with our families today and how can we fix it?
Frank: Part of what's wrong is our obsession with unrealistic instant diagnoses and microwave solutions. One of the biggest lies to impact our Christian families today is that there isn't any problem too big to diagnose and cure in a thirty minute television sitcom format. Christian parents who expect simple problems and easy solutions won't often find them in the Bible, it's too honest for that and expects better commitment from us.
Let me give you an example. In Prophet, my main character, John Barrett, is a television newscaster. He used to believe, but he's abandoned his early faith for the glitter and facade of the television studio. He thinks opinions equal truth and that the only good solutions are in twenty second television sound bites. When his son, Carl, comes to him with some serious, soul-wrenching problems, John is at a loss. There's nothing in his "father script" to answer Carl's despair and confusion. John doesn't want to dig deep, to examine his commitments, to sacrifice whatever it takes to understand himself, the world, and how he and his son fit into the grand scheme of things. But Carl won't let it go. He isn't satisfied with John's shallow platitudes.
In the same way, some Christian parents may be looking for easy answers, but eventually their kids won't buy it. Their kids know the depth and intensity of life's confusion, and they want real answers, even if they're difficult. Christianity holds the basic assumptions that truth is absolute, it can be known, and it has its roots in a personal God who expects something of us. That's heavy responsibility, and the world doesn't want that. As Christians, we should be thirsty for that kind of responsibility.
Kids can fall into this problem, too. Raised on a diet of thirty minute sitcom families, kids sometimes think there should be easy answers "like on TV," but then they find out life isn't a television show and answers sometimes are initially painful and demand commitment.
Passantinos: Okay, life is more complicated than a sitcom, but we do need to make some sense of the social mess we see around us in order to help our children cope. Let's get an idea of the principles God has given us to understand and respond to the challenges of the world. For example, let's look at public education. For many Christian parents, public school is the only option they can afford, and yet there are so many lies propagated through public education.
Frank: I'm not impressed with public education. I think it has bought into some of the most destructive lies in our society. For example, one of the great lies is that thinking is archaic and unnecessary. Instead of teaching our kids to think, public school teaches them that personal opinion is the equivalent of objective truth. Here's an example of a lie that Christians buy, too. One of the common misassumptions in public education today is that learning should be entertaining. Sesame Street taught a generation of kids not only the alphabet and how to count, but it also taught them that learning should always be a blast. If it isn't fun, it isn't worth doing.
I don't mean learning can't be entertaining. That's part of good story telling. In fact, I object to much of today's school reading assignments not only because they're often filled with prejudices against Christianity and absolute family values, but also because they're often poor literature, they don't tell a story with imagination on a foundation of lasting value. Look at some of the best classics in children's literature -- they have maintained their popularity because they have imaginatively touched the Real, they express Truth, they aren't ashamed to embrace the values that change lives.
Evolution is another big lie. Kids are told they're not special, they're not created and loved by God. Instead they're only a sophisticated collection of random chance processes in a meaningless existence in an accidental universe. Of course, if there's no reason to existence, then there are no moral absolutes, no ultimate truth, no transcendent meaning for individual persons. No wonder teenagers are in despair and can't find a reason to go on living!
Carl Barrett [in Prophet] reflects this image of meaninglessness. That's why all of his art is chaotic. I think of him standing in the midst of his Christian grandfather's workshop, everything neat, tidy, orderly, purposeful, and there's Carl, standing before his easel, frustrated because his canvas can only reflect chaos. Carl's grandfather understood the purpose and personal involvement of God in the world and it's reflected in the way he lived his life. Carl doesn't know anything, has no anchor, and no assurance of personal meaningfulness.
Society comes up with another whopper of a lie to try to cover up the damage from the evolution lie: "self-esteem." We have value because we're created in God's image and we're objects of His love. Even in the midst of our sinfulness, God still loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. But this self-esteem lie says our self-value is dependent on other humans around us, that it is determined by our ability to contribute to society. We should feel good because people appreciate us, because we belong, because we can fulfill a useful function in our society, but never are we told we are loved by the Creator of the universe!
The solution is not to boycott all public education, but to make Christian commitment and evaluation an integral part of our lives, and then to teach our children to have the same kind of commitment and to think through and reject or accept the many options we're faced with today.
Bob: Successful Christian parenting is not composed of how-to steps, but instead successful how-to steps reflect a life of spiritual depth and intense commitment that is not nearly as intimidating as it appears at first. It would be easier if we could simply follow a few easy steps and then take time off from parenting for good behavior. But the significant lessons we teach our children aren't simple. They are reflections of our lives. Gretchen and I decided to have our office at home, and we wouldn't trade the time it allows us with our children for anything, but it also means that our children see us at work and they can tell in an instant the difference between superficial competence and lifestyle commitments. It's scary, but it can be very rewarding, like recently when our oldest daughter asked if she could personally answer a letter from a troubled teen in Canada who had written us. It is a complete commitment, but it is also as natural for the believer as breathing.
Frank: That's exactly right. Christian parents shouldn't just hand their children a set of dos and don'ts. They should encourage their children to ask questions, to be really curious about life, faith, and ideas. Children are naturally inquisitive, and if Christian parents encourage their children to ask constructive questions and then learn to seek out good answers, they will give their children the best framework for a healthy Christian faith.
Passantinos: Role models seem to be very important. Most of us can think of significant individuals whose lives have shaped our own lives, our ability to question the world's values and to select our own beliefs. In Prophet Grandpa Barrett was a good role model for both his son John and his grandson Carl. Today kids seem to pick their role models from entertainment and sports figures. How come? What does this say about what kinds of adults they will become?
Frank: I could theorize on a few reasons: First, I think there's a feeling of impotence -- cosmic, personal impotence. No power, no control, a feeling of despair. Look at these stars: Obviously, the first thing that comes with being a star is you're successful, you're on top, you have power. You're in control. That's got to be a pretty powerful attraction for a kid who feels confused, angry, powerless, and ignored.
I used to emulate monsters when I was a kid because monsters had power, they had control over other people, and people were afraid of them. I wanted power, I wanted respect. I didn't have much esteem for myself, so I guess I identified with the monsters' sense of rejection. I really enjoyed the thought of being a monster because then I could control people. There's a human element crying out for control and respect.
Barbara I think Frank's childhood fascination with fantasy and story telling is like that of a lot of kids. Frank often felt left out, awkward, not in control of the situation when he was with other kids. For most kids, like Frank, story telling and fantasy give you the personal control you need to examine, understand, and then respond to what seem insurmountable problems. Fantasy and story telling should be encouraged in kids, but if they're not given a biblical foundation of values, they won't have the spiritual resources to resolve their stories successfully. Their story telling won't prepare them to deal with the world. Then they end up frustrated adults, always looking for power and never finding the true power that comes from God. Power is tantalizing, but not an end in itself.
Gretchen: Personal power is the theme of contemporary teenage satanists, too. I moderated a debate recently between a Christian and a satanist. As is true with most young self-styled satanists, this young man didn't believe in God or Satan -- he believed in himself and his ability to obtain power and control over others. A Christian from the audience asked him, "Have you ever seen Satan or talked to him?" The satanist laughed, replying, "You're looking at Satan and he's talking to you right now." It's that thrill of power and control that is so attractive to kids in trouble.
Frank: I was on a Christian radio show and a caller took strong exception to me for saying satanists and New Agers had essentially the same world view, because they all seek after the same thing: power over the universe, the power of the individual. The caller admitted that he chanted for power, which proved my point, he was using a chant for power over his universe.
Barbara It makes sense that so many New Age groups keep fighting among themselves and having disunity. If people are really into self-power, then they're going to promote themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes we Christians seem like we're into self-power, too! But I don't see all the New Agers voting as a block for the anti-Christ -- each one of them wants to be him!
Frank: Can you imagine? I'm the Christ! No you're not, I am! No, you're both wrong, I'm the Christ! Chaos in the name of ultimate self-esteem!
Passantinos: Let's get back to our children and role models. Last year, why didn't we see little boys dressing up as General Norman Schwartzkopf for Halloween, but they all wanted to dress up like Ninja Turtles? After all, Schwartzkopf should have been more exciting that the Turtles, he really blew people up. Ninja Turtles are just acting like they're blowing people up!
Frank: I don't think the reasons are that deep. I think they're extremely shallow. The Ninja Turtles are flashy, funny, they resolve things in 27 minutes, they have a great promo team. You don't see too many Schwartzkopf lunch boxes, do you? He doesn't have a big marketing team.
Professional wrestlers are another case. They have the physique and training to do some really good, authentic wrestling, but nobody would turn out to see it. You've got to have all of this outrageous, flamboyant, good guy versus bad guy stuff. It's all how you play the game! And yet, ultimately, it's shallow. It has no universal value or moral significance. It's like junk food, empty calories and no nutrition. Christians, especially Christian parents, can't afford to feed themselves or their children on spiritual junk food. We need to get back to foundational Truth, ultimate Reality. To do that we need to get off of remote control and into thinking, deliberating, examining, conforming ourselves to God's Truth.
What would happen if you sat your Ninja Turtle fan son down and asked him a few questions, like, "How do the Turtles know what's the right thing to do and what's wrong? Do the Turtles think that winning a fight proves that they're right? Where do they get this power they meditate for to win fights?" Get behind the shallowness and look for the truths -- or more often, the lies -- that are undercurrents to what our kids watch and experience.
Passantinos: Is it possible to have good role models for our kids today?
Frank: Your kids aren't going to have real heroes until your kids know how to discern real virtue. Kids are constantly living in a shallow world of the distracting, the entertaining, and the flashy, and they're never going to know what real virtue is, what real sacrifice is. Who would you rather have come and speak to your school -- some person who has sacrificed to feed the hungry in Calcutta or some football player who has received all of these spectacular passes and says he prayed? Are our contemporary churches reflecting virtue or shallowness?
I'm not saying Christians can't have fun or be entertained, but we shouldn't substitute entertainment for character building. Our children's heroes should come from the category of virtue, not from the category of entertainment. In the old television series of the 1950s and early 1960s, some true values were incorporated into an entertainment medium, but sadly today, that's not the case. Sadly, one of the most important sources children have for values is television, and today's television won't give them good values, but counterfeit ones.
Bob: Looking back, I think watching 50s and 60s television shaped my ethics as a child more than anything else. I remember Sgt. Saunders from Combat, who always treated his German prisoners as he would like to be treated. I remember Timmy's dad on Lassie reading the nativity story out loud on the Christmas show. Even Dr. Kimball, the wrongly convicted murderer on The Fugitive, tried not to lie, worked his way across the country, and always acted with integrity in his search for his wife's true killer. I shudder to think what values children are learning today from television.
Frank: Well, the good news is that we don't have to depend on television for our children's role models. Christian parents should be their own children's strongest role models, and other Christians in the local congregation should be good role models, too.
Passantinos: Sounds like a simplified "how-to" answer to us -- just be a good role model. How? Let's say a Christian parent agrees with your foundational approach to successful Christian parenting. He or she now recognizes the importance of making a commitment, putting his kids first. But he or she still doesn't know what to do. What's the first step? So many Christian parents are afraid they have nothing to offer their kids, that they don't have the answers to the "why" questions. What can they do?
Barbara The first thing they have to understand is that they don't have to do everything at once. You can eat something as large as an elephant if you start with one bite at a time. Christian parents shouldn't expect to solve their own problems or those of their children in two days. They have to take small steps.
Frank: First Thessalonians 4:11-12 tells us to live a quiet life, mind our own business, work with our own hands, and walk properly toward those "outside," and that if we do, we will "lack nothing." I think we can adapt these four principles, one "bite" at a time, to good Christian parenting.
I think the first "elephant bite" should be to simplify our lives. Somehow today's Christian seems to equate business, especially church business, with spirituality. But you don't get more spiritual by heading another committee or joining another care group. Spiritual maturity comes from intimate, lengthy communion with God. Rediscover your own ability to think, to love, to reason, to hope, to dream, to talk to your kids.
You hurt your kids when you're always so busy. They won't learn spiritual maturity from watching you running around to this and that. They'll learn spiritual maturity from watching you, up close, making careful choices in particular situations and then having the courage to follow God's leading. Second, you can't teach your children biblical values if you never have time for them. Go for walks together. Live life as it really is, and not as it's emulsified, packaged, shrink wrapped, and handed back to us. It's such a tragedy that many children in Christian homes grow up resenting the gospel for taking more of Mom and Dad's interest and attention than their own kids do. You only have one chance with your kids, and they're your responsibility as long as you are their authority. You must decide what should be really important in your life.
Passantinos: Feeling guilty every time we go out of town on business keeps us from automatically taking every opportunity to be away from our own kids. We try to take our children with us on trips if we can have some special time with them. Sometimes one of us will go away on assignment, and the other will stay home parenting.
Gretchen: Some of the most special times Bob and our children have are when I'm out of town. Last summer we gave Bob a puppy for his birthday and I left for a conference. The kids still talk about the slumber party they had in the living room with Dad, the puppy, the dog, the cat, popcorn, and family videos.
Frank: I think the second elephant bite is to focus on what we should be doing individually, with the Lord and with our children. God doesn't ask us individually to solve all the world's problems, feed the million of hungry, or care for all the homeless. If you try to do everything individually, you will be overwhelmed and accomplish nothing. Figure out what God wants you to do, and then do it. Share some biblical advice with your neighbor who's having a marital problem. Buy a warm meal and share the gospel with the homeless guy standing outside the coffee shop you go to for lunch. Help a lonely, struggling college student by renting your spare bedroom and giving him or her a warm, Christian family environment. Your kids will learn more about Christian virtue by your individual, small acts of obedience than they will from all the sermons in the world.
The third elephant bite is to become personally involved with your kids. I see too many well-meaning Christian parents putting their kids into program after program of good Christian involvement but never engaging with their children personally. Our churches today are like full-service shopping malls for the soul. There's the overeaters support group for daughter Susie, the Christian all-terrain bicyclers for son Josh, junior church, youth group, Sunday School, peer counseling, and on and on. But what happened to Mom and Dad? You don't have to have all the answers, but you do need to be there, working with your kids yourself, instead of substituting "programs" for your own involvement.
Bob: Sometimes I think as Christian parents, we believe the "experts" can do whatever needs to be done better and faster than we can. We tend to forget that the primary responsibility for our children is ours, not some "expert's."
Barbara Frank often feels inadequate when Christians ask him to pray for them, or give them advice for their problems, as though he has some special spiritual privilege or power. He's a great prayer warrior, and he has good biblical insight, but mostly the people involved in the particular situation can be used more effectively by the Lord than an outsider.
Frank: Elephant bite number four is concerned with personal integrity. If we act with integrity in all of our dealings, including those with nonbelievers, our Christian commitment will be evident. Many times we tend to compromise our integrity in little ways. We break the speed limit, we call in sick when we want a day off, maybe the cashier gives us too much change and we don't say anything. These are all little things that reflect the true depth of our personal integrity. It's the little things children watch and learn from. I don't think you should be afraid to say, "Son, I did this, I shouldn't have done this. Such-and-such happened, and these are the consequences I'm facing now." Don't shelter your kids from reality, but give them a biblical foundation for grappling with reality. Live your life before your children so that even nonbelievers will see our integrity.
People think that the "big issues" like the environment and poverty should be our focus. My books certainly deal with "big issues," like Prophet does with abortion. But when you look behind successful battles over "big issues," what you see is ordinary individuals who don't consider themselves to be spiritual giants, and yet who have listened to the Lord's voice and are willing to do whatever He has called them to in their own small corner of the universe. Christian parents can't save the environment, feed all the poor, or stop all abortions. But Christian parents can use their own lives as examples to the children. Recycle your kitchen trash. Volunteer your family for one Saturday helping at a local soup kitchen. Show your children love for all life, born and unborn, by loving them unconditionally. Your children will learn far more from what you do with them than what you say to them.
If parents follow these four principles outlined in 1 Thessalonians, their children will have every possible advantage to growing up secure in the Lord. They will have that essential foundation on which they can build their lives. Divest yourself of energy-sucking activities, meditate on the quiet life, choose value, quality, and commitment, and live with integrity.
Don't be concerned with the trivia of Christian living, or even the trivia of false belief, spiritual warfare, or New Ageism. Be concerned about your relationship to God and Him working in and through your life. The rest will take care of itself. If you raise your children with a healthy, vibrant, authentic Christianity, they will have all of the tools they need to make successful spiritual choices for themselves. Getting "the big picture" is not wrestling with world events. Instead, we should see "the big picture" in terms of personal world views battling for our children's future rather than unrelated personal skirmishes staving off the invincible "world" only until our kids reach eighteen. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 shows us the proper perspective: "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."
As the sun set behind the islands, a ray pierced the shadows and was reflected from the windows of a downtown Seattle office building, almost like a symbol of Truth piercing the shadows of the world.
The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead,
he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not
resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently
instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change
of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26