Once there was a man named Philippe. He was a spiritual guide in an emerging community. One day he decided to go on a journey. So, he did. As he was walking along the road, focusing on the journey and not the destination, he found himself alongside the chariot of an African official. The man in the chariot was reading from a parchment scroll. He was reading aloud, so Philippe was able to overhear what the man read:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
Philippe caught up to the chariot and said, “You read that text beautifully. It made me feel significant and connected to ancient traditions to hear you read it.”
“I just wish I could understand it,” the man replied.
“Understand it? You don’t need to understand it. Just experience it. Read it again, more slowly this time. I want to hear the poetic forms and imagine myself in the context of the ancient tradition,” said Philippe.
“Who is he talking about?” the man persisted. “Is the prophet writing about himself or about someone else?”
“I think he is writing about all of us,” said Philippe. “I think we are all a part of the larger story.”
“But what story?” asked the official. “It seems to me that the writer is talking about something in particular, and I sense that it is important. I just wish I knew what it was. What exactly does this mean?”
“What do YOU think it means?” asked Philippe.
“I don’t know. That is why I am asking YOU.”
“Well, it is true that I am a Christ-follower, and my tradition does impose certain meanings on this text. But I would not want to force my truth claims on you. Your truth claims would be equally valid. As you see, we are both on a journey; and we both find ourselves on the same road. So, it follows that our destination is also the same. So, let’s just enjoy this time of community and not divide ourselves by discussing meanings and dogma,” said Philippe.
After awhile, they came to a pool of water by the side of the road. There was also a fork in the road at this point, and the official chose the road to the right. Philippe planned to take the road to the left, but first he sat down by the edge of the pool to journal his experiences of the day. He was delighted that he had had an unique opportunity to engage in a dialogue with a person of a culture so diverse from his own.
Meanwhile, the African official went on his way, still searching for the meaning of the text that could have brought him eternal life.
— Written by Krista Graham, and first published here in 2010.
In a recent Steven Crowder YouTube video, Alexa, the interactive virtual assistant built into Amazon’s Echo, was asked the question, “Who is the Lord Jesus Christ?” Her answer was short and to the point: “Jesus Christ is a fictional character.”*
We may gasp at that shocking response, but the answer really shouldn’t surprise us. We live in a day and age where biblical truth is marginalized and the once-distinct line between reality and fantasy is blurred. Nowadays, a fetus isn’t a person, there are more than two genders, and Lucifer is a semi-fallen angel with a heart of gold on a successful Fox TV series.
No wonder Alexa can answer the question as she does. The existence of the biblical Jesus is up for debate in these wishy-washy times, so why mince words just to appease a fading orthodoxy in Christianity? Besides, any post-Christian church can still flourish these days without objective truth or a historical basis in fact. Today’s “spiritual-but-not-religious” people are more informed by their emotions than by an external revelation from the one true God. Jesus is now whomever they want Him to be, as long as it “feels right.”
Mark Steyn, in fact, gave the scathing opinion that many mainline Protestant churches, especially in Europe, have turned Jesus into nothing more than a soft-left political cliché. According to their sentimentality, Steyn writes:
“…if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an “Arms are for Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams.” ― America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.
So how did Jesus Christ, whose incarnation divided the world’s measurement of history, begin to be relegated to fictional status? The Bible has shown us that the attacks against Jesus have always been about tearing down His legitimacy in one way or another, and this is no exception. The current approach, however, is to lump the historical Jesus together with every “Christ figure” that mankind can conjure up in its imaginations. In fact, Jesus warns us of this sort of thing: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Matthew 24:23–24).
Current signs indicate that we are allowing the real Jesus to lose His distinction among the mythological “Christs” of the present world. Therefore, who’s to say which Christ is hard fact and which Christ is idealized fiction? To be sure, Western society’s current obsession with mythology and other popular products of the imagination, both new and ancient, have brought us to a point where the biblical Son of God is no more significant than any other literary or cinematic character imbued with religious symbolism. Jesus, it seems, has become just another “archetype” among many in which to inform our postmodern spirituality.
The concept of archetypes, first theorized by Carl Jung, put forth the idea that universal mythic characters, or archetypes, reside within the collective unconscious of all humanity and have emerged through our art over the centuries. Not surprisingly, this Gnosis-based theory has so infiltrated the religious sentiments of the current population that a savior like Jesus Christ doesn’t have to exist in reality; it is only the internalized “idea” of what He symbolizes that brings one closer to enlightenment and divinity. Who needs the Son of God slain on the cross when we can find comfort in an imaginary archetype of sacrificial love and acceptance that allows each person to rise to the higher Self by their own power?
Sadly, the dependable eyewitness accounts of the New Testament now have to compete with the fantastical tales of the Marvel/DC universe, Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or even Narnia. In the end, the Gospel record is far too mundane for a world mesmerized by glowing screens filled with CGI candy. Jesus and the apostles, much to the chagrin of some, never wore superhero costumes, flew Firebolt brooms, or slew mythical creatures with swords or light sabers. Is it any wonder, then, that the mythic archetypes of our popular culture are considered more compelling than the real men of God who toiled in a ministry that often brought ostracism, suffering, and ignominious death?
The Confusion Of The Younger Generation
My immediate concern, of course, is for the younger generation growing up in this current crusade of make-believe and religious skepticism. It’s one thing for grown-ups to deal with these assaults upon truth, but young children are not intellectually developed enough to make a distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. Some people who are involved in early education, even in the most progressive schools, have found this to be true in their experience:
“A child who spends too much time in a world of fantasy may find it difficult to relate to others, to interact in a group, to be in the here and now. It can also be scary for a child… When a child under 5 or 6 hears a fairy tale with a wicked witch, they then also imagine this witch to be real as a child of this age has a very concrete understanding of the world. They visualize it as if it is real as they are not yet able to clearly separate fantasy from reality.” – Montessori And Pretend Play: A Complicated Question
This childhood interaction between fact and fiction can be even more complicated when you, as a Christian parent, begin to introduce your child to the real person of Jesus Christ. This should be an exciting and joyful truth to share with your little one as you begin the process of rearing your child under the instruction of God’s word, but it can oftentimes be a difficult education if Jesus has to compete with Santa Claus, Superman, or Harry Potter as the object of your child’s fledgling hero-worship.
Recent research has proven this confusion among children to be a real issue. Case in point, a 2014 research study at Boston University where it was discovered that young children with a religious background were less able to distinguish between fantasy and reality compared with their secular counterparts:
In two studies, 66 kindergarten-age children were presented with three types of stories: realistic, religious and fantastical. The researchers then queried the children on whether they thought the main character in the story was real or fictional.
While nearly all children found the figures in the realistic narratives to be real, secular and religious children were split on religious stories. Children with a religious upbringing tended to view the protagonists in religious stories as real, whereas children from non-religious households saw them as fictional.
Although this might be unsurprising, secular and religious children also differed in their interpretation of fantasy narratives where there was a supernatural or magical storyline.
“Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional,” wrote the researchers. “The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.”
– BBC News, Study: Religious Children Are Less Able To Distinguish Fantasy From Reality
The researchers concluded (as most college researchers are prone to do) that exposure to a religious education is probably the main culprit in a child’s difficulty in identifying fact from fiction. This conclusion, however, seems to indicate an anti-biblical bias that completely ignores the alternative possibility. Why is religion the problem? Isn’t it just as plausible that fictional stories involving magic are the real cause of confusion, especially when these fanciful tales, like Pharoah’s magicians, are the ones mimicking God’s miracles in the Bible?
In light of Scripture, this alternative conclusion is clearly confirmed. For starters, God is not a God of confusion. God’s word will not return void, but will accomplish what He pleases and will prosper in that thing for which He sent it. Over and over again, the Bible confirms that scriptural instruction from the word of God is essential to a child’s proper upbringing. It keeps them far from folly, equips them for good works, and makes them wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (Proverbs 22:15 / 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
The one thing that is likely to undermine this God-ordained training is when an unaware parent interjects inappropriate fantasy stories from movies and literature as a compatible resource for their child’s development. This misstep is compounded when the parent’s reason for doing this is not because Disney movies or similar entertainments have any legitimate educational value, but because they don’t want their children to miss out on what the popular culture has to offer, even if it contains unbiblical content. To be blunt, raising children with such an indiscriminate use of worldly influences is almost a cultural form of Moloch worship which the faithless Israelites succumbed to when they delivered their infant children over to paganism for the sake of their temporal prosperity (Psalm 106:34-39).
Think about the possible consequences. Should we really be surprised when little Suzy suddenly has trouble maintaining the reality of Jesus walking on water after watching Luke Skywalker use the Force to levitate himself? And what should Suzy’s parents do after this happens? Do they let Suzy try to figure it out for herself or do they attempt to adequately explain the unexplainable to a kindergartner? And does it really matter at this point?
Some may suggest (and rightly so) that we can’t always shield our children from the world’s influences and the confusion these things might engender. Surely this is part and parcel of the average childhood and will no longer be an issue once they grow older and gain the intellectual capacity and religious understanding to correctly divide fact from fiction or right from wrong.
This is a valid point, and yet not particularly the issue at hand. The concern is not so much in how such exposure might temporarily affect a child, but how it might impact the child later on and into adulthood. A childhood immersed in “make-believe” might well lead to a misguided adulthood that finds more “truth” in paganism or occultism than in the Bible. It might also lay the groundwork for the idea that God’s word is just another fairy tale of human invention. And eventually, these adults might find themselves falling into the ditch of full-blown skepticism or atheism.
This possibility, in fact, was recently explored in a research study titled, Make Believe Unmakes Belief?: Childhood Play Style and Adult Personality as Predictors of Religious Identity Change. Published in 2014, the study looked into the relationship between childhood imagination and religiosity, finding that people who intensely engaged in pretend play as children were more likely to change their religious identity later in life, with apostasy being the largest category. As reported by Merrill Miller:
“The study assessed the role of ‘pretend play’—creating and acting out imaginary scenarios in made-up worlds—in the childhoods of individuals… and found that individuals who did not change their religious or nonreligious identification were less likely to have engaged in pretend play. Converts and switchers, however, were more likely to have played pretend, and apostates were the most likely to have often engaged in pretend play.” – The Humanist, Are Nonbelievers More Imaginative? A New Study Suggests They Might Be
Why were children who actively pursued a fantasy world more likely to abandon their religious upbringing as adults?
“The study’s author, Christopher Burris speculated that the higher correlation for apostates is because of the shift from structure — common among religious institutions — to unstructured — that is found in pretend play. ‘The realm of the nonbeliever is much less structured than the realm of belief is,’ he explained. ‘People’s cognitive, intellectual and emotional needs are not met sufficiently by faith traditions, so they strike out on their own way.'” – Massarah Mikati, Deseret News
The Biblical Approach For Christian Parents
The Bible, of course, has already anticipated the possible spiritual fallout from cultivating a child’s wild imagination instead of grounding them in reality and the clear instruction of God’s revelation. The biblical remedy?
Train up a child in the way that he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6
This is not to say that Christian parents shouldn’t encourage their child’s emerging creativity. But it should be grounded and fostered in reality. To truly instill an active and abiding love for God and neighbor, a child’s imagination must be connected to this real-life task and to exposing the child to those faithful people in their lives who emulate Christian duty in their various talents and occupations.
Even without the benefit of this biblical insight, Dr. Maria Montessori made the academic observation that reality was the key to a more profitable imagination:
“The true basis of the imagination is reality, and its perception is related to exactness of observation. It is necessary to prepare children to perceive the things in their environment exactly, in order to secure for them the material required by the imagination. Intelligence, reasoning, and distinguishing one thing from another prepares a cement for imaginative constructions… The fancy which exaggerates and invents coarsely does not put the child on the right road.” – Spontaneous Activity in Education p 254, Chapter IX
Don’t misunderstand this point. Pretend play is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is an activity meant to assist children in processing the real world around them. “For example, if they see an excavator at work in the street,” writes one teacher, “they may then be attracted to working with a model of an excavator, to reading books about construction vehicles and to play based on this. This is a child’s imagination at work.”
The fact is, even children themselves would much rather engage with real-life activities when possible. Many educators are well aware that a child is much more excited by helping Mom or Dad prepare a meal in the kitchen than pretend-cook with a toy stove. And Scripture finds great wisdom in this approach. Notice how God instructs His people to teach their children in the course of their daily activities:
You shall teach [the words of God] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:7
Here we see no significant time set aside for daydreaming or chasing after empty phantasms. This is an all-encompassing lifestyle that weaves God’s truth into one’s daily labor from dawn to dusk, and from childhood to adulthood. It is the command from Genesis and throughout the Bible to bear fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10) “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. – 1 Corinthians 14:20
The Mature Approach For All Christians
Where is this maturity of which Paul speaks? Truly, one of the problems with American Christianity today is that too many professing believers have failed to see the importance of sobriety and maturity as a biblical imperative for discipleship. They twist the meaning of Luke 18:16-17 and simply refuse to grow up. They see their childlike fascination with games, fairy tales, and the playthings of their youth as a crowning virtue instead of a possible impediment to spiritual growth. In turn, these parents immerse their children in the same enthrallments and find great satisfaction in molding little ones into their own image, forgetting that the Bible instructs them otherwise.
On the contrary, God is the only object of wonder we need to focus on:
We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. – Psalm 78:4
I ask you: How could anyone fully submit to this sacred task if Jesus is only viewed as a mythological “archetype of Christ” or a good teacher who said wise things but never really existed except in our collective unconscious?
Any confusion about the reality of the Son of God is never going to serve this dark world, especially in an age where fantasy is actively usurping real life. As Christians, we have a holy calling to go into the world to make disciples, not to go into a fantasy-land to do so. God’s word and the Holy Spirit have shown us the only mind-altering vision we need to ignite our passion. We need to humbly submit to our Lord’s charge to deny self, follow Him, and stay true to our Gospel witness and testimony for the sake of the lost.
We know, of course, that shielding people, young or old, from the counterfeit fictions of this world won’t guarantee their eventual conversion. Ultimately, it is only by God’s grace and power that hearts are changed and the lost through faith are saved. Yet, we also know that if salvation does come to an individual, it won’t be because of fairy tales or myths, but despite them. Our job as Christians is to stay on point with the pure Gospel message, and not capitulate in any way to the world’s insatiable desire for an alternate reality. To give in to that desire does nothing more than bring confusion and cast doubt on the existence of the living Savior and the faith that brings eternal life.
The next time Alexa, or anyone else, dares to tell you that Jesus is a fictional character, ask them what the Bible says about Him. Why? Because the biblical answer to that question is the only response that truly holds the power of the Gospel to heal the brokenhearted, preach deliverance to the captives, recover the sight of the blind, and set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18).
“Whom do you say I am?” – Jesus Christ, Matthew 16:15
* The answer from Alexa was recorded unaltered and unedited on “Louder with Crowder,” and was verified by several Amazon product owners, who asked the same question and got the same answer. Since the airing of that controversial video, however, it appears Amazon has updated Alexa’s response to cite a Wikipedia entry on the historicity of Jesus Christ instead. For that, we are thankful.