Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down: A Guide for Parents Questioning Their Faith
Reviewed by Jeff Kennon
I think oftentimes when we consider those who are questioning the faith they grew up with, it is young adults that come to mind. This is particularly true of me as I work on a university campus. But perhaps it’s the young we hone in on because this is the group where most of the research and writing seems to feature. It does make sense why this would be so. It’s a somewhat natural process for a person on his/her journey towards adulthood to begin to struggle and push back on the many things he/she held at face value while growing up. But what about older folks? Don’t they have doubts?
Fortunately, Bekah McNeel’s book Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down: A Guide for Parents Questioning Their Faith, gives voice not only to an older crowd per se, but specifically, to parents who struggle with the faith. And McNeel is perfect for the task because she does so not from the theoretical, but the testimonial. In other words, she is in the midst of the struggle herself. She writes, “The question I was asking myself was: Is the Christianity I grew up with something I want to give to my children?” (9) Therefore, McNeel’s goal in this book is to seek to understand “how people talk to their kids about things they haven’t fully resolved” (13).
As one might expect, McNeel begins her book by discussing her own doubt, disgust, and pain she experienced via her encounters with the church. McNeel could not understand why the church did not speak out more concerning the injustices being inflicted upon those in the margins. She didn’t know why church leadership seemed to be dominated by men, specifically white men. And there seemed to be little compassion for those who, on the Christian journey, trip and fall every now and then. For McNeel, it was this perfection that led to the thought of her never being good enough. She writes: “Ever felt like your pastor or parent would always find some sin you could be working on? Or that your Christian friends always wanted to talk about ‘the condition of your heart’ even after you’d apologized for something? Like God’s blessing was the carrot dangling out there to keep you trying harder?”
McNeel’s clashes with the church opened the door for her to explore even further the questions that were in some contexts, forbidden to discuss. Things such as the authority of Scripture, the concept of hell, racism, homosexuality, politics, and fundamentalist apologetics top her list. In reading her struggles with these questions, some may not find much new here in terms of today’s deconstruction literature. But what I did find distinctive was the direction of which her pursuit of answers fueled her parenting. “In our home my husband and I have opted for a wholehearted embrace of inquiry, science, and perspective-taking,” writes McNeel. “We want our kids to ask ‘why’ and ‘why not’ not only of us but of all authority, because we believe authority should not be making arbitrary rules or overplaying its hand” (149).
These doubts that McNeal fostered were enlarged however, when she began to see life through the eyes of others. She admits that it wasn’t until she attended graduate school that she began to look at events and history through the lens of non-Americans and non-white people. “It wasn’t a logical debate about evolution or postmodernism that got to me,” writes McNeel. “It was the stepping outside my own perspective,” writes McNeel, “seeing the world through the eyes of people who were not like me but who were not adhering to the script I’d been given for enemies of the faith” (146). And as you might expect, she does not want her kids to be blind to the views of others until they, like her, move away from home.
All of the questions that McNeel had and continues to have with the institutional church and the way Christianity was lived out to her while growing up comes to a climax in the last four chapters of her book. This is where she works out her journey of parenting. This is where she leans into her own doubts and struggles as she seeks to guide her children toward a faith that is life giving.
It’s in these last chapters that I found myself saying both “Amen! Preach it!” and “What? Did she really just write this?” She asks: “Should we take our children to church?” Well, of course we should. But then what is meant by church? Have we turned church more into an event we attend rather than a family in which we gather? And her thinking ahead to sexuality talks with her kids caused friction in my soul at times. It’s not that she is boundary free per se, but reading that perhaps the end goal of sexual purity is bigger than just not having sex before marriage might cause some grumbling. But we do well to hear her out as she writes that healthy relationships are what is most important. Granted, this does involve boundaries. But in relation to sexual sin, some might wish for her to be a little more firm on the “Do Not’s.”
As a wrap this review up, I have a few final thoughts. First, if you are reading Bringing Up Kids, I would read it not as a prescriptive take on how to raise kids, but instead a description of how parents, specifically McNeel, are seeking to parent in the midst of their own struggles with their faith. As indicated above, there are some things that McNeel shares in her book that I’m not sure I can agree with. You will probably feel the same at times. But remember, McNeel is sharing from her context. So be quick to listen before judging.
Second, it’s important to realize that McNeel herself is on a journey. She’s open about her struggles with her faith and the church, from which there is much to learn. But though she has had many bumps along the way, the good news is that she is continuing to press on. McNeel asks herself, “Why am I still doing this? With all the crap that came along with religion, how am I still praying?” Her response? “I came back to the church not out of fear, but because it was where God had been meeting me for thirty years, sometimes through the words and teaching and songs. Sometimes in spite of them” (224-225).
Jeff Kennon lives in Lubbock, Texas where is the director of the Baptist Student Ministries at Texas Tech University. He is also the author of The Cross-Shaped Life: Taking On Christ’s Humanity, published by Leafwood Press. You can find him online at www.jkennon.com.
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