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Passing on the Faith Through Storytelling

October 11, 2021


Faithful parents are rightly stressed about handing on the faith to their children—an always risky proposition, for we have no idea whether the story of salvation will take root in good soil or somehow end up amid rocks as yet unseen—and hence, the need for guidance in the art of religious parenting.  

Only decades ago, families felt confident that the faith would be successfully handed down from generation to generation within the family, particularly when the culture of faith itself was alive within families and whole neighborhoods in a way it no longer is. But parents now must make a conscious effort to pass on the faith to their children. Each parent has a different approach. Some get overly involved, forcing every moment to be a catechetical opportunity, while others take a more laid-back approach, either leading by example or perhaps fearing that offering too much of a good thing will backfire. The consumer culture of the West—with all of its vacuous appeal and an increasing cultural default to subjectivity—has captivated youth, even the children from devout Catholic families. Authoritative figures within this culture have influenced our young to hold ideologies increasingly hostile to the Church. 

Thankfully, there are many resources available to guide parents in the delicate art of handing on the faith in such an environment. I am thinking of Christian Smith, Bridget Ritz, and Michael Rotolo’s Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America and our very own Brandon Vogt’s Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church. These books offer great advice based on extensive research. But what is essential to handing on the faith, aside from primarily living an ecclesial life, is simply sharing (but not in a preachy way) the story of salvation. Parents will likely not have to wait for their children to—out of curiosity—ask why the family lives according to a logic so different from the mainstream. The point is to live in such a way that your family life would only make sense in the context of the story of salvation, the story of love. Children will pick up on this and embrace it. 

Humans are storytelling animals. We make sense of our lived experience and identities in the context of stories. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth reflecting on. Many times, parents want to jump into apologetics, defending the faith when they have never even begun to tell the story of salvation to their children. Apologetics is important in warding off misapprehensions of the faith, but no one should ever start there. The children need to simply hear the story—not as a sermon but as the story of a family, God’s redeemed human family—told casually, in the same way we tell our own family stories inspired by a random conversation or a scriptural memory, and then seamlessly worked into the moment. This is how the stories enhance the faith, shaping our children’s lives. Otherwise, another story will inform their lives, giving them a different map to live by rather than the map of faith. This is inevitable as storytelling animals. The famous Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre understands this well. In his important book After Virtue, MacIntyre highlights the significance of the stories we live by. I want to quote him at length because I believe his passage on storytelling is crucial to his philosophical project but also has influenced many calls for the importance of narrative in theology and catechesis. He writes: 

A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a storytelling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship: I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boy, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. Vico was right and so was Joyce. And so too of course is the moral tradition from heroic society to its medieval heirs according to which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.” (After Virtue, 216)

The Gospel always needs to be proclaimed to each generation, especially when the culture is not living by it. Part of the New Evangelization is the call for parents to actively learn and tell the story of salvation to their children and instill it into their family culture. As they come to learn to articulate the faith for their kids, the parents may come to better know and love the tradition. The children need to practice the faith by going to Mass and frequenting the sacraments, but they need to be initiated by their parents into the story of God’s love. The story is foundational, and without it, the faith will not take root. 

Much of Bishop Barron’s work as a bishop and evangelist is simply telling the story of salvation, or what might also be called the theo-drama. Following N.T. Wright, he breaks the theo-drama down into five acts: 1) creation, 2) the fall, 3) Israel, 4) Christ, and 5) the Church. This is an effective way of presenting the drama of salvation to your child. Use it to explain the dynamics of the Mass. The Mass is a movement through this dramatic history, culminating in the Eucharist, which is the anticipation of the final event of the wedding feast of the Lamb. The liturgical year can be lived out in the home. With its rhythms, the child will see the drama played out in time itself. If every nook and cranny of creation is marked by such a drama, the child will be much more likely to lead their lives according to its script. 

We should be encouraged by a piece of good news worth considering: The consumer culture we currently inhabit does not offer a truly compelling story. It offers an endless variety of stories, often variations on a theme, but none can satisfy the restless human heart in the way that the truth can. I confess to have lived a good portion of my life according to our consumer culture’s script. My inability to find Catholicism exotic enough was mainly due to me not truly knowing it enough to appreciate it, so I turned to other religious scripts to live by. But at the end of the day, I saw how pathetic my attempts were to write my own script. Life did not make much sense to me, but then I woke up and realized that the story of salvation is the true script, not just a fairy tale, and it is Christ who answers the deepest questions of life. 

This drama was truly grand and took me outside of myself. It offered me true happiness, and I thankfully received the grace to heed the call of Christ and follow him. The Eucharist became my base. My life was no longer grounded in myself—in other words, ultimately grounded in nothing—but became firmly rooted in the great I AM. I found myself in the drama of salvation, and this story helped me encounter the truth and goodness that I was seeking. I found it in the face of Christ. I have a reason for living, and whenever I need to make a decision, I have a reference point to guide me: the incarnate love torn open for me, bringing me into the divine communion that alone satisfies the human heart. 

If parents become master storytellers of the great theo-drama, the chances of their children living in the faith are high because all the other stories out there would seem inadequate in comparison. Along the way, parents ought to explain and defend the faith from various assaults, but we must never—I mean never—get so immersed in apologetics that we forget to make the drama of salvation primary. Life is dramatic, and faith is alive when expressed in a story.