Explaining Jesus to a child – How should I indoctrinate my children?

indoctrinate_xlarge_xlargeWhen children are taught religion, they are indoctrinated. As parents we can’t explain how the world really works to them–they won’t understand and nobody has the patience–so we happily give them simple skeletons which they can build on, that they can organize the necessarily limited experience and information they stumble across.  We hope that the skeletons are elegant and strong enough to gird all the good information our children come across and allow them to create a robust, useful picture of how things are. Of course the problem with indoctrination is that it shuts of lines if inquiry, creating intellectual bias.  If the process of education moves people from cocksure confidence to thoughtful uncertainty, indoctrination attempts to stall or abort this process–on a few important areas of thought at least.

Indoctrination is a big issue in our multi-cultural, increasingly divisive, political and ideological climate. At least one writer — David French– contends that Evangelicals’ failure to properly indoctrinate their children is part of the reason they fall short in church growth compared to moromons.   Citing the Barna Group’s conclusion that of the 84 million Americans who claim to be Evangelical, only about 19 million actually hold orthodox beliefs, French advocates that Evangelicals must follow the LDS lead in teaching their distinctive beliefs and culture early and well.

But indoctrination is an extremely inflammatory concept. It is almost universally condemned by those who don’t want children to be indoctrinated against their positions. But I don’t think indoctrination can or should have the bad rap given it by fervent opponents of religious indoctrination such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Arguably most childhood education in areas of history and even many areas of science smacks of indoctrination in one form or another.

Given its unavoidable necessity, I have started to take indoctrination of my own children more seriously. My kids are indoctrinated Mormons, their skeletons come from church.   They have a surface-level, Sunday-school understanding of the church, salvation, and the righteous life. But because I am no longer what can be fairly called a believing Mormon, I want to temper this indoctrination with indoctrination of my own–one that reflects the understanding I have developed in my spiritual life and education.  I am trying to find a way to explain Christianity differently without closing the lines of inquiry that I find critical.  I want to add a few limbs to my kids’ conceptual skeletons without making their existing frameworks useless.

So, my project is to develop simple, short, easy-to-understand narratives of important historical events and religious principles- sort of like the Gospel Principles Manual in the LDS Church. Something that can give my children a place to start inquiry based roughly on what I think are proper conclusions about history and the world; a different narrative to expand and allow critical evaluation of the narrative they receive in church.

I thought the history of the Christian church was a good place to start. Mormons believe that the true gospel of Jesus Christ and his authority to act on earth was restored after about 17 centuries of apostasy. To begin to explain this doctrine, they generally indoctrinate people about the history of post-apostolic Christianity with this sort of narrative:

Throughout history, evil people have tried to destroy the work of God. This happened while the Apostles were still alive and supervising the young, growing Church. Some members taught ideas from their old pagan or Jewish beliefs instead of the simple truths taught by Jesus. Some rebelled openly. In addition, there was persecution from outside the Church. Church members were tortured and killed for their beliefs. One by one, the Apostles were killed or otherwise taken from the earth. Because of wickedness and apostasy, the apostolic authority and priesthood keys were also taken from the earth. The organization that Jesus Christ had established no longer existed, and confusion resulted. More and more error crept into Church doctrine, and soon the dissolution of the Church was complete. The period of time when the true Church no longer existed on earth is called the Great Apostasy. Soon pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians. The Roman emperor adopted this false Christianity as the state religion. This church was very different from the church Jesus organized. It taught that God was a being without form or substance. These people lost the understanding of God’s love for us. They did not know that we are His children. They did not understand the purpose of life. Many of the ordinances were changed because the priesthood and revelation were no longer on the earth.

(Gospel Principles Manual, Chapter 16: “The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times”.) Both Mormons and non-Mormons alike find this narrative lacking. Here is my very first attempt at a companion/counter narrative that touches on this and other issues:

Life is difficult and people look to God for meaning, support, and guidance to get through it. There are lots of reasons people want to be close to God (forgiveness, salvation, direction, comfort, etc.) and people explain the way God draws people to him many different ways. Jesus was a man who taught about a particular way to God that he believed was the best or only way to have a lasting relationship with God. Christians are those that believe Jesus on this point at least.  Most believe Jesus was some sort of God.

The defining morality of Christianity is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  This morality is a revolutionary, not-fully-set-forth way of approaching life and human relationships. Jesus wants people to live by the spirit rather than the letter of moral laws and he wants love to guide people and that other motivations should be subordinate.  Christian culture has incorporated all kinds of other systems morality and ethics but these remain the core.

After Jesus was killed, many people who followed him established religious communities centered around his teachings and spirituality.  Over time, these communities developed common beliefs and religious literature by writing about Jesus’ life and teachings and considering these writings reliable. The New Testament consists of what were generally considered the most reliable and important religious literature during the first century after Jesus. These religious communities also developed many traditions that guided what was taught, how the church was governed, and how religious literature should be interpreted.

For the first two centuries after the apostles died, Christianity was almost an underground religion, persecuted and made illegal by the government. The bulk of the believers considered themselves the members of a single Christian church operated as a group of independently governed local congregations.  Around 250 years after Jesus died, the Roman Empire legalized Christianity and the church. The church became wed to the political power of the empire.  About 750 years later this large multi-national split into two churches, the Orthodox church and the Catholic Church.  Even today, most Christians are part of these churches.

About 1400 years after the original apostles died, a Reformation of the church was started by a few religious leaders who rejected the authority of most of the traditions of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  They rejected the authority of a priesthood, the sanctity of many traditions of the church, and believed the New Testament alone was the final– if not only– authority on Christianity. They also introduced another new tradition, the idea that people are saved from death and hell by faith in Jesus alone. Because the New Testament leaves many points of theology open for debate, the Protestant churches split into many factions. However, Protestants generally accept the same creeds.

Starting in the 1820s, Joseph Smith taught a form of Christianity that rejected the sanctity most of the important traditions both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions as well as the Protestant tradition the New Testament was the final, authoritative word on Christianity.  He taught against the creeds of traditional Christianity and claimed that he had received revelations directly from God that supplement the New Testament.  He rejected the older traditions as incomplete or simply incorrect in light of new revelation. Joseph Smith’s teachings were institutionalized by Brigham Young and other leaders of the LDS Church, where most Mormons claim membership. 

In the past 200 years Christianity has changed and grown extremely rapidly compared to the first 2000 years of existence.  There have been many others, like Joseph Smith, who have embraced the Christian scriptures, but have rejected the previous traditions used to supplement and interpret the scriptures. Jehovah’s Witnesses are an example of this. Christian churches have expanded and developed in the way they and their members approach the world and each other.

Because Mormons, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants all believe in the New Testament, they are most easily defined by the traditions that separate them. The Catholic, Mormon, and Orthodox churches believe their traditions that they the one-and-only church with direct authority from God to operate. Protestants believe in a tradition where people from all kinds of churches can be saved so long as they believe in the most important traditions. Catholics have made efforts to accept Protestants back into their fold because Protestants continue to believe in what are considered the most important traditions. Mormons are very different from most Christians in that they reject all of the historical traditions and focus on the new traditions introduced by Joseph Smith and expanded by other leaders.

There it is,a first cut for your consideration.  Because I intend to put my project into practice on my actual children I am very interested in the feedback of other believers on (1) the project of creating such narratives to indoctrinate children, and (2) this particular narrative.


35 thoughts on “Explaining Jesus to a child – How should I indoctrinate my children?

  1. Indoctrination is something all parents do to their kids. In fact, part of the job of being a good parent is to indoctrinate your children.

    -The ideal option is to indoctrinate them with the correct things.
    -The second best option is to indoctrinate them with the wrong things (which they will find useful when they rebel against them later in life – at least they’ll have a direction in life).
    -The third best option is to sissy out and teach them nothing in particular at all – and let them figure out their own values Lord of the Flies style.

    I often hear atheists claiming they don’t indoctrinate their kids. That’s utter BS. Atheists I’ve encountered are often some of the most ideologically-driven, doctrinaire, intolerant, and agenda-motivated people in the public discourse. It’s ridiculous to claim they aren’t passing these attitudes on to their kids, if they have any. And they’re usually fond of using the word “indoctrination” when mindlessly mouthing pseudo Maoist slogans like “religious teaching is child abuse.”

    So in reality, the word “indoctrination” becomes nothing than a slur. An exercise in name-calling.

    Teaching that I like is called “education.”
    Teaching that I don’t like is called “indoctrination.”

    In lowest-common-denominator discourse, I think that about sums it up.

  2. What’s the difference between indoctrination and cultural transmission? The unexamined assumption by New Atheists that religious culture is somehow meaningfully distinct from the rest of culture and can be meaningfully evaluated separately from the rest of culture is naive at best. We transmit all kinds of culture to our children constantly without reflecting on what we are doing or wringing our hands about the ethical implications. The fact that most of the time you merely assume your biases withotu considering them is why they’re “biases.”

  3. I agree, the question is whether I wish to live the “examined life” and make some effort to improve and enrich the culture I am passing on. I have already passed on a lot of Mormon culture to them, which I generally believe is a good thing. At its core, childhood education = indoctrination.

  4. We wired our kids with electrical current. When they expressed an opposite opinion or idea from ours…we zapped them.

    It worked well with all but one (who became a Catholic Democrat, anyway).

  5. I consider Cultural transmission a more general process. It can occur consciously, unconsciously, essentially organically. Indoctrination is an intentional process, we decide what incomplete/reduced/simplified truths to teach and state them as the unqualified truth.

  6. I consider that to be nonsense, and so would any anthropologist. Cultural transmission happens both actively and passively.

    At best, indoctrination is one kind of cultural transmission.

  7. I agree, that is what I tried to say. . . . indoctrination is a type of cultural transmission that is generally intentional, involving ideas (doctrines) rather than practices.

  8. I have a hard time swallowing the idea that indoctrination must be intentional. Why can’t it be unintentional?

  9. I like the narrative in general, but there are some things I would quibble about. Rhetoric about apostasy and restoration to the contrary, I’d question to what extent Mormons have rejected all historical traditions; our view of sexual morality, for example, is very much within the historical Christian mainstream despite our 19th-century practices. The Book of Mormon itself has Wesleyan overtones, and our worship styles are very similar to those practiced in American Protestantism of the past. In some ways, liberal Protestantism these days has rejected historical traditions at least as much as Mormonism has. In saying this, I’m ignoring our radical reconception of what/who God is — maybe that’s what you’re referring to?

  10. Yeah, just because the Mormonism’s narrative says it rejects post-apostolic Christian tradition doesn’t make it actually so.

  11. True, Mormonism actually holds pretty strongly to the traditional Biblical canon, even if it is not exclusive. I agree that the LDS narrative is far more pithy. It digests 2000 years of Christian history into a paragraph with almost no real explanation. LDS indoctrination essentially tells children not to think any more about what happened from 90 AD to 1820.

    The traditions I am referring to are ecclesiastical/doctrinal/theological traditions. Mormons don’t reject the ideas of traditional doctrines, just the authority they hold simply because they are traditional. Mormons reject the notion that traditions from other churches have any hold on them. Mormons have their own traditions, but whatever authority these traditions hold bows can be evaporated by an authoritative endorsement or denouncement.

    I want to explain to my children the idea that Mormonism has broken free of the most sacred traditions of other christian groups without abandoning Christianity. I think this is what Joseph Smith did.

    Mormons follow traditions, but they don’t see them as sacred or inviolate. for example, even though Mormons believe in the Bible, it was re-written in significant ways by Joseph Smith, this shows that even though the tradition is respected, it is certainly not as sacred like it is to Evangelicals.

  12. My point is, Mormonism has kept a whole lot of ecclesiastical/doctrinal/theological traditions without realizing it. Not just the scriptural canon. Eric pointed out several but there are more. And without being really conversant in non-Mormon ecclesiastical/doctrinal/theological traditions and their development, Mormons just have no idea what they’ve schlepped along unwittingly.

  13. I can see your point. Mormons are interesting in that conceptually we often act as if the Church was sprouted out of the ground as a unique creation, when it is basically only one fruit of a very large tree filled with fruit. I think I need to teach my kids that the long tradition of Christianity is, in fact, what Mormonism sprang from.

    My point is not that Mormons don’t follow traditional beliefs about things. My point is that, at its core, Mormonism does not hold these traditions sacred. This is arguably why other churches don’t think they are Christian.

    Mormons, in general, act precisely like devoted Christians of other faiths, but they are an anathema to most of them because the LDS Church doesn’t certain hold ideas and principles untouchable or incontrovertable. To most other Christians Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are an affront to the most sacred creeds, the most sacred traditions of marriage and sexual morality, and the most sacred traditions of authority and priesthood, and the most sacred traditions regarding authoritative canon.

    I think it’s important for my kids to understand that and why that is, and why it is important. Perhaps another sort of narrative. . .

  14. At least, Mormons don’t hold these traditions qua traditions sacred.

    For example, Mormons (without using the term) talk about penal substitution atonement all the time, without realizing that it’s a doctrine developed by the Reformers from Anselm of Canterbury’s satisfaction theory and not somehow just self-evident from scripture.

  15. True. Mormon ignorance of actual history tweaks their understanding of why the Church says what it says now. Other traditions are incorporated all the time, but they are melded into the Restorationist narrative by pointing out that the guys that incorporated these (rather than some other doctrines/practices/rituals, etc.) were led directly by Jesus to do so.

    Mormonism developed as a hodge-podge of extant beliefs and practices held together by Joseph’s prophetic claims. Ultimately Mormons seem to hold the Spirit as the most important factor. The Spirit (and those chosen who are thought to be called and guided by it) can and will change, alter, or incorporate any tradition as it sees fit, but when it does so, it becomes part of the “Restored Gospel” rather than simply another traditional belief.

  16. Mormon narrative says the Spirit is the most important factor, in practice the Mormon priesthood hierarchy (which effectively functions like the Catholic magisterium) is the most important factor.

  17. Sure, that is the circuit-breaker of Spiritual enlightenment and revelation. Preventing people from getting disruptive with their interpretations of spiritual experience.

    Mormons circle this back into the Spirit by contending that the reason they follow the leadership is because the Spirit led them to this.

    From an indoctrination perspective I think its important for my kids to recognize that Mormon spirituality is essentially the same sort of thing as Protestant (or other Christian) spirituality, but informed by different constraints.

  18. No, I think Mormon spirituality is more of an exercise in question begging. Mormonism holds that you can find out the truth through spiritual experience, and then invalidates all spiritual experience that doesn’t confirm the truth of Mormonism.

    Protestants and other Christians don’t necessarily base their truth claims on the believer’s spiritual experiences.

  19. I agree that an important thing Mormon kids should know is that (1) people have genuine spiritual experiences both inside and outside of Mormonism, (2) the experiences aren’t proof of much of anything theological and nothing historical.

  20. Supposed to what? Turn off their brains and let emotion run rampant?

    Um… no they aren’t.

  21. Most all Christian children are taught to reject whatever conclusion that leads them away from what they are taught to have faith in, what their parents believe will save them.They are taught to trust the truth (as it is taught) and reject what is not-truth. It seems that all other spirituality is considered suspect, adulterated, confused or downright diabolical.

    I am really trying to find a way out of that pattern of teaching.

  22. Seth, that’s not what I said at all. You know perfectly well that Mormonism teaches that the ultimate source of reliable truth about the gospel is the personal witness of the Holy Ghost. I’m not saying anything at all about whether Mormonism is also intellectually, philosophically or historically credible. That’s completely beside the point.

  23. I just don’t see a witness from the Holy Ghost being in a separate category from that which is intellectually compelling.

  24. I’m with Seth on this one. I fully believe that one way the Holy Spirit speaks to me is through my intellect.

  25. So, finding something intellectually compelling is a sure witness of God by the power of the Holy Ghost that the thing is true?

  26. I find your narrative very interesting. You have left out Anglican/Episcopal. Is this because you classify Episcopal as being more in the Catholic tradition? That’s understandable. This topic is extremely relevant to me right now, because I am currently preparing my daughter for her First Communion. She has been attending an Episcopal school since the time she was three, and when we do attend church, it is either an Episcopal or a Methodist church. I have held to some traditions from my RLDS upbringing. For example, I would not permit her to take communion before the age of eight, (in contrast to the Episcopal and Methodist churches we attend who let even 3 and 4 year olds take communion.) The desire to take communion is my daughter’s, but once we start down this road, she needs to attend church regularly and contribute to the life of her congregation. My daughter’s school is not a rigid, fundamentalist, Christian school. While the Hindu and Muslim students who attend are required to study the Bible and attend Chapel, they are given the option to memorize scripture from the Koran or the Hindu book, and are given equal credit for this. When she was three, my daughter told me she thought God was a woman. I did not scold her or try to correct her. I wanted her to feel that God was her friend, and if conceptualizing God as a woman helped her in this, so be it. We pray together, and sometimes she prays on her own. Once, she told me she had prayed for some girls at school who were being mean to her. I was amazed, because she hadn’t complained about the girls treatment of her, or said anything to me, just that she was praying for them. I hadn’t suggested it at all. The kicker was, two or three days later, she told me that they were being kinder to her! When I do read Bible stories to her, I use the book her Kindergarten teacher used. I’m also reading bible verses to her in order to prepare her for her First Communion, and she is attending Sunday School class. Because of what happened to me, I am going easy on formal “religious teachings.” To me, a parent teaches religion in some form or another every day of a child’s life. It’s a part of parenting. I can only guide her, her path is hers to choose. The only real “indoctrination” I will give her is when, as she grows older, I will tell her to stay well away from Fundamentalists. Not that she will need my advice. Even now she is a feisty, free spirit with a mind of her own, and not at all the way I was as a child.

  27. Lisa, thanks for your thoughts, they are much appreciated.

    My son seems different than my other kids to some degree. One factor might be his religious education. My girls learned generic religion and protestant Christianity (institutional Lutheranism) as a subject in school. It was taught in a very non-rigid, vanilla way; much like my non-pithy narrative. However I recognize that this sort of education doesn’t have a lot of traction compared to something that has more edge. The LDS narrative is more compelling, less complicated– it grabs you. A Hollywood movie compared to a informative lecture. That is what I am competing with religiously or otherwise.

    I think the vanilla path may be the best, but I also want to give them tools to dive into whatever spirituality they ultimately land in without rejecting communion with others.

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