by Michelle Reyes
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
Part of our bedtime routine includes me nestling into bed with my four-year old son and asking him which stories he wants to hear. Lately, his two favorites are “David and Goliath” and “The White Snake” – a Bible story and a folk tale. With the room completely dark, and only a few beams of light peeking out from a small night light, we both close our eyes, and I tell him a story of a young boy who protects the smallest and weakest animals in the kingdom because he knows how to speak their language. He can’t fight with a sword and isn’t very brave, but he always hears their cries and comes to their aid. The boy even makes a few mistakes along the way and, at one point, just sits down and cries. My son is a mix of wide-eyed curiosity and giggles as he tries to picture the story in his mind, and I can’t help but smile too, knowing that the male hero he is imagining is not what the world envisions.
I grew up reading tales like this, and even at a young age they helped illuminate so many truths in Scripture that it just made sense to read them side by side. In fact, I can’t think of a more fitting representation of Christian humility and service than the boy in “The White Snake.” He perfectly illustrates the command in Colossians 3:12 to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” This is the connection I hope my son is making too; for, like most tales, it is not the strongest or the smartest that win, but the kindest, the humblest, and the most resilient.
As a folklorist, I see the way folk tales resemble the stories in the Bible. They deal with a lot of the same stuff. Famed Christian writer and academic, J.R.R. Tolkien, once wrote, “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.” In other words, both tales and Scripture point to our human weaknesses and our need for help outside of ourselves. I choose to tell these stories to my kids, not to scare them, but so that they can see how great their need for God is.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the modern cartoon versions of fairy tales. Those are a disaster with their white-washed, sanitized, and unrealistic notions of beauty, riches, and fame. I’m referring to the old, old tales of matriarchal societies that were passed down from storyteller to storyteller for the benefit of the folk (not just children, mind you). From “The Story of Grandmother” (the oldest version of Little Red Riding Hood), “Yeh-Hsien” (the Chinese Cinderella), and “Little Thumbling” to lesser-known tales like “The Queen Bee,” “Vasilisa the Fair” and “Iron Hans,” these are the stories of real-world issues: of oppression, hunger, and dysfunctional families, of pain, hardship, and loss. And, each night, after narrating these stories, my son and I talk about trusting in God, how God is bigger than the monsters of this world, and how we are never alone. We’ve even compared “The White Snake” to “David and Goliath”: both are stories of small boys who choose to be brave and help others despite the dangers they face.
It’s important that the message my son hears is not that he can defeat anything. Because we can’t, and not everyone gets happy endings either (another Hollywood lie). Life is hard, for some more than others, but there are ways to survive. This is the stuff of both folklore and biblical truth. As Christians, we survive by clinging to Christ and adorning ourselves with humility, kindness and love.
Sure, maybe I could just have my kids watch the news and foster conversation about the world’s evils based on that. But there is something about storytelling that invites, captures the imagination, and lingers in our memories. Night after night, I tell the same stories with the same wording. My son has some of them memorized now and can repeat several famous lines. The deeply intimate act of storytelling is how I live out the call in Deuteronomy 6:6-10 to impress God’s word upon my child. The truths of Scripture— illuminated through folklore—are ever on my boy’s mind, and he can recall them easily when necessary.
May we all hold the stories of the Bible in one hand and the stories of this present world in the other, and through storytelling show our children how the two have everything to do with each other. We can teach our children how to bridge one world with the other in creative, fun, and powerful ways; ways I pray that sharpen their heart, mind, and soul.
Dr. Michelle Reyes, Ph.D, is a storyteller, writer, bridge builder, pastor’s wife, and momma of two littles. She is a regular contributor for (in)courage, Think Christian, Church Health Reader and The Art of Taleh, where she writes on faith, family and diversity. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.