The mother of one of the children at my school came to discuss strategies for handling her four-year-old daughter’s constant complaints about rules. Exceptionally inquisitive and logical, the girl reminds me of one of my sons, who at about the same age, disputed my insistence on a daily afternoon nap. When I tried reducing the boys’ resistance to rest by leaving a surprise on their beds when I found them both asleep, he waited for the silent moment when I tiptoed into their room to check on them. As I deftly placed a little whistle on his blanket, he opened his eyes and protested, “You’re trying to control me!”
I shared this story to let the girl’s mom know I understood her situation and we enjoyed a laugh about motherhood’s challenges. Then we began exploring possibilities for handling her bright child’s issue with the reasonable limits loving adults had set for her.
That led us to the classic Beatrix Potter story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It’s familiar enough: Mrs. Rabbit allows her children the freedom to go “into the fields or down the lane,” but she insists that they not go into Mr. MacGregor’s garden. She has good reason: when their father had done so, he was put into a pie by Mr. MacGregor.
What follows is Peter’s defiance of his mother’s rule and the miserable consequences of his squeezing under the farmer’s gate to feast on vegetables that don’t belong to him.
We decided that mother and daughter might begin by simply reading and enjoying this story, along with Potter’s other delightful tales. The shared experience is ruined if story time becomes a ruse for a lecture about following the rules. But like Socrates, one can ask questions that gently draw the truth from the child’s own heart. We can humbly share tales of our own failures to trust those who love us most, and the unfortunate consequences that followed that mistrust.
The conversation led me to think, not only about children and rules, but the difficulties we as adults often have to opening our hearts to childlike trust in God.
Whether it’s Peter Rabbit, Kristin Lavransdatter (Sigrid Undset’s Nobel-winning trilogy rich with sin and its consequences) or Adam and Eve themselves, the question isn’t whether or not one should obey a rule. It’s whether or not the Source of the rule is Love.
A contrasting tale of the consequences of curiosity illustrates the point. In the French folktale Bluebeard, a young maiden becomes the wife of a powerful lord (a widower many times over) who demands absolute respect. Bluebeard tests his new wife’s trust when he leaves for battle, giving her the keys to every room in the castle but warning her that she must not use the little key that opens a particular room at the end of the hallway.
When curiosity gets the better of Bluebeard’s new wife, she tries the little key only to discover to her horror that the room behind the locked door contains the dead bodies of all of Bluebeard’s former wives. Bluebeard’s rule was all about him. He comes to a bad end, leaving his mortified young widow cured of her curiosity.
Comparing the two tales, it seems to me that a good many of our issues with God come down to a belief, sometimes hidden even from ourselves, that the Creator resembles Bluebeard, setting down arbitrary rules and then enjoying the misery of those who dare to disobey.
Many atheists go further, defying the possibility of any moral code in the universe. No God, no“rules” to be tested and broken. As Susan Wise Bauer notes about that unhappy atheist Friedrich Nietzche, the atheist “rails against ‘the concept of the good man,’ who is ‘weak, sick, ill-constructed,’” preferring the proud man who “boldly chooses and in the act of choice finds meaning.” What kind of meaning he chooses is a matter of preference, not justice. Goodness, in this construction, is a meaningless concept.
I find both the cruel rulemaker and the proud choicemaker deeply unsatisfying as constructs in the quest for the meaning of human existence. But I acknowledge that many who have difficulties with the Judeo-Christian worldview see the Creator of Adam as a Bluebeard-like figure.
That sad misconception is beautifully addressed in Bishop Robert Barron’s commentary on 2 Samuel‘s sixth chapter, and it brings us back to whether the source of moral justice is Love.
Barron, in addressing David’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem when the Ark of the Covenant has been recovered from the Philistines, sees the king as the new Adam, “leader of a properly defended Eden.” “The first man was presented by the rabbis of the intertestamental period and by the church fathers as priest as well as king,” he writes. “Walking in easy fellowship with Yahweh, Adam naturally occupied the stance of adoration…breathing in his divine life and breathing out praise.”
This stance, Barron continues, “conduces toward the right ordering of the family, community, society, and cosmos that surrounds the person.” The Creator’s goodness is the source of human flourishing.
“When Adam and Eve listened to the voice of the serpent and disobeyed the command of God,” Barron adds, “they…ordered their hearts away from the unconditioned good. This led to interior disintegration: the falling apart of mind from flesh, soul from body, intention from action and so on.” Therefore:
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden should not be interpreted as a sentence passed by an insulted deity but rather as the inevitable consequence of bad [disordered] praise.
Stepping outside of trust in God’s goodness is a step away from reality, a step that turns the garden into a desert. It’s a step away from tender, familial love.
And we’re back to the simplicity of the Tale of Peter Rabbit, a tale that reflects reality. We may go into the fields or down the lane; we may even go into Mr. MacGregor’s garden. But we cannot choose the consequences that follow any step away from love. That’s why those who trust in the Creator’s revelation ultimately find happiness. It’s why, in coming to understand Who gave us our lives and merits our love, we slowly come to understand who we really are and how much we are loved.
It’s also why children with loving parents are happiest when they trust the family’s rules.
A lovely presentation of the Beatrix Potter tales in animated form is available on YouTube as The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.
Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter is also available in an Audible edition. The excitement the British narrator lends to the tales adds hilarity to the listen, enabling children to enjoy tale after tale in sequence on a long drive.
Do you still love to be little? You’ll find more posts on children and books they love at Sparrowfare’s Fledglingfare page.
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