Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Prophet-- Lebanon's Sage on Child-Rearing

Kahlil Gibran was one of the great Middle Eastern poets of modern times. He was born in Lebanon in 1883, but he spent most of his life, and did most of his writing here in the U.S.A. By far his most famous and memorable book is The Prophet. Gibran was born in the Marionite Christian town of Bsharri in northern Lebanon and his maternal grandfather had been a Marionite priest. The Christian influence on his writings is clear, but it is not the only source of his poetry and wisdom. Gibran grew up in south Boston in the 1890s and first showed promise as an artist. Indeed, so much promise that he had his first art exhibit in 1904 in Boston. Thereafter he went to study with perhaps the most famous sculptor and artist of the day-- August Rodin, in Paris. Gibran became a tough critic of the corrupt practices of the eastern orthodox church in Syria and Lebanon, but he retained much of his deep rooted faith and spirituality. The work called The Prophet was in fact conceived while he was but a child in Lebanon, was written in Syriac and Arabic first, and then turned into fluid English much later. It is interesting how much influence this work came to have on American youth in the 60s and 70s during the counter-cultural revolution of that period. His book Jesus, the Son of Man is pretty powerful as well. It becomes clear, the more you read of Gibran that he was also profoundly affected by Bahullah Bahai, the founder of the Bahai movement, a spin off from Islam, and also from Christianity. This means one must critically sift what Gibran says, but after sifting there is still much wheat to be garnered from the chaff.

I for one was deeply impressed with "the Prophet" and its profound insights and spirituality. Here is one of my favorite excerpts from the 26 poems that make up the work.


And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, "Speak to us of Children."

And he said:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

While this is a natural manifesto for a somewhat rebellious Christian child like me, my interest in it now is in what Gibran wants to convey about the proper theology of children, and how parents should relate to and raise them. One of the things that has most disturbed me about conservative Protestant child rearing in recent years is the attempt of parents to either 1) relive their own lives, hopes, and dreams through their children, and/or 2) re-create their children, not in God's image but in their own. We often proudly say "well he's a chip off the old block". But isn't a child supposed to be recreated in Christ's and his heavenly Father's image, not in the image of his earthly parents? I think Gibran is trying to speak to this in this poem.

There is another point Gibran is stressing in this poem. Our children do not belong to us-- they are gifts of God which come through us, may well resemble us, but God has his own plans for them along the way. The question becomes when does a parent, if ever, realize they need to ask the question--- but what would God have me do with this child, much as Samuel's mother had to ask? Letting go of one's children is hard. I know, I have three of them, and one is moving to Washington D.C. tomorrow. I will sorely miss the good times we have had together in recent years. Yet I know deep in my soul it is the right thing to do-- a mother should never become a smother, and father should never be a bother. We are the bow, but God is the archer, and he knows where the target is-- whereas I can only guess.

It is a delicate balance I know between care and possessiveness, concern and fear when it comes to children. One of the problems that can happen with home-schooling children is that often they do not learn how to cope with the world or real life. They do not learn the proper social skills. They grow up in a Christian laboratory or hothouse, and the question becomes whether the plant can be successfully transplanted into a real outdoor garden somewhere. This is what happens when fear-based parenting replaces faith-based parenting.

And Gibran is suggesting that we need to have more faith in God, and help launch our children into the world, not merely shield them from it. Is it not true, after all that God is greater than the world? Is it not true that "greater is he than any forces in the world"? This surely should affect the way we raise our children if it is indeed true.

I do not claim to be an expert in Christian child-rearing, but this I do know. The world is God's world, and Christianity is an evangelistic world-transforming religion, not at heart a world-negating religion. These truths ought to affect the way we do our child-rearing as we launch them into their own futures.

If ever there was a parent who might be forgiven for being over-protective of a child it was Abraham, with Isaac-- the child of his great old age, the promised one. And yet there came a day when God required the child of him, indeed he asked Abraham to be prepared to go up the mountain and sacrifice the child. Before you ever say "but God would never ask me to do X,Y, or Z with or for my child" you should re-read that story. If you want to receive back your children someday in joy, you must be prepared to give them up to the Lord in tears if need be, and give them up to the pursuit of their own futures. When you do this, sometimes the child even becomes the tutor if not the father or mother to the man or woman.

It was Paul who warned-- do not exasperate your children. Well nothing is more exasperating that inhibiting or prohibiting your little angel from stretching his or her wings. In fact Paul says that we should not treat our children in such fashion that they lose heart, become depressed, give up trying to be their own person, and pursue God's leading in their lives. We need to hear again the advice found in Col. 3-4/Ephes. 5-6 about child rearing. There comes a time when a parent must finally and fully trust God in regard to their offspring. What did the old sage say "Train up a child in the way that they should go, and they....." And then let go and let God. Think on these things.


Travis said...

Wasn't this the book that June Carter gave to Johnny Cash in "Walk The Line"?

Ben Witherington said...

Yes indeed-- good eye! A truly beautiful book, if not theological perfect.

Todd M said...

Wow. Good post. I have never heard of Gibran but I will read him now.

Your post hits home with me as it relates a lot to a path I have been walking for the past few months.

I am on the board of directors for a K-12 Christian School and we are currently working to cast a fresh vision for the school. One thing we keep coming back to is the idea of inspiring and equipping culturally-relevant Christian leaders. We cannot keep these kids in a vaccuum if they are to be effective for Christ later on.

I also appreciated your reference to Paul's admonition to not exasperate our children. I try to keep that in in mind in raising my son. Choose your battles carefully ... you don't want to win the battles but lose the war.

Thanks for the great post.

Ben Witherington said...

Good for you Todd, Christian schools need to prepare the students to be overcomers in the world, not under the covers hiding from the world.

Steve said...

I have been incredibly challenged recently by this faith-based parenting in reading the biography of Rees Howells. He was a man truly led by the Spirit during the time of the Welch revival. He and his wife before moving to Africa as missionaries felt God asking them to leave their new born son behind in the care of his brother-in-law and his wife. The idea struck me as "not possibly being God's will." But I quickly saw that it was my American Evangelical Christian values which were being challenged. The Bible never makes any such claims about family coming first in ministry. That's not to say that churches should come before ministerial families. But Jesus demands that he come before "Father, Mother, Brother, Sister" and even children. He is the archer. We are not. That's hard teaching.

Pilgrim said...

Good Post. It is a good reminder concerning our roles as parents and it is a good reminder that truth can be found in unexpected places.

But, I would like to add that there are other motivations besides fear for homeschooling. (By the way, is "fear-based parenting" an allusion to "Grace-based Parenting" by Tim Kimmel?)

My wife and I grew up in the public school system and it wasn't until we actually met some homeschoolers in North Africa that homeschooling became a feasible option.

Several years later we are enjoying the flexibility that homeschooling allows as far as scheduling. We are enjoying the fact that our two oldest daughters are growing up together and are not separated by an arbitrary age-graded system. We are enjoying the ability to teach more, not less... we teach 'secular history', but we also ask questions that were never asked of us in school. We teach about the theory of evolution, but we also point out that God is "the maker of heaven and earth" (leaving Young Earth and Old Earth creationism as secondary issues). We enjoy the freedom to choose our curriculum and to make necessary changes along the way for our very different children.

We didn't choose homeschooling as a "hothouse" approach. Rather, it is just one means among many, that we seek to use to raise our children to love God with all their hearts and minds and to love their neighbors. Obviously, in order to "love their neighbors" they must interact with them. It is axiomatic to say that homeschooling does not take place simply in the home.

Thanks again for your thought provoking post...and your many thought provoking books. I have enjoyed many of them and was astounded at your courage (and your ability to stay employed ;-) when I read "The Problem with Evangelical Theology." Although we share a love for Wilmore, unfortunately I left it before you arrived. I had to leave my "hothouse" (as some would view seminary) and see if I could survive in a "Muslim desert" in North Africa. By the way, there are still people who live in homes that look very much like those from ancient Haran.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi pilgrim:

I quite agree and understand that fear is not the only reason for home-school. Still, I have never met a set of parents who were completely adequately trained substitutes for a whole bevy of professional teachers of numerous subjects at a proper school. Never. And that includes myself and my wife who teaches the sciences at Asbury college.


Ben W.

Pilgrim said...

I certainly don't disagree with you on the graduate or undergraduate level... obviously I disagree with you on the primary level (time will reveal whether I agree with you on a personal level once our children reach high school).

I will say that homeschooling leverages relationship and intimacy over "professionalism" a pattern that is clear in the Gospels as well.

But, I'll acknowledge that homeschooling is not a panacea and there are certainly those who are doing it in a less than effective manner. I also believe that one should have at least a bachelors degree and be willing to spend a lot of time in research and preparation (and for that matter, money as well).

But this is probably an issue on which we will agree to disagree. For my part, I still intend to use your commentary on Romans when I translate Romans into a Nilo-Saharan language ;-)