Living in brownstone South Brooklyn, we walk everywhere. There is always something to look at. This is an Italian Catholic neighborhood; a casual atmosphere of bathtub Marys and various saints lounge in the front yards. Some are well-attended, brightly white, watching over manicured lawns. Others crumble in silence, their owners old mainstays in a swiftly gentrifying neighborhood.
In his skinny jeans and black hoodie, my son looms large among his classmates, looking painfully northern European with his blond shock of hair. Five-year-old Søren has his mother’s sharp blue eyes in the almond shape of his father’s. He is ours, but, living up to his namesake, Søren Kierkegaard, he is most definitely his own person. Søren is my maelstrom, a whirlwind of energy and inquiry.
On the way to the park, we stroll past an empty lot where Mary stands beneath a flowering garden trestle. She looks over the various exceedingly well-fed stray cats. We’ve named her “Mary of the Cats.” “Meow meow, Mary!” we call to her and wave. During Advent, in the adjacent wooden creche, the cats huddle together for warmth under the lamp before the appearance of Baby Jesus. I think they shove him out.
His questions have a catechetical cadence to them.
“Who is Mary?”
“That is the Lonely Boy’s mama,” I reply.
“What does she say?”
“Listen to the Lonely Boy.”
“Tell me a story about Mary.”
“Once upon a time there was a wedding at a place called Cana…”
So who is the Lonely Boy? It began when he first saw Jesus dead in the churchyard of a local Catholic parish. Walking, he points to the man hanging from a cross.
“Who is that?” he asks.
“Who do you think it is?” I say, encouraging him to explore.
After a moment staring, he decides, “That’s the Lonely Boy!”
Shocked, I say, “Why is he the Lonely Boy?”
Soberly, Søren says, “Because all of his friends have left him.”
“Why is he on a stick?” he continues.
This is our son’s entry point into Christianity: an abandoned boy, alone on a stick.
“Because,” I offer, “some people didn’t like that he said to love one another.”
And we continue walking home. For us, Jesus has been the Lonely Boy ever since.
“What does the Lonely Boy say?” he asks later, working to wrap his head around this strange image.
“He says to love one another.” I don’t offer easy answers. Words like “atonement” and “sedition” aren’t helpful.
How does a world-weary divinity school alum go about teaching his young son about Christianity? For me, these years are an easy moment, when the meanings of time and event are more pliable and less causal. I read him myths and we ground them in the Greco-Roman statues and vases at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re as real as the statuary and frescoes of Jesus and the saints in the Medieval Wing. They’re as real as the four statues of St. Anthony of Padua in the front yards of a single block of our neighborhood. Stories are what is most significant in a child’s world. They define, articulate, and and describe the world. Love and acceptance ground and glue that world together.
Søren does not know what a Bible is, but he knows storytellers with names like Mark and John. He knows that Jesus was transfigured and that his clothes turned white. He knows that a Samaritan was a good neighbor and helped someone who was beaten and different. I do not want him to understand the Bible as a monolithic text, some object of idolatry.
We do not talk about God, either in identity or action. There is no God, only the Lonely Boy and his mother and the saints who talk about him. Trained in theology and learning to parent, I’ve learned how to pick my battles. “Transcendence” and “immanence” are fool’s errands at his age and probably at mine, too. Why muddle things with “theodicy” and “kenosis”? Why wrestle with the existence of God at all right now? A bird just flew into that bush and he wants to find it.
I want to give him a foundation. I want him to create his own world filled with meaning, gleaned from and created by the images and stories around him. The Met. MoMA. The city’s skyline in the morning. I want his world to be rich with imagination and description and the ineffable, the indescribable and unknowable.
The yard saints ground a complex and maddening religion. It is something that Catholicism has always done better than Protestantism. In its iconoclasm, Protestantism objectifies a book at risk of kitschy pictures and clumsy proof texts.
I am trying to explain aspects of Christianity through these common objects along our streets. And yet, these saints are not for children. Much of the Bible is not for children. It’s not about an elect zoo floating over humanity’s graveyard.
He already knows some Greek letters. One day he will learn well about the iconoclast for whom he is named. The angst will come. For now I tell him stories about a man and his friends who will leave him and his mother who will be sad.
“Her heart was on fire when he was handed over to the bad Romans,” he says.
I hold his hand on our way to our subway station. We hold hands all the time, as much for comfort as for stability.
“I love you, Dad,” he says. He says it often. We tell each other this truth all the time. Søren does not like to be lonely.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Burke Gerstenschlager
Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor. He has a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and frets about God at his blog, Bleak Theology: http://www.bleaktheology.com.