Recently I read my manuscript on Athanasius to a Sunday School class (1st-3rd grades). In spite of my careful attempts to write an objective account, I realized that, after only a few paragraphs, they had already formulated some strong moral judgments in their minds. Athanasius was good - why else would I write about him? Alexander was good because he liked Athanasius. Arius was bad because Alexander disagreed with him. That was clear as soon as Arius died, because Olivia expressed her total dismay, saying, "Oh no! The good guy died and the bad man is still alive!"
Will it help to explain to the children that no heretic ever set out to bring wrong doctrine into the church? or that Arius was as sincere as Athanasius in his efforts to help Christians to have the correct idea of God and Christ, even if, as repeated church councils have convened, his teachings were not scriptural? How important is it to point it out? Should we let the children enjoy a little longer their oversimplified view of reality? Probably, unless the oversimplification is superimposed.
We all want to reduce things to black and white because we like it. We want a world well-defined that we can understand. But the truth is, there are more shades of grey than we thought and we are often afraid to face them. We need to be as impartial as possible in our instruction to our children.
I have recently read an article lamenting the lack of heroes in today's education. The truth is, we have plenty of heroes, they just uphold different values and are more flawed. As an Italian, I went through grammar school with glorious images of heroes of the struggle for Italian unity and independence. Today, Italian children learn the problems that a (possibly premature) unity has caused for the South. With the availability of internet research, children can learn with a click of a mouse the countless flaws of any heroes they may have been taught to admire.
Is this wrong? We can hold on nostalgically to a past populated with courageous heroes and grand gestures, or we can help our children to face reality. We wouldn't be the first generation in history to do that. The "heroes" of the Bible were mostly sinners from dysfunctional families, and yet there was a time when the Bible was read to children straight, and not filtered through cute children's books. The heroes of the true classics, like Odysseus and Achilles, were men struggling with their own passions and incongruities. Still, those are the characters that have mostly shaped my youth. Odysseus' obvious mistakes and misjudgments made him so much more relevant to me than the short heroic vignettes upheld to children as "role models", like Mutius Scaevola (a Roman legendary hero who burned his own hand to show what Roman bravery was all about).
The Hero of the Bible is God, from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is not a book of inspiring stories of great men and women, but is the story, as my pastor often says, "of God redeeming a people for Himself through Jesus Christ." And so the history of the church, from Adam until now, is the story of God continuing to redeem and preserve His people, believers of all nations, simultaneously sinners and saints. Our children need to see God in history more than they need to see heroes, and they are more capable of understanding flaws, putting them in the right perspective, than we may think.