I received Sophfronia Scott’s memoir This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World from Paraclete Press in January, right before I left on a 2-week trip to Northern Ireland. On the night of February 14, I was lying in a Dublin hotel room, trying to get my daughter to sleep before our flight to New York the next day, when news alerts about the Parkland shooting started lighting up my phone.
Awash in that deep sense of utter hopelessness, frustration, and anger that has overwhelmed me after so many mass shootings, the last thing I wanted to do was put my daughter on that plane and take her back to a country determined to fiddle while Rome burns. I grew up in a time when children from Northern Ireland spent summers in the United States, away from the violence in their own country. At the time, I could never have imagined that I would feel safer with my own child in Belfast than taking her out in our own town, never knowing where and when some disturbed individual who’s managed to get his hands on one of the United States’ many assault rifles will decide to attack next.
It was a familiar feeling, not wanting to get on the plane. I’d felt it a year and a half earlier when I returned from Scotland after the Pulse nightclub shooting. I’ll tell you what it doesn’t feel like: it doesn’t feel like freedom.
The last thing I wanted to do when I landed was read about a child who survived the Sandy Hook shooting, so it took me some time to confront This Child of Faith.
Here’s the jacket copy:
Tain Gregory was present in his third-grade classroom on the morning of the Sandy Hook shootings. As part of the healing process after the tragedy, Tain was asked, “What’s the most important thing in the world to you?” Tain thought for a moment, then answered with one word: “God.”
Tain surprised every adult in the room, including his mother, who “had no idea how firmly rooted Tain’s faith was within him” (x).
This Child of Faith is Scott’s story of her own faith journey from childhood through motherhood, and her faith journey with her son, interspersed with “Tain’s Take,” short pieces Tain writes to share his perspective on the topics his mother addresses.
This is a beautiful book, and I’m sorry it took me so long to read it because I love it. I highlighted many passages and will probably read it again.
Tain and I wrote this book to shine a light on possible answers for parents by sharing our story. We hope our experiences will help parents get to the heart of a question that becomes more perturbing as our world grows ever more complicated. How do you help a child have faith—real faith, something he or she owns and not a regurgitation of something heard? How do you create a life space where a child can learn to understand what they believe?
But please note: this is not an instructional “how-to” book. As you’ll see, we muddle along because there is no direct route here.
Frequently in this book, you’ll see various forms of I don’t know. (xi-xii)
I related to Sophfronia Scott’s experience on so many levels, from my imaginative childhood to my medically and emotionally rocky road to motherhood of an only child to life as a professional writer. And, while I grew up United Methodist and so have had “organized religion” in my life since birth (unlike Scott, whose childhood experience of church was more sporadic) I related to a perspective found but rarely in religious pop culture in the United States: that of the Progressive Intellectual Christian, which is what I consider myself.
Like Scott, I had run-ins with evangelical groups in college eager to convince me of all the ways and all the people God just couldn’t help damning to hell, wanted me to believe things about the Bible that as an English and History scholar I knew to be impossible, and wanted to tell me how, as a woman, I was destined for a “separate sphere” from men. Nope, nope, and nope. (And nope to most of the rest of what those groups were selling, as well.)
Scott decided to follow Tain’s lead when it came to church, which led her family to Trinity Episcopal in Newtown, CT. Much of the book follows their journey into a faith community that “fit.” In a world where the white evangelical church is leading our country down a dark path and in which Christians with narrow and misguided views dominate the popular understanding of people of faith in this country, it was refreshing to have my own mainline, progressive Protestantism reflected in print and provided me with opportunities to reflect on what this tradition means for my life and my motherhood.
While I was initially afraid to approach a book that dealt with a school shooting, I need not have been. Scott does not spare readers in describing the day and the aftermath of the shooting, but she handles a community’s grief in a meaningful, fruitful way, assuring us that, while God does not cause bad things to happen, God can bring good out of evil.
One thing I especially appreciated is the perspective Scott has on children. She does not idealize children, and she does not expect them to somehow be “more holy” than adults. She treats children, including her own child self and her son, as fully realized people, which is a perspective rarer than you might think. Least of all is this a manual for forcing church and religion on children, which I also appreciated.
I’d like to share with you one final passage that resonated:
As a writer, I know it’s important to be able to rest in and accept the place of not knowing. The poet John Keats called it negative capability. To be in such a space, for me anyway, requires a constant letting go and reminding myself that it’s okay not to know. How can a child come to learn this when they are in a period of nonstop questioning and learning and wanting to know? (81).
A few nights ago, frustrated by bedtime prayers, I told my husband that people had been misinterpreting Jesus’ call to enter the kingdom like a little child all these years. “Little children ask a lot of questions,” I said, possibly through gritted teeth.
If you’re interested in reading an honest story of a family’s journey through faith in the age of mass shootings, I encourage you to pick up This Child of Faith.
Scott, Sophfronia and Tain Gregory. This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2017. 186 pages. $16.99
(I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)