Inspirational, Life

Book Spotlight – Honest Answers

Today I’m going to share a bit about a book that sounds intriguing to me…

Honest Answers – Exploring God Questions with Your Tween


by Janelle Alberts and Ingrid Faro

Somewhere between “Jesus Loves Me” and high school cynicism, the childlike acceptance of pat answers about faith is lost–often forever. But while many parents find this transitional period daunting, they don’t want their kids to leave the Christian faith just because they didn’t get good answers to how prayer works or whether dinosaurs were on Noah’s ark.

Honest Answers is a discussion book to help parents tackle the God questions that make them sweat. This isn’t the place to come for pat answers that will make their kids nod, smile, and disconnect. Janelle Alberts and Ingrid Faro know that when tweens start asking questions, they’re already old enough to understand the answers. They’re determined to equip parents with the language, theology, permission, and confidence to join in the discussion–and to learn how to offer deeply doctrinal answers in 140 characters or less.

The tween years present an incredible opportunity to build trust with kids and to keep them coming back to their parents for answers rather than finding other sources. With the tools and conversational tips here, mom and dad can engage in a hopeful conversation and help their children build a Christian faith to hold them steady their whole lives.

This is not a review, as I’ve not had time to read this book. But it does sound like one that I should be reading.

Here is an interview with the authors:

(it does get a bit lengthy, but is worth reading…so bear with me!)

Who would have thought a month ago that we would be facing so much fear and uncertainty? There are so many unknowns, so many questions, and if we have them, we know our kids have them too. And they are going to be asking a lot of them in the coming weeks, including questions about God’s goodness and if prayer works. Are we prepared to answer their questions concerning faith? Janelle Alberts and Ingrid Faro set out to help parents confidently have these hard conversations with their new release, Honest Answers: Exploring God Questions with Your Tween (Kregel Publications).

The tween years present an incredible opportunity to build trust with kids and to keep them coming back to their parents for answers rather than finding other sources. With the tools and conversational tips in Honest Answers, moms and dads can engage in a hopeful conversation and help their children build a Christian faith to hold them steady their whole lives.

Q: At what age do kids generally start asking faith questions that aren’t easy to answer?

Janelle Alberts: That depends. My kids each started in with questions that gave me pause before they hit double-digit ages. But the irony is they were easy questions, rather obvious observations such as, “Wait, I thought it was two by two?” when we hit the line in the Noah story that he was to take “seven pairs” rather than the “two of every kind” that we had read in the chapter before.

It’s no wonder that Jesus said we should all accept the kingdom of God like a child, because little kids happily embrace the core tenets of our faith with such abandon. It’s that very sweet, simple acceptance that our kids bring to bear when they then try their faith on for size, like my son when he started reading the Bible for himself—only to lob at us over breakfast the next day, “That book is not like the pages we’ve been coloring at vacation Bible school.”

We parents want to feel confident enough to say to our kids, “Let’s talk about that,” right at their point of interest. However, that is not an easy thing to do. These core tenets of our faith have been debated over centuries and have involved councils, creeds, Bible translations, extraordinary feats of faith, and also terrible behavior.

But we’re the parents. These kids want to know what there is to know from us. If our kids see a pattern that when they come to us, they get honest, forthright discussion even if we do not know every answer, that will keep them coming to us as a resource as they mature in their faith.

Ingrid Faro: It also depends on what life circumstances your child might have encountered.

My son began asking tough questions about death and monsters, what happens when someone dies, why people kill other people, what heaven is like, and what angels look like around age four or five.

Q: What are some of the most common questions that come up about how the Bible came together and was handed down to us today?

There are a number of common questions, depending on kids’ ages. How did we get the Bible here in our hands from so long ago? Who wrote it exactly? My friend has Bible sections that are different than mine—why? What can I tell my friend who has never been to church or read a Bible? How are Bible stories different than stories we hear at school about Mayan civilization or Greek mythology?

We may not have perfect responses on the spot, but that’s not what parents are on the hook to deliver in every situation. We are on the hook to give our kids permission to dig into God’s Word and into their faith honestly, even if this does not showcase us as perfect parents like we wish it would. That’s okay for one reason in particular: God’s given us that permission for years.

This can feel scary as a parent, but remember, dialegomai was good enough for Paul and the apostles as they discussed, disputed, and reasoned out the ways of God and how to spread the truth. God will be with us while we handle our children with that same verve and commitment, even if it looks messy.

Q: For us as adults, it’s hard to understand what seem to be unanswered prayers, so how do we explain not getting the answers we were hoping for to our children?

These times emphasize that one should not be a Christian alone. It makes a monumental difference for our kids to see others in the church who have suffered the anguish of perceived unanswered prayers and how they have still walked that out in faith.

To that end, we can let our kids know that prayer is a chance for them to sort out their relationship with God even more than it is about asking for stuff. So when they’re disappointed, mad, hurt, or confused by what they perceive as unanswered prayer, we can let them know they can take that to God.

That’s what Jesus did. When the moment came for Jesus to face what was about to happen to him in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not sit by stoically, calmly praising the Father and counting his blessings. He was distraught and brought that before his Father bluntly and emotionally. We can encourage our kids to do the same. They can pray as though God wants to hear the actual truth of what’s going on in their hearts and minds—because he does!

We walk through conversations that help kids practice prayer, speak candidly, and maintain and grow in awe and affection of a Lord who personally and palpably loves them very, very much.

Q: What does it mean to practice “praying unedited”? Why is this an important part of teaching your children how to pray?

“Praying unedited” is an idea from a lecture by Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s Kathy Keller. The idea is that prayer helps us get a grip on who we are and who God is, yet it is a process that may take a little time and even, dare we say, trial and error.  “Practice, practice, practice. Trial and error, repetition,” Keller said. “Just like riding a bike, you get it wrong a whole lot of times before you get it right.” With that kind of foundation, our kids stand a better shot at sticking with prayer over the long haul, rather than abandoning it when times get tough.

Kids regularly pick up a habit of fear when it comes to prayer. They can grow afraid to speak honestly in prayer because it might look to God like they doubt him. But prayer is not an entrance exam for our kids to showcase their “goodness” to God and therefore score a spot in his valued family. We want our kids to know they already belong. God wants our kids to know that he knows them and wants to be known by them. His longing for this cannot be overstated. That is a good reason for our kids to be themselves in prayer.

If our kids can approach God’s throne with a real sense of honesty and with an eye for relationship, their prayers will be personal, not just something they recite.

This kind of praying and talking to God is demonstrated throughout the Bible in the psalms of lament (which make up about one-fourth of the Psalms) and other parts of the Bible, like Lamentations and in many of the prophets.

Q: How can parents prepare for the Bible versus science questions that are sure to come up as their kids progress through school? This is probably something parents are really facing now that the kids are doing school from home.

We can be honest with ourselves that our attempts to neatly marry truths of God’s material world (science) to God’s written truths (Scripture) in clear, cogent, concise ways regularly turn out to be . . . none of those things. Yet God made nature, and he made Scripture. Digging deeper into one shouldn’t threaten the truth about the other.

We run into a bind when we insist the Bible should serve as a science textbook. For example, our church forefathers insisted the sun circled the earth rather than the other way around. Martin Luther wrote, “As Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

We might help our kids by listening to a church forefather even further back in time. Third-century bishop Augustine of Hippo warned believers that we “should not rush in headlong and so firmly take a stand on one side that, if further progress in search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it.”

Almost two thousand years later, we Christian parents can practice that. It’ll give our kids the learning chops necessary to evaluate theories and ideologies in patient, consistent, coherently systematic ways. It’ll help our kids develop a steadfast resolution that all truth originates from the same author.

Why is this important? Because it’s true.

Q: How can parents prepare their children to react well when their faith is brought into question? How do they equip them to speak the truth?

It depends on the situation at hand, but a general encouragement might be this: God is real.

We can let our kids know directly and repeatedly that we, their parents, know God is alive. We can also give them personal examples from our own lives about why we believe that:

  • How we came to that faith
  • Instances where we faced others calling our faith into question
  • Our own doubts and how God has called us back to that truth over and over again

We can encourage our kids to remember that they are not defending a religion; they are building a relationship with a God who wants to have relationship with everyone, even though not everyone wants a relationship with him. That is a complicated matter, but our job (especially as younger Christians) is to simply walk out the relationship we are developing and enjoying with God. That way when our friends have questions, we can honestly answer what we know about praying to God, reading his Word, and getting to know God in context of our own walk with him.

Q: What question that one of your own children asked caught you most off guard or was the hardest to answer?

Janelle: When my daughter was in third grade, she prayed for her brother in kindergarten to win a raffle at school, but when he didn’t, she was crushed. I told her he was fine! After all, the most important thing remained true, which was this: God loved him.

She teared up and said, “This is what God’s love feels like?”

Ingrid: When my son was eleven, he asked why he couldn’t have died instead of his dad, who had taken his own life. The process of walking through that loss and pain took years, but the personal healing and restoration of relationship with God could not have happened if we hadn’t continued to talk and question and pray and love together

Q: Honest Answers is divided into four parts, addressing some of the biggest faith questions that come up. What are the four areas you tackle?

  1. The Bible, including how it was put together, how history supports it, and the points of view of the writers.
  2. Prayer is the next area. We talk about how to pray, how sometimes we don’t get the answers we are wanting, and sticking with God regardless.
  3. The intersection of faith and science brings up a lot of questions for our kids. How do they handle situations that come up in school when what they learn there doesn’t line up with what they learn at church?
  4. The church and its history—its past, present, and future.

Q: How is Honest Answers designed to be used?

Rather than a book for parents to read when questions arise or to give their children to read, it’s a discussion book.

Parents can tackle one or two small chapters a week for maybe twenty minutes at a time the family picks—maybe Sunday evenings before bed, for instance. “Parent primers” are for parents to read on their own, then the “honest answers Q&As” are a way to talk through that information with their kids. They can tell their kids, “Our family is planning to start something new—reading a few short questions and answers each week so we get to know some church stuff that we haven’t talked about before.”

The Q&As are an interactive, structured, no-stress way to review with your kids what you just read yourself. Parents can read the intro paragraph, then kids read the Q&As aloud, or everybody can take turns reading them.

Q: When it comes to answers, why can’t we just let the Bible speak for itself?

Actually, the Bible does speak for itself. In fact, Honest Answers highlights academics who do not even go to church, and yet, because of the clarity of Scripture, they defend the Bible as the source where the value of human dignity originated, and they defend the notion of “agape” love that comes from Jesus.

With that said, the Bible includes stories with slavery, killing, and “good” characters who turn out to behave deplorably as well as heroically. There are also “bad” characters whose lives sometimes transform incredibly, depending on the page. Plus, the Bible has ancient cultural subtleties that are not obvious to our kids (or most of us adults for that matter), which can tempt our kids to ignore whole parts of Scripture altogether.

As parents, we do not want our kids to do that. We’ve caught on to the cautionary tales from our ancestors of yore in which Bible stories or prayers became religious incantations when handled incorrectly.

To address that, our book helps parents engage in dialogue, or dialegomai. Dialegomai is a Greek word in the New Testament that means to discuss, dispute, or reason. It is what Paul did in Athens and refers to wrestling with and talking through who God is and what he’s all about. We want our kids to ask questions and talk about them openly and honestly, even when we don’t have good answers.

Q: What are the most important things to emphasize both about oral tradition and the oldest written manuscripts when it comes to the compilation of the Bible?

One thing we can tell our kids is that oral tradition is not the same as the game of telephone. Oral tradition was really, really strict. Assigned people were trained to pass down stories with crazy specificity. It was a way many cultures like Bedouins, Native American tribes, and African, Middle Eastern, and ancient Near Eastern tribes passed down their cultural stories. Preliterate people did and still do handle cultural stories through oral tradition.

We can also let our kids know that maintaining the details of an oral story is very different when we know the people, care about those people, and know that the circumstances are grounded in real-life situations.

As for the manuscripts themselves, we have more than ten thousand fragments to help verify the accuracy of the Bible. This is thousands more fragments than the most famous and well-documented ancient Near Eastern literature besides the Bible: the Iliad. We have fewer than two thousand fragments of the Iliad.

There are lots of other points of interest to discuss that we share in the book, but the essential goal is bringing a few talking points to our kids’ attention so they’re not afraid to dig in and learn more on the matter.

Q: Is it okay for kids to have friends that don’t believe the same things that they do, whether it be related to science or denominational differences? Is it acceptable to agree to disagree?

Even people who think a lot alike, attend the same church, or are in the same family will not agree about everything. The church body has hands and feet—different people who bring unique talents and considerations that our kids will benefit from. That said, our closest relationships affect how we think about important matters, so building a strong community calls for a thoughtful, purposeful approach. What we can tell our kids about that process is that we have reached a time in history in which we all come to conversations with such a fight face that discussions are shutting down.

Social scientists have begun investigating what drives that kind of polarization, and a word has emerged: disgust. More than being afraid of one another’s ideas, modern people are disgusted with those who disagree with us.

Our Scriptures and belief structures do not allow us to be disgusted with people, at least not in that way. Mad, sure. Disagree, yes. But our marching orders are that love motivates our way, not disgust. So the more we instruct our kids that simply getting and keeping their own bad attitudes in check will make them agents of change, without having to agree with everything others believe.

Conversation (dialogue) with people who think and believe differently than we do can also help us ask questions. And without questions, we don’t get answers. God is big enough to handle all our questions, and we should not be afraid of or avoid people who disagree with us or question us either.

Q: Is there one piece of encouragement you’d like to leave with parents of preteens?

We’d like to leave so much encouragement! But we’ll stick with this simple thought: possibility abounds.

Tween years are a vulnerable, confusing, unsteady time in our kids’ lives, and although that’s scary, it’s also a time that they are cracked wide open in their need for something that’s real and true. They are desperate for answers that do not trivialize their questions as “little” and that carry a gravitas weightier than their fear of having no one to sit with at lunch.

Trivial is where God starts to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff about himself with our kids. God showing himself in the little things is what shows our kids how to cling to God in the big things. And God is showing himself to our kids. God offers us a church body with endless possibilities of community and support, a Bible that is possibly the greatest material gift known to humankind, and prayer, which harnesses for our children the infinite possibility of utter unaloneness

Janelle Alberts spent her early career in PR departments for Microsoft and UPS, boiling down logical, clear corporate messaging. She now attempts the same for parents who love Scripture, often featuring bits we’ve never heard but wish we had.

Alberts wrote her first faith column for the Akron Beacon Journal in 2010 and has since been a regular contributor to various online sites including Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership, RELEVANT magazine, and others. Honest Answers is her first book.

Alberts and her family make their home in Ohio.

Visit her on Facebook (@AuthorJanelleAlberts).

Ingrid Faro is dean of academic affairs and associate professor of Old Testament at Northern Seminary. She is also associate professor of Old Testament at the Scandinavian School of Theology in Sweden. She has an MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Faro is an international speaker at conferences and churches and writes on topics that include navigating evil and suffering, abuse and power dynamics, women in the Bible, forgiveness, the goodness of God, identity in Christ, discipleship, and leadership. Her motivation is to encourage people, help them navigate the pain and sufferings of this world, and grow in thriving relationship with God and others. She is the coauthor of Honest Answers.

Faro has two married children and three grandchildren. She lives in Illinois.

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