In Defense of the Little Red Hen: A Friendly Response to Jared Wilson


I have two daughters, 1 and 3 years old. At this age, they spend a lot of time sitting on my lap listening to me read. We’ve worked through The Big Picture Story Bible repeatedly, along with Everything Your Child Needs to Know About God. They’ve enjoyed Grimm’s Fairy Tales like “Rapunzel” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” as well as Aesop’s Fables like “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Boy who Cried Wolf.”

Another story they’ve become familiar with is “The Little Red Hen,” the classic fable of an industrious hen and her lazy companions the cat, the dog, and the duck, who are perfectly willing to help her eat the bread, despite not being willing to help her plant it, hoe it, reap it, grind it, or bake it. As in most fables, the moral of the story is both plain and common-sensical, and one which I’ve been happy to teach my children.

Gospel Coalition blogger Jared Wilson couldn’t disagree more. In his provocatively titled piece “That Little Red Hen was a Pharisee,” Wilson tells how he refused to read the story to his kids, skipping it whenever he came to it. “I just don’t like it,” he says. For him, the supposedly admirable title character is actually a “graceless twit,” and the story’s “climactic delivery actually teaches a very unChristlike selfishness.” Instead of refusing to share her bread with her slothful companions, Wilson wishes the story had ended with the hen saying “Come on in! …We can eat it together.” In his judgment, this would have been a good gospel lesson, whereas the actual moral is a lesson in cold legalism.

At the risk of comically overreacting, I’d like to take issue with Wilson’s claim and take up the defense of the Little Red Hen. (If nothing else, the reader can enjoy the humor of two grown men arguing about a diligent chicken.) I see two weaknesses in the article. With regard to his handling of Scripture, Wilson overlooks biblical texts that sound suspiciously like the fable’s punchline—which is problematic given how strong his language is. And with regard to child-rearing, the piece strikes me as a misguided application of gospel-centrism.

 

Sharpening Your Argument by Asking Hard Questions

In 2013, John Piper delivered a lecture entitled “How to Give the Bible Functional Authority in Your Speaking and Writing.”  Listening to it as one who had heard literally hundreds of Piper sermons, I realized that the secret of his persuasive abilities lay in the contents of that lecture. The method goes like this:

Before speaking or writing a debatable sentence, ask yourself two questions:

  1. “Is there a passage in the Bible that supports this sentence?” (If there isn’t, stop! If there is, great!)
  2. “Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to this sentence?” (If there isn’t, proceed. If there is, stop and deal with it.)

Persuasiveness is a side-effect of this method, because it forces you to address the questions that the skeptical but Bible-believing hearer is likely to have, and lets them know that you’re not ignoring texts that might prove inconvenient for you. But the main point is to submit your thoughts and words to God’s—to keep yourself from taking your favorite passages and stretching them too far. The passages that sound contrary to our claims are also the Word of God, and we have no right to ignore them, even if they throw a wrench into the awesome sentence we’ve constructed.

Applying this Method to Wilson’s Article

I’m afraid that “The Little Red Hen is a Pharisee” is just such a sentence. It’s certainly attention-getting (that’s why I read it!), but its claims are overstated to the point of being misleading.

Now in Wilson’s defense, I’m not at all surprised that a Christian might wonder if Little Red was being legalistic.  There’s no shortage of verses that sound like Wilson’s thesis (he could also have cited Isaiah 55:1-2). And there’s an immediate gospel plausibility to the idea that it would’ve been beautiful for her to have shared her bread anyway. 

But plausible is not the same thing as proven. And the major weakness of this article stems from the fact that Wilson doesn’t appear to have wrestled with Piper’s second question. So let’s wrestle with it now.

Wilson claims that the Little Red Hen was a Pharisee because she refused to share her bread with her lazy friends, and that therefore the story teaches an unChristlike lesson.

So question: Is there a passage in the Bible that sounds contrary to that claim? Another way to ask it would be, “Are there passages in the Bible that sound like the Little Red Hen and seem to teach the same lesson?”

The answer is yes.

We could start with proverbs like “Slothfulness casts into deep sleep; the idle person will be hungry” (Prov. 19:15). Or “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (Prov. 13:4). The book of Proverbs abounds in statements praising the benefits of hard work and the dangers of laziness, which is exactly what the fable in question was meant to illustrate.

But the passage that sounds the most like “The Little Red Hen” is undoubtedly 2 Thess. 3:6-12. In this paragraph Paul commands the Christians at Thessalonica to “keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness” (v.6), and to follow the example he had set of “not eating anyone’s bread without paying for it” (v.8). It climaxes with the matter-of-fact statement, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (v.10)

I’m not sure you could find a statement more similar to Little Red’s moral than that. To say it better, Little Red would serve as a pretty good illustration for anyone preaching this text.

This raises some obvious questions for Wilson’s claim that the fable conflicts with the freeness of the gospel.

 

  • By telling the Thessalonians not to feed lazy people, was Paul being a “graceless twit”? I’m sure Wilson would say no (whatever the case with Little Red, Paul had certainly left his former Phariseeism far behind by this point), but I’m not exactly sure why, given that Paul was counseling them to respond exactly like the feathered heroine.
  • Or again, when Paul issued the command “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat,” a maxim that reflected both Rabbinic and Roman law, was Paul forgetting (to use Wilson’s language) how “religiously revolutionary the gospel is?” Or was he simply recognizing, in the words of 17th century commentator Matthew Poole, that “Christianity doth not extinguish the profitable laws of nature or nations”? Could it be that in our efforts to show how the gospel overturns the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 3:19), we sometimes end up pitting the gospel against basic common sense?
  • Or again, when Paul commanded Christians to work so as to be able to “eat their own bread,” was he forbidding all charity? Or was he simply acknowledging a legitimate distinction between the helpless and the idle, the one deserving help and the other deserving a reprimand? If so, was he then forgetting (to use Wilson’s language) that “grace leaves ‘what people deserve’ up to God”?

 

The problem with this sort of grace application is that if applied consistently, it would require police to never arrest anyone, parents to never discipline anyone, governments to never execute anyone, employers to never fire anyone, churches to never excommunicate anyone, and teachers to never flunk anyone—because “grace leaves what people deserve up to God.” Now I don’t believe for a moment that Wilson would embrace such conclusions. But neither is it fair for him to selectively employ this argument against the fable.

 

Of Proverbs, Fables, and Misguided Gospel-centrism

Wilson clearly believes in teaching children the value of hard work and the danger of laziness. He concedes of the fable, “I know the morals it hopes to teach are good ones (against laziness, for work and for cooperation).” But given his refusal to read “The Little Red Hen” to his children, how would he propose we teach children the lessons of 2 Thess. 3:6-12 (and numerous Proverbs) without sounding almost exactly like the fable he condemns as legalistic?

I suspect his response might be to point out that biblical proverbs are situated in a canonical context of gospel and grace, and should be taught as such. This is true. But why can’t Christian parents do the same thing with fables like “The Little Red Hen” or “The Grasshopper and the Ant”? In the hands of Christian parents, at least, such stories need not be construed as gospel-denying any more than Paul’s commands in 2 Thessalonians 3. Perhaps it can show how gospel-love sometimes has to be tough enough to say “I love you too much to enable you in your sin.” Indeed, if a child doesn’t learn how such talk is consistent with love, how will he ever understand church discipline?

I’m afraid that in his effort at gospel deconstruction Wilson simply misses the point of the fable, which is to teach children a lesson about work and laziness; a lesson that the Bible also seeks to teach in its proverbs.

Come to think of it, fables are actually a lot like proverbs. They’re short, pithy, usually aimed at young people, and intended to teach a simple lesson. They’re not meant to say everything that needs to be said, nor do they hold true in every case. But what they do say is meant to be regarded as important for living wisely.

So the Little Red Hen doesn’t teach the gospel—granted. Neither does the proverb “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). But it’s still true for all that, and it contains something children need to be taught.

And as I look around at millennial-age Christian parents like myself, I see a lot of misguided gospel-centrism being applied to childrearing. I hear things like “We don’t spank our children; we want to deal with their hearts.” I hear of parents overlooking blatant disobedience in small children in the name of showing mercy. Many seem to think that using punishments and rewards is legalistic and contrary to the gospel.

I’m not claiming that Jared Wilson would endorse any of those examples. But I think his gospel argument against Little Red is the same kind of error. In my judgment, they all represent an over-spiritualized attempt to cut grace loose from nature. Older theologians used to say, “Grace perfects nature, it doesn’t destroy it.”  The gospel does a lot of things, but it doesn’t change the moral grain of the universe, and it doesn’t replace basic moral principles, like obeying your parents and avoiding laziness. The Bible teaches those things, too. And when it does, it sounds a lot like “The Little Red Hen.”

Now I’m gonna go eat some of that bread my wife baked this morning.

 

 

 

 

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