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Literature

By Douglas Wilson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #5, 1994.

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Douglas Wilson


Want to teach your child literature? Then you have a problem! On one side you have a number of well-written books without God and without hope in the world. On the other, you can find cartloads of evangelical twaddle ("The Searing Story of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife! New Heights in Biblical Romance!") and wholesome sugarcoated junk (Pollyanna Meets the Bobbsey Twins).

Today parents who care about literature often feel as though they are being forced to choose between eating food prepared by a world-renowned chef who persists in poisoning the meals and a steady diet of Twinkies prepared by born-again factory workers.

Is there another option?

Homeschoolers excel in teaching children to read. Once they learn to read, they roar through all the good books in the house, and then a major problem then presents itself -- What do we do now? Our kids are all dressed up with no place to go.

We'd all like to find a Perfect Book List, wouldn't we? To start, we need are books built on sturdy biblical principle. Of course, by "sturdy biblical principle" I do not mean a book in which everyone gets saved in the last chapter and the heroine marries the fellow who was so tall, dark, and godly. Sentimentalism is not exactly a sturdy basic principle. Sturdy biblical principles include such truths as "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," and "Open rebuke is better than hidden love." Some books we might not think of as Christian proclaim these (and other) biblical truths quite clearly. The story may or may not have a happy ending -- but does it have a just ending? Is faithfulness rewarded, hypocrisy unmasked, evil shown to be futile in the long run? Is there a note of ultimate hope, or nihilistic despair? Is evil glamorized, humorized, minimized, sympathized -- the four wrong ways to treat it -- or despised? Is evil presented as a psychological problem or a moral reality? Is good presented as insipid or strong? These are the questions we should be asking.

Second, biblical thinking and captivating writing should go together. The combination is, unfortunately, rare in our culture. This is a testimony to the retreatist mentality that has afflicted evangelical Christians since the general cultural apostasy of the last century. It's time to turn this around. As believing Christians, our desire should be to do everything we do to the glory of God. The "people of the Word" should be "people of fine words." This means we have no obligation to write, and certainly not to read, Christian fluff. Let the struggling writers of "Bible romances" and breathless inspirationals find more respectable occupations: selling used cars, for example.

Third, biblical faith is not moralism. What many mean by Christian books is simply decent books -- some kids' story with Disneyfied standards. This sort of thing is rarely Christian; it is often G-rated paganism. When this principle is not understood, many parents are tempted to rate books according to some very simple shibboleth , i.e., "Does it have swear words in it?" The problem, of course, is that many abominable books meet this standard, such as Heather Has Two Mommies.

Fourth, our modern moralism is detached from biblical moorings, and is consequently determined by the latest rage in contemporary ethics, whether it's politically correctness, self-esteem issues, feminism, or whatnot. This results in the reader being confronted with the spectacle of King Arthur, say, working through his low self-image. Avaunt, foul fiends, who work such deception! We all know King Arthur had the self-esteem problem licked: behold, the Round Table at which each knight had an equal position of honor. Besides, self-doubt seems to vanish when you have skewered your first ten or so opponents with the strength of your right arm and your terrible swift sword.

Fifth, if your children are being educated to think like Christians to the glory of God, they should be able to read and analyze and to a certain extent, appreciate, the writing of godless writers who were, nevertheless, craftsmen. One can appreciate some of Twain's writing, for example, while understanding his despair and refusing to follow him in it. (A steady diet of Twain, however, could indeed present a temptation to cynicism and despair.)

Sixth, let's not use books the way non-Christians use television -- as a cheap babysitter. We are responsible for what goes into our children's minds. It does not matter if the source is television, the neighbors' kids, or the books checked out at the library. Books are not simply entertainment -- a view introduced into our culture by Edgar Allen Poe, who rejected any didactic or teaching role for literature. Because we think that we are reading this or that to be entertained, and because when we are being entertained we want to relax, and, as Christians, in order to relax, the author and book must be "safe," we want a list of books that contains nothing troubling, controversial, or problematic. Thus, the desire for a safe evangelical Index of books is itself something we have gotten from the world. It is not a Christian sentiment at all; it is worldly.

How do we teach our children to recognize phony writing, admire and imitate great writing, and avoid insidiously evil, but superficially "clean," writing? One of the most important ways to teach literature appreciation is through reading aloud as a family. In the course of the reading, there are many opportunities to respond, discuss, disagree, and teach. The books listed in the sidebar should give you some ideas of where to start. From Winnie-the-Pooh to Pilgrim's Progress, the world is full of fine books we can enjoy together to the glory of God.


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