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Developing Readers: A Christian Imperative

Several years ago an educational screening committee convened to interview 150 young people, the top three students from every state. The committee's purpose was to award ten of these students full college scholarships. During the interviews one committee member asked each candidate this question: "Did you, during the past year, read a book that was not assigned? If so, please tell us a little about that book." Only one student out of the 150 was able to comply (from "Commentary" in Education Week, March 27, 1991).

Obviously, these students knew how to read. What they lacked was the desire to read. Why should this lack of desire trouble us? Mark Twain put it succinctly when he said: "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." If the above illustration is any indication, we must conclude that we are rearing a generation of young people who are, from a practical standpoint, illiterate.

Such trends are of paramount concern to Christian educators. We, of all people, must see to it that our children develop into avid, discerning readers. Why? Because the written word is essential to our beliefs. God chose to reveal Himself through the Scripture. If our children are to survive and thrive spiritually, they must develop an understanding of and love for the written word. Without this desire, they will find it difficult or tedious to read their Bibles. They will, in essence, be unprepared to fellowship with God, to know His mind, and to understand His will. But how do we go about encouraging our students to become avid, discerning readers?

We should be certain that, even in the earliest grades, the books we provide for our students are literarily and morally excellent.

As Christian teachers, we readily acknowledge the need for choosing books in which the theme is morally sound. However, it is also important to be sure that this theme is artfully expressed, for the artistic or literary quality of a work is what makes the theme compelling. If a book is poorly written, its theme, however worthy, will go unheeded. Conversely, a well-written book can make an unworthy theme seem most alluring.

What do we mean by literary excellence? Choosing books of literary quality does not mean that every book on our shelf must be a "classic." It does mean that the reading material we provide for our students should have artistic merit. For example, the central conflict in the story should be compelling and appropriate for the age level for which the story is written. There should also be a variety of characters and these characters ought to be believable and consistent in the story's context. Although some characters may be flat (or one dimensional) and static (unchanging), such characters should not dominate the story. The action, or plot, must also be logical and the resolution of the story believable and satisfying. Finally, the theme or central idea should develop naturally out of these key elements of conflict, character, and plot.

E.B. White's Charlotte's Web provides a good illustration. White immediately draws us to his story with a compelling first sentence: "Where's Papa going with the ax?" In answer to her question, Fern is told that her father is headed to the barn. He intends to "do away with" one of the newborn pigs because it was born smaller than the others. Fern immediately races after her father and pleading with him sobs, "Please don't kill it! It's unfair!" By page two, White has masterfully introduced us to the story's central conflict and drawn us to the central character. From that moment we, like Fern, desperately want Wilbur to survive.

Even more ingenious is White's development of Charlotte's character. How does he succeed in getting us to sympathize with--indeed admire and love--a spider? One way is his subtle, effective use of language. For example, in his initial description of Charlotte's appearance, White uses a vivid imaginative comparison. He tells us that "she was about the size of a gumdrop." With a single image he begins to sweep away our typical prejudice against spiders and to create the unforgettably endearing Charlotte.

These are the literary elements and techniques that have made classics such as Charlotte's Web, Winnie the Pooh, Swiss Family Robinson, Oliver Twist, and many others so enduring. Teaching our students to recognize such literary elements will, of course, make them more discriminating readers. More importantly, it enables them to enjoy more fully what they read.

What do we mean by moral excellence? In addition to developing naturally out of the conflict, characters, and plot, the theme of a story should also reflect a biblical perspective. In other words, we need to examine how the literary elements mentioned in the previous section have been presented. For example, what about the central character in the story? This character is usually the one the author intends for the reader to sympathize with and admire. But is this character truly noble? We can also examine the plot. Does the central conflict reflect an awareness of right and wrong? Does the story's resolution reward the good and punish the evil? All of Charles Dickens's works vividly illustrate this point, but let's look briefly at one of his classics, Great Expectations. In this novel, Pip, a man of mature years tells us the story of his youth. In recounting the tale, Pip does not hesitate to reveal his failures. For example, when a wealthy benefactor provides money and "great expectations" for the youthful Pip, Pip rejects the humble, good-hearted Joe who has loved and reared him. The attitude of the mature Pip toward such ingratitude, however, is clearly remorse. The wiser Pip admits his guilt and records the tragic consequences of his foolishness. By the end of the story, we are assured of the central character's personal growth and of the restoration of proper life values.

As our students mature, we can show them how literature can broaden their world, helping them develop discernment and inoculating them against harmful ideas attitudes, and behaviors.

How can we use literature to develop discernment? One important facet in developing discerning readers is to teach them a biblical approach toward censorable material in literary works. We can begin this process by helping them understand what we mean by "censorable material":

Profanity
Scatological realism
Erotic realism
Sexual perversion
Lurid violence
Occultism
Erroneous religious or philosophic assumptions.

It is not difficult to teach our students to discern the first six categories. The seventh category, however, is often more subtle--and more dangerous. For example, Jack London's Call of the Wild, discussed in the next section, would appear safe enough in terms of criteria based on only the first six categories. We must therefore be sure when covering these areas to encourage our students to give serious attention to this seventh category as well.

Once they understand what constitutes censorable material, students are ready to learn the biblical approach toward evaluating such elements. This approach should be based on the following distinction: if a work of literature treats evil in the same way it is treated in the Scriptures, we regard it as not only acceptable but desirable reading for someone of sufficient maturity. If it does not treat evil in the way evil is handled in the Scriptures, its content is not good. Scripture provides three criteria for evaluating censorable elements in literary works:

  1. The test of gratuitousness: Is the representation of evil purposeful or present for its own sake?
  2. The test of explicitness: Is the representation of evil, if purposeful, present in an acceptable degree? Or is it more conspicuous or vivid than the purpose warrants?
  3. The test of moral tone: Is evil presented from a condemning perspective? Is it made to appear both dangerous and repulsive?

These three tests must be considered together. None is sufficient alone to justify the objectionable in a work of literature.

How can we use literature to inoculate our students against harmful ideas, attitudes, and behaviors? There remains the issue of whether classic works that do not fulfill the criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone should be completely rejected. We need first to distinguish between educational and recreational reading. As Christians we cannot read for pleasure works whose objectionable elements fail the tests. However, in a guided setting such books, used as negative examples, may prove profitable. But how do we determine which books will most effectively accomplish our educational objectives?

The same scriptural tests apply to evaluating the objectionable as literature that pertain to judging the objectionable in literature. When determining if an objectionable work or part of a work can function effectively as a negative example, we can put the questions this way:

  1. Is my use of the objectionable material purposeful (gratuitousness)? What specific ideas, attitudes or behaviors am I trying to combat?
  2. Is the objectionable material too potent to serve well my purpose (explicitness)?
  3. Will I be able to present the censorable material emphatically as a negative example (moral tone)? That is, has my study of the story been thorough enough to enable me to present a clear, biblical refutation of the theme?

If we can answer these questions adequately, we are justified, indeed obligated, to expose young people to some material that is repugnant to our Christian morality so that Satan may not take advantage of their naiveté. Such material in the hands of a wise and skillful educator will create a defense against what it represents. To illustrate the application of this point, let's examine Jack London and his classic work, Call of the Wild.

Irving Stone, a noted biographer of London, observed: "Jack London's four intellectual grandparents were Darwin, Spencer, Marx, and Nietzsche." It is Nietzsche's ideas, especially his theory of man, that are most clearly reflected in Call of the Wild. According to Nietzsche, the rise of Christianity with its emphasis on pity, compassion, and mercy had weakened man and thwarted his evolutionary progress. For man to return to "Darwinian path," Nietzsche proposed that he cast off Christianity by ridding himself of all idealism, destroying his moral nature, and cultivating a ruthless attitude toward life. A careful analysis of Call of the Wild will reveal two important details. First, the central character Buck is more than a sled dog. He reasons, feels, and acts with keen awareness. He is, in other words, a symbol of man. Second, his actions clearly outline the Nietzschean process of "man's journey back to the Darwinian path."

When Buck is stolen from a domestic environment and thrust into a hostile setting, he quickly loses his idealism--but not his cunning. When the other dogs steal his food, he concludes that "a moral nature is a vain thing and a handicap" in a harsh environment. Thus, he determines to cast aside morality, and he begins to steal, to murder, and to do whatever is necessary to develop a ruthlessness that allows him to survive and thrive. Eventually, of course, he emerges as "the dominant primordial beast" he was always meant to be.

It is important to note that London so skillfully weaves the elements of his story that young readers are often unwittingly drawn to Buck and willingly accept the action of the story and its analysis of life. But a guided discussion can thwart the author's intent, and more importantly, help students develop a discernment that will enable them to see the flaws in the logic of such men.

In conclusion, we must remember that Christian education requires teaching our students to discern and desire good and to recognize and abhor evil, before they encounter the crucial and often subtle choices of adulthood. We have a wonderful and profound opportunity to train the next generation of Christian leaders. As we do so, Let us remember Paul's admonition to Timothy, "Give attention to reading."

Editor's note: A more detailed discussion of censorable elements is available.

 by Donnalynn Hess. Updated October 21, 2015.

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