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A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 2

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 1

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education, Part 3

Christian Educational Censorship

This selection is an excerpt from Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission


Censorship in education is a controversial topic in both Christian schools and public schools. A Christian teacher has the Bible as a guide and example for making wise choices about objectionable elements students will encounter in literature.


A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education

Criteria of worth

We may draw three criteria from the Scriptures for judging literary and other works with respect to their content.

  1. Is the representation of evil purposeful or is it present for its own sake? This is the criterion of gratuitousness. We know that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (II Tim. 3:16-17). Nothing in the Scriptures is superfluous or irrelevant to this high spiritual purpose.
  2. Is the representation of evil, if purposeful, present in an acceptable degree? Or is it more conspicuous or vivid than the purpose warrants? This is the criterion of explicitness. No one with a high view of Scripture would charge it with inappropriateness or excessiveness in its representation of evil. The presentation of evil in the Bible is realistic enough to convince us of its threat as a temptation but not so realistic as to become for us a temptation. Some sins are referred to but not enacted in the text.
  3. Is evil presented from a condemning perspective? Is it made to appear both dangerous and repulsive? What is the attitude of the work toward it? This is the criterion of moral tone. "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil," says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 5:20). A good work of literature does not glorify human weakness or encourage tolerance of sin. It allows evil to appear in a controlled way in order to develop in the reader or hearer a resistance against it. In literature, "vice," wrote Samuel Johnson, "must always disgust." Its purpose is to initiate the reader through "mock encounters" with evil so that evil cannot later deceive him--so that he will be better able to maintain a pure life in a fallen world.

These three criteria are complementary. None is alone sufficient to justify the censorable in a work of literature or another element of the curriculum. Together they work powerfully, because they work Biblically, to preserve moral purity while providing for a developing moral understanding and judgment.

Let us consider how some censorable elements in Shakespeare's plays appear in the light of these criteria. One of the most violent scenes in English Renaissance drama, and one of the most violent in all dramatic literature, occurs in act three of King Lear, when the duke of Gloucester, loyal to King Lear, is charged with helping him escape and is cruelly punished. The cruelty takes place on stage in full view of the audience. Gloucester is tied to a chair, and hair from his beard and scalp is torn out by Lear's daughter Regan. Then her husband, the duke of Cornwall, tips the chair backward onto the floor and with his tall, narrow heel gouges out one eye and afterward the other. The scene, acted realistically, would scarcely survive the liberal television censors of today and, if so, would raise an outcry among conservative viewers. Why did Shakespeare bring this action before the audience and not at least have it reported by a messenger as most other dramatists of his day and before would have done?

In King Lear Shakespeare uses parallel plots, the stories of two old men who undergo severe ordeals because of their moral imperception. Each wrongs his loyal child and favors his disloyal child or children, learning too late that he has misread their characters. Lear's moral blindness is the consequence of his pride. He involves his loyal daughter in a contest of flattery with her two sisters. When she refuses to participate, he disinherits her, leaving himself at the mercy of his two faithless daughters and their husbands, to whom he has ceded the kingdom. Gloucester's moral and later physical blindness derives, ultimately, from a sin of lechery. He has begotten an illegitimate son, who deceives him into disinheriting his legitimate son and eventually betrays him to the enemies of King Lear. Lear's sin is mental, the arch-sin of pride; and his punishment is fittingly mental: he loses, temporarily, his mind. Gloucester's sin is physical, sensuality, and his punishment appropriately is physical: he loses, permanently, his eyes. In the last scene, the loyal son remarks to his disloyal brother, whom he has mortally wounded:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

Both plots depict the unforeseen consequences of a casual, thoughtless immoral act. The audience takes the moral tally as the chickens come home to roost.

The punishment of Lear recalls God's dealing with Nebuchadnezzar, who because of his self-exaltation lost his reason and was, like Lear, turned out-of-doors to live as a beast until purged of his pride. Gloucester's punishment also has strong Biblical warrant. The aged duke has been ruled by the lust of the eyes. As he approaches the hovel in the darkness with his lantern, the fool exclaims, with double meaning, "Look, here comes a walking fire." Though the process of Gloucester's punishment is horrible, we may construe the effect as beneficent; for the Scriptures counsel, "If thy right eye offend thee [i.e., cause thee to offend], pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:29). Indeed Gloucester seems to understand his ordeal in this light when he acknowledges, "I stumbled when I saw." Like Samson's blinding, Gloucester's is not gratuitous, nor is it, in relation to what Shakespeare means to emphasize, overly explicit. It is part of a scheme of moral consequences, and the moral tone is clear.

In the comedy Twelfth Night, there is some questionable humor associated with the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Andrew, unwelcome suitor of the countess Olivia, is a companion of the countess's freeloading uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and Feste, her court jester. Their enemy is Olivia's vain steward, Malvolio. Sir Andrew's surname, like Belch and Malvolio, has moral meaning. Aguecheek indicates the effects of syphilis, known as the pox or the French disease. Andrew's face is evidently pocked and otherwise deformed from lechery. Andrew also has the thinness of hair and the mental debility associated with the later stages of this disease. When Maria reveals her plan to humiliate Malvolio, Sir Toby exclaims, "Excellent. I smell a device." Andrew, understanding as usual only in part, sighs, "I have't in my nose too." His mental debility (evident in his construing of "device" as "vice") and physical deformity (indicated in his reference to the effects of the pox on his nasal cartilage) produce humor, but humor for a moral purpose.

For Sir Andrew is ruled by the lust of the eyes. When he first appears, he stands transfixed by the sight of Maria, Olivia's fair lady in waiting. Sir Toby, reading his mind, encourages him to "accost" her ("Accost, Sir Andrew! Accost!"), knowing full well that the word accost is beyond the narrow bounds of Andrew's comprehension. Andrew then addresses her, "Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance." Maria corrects him: "My name is Mary, sir." Andrew replies, "Good Mistress Mary Accost." In these passages and others, the lust of the eyes is associated, by the intermediate cause of social disease, with physical deformity and mental debility.

The vice of the rotund Sir Toby Belch, as both his name and his amplitude of girth indicate, is gluttony. This vice, one of the seven deadly sins of medieval theology, included drunkenness. Sir Toby detests moral restraints as much as he hates "an unfilled cannikin of ale." He is ruled by the lust of the flesh.

Malvolio's vice is ambition. His name, mal volio, means "bad volition"--that is, "inordinate ambition." As Olivia's steward, Malvolio has risen as high in the household order as a commoner legitimately can. He is the chief servant, manager of Olivia's house, answerable only to the countess herself. But he is not content. He aspires to marry Olivia, to be Count Malvolio. Malvolio is ruled by the pride of life.

Each of the three characters is humorously yet purposefully degraded in the play. Each is made a fool by his vice and is punished according to the nature of his vice. The sin of Malvolio is, like Lear's, of the mind, and, like Lear, he is punished mentally. His household enemies expose him to the laughter of the court and, having confined him in a dark room, taunt him to desperation. Sir Toby's and Sir Andrew's sins, like Gloucester's are physical, and they, like Gloucester, are punished physically. At the end of the play they have been thoroughly pummeled and appear before Olivia in humiliation with bloody heads. They have themselves become the court spectacle they delighted in rendering the hapless Malvolio.

The humor of Twelfth Night is morally targeted. The references to Sir Andrew's licentiousness, like those to Sir Toby's gluttony and Malvolio's pride, are not gratuitous or, one might argue, improperly explicit, but part of a scheme of moral consequences. Furthermore, they are qualified by moral tone. We are not allowed to admire these characters. The bullying nature of Sir Toby shows itself in the last scene in his ugly repudiation of Sir Andrew's offer of assistance: "Will you help? An ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull." Olivia, indignant, orders the drunken Sir Toby away.

In both King Lear and Twelfth Night, the censorable elements are not gratuitous but instrumental to moral purpose. They condemn evil and uphold a Biblical standard of virtue. The pitiable Gloucester and the silly Andrew Aguecheek appear aberrational and absurd in relation to the morally normative Edgar in King Lear and Viola in Twelfth Night. Reflections of evil in the two plays are a function of their morality rather than of their immorality or amorality. Both plays condemn and enact judgments upon evil character.

Criteria of use

There remains the issue of whether works that do not fulfill the criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone have a place in the curriculum. The same criteria apply to evaluating the censorable as literature that pertain to judging the censorable in literature. Can a censorable work or part of a work function effectively as a negative example? We can put the questions in this way:

  1. Is the teacher's or textbook's use of the censorable material purposeful, or is it presented only for its own sake? This is the criterion of gratuitousness.
  2. Is the censorable material too potent to serve well as a negative example in the classroom in which it is to be used? This is the criterion of explicitness.
  3. Will the censorable material be presented emphatically as a negative example? That is, will what it portrays appear dangerous and repulsive, regardless of the author's intentions? This is the criterion of moral tone.

If so, including this material is justifiable and desirable, for in the hands of a wise and skillful teacher it will create a defense against that which it represents.

There is therefore a place in the Christian English curriculum for a paganistic poem by Robert Herrick or William Blake or a pessimistic novel by Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad, if these are taught within a proper context, for a proper purpose, and in a proper way. There is a place in the American-literature curriculum for an essay of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau or a story by the naturalists Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser, if it is intended to show, for example, the result of religious unbelief in nineteenth-century American thought.

We must recognize, of course, that the shocking indecencies of much twentieth-century fiction disqualify it for use as negative examples; for the censorable language and description are often too potently explicit to be offset by a supplied moral tone. For instance, whereas a conscientious Christian teacher might assign a Willa Cather novel to a Christian high school class, he would not assign John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel for the profanity of the one and the sexual explicitness of the other. There are, indeed, many modern fiction works more objectionable than these, not to speak of poetry. The field of choice narrows progressively and drastically as we apply our Biblical criteria to the writings of recent times.

We also must realize that all literary works assigned as negative examples must be taught rather than just listed for class reading. It is the teacher rather than the student who must supply the necessary moral tone. Furthermore, the teaching should precede and accompany the reading of such works by the students, rather than just follow it the next day. Finally, class discussion must be carefully planned and controlled. Only then can the students be certain to experience a censorable work in a way that will ensure their moral and spiritual benefit rather than harm. (See Chapter 6, pp. 94, 101-6, for an account of how such material can be handled in the classroom.)

A useful analogy for explaining the proper handling of censorable materials is inoculation. The moral purpose of Christian teaching is, minimally, to enable the young to escape the infection of evil. There are two ways of escaping an infectious disease: (1) avoiding contact with it, which of course should be done whenever possible, and (2) developing a resistance. There are two ways of developing a resistance: (1) inoculation and (2) having a nonfatal case. Developing resistance is certainly more desirable than assuming one can avoid contact with infection in a world where contagion constantly threatens. Of the two ways of developing resistance, having a nonfatal case is not the sort of experience that one can plan; and even if one happens to be successful, it may leave him scarred and disabled. Clearly inoculation is superior.

The process, and the advantage, of inoculation is familiar to almost everyone today. Inoculation takes place in a disease-free environment. There the recipient receives a controlled exposure to the disease along with the resistance of the donor so as to fortify the recipient against future infection. The sterile environment and controlled dosage ensure present safety. The resistance of the donor ensures both present and future safety.

The factors determining the success of inoculation are three: (1) the strength of the dosage, analogous to the amount of exposure to evil; (2) the resistance of the donor, analogous to the condemning perspective supplied by the teacher; and (3) the strength of the recipient, analogous to the readiness of the student to benefit from the negative example. Inoculation is inappropriate for a recipient who is weak--either too young (the maturity consideration) or too sick (the background consideration). Factors one and three have to do with explicitness; factor two, with moral tone. The very purpose of moral inoculation satisfies the criterion of gratuitousness.

The book of Proverbs inoculates the reader against sexual immorality by a vivid account of an adulterous liaison (7:6-27). The reader's ability to profit from this account depends on his maturity. But such instruction is an important part of the young man's defense against one of the most dangerous temptations he will face in the world. The story of the strange woman and the young fool illustrates the method of Scripture, which offers vivid accounts of sin and its consequences not for titillation of the imagination but "to the intent we should not lust after evil things" (I Cor. 10:6).

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Chapter four of Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission, ©1992. Used with permission of BJU Press. For permission to reproduce this article or to link to this page, please write JourneyForth@bjupress.com.

 Updated October 21, 2015.

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