As Christians who endeavor to apply biblical principles to every facet of life, I think we sometimes err greatly when it comes to choosing literature on page and screen for our children:
We view every instance of sinful behavior as an objectionable element and dismiss the entire story on that basis.
We Christianize the characters, themes, and plot lines to “redeem” the story, regardless of authorial intent.
We assume “classic literature” means “wholesome literature.”
We leave teaching literature to the “experts.”
None of these approaches are accurate or useful. They represent faulty methods of literary criticism—permissivism, exclusivism, pragmatism, naïveté, and the postmodernist tendency to declare everything relative. Worst of all, these attitudes represent a lost opportunity to parent.
First, we can’t declare something objectionable simply because it contains depictions of evil people doing wicked things; this eliminates the Bible itself, commentaries, and watching the evening news.
Nor can we try to force spiritual themes onto literature when the author didn’t intend to teach spiritual truths, or declare authorial intent inaccessible, thus allowing interpretations that fit our agenda.
Ancient literature is definitely not more wholesome. Old English sounds so enlightened and sophisticated—which is usually why we don’t understand what it is they actually said. Who knew The Canterbury Tales were so naughty, well-sprinkled with sexuality and crude humor? Our exposure to much of classic lit was excerpts and abridged versions placed in literature textbooks which excluded the more colorful and objectionable passages.
Parents shouldn’t abdicate something as meaningful and formative as literature to “experts,” be they teachers or textbooks. What does Meg Ryan’s character say about books in You’ve Got Mail?
When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.
Are you sure you want someone else to be choosing books and explaining them to your kids?
What we can do is approach stories from a biblical worldview and train our children to discern truth and meaning from texts and their contexts. We accept the Bible as our source of truth for faith and practice. So while the Bible isn’t what we would typically think of as exhaustive, it does give us enough explicit commandments and guiding principles to form the filter through which we are to see the world.
Because of Scripture, we understand the implications of these truths:
Great men are not always wise. (Job 32:9)
Good people can do bad things. (Genesis 20:2)
Wicked men don’t always receive their just desserts in our lifetime. (Psalm 37:35)
Innocents suffer and are victimized through no fault of their own. (Exodus 1:22)
Actions ripple to create unexpected and unintended consequences. (2 Samuel 13)
Teaching about such issues to children is difficult, and since it is sometimes hard for children to connect with ancient history, stories are a handy-dandy tool every parent can use to help them internalize many profound and problematic truths. Through stories our children can also learn coping skills, empathy, and the nature of sacrifice.
Our family has, over the years, struggled to find a balance that wasn’t too permissive, too exclusive, or too pragmatic. Our process of analyzing and choosing stories boils down to choosing those that illustrate universal truths, taking into account the role objectionable elements play in the story, how they are portrayed, and what purpose they serve.
When our kids were young, we looked for stories with enough detail to give us an understanding of what was happening and why, but didn’t cross over into gratuitous abuse, violence, sex, substance abuse, etc. We wanted them to see positive role models and complex villians, character actions resulting in natural consequences, and the many faces of courage.
Kidlit isn’t always helpful in this area. Personally, I am tremendously bothered by “princess” stories. Forget about the teeny bikini—The Little Mermaidsells her soul to get the guy! Some family members thought we were completely anti-Disney because we didn’t let our kids watch most of the popular animated movies, and we often opted for adult biographies or classic science fiction over the usual children’s books. And they were definitely confused when I stated that I much preferred my daughter to view Ellen Ripley as a role model over Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or Belle.
But Belle is a good role model because she is brave, she loves books, and she turned the Beast into a Prince, right?
Only if you are going to be OK with your daughter being held captive by a controlling and abusive boyfriend and submitting to her captivity because she thinks she can change him. Let’s hear it for Stockholm syndrome!
For us, the underlying message took precedent over the presence of objectionable elements (within certain limits). As the kids matured, it became more important for them to see depictions of healthy relationships and the fallout from manipulative and abusive ones. We dove more deeply into popular but troubling character tropes, such as the anti-hero. We had many discussions about the ramifications of poor choices illustrated in the stories we read and watched.
This is one of the tremendous advantages good stories offer; they let us explore many hard topics from a safe distance, without finger-pointing or sermonizing. Our kids can see the wide reaching ripple effects of greed, vanity, lust, and loss of self-control. We can talk about the ways that yielding to harmful influences eventually blossoms into chaos and ruin. We can deal with the fact that bad guys don’t always lose, and the good guys don’t always “win,” especially not without pain and sacrifice.
On a positive note, we can also fully explore the nature of courage, generosity, and what it means to hold on to your integrity. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories are particularly useful for watching character development through a worst-case scenario.
I know what some of you are thinking—most parents don’t feel equipped to teach and analyze literature to their children, especially if they didn’t enjoy reading as a child—but I believe you must try. The teacher at school knows how to teach the nuts and bolts of story structure and plot analysis, and the textbook can explain enough meaning so your kids can answer the reading comprehension questions at the end of the chapter. But stories give parents an amazing window into a child’s heart and mind, creating bonds of trust and memories of shared experiences.
Most important, choosing stories that challenge them intellectually, morally, ethically, and emotionally give you the opportunity to fine tune their conscience and prepare them for the real world.
Here are some links to articles that address literary criticism from a Christian point of view, proposing some interesting ideas about interpreting literature, and offering some definitions of 'objectionable elements':
A Christian Approach to Literature by Jim Hendry at His Image Ministries. This is a free downloadable .pdf that briefly but thoroughly covers pertinent aspects of the Christian using and enjoying literature.
Literary Criticism and Postmoderism, part of a series by Robin Phillips. Mr. Phillips discusses the influence of German hermeneutics, French philosophy, American social sciences, and the postmodern trend of dispensing with authorial intent.
Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part 1 by Robin Phillips. Here Mr. Phillips further explores the topic and outlines three ways we engage with literary texts.
A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission, ©1992. It is a very comprehensive treatment of the subject. (Article link used with permission of BJU Press.)