By Dr. Melody Green
Frequently, parents I know ask me what books would be good for their children. Since my area of specialization is literature for children and adolescents, this is not particularly surprising. I have, however, occasionally been asked a different question: a few parents, instead of looking for specific titles, have asked for information about what I have heard called “reading as a Christian.” Essentially, what these parents appear to be looking for is a structure or a model that can be applied not just to the “good” books, but to any story, whether book, film or even game, that their children encounter. What follows here is not one fully-developed structure or model that Christians can apply to all literature, but is instead a set of loosely connected ideas on the topic that may be useful not just for parents, but any Christian who is thinking about story.
First, stories, especially the stories that adults hand children, are important. In her book Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature, Dr. Karen Coats asserts that the stories a child encounters shape who that child is and becomes. Coats states that “stories have a profound effect on the growth, the image, and the perceived needs” of the individual (1). If such is the case, then it is important to understand not only how this works, but what stories have helped shape who we are and who we are in the process of becoming.
Second, stories reflect not only their authors’ beliefs, but also the ideas and attitudes of the culture in which that story was created. This is harder to see in a new book than in an old one, since the ideas and attitudes presented in the new book are more likely to be similar to one’s own than those in an older book. But this is why it is important to read both old and new books, to watch both old and new movies, and to listen to both old and new stories. As C. S. Lewis recommends in his introduction to St. Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (6) This may be a bit extreme, but it is easier to see the attitudes and assumptions of one’s own culture when they are set against older ideas.
Third, some people do appear to need a basic model to help them think through what they are reading. If that is the case, then I recommend the following set of questions: What does this story say about who people are? Who my neighbor is? Who I am? Who God is? And, finally, what is my responsibility toward each of these? These are questions that most, if not all, stories offer answers to. These answers are rarely simply stated by characters or a narrator; instead, they are often found in the relationship between the actions and the consequences of those actions. Pay attention to who is doing or saying something, why they are doing or saying it, and most importantly, what the results of that statement or action are. At the same time, remember that not everything that happens in a story is presented as something that should be approved of. Sometimes, horrible things must happen in stories so that good can be presented later. Sometimes, even the best characters do the wrong thing. Pay attention to end results of these actions.
Fourth, it is ok to read a book that presents a worldview that you don’t agree with. But be aware of what that worldview is, and where it differs from a Christian worldview.
Fifth, theology should never be based on fiction – no matter how “Christian” the author is, or how frequently he is quoted in sermons. Fiction can help us understand truth, but should not be viewed as a primary guidepost.
Sixth, there is always more going on in a story than simply “what the author intended” or even “what it means to me.” Sometimes the things that are hardest to notice are the ones that are most important to think about because of what they say about who we are and what we expect of ourselves and others.
Seventh, even when discussing stories, Christ calls us to love God and our neighbors. Our neighbors include people who like stories we don’t like, and even people who have written stories we feel are somehow “wrong” or “inappropriate.” We are responsible, therefore, to share the love of Christ even with these people.
Finally, possibly the most important thing for Christians to keep in mind when thinking about story is that when God became man and walked on this earth, one of the things he did was tell stories. Memorable ones. And he rarely took the time to explain them. This, if nothing else, points out the importance of story. His stories are straightforward, but they have such themes as wisdom, honor, compassion, sacrifice, forgiveness, love, and good vs. evil. These, in turn, are the same themes explored by many of today’s most controversial stories created for young audiences. These are the things that story is about. These are the things that being a human created in the image of God is about.
Coats, Karen. Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.
Lewis, C. S. “Introduction.” The Incarnation of the Word of God: Being the Treatise of St. Athanasius. New York: Macmillian, 1957. 5-12.