Where to Draw the Line with Literary Analysis

Dear Reader,

I have been thinking more since my recent post on literature about how and when we should be engaging in literary analysis. As you know, I follow Charlotte Mason’s approach to education in our homeschool, and I know she is not a fan of tearing apart books in the name of analysis. I am not either. But I am convinced by the book I have been reading recently, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, that there is value in finding the symbolism in books and their connections to other works. So where do we draw the line? When does it go from acceptable analysis to just tearing apart the work? I think the test is simple: Does it lead you to appreciate, enjoy and understand the work more or less? If more, then go for it; if less, then you have crossed the line. And, of course, it goes without saying that we should keep on eye on how what we are doing affects ur kids. If they are loving their books less, we probably need to back off for a bit.

Nebby

A Little Thought on the Value of Literature

Dear Reader,

I am sure I seem very opinionated here on this blog. But in real life I find it very hard to argue with people or to get out coherent thoughts in a decent span of time. I need time to process and come up with the right words which, I suppose, is why blogging works better for me; I am able to take my time to choose my words — and then to go back and change them before anyone sees them anyway.

So another homeschooling mom was asking me recently why we need to study literature at all and especially to study it critically. It is a conversation she and I have had before in various forms, but I didn’t have a good answer on the spot. However, I have been reading a book on literature, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster (review to come, I am sure), and it has helped me clarify my thoughts on one point in particular.

You see, along with Charlotte Mason whose philosophy of education I do my best to adhere to, I would say that the value in books is in the ideas they present and that we are able across time to connect with the minds of other people. I feel this profoundly to be true, but I had been missing one piece of the puzzle which Foster’s book has helped me discover. It is an assumption that I am making which I had not even realized. And it is this: That there is a progression in the thoughts and ideas of humanity as a whole. This may sound pretty basic but it is by no means obvious and it has profound theological implications.

From a purely scientific, evolutionary and atheistic point of view, there can be no progression. That is, humanity itself has evolved and one presumes continues to evolve (I’ve never actually been clear what such people think on this point, truth be known), but this evolution is merely change. There cannot be a progression in terms of a moving forward or advancing in any way because there is no standard by which to measure progress — to say this change moves us further towards some goal or standard — and particularly no moral standard.

But even for Christians, this is by no means an obvious conclusion. We have an absolute moral standard so we do have a way to measure but the question of whether the human race as a whole is getting closer to this standard is a  major point of dispute. And it has a lot to do with everyone’s favorite topic, one’s view of the end times. This is the point here we get to use fun words like dispensation and post-millenialism. It also hinges on our view of revelation.

Now personally, I believe the Bible is the complete and perfect Word of God and that nothing can be added to it. I am not a big fan of things like prophecy and tongues. I do not completely rule out further supernatural revelations from God, but I do not think they are His ordinary means of dealing with His people today. They were at one point but no longer. Now we have His written Word and in most times and circumstances, especially in places where that Word is available, He does not choose to give us other dramatic revelations. And even if He did do so, perhaps as a witness to the truth of His gospel on some remote Pacific island, that revelation would not supercede or add to the Bible but would only confirm and point to His written Word.

But, while I am pretty conservative on my view of continuing revelation, yet I still believe that God speaks to us today and that there is more truth to be revealed than is found in the Bible. The Bible, while perfect, does not address every topic nor is it all there is to say or know on every subject. It tells us what we need to know of God, but there is still a lot we can and have learned from other sources — science, for instance. There are Christians who will disagree with this. I think there are probably more of them in homeschooling circles than elsewhere. They believe instead that all we need to know on any subject can be found in the Bible. So they look to it for answers to theological questions but also to scientific ones and dietary ones and  . . . well, everything.

So this, then, is the first assumption I am making: that there is more that we, humankind, can learn beyond what is in the Bible. The corollary to this is that God does reveal truth to us through other means, human reason and scientific inquiry for instance. Though I will acknowledge that since our reason is fallen along with the rest of our natures that we must always question such things and put them to the test against God’s Word. Nonetheless, God does continue to reveal certain kinds of truth to us since the completion of the biblical canon. All of which is to say, that it can be worthwhile to read things other than the Bible.

The second assumption I am making is that we are progressing – that is that we are moving forward as judged by God’s eternal standard of right and wrong. This is again by no means obvious or widely accepted. Among conservative Christians I dare say the opposite belief abounds — that we are getting worse and worse and falling more and more into sinful ways. Just look at the issues our society is dealing with — abortion, gay marriage, and the like. But on the other side I could point to an end to the institution of slavery in the western world, acceptance of interracial marriages, the idea that in war one should not kill all the civilians as a matter of course, an acknowledgement and respect for the rights women have over their own bodies.

Foster, to return to him, talks in his book about how some author reinterprets a Shakespeare play (this is all going to be very vague because I am not actually at this moment looking back at the book). The play itself wrestled with some ideas but still accepted others as a matter of course. The later author created a very similar plot, clearly referring back to Shakespeare, but went further than the Bard could have done and also questioned the privilege of the nobility in the play, the inherent elitism, if you will. Something that could not have been imagined in Shakespeare’s day is called into question by a later author. This is not to diminish Shakespeare’s work — it would be hard to do that –but only to say that we as a people were able to move on and to discuss new issues. And sometimes it is not even about whether we agree with the author, it is just that we are able to wrestle with the issues.

But to return to my main point, if we view literature as a great conversation humanity has with itself, then when we read and study the literature of a given period, it is because we agree that it is a valuable part of the conversation. We could, as Christians, stop with the Bible and say that is all we need and nothing significant can be added. We could, as many Christians seem to do, pick a point in history and say that everything since has gone down hill and is less valuable if at all. We could also exclude certain authors from the conversation, or at least from the parts of it we subscribe too. Many Christians would diminish of not ignore the contributions of non-Christians. This too, I think, is a mistake. We may take what an author says with a grain of salt but there is still a lot of wisdom that God can give us through non-Christians. This is the work of common grace that sends rain or sun on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

My little thought has turned into a very long post but I will try to boil it down one more time if I can. When we read literature, we participate in the conversation, the flow of ideas, humanity has with itself. By doing so, we implicitly say that there is something more to be said, that there can be new ideas and that they can be valuable to us. I would add that I think we have to have a pretty positive view of where things are going too. If you think there is nothing good since 1900, there is no point in reading books written since then. I am not saying that all human thought is moving forward. I think there are a lot of fits and starts, but I do find myself more and more leaning towards an optimistic view of human history. I don’t really want to get into the whole end times thing here; it is a huge topic and this post is already longer than I anticipated. Suffice it to say that if you expect a millenium of bad days before Christ come back yet and especially if you think we are in that time, then you are not likely to expect anything of value to be produced.

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here?

Nebby

Why Santa?

Dear Reader,

This is a stray post leftover from my recent reading of Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner. There is one line in that book that niggled at me as I read it which I have not yet discussed. In the context of discussing Barrie’s Peter Pan — you know the story, I am sure; just think of the Disney version — and particularly of the death of Tinkerbell when the audience is urged to clap to save the fairy’s life, Warner says that:

“This emotional blackmail — with its shameless pulling of the heartstrings — remains fractured by the irony that however loud we clap to show our faith, Barrie isn’t sincere and neither are we, and if the children with us are convinced they’re the dupes of a need that adults feel which children meet.” (Kindle Loc. 471)

What does this have to do with Santa? Just this: that stories of Santa Claus are another way we dupe children. And not only do we tell them these tales when they are too young to know better, when they reach an age where they are able to reason about the issue and they begin to question us, too often we deliberately lie to them again. We do not praise them for their logical deductions, but we insist in the face of mounting evidence that, yes, there really is a little round man in red who travels the world and gives them presents. Of course, not all parents tell their kids about Santa (though I would venture to say most in the US do) and even fewer insist on the lie when their kids begin to question, but still a considerable number do and the lie is accepted and promoted by the culture at large. Why? Why not just lie to our kids but then persist in the lie when they have found us out?

Warner’s quote above makes me think that it is a lot more about the adults’ needs than about the children. We want them to believe for as long as they can — believe in something, anything good — because we have such a lack of faith ourselves and because we feel this lack.

Nebby

Book Review: Once Upon a Time

Dear Reader,

I have already done two posts on Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see here and here), but I wanted to give you a more proper review of it. Warner’s book is not a tome, but, as I said previously, it is dense at parts and I felt at times as if I had to wade through it. I suppose in the greater scheme of things it may be a shorter history, but do not think from its title that it is a short, easy read. At points I found it fascinating and it definitely made me think (see those earlier posts), but at other points I felt like giving up on it altogether.

Warner begins by defining fairy tales. They are, she says, “one-dimensional, depthless, abstract, and sparse; their characteristic manner if matter-of-fact” (Kindle Loc. 196).  The characters in fairy tales are ordinary people (as opposed to myths which are inhabited by superheroes and gods). They also face ordinary problems, though it may not seem so at first glance. They reflect the time and place of their origin and are meant to help ordinary people cope with troubles they face:

“Fairy tales used to transmute the horrors by setting them once upon a time and far away, and in this way did not directly raise the spectre of a killer nest door but smuggled their warnings under cover of magical storytelling.”

The messages of fairy tales are ones of resistance, hope and escape.

Fairy tales have changed over time; they have also been reinterpreted. Often, it seems, these two things are intertwined. Those who interpret the tales do so not detachedly but adapt the tales for their uses. There are definitely parts of this book which are unsuitable for children (not that it is intended for them by any means) as Warner discusses Freudian and feminist interpretations of the tales. She spends quite a lot of time, on and off, in this book on what may be loosely termed “women’s issues.” As she says, so many fairy tale villains are women — wicked queens and stepmothers abound– that it is hard to avoid the idea that there are some real gender-related issues going on here. I am left wondering at the end, however, whether this is because it is the females themselves who need the tales or whether it is because males are trying to create a certain depiction through them.

Ultimately, for Warner fairy tales are a means of conveying truth. These truths are adapted to their time and place and yet they are also in many ways timeless. She has a quote I love: “‘A lie hides the truth, a story tries to find it'” (Kindle Loc. 2534). What this saysto me is that we can often say more truth through fictional tales.

In the end, however, I do not think Warner is coming at fairy tales form the same place I am. Her concluding paragraph says that:

“We are walking through the dark forest trying to spot the breadcrumbs and follow the path. But the birds have eaten them, and we are on our own. Now is the time when we all must become trackers and readers of signs. Fairy tales give us something to go on. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do. It is something to start with.” (Kindle Loc. 2555)

I suppose two things come out to me from this last paragraph. First, that Warner, like so many of those whose work she reviews, is not dispassionate about her subject. This is not an unbiased recounting of scholarly thought on a  topic. It probably would have been much less interesting if it were. But still, one must take into account as one reads it that the author has her own attachment to fairy tales and one presumes her own interpretations of them.

The second thing I am struck by is that this is not a biblical understanding. I know some Christians will avoid all such tales and I am not among them. I do think that we can learn a lot from fictional stories; we can explore ideas and learn about ourselves. Jesus taught through stories and God revealed Himself through His people’s stories. But Warner’s langauge at the end is quite hopeless. We are not alone nor are we so lost as she says. And, above all, we also have other things to go on, namely the Word of God.

I suspect if we met in person, Warner and I would not have much in common and there were parts of this book that I found dry and when I wanted to give up on it. But I am glad I didn’t. There was also quite a bit here to make me think. I would recommend this book. I would not hand it over to my children but it is a decent read for anyone who in interested in fairy tales and children’s literature and who is able to think critically about them.

Nebby

 

Recipe: Low Fat Burrito Pie (dairy-free, gluten-free), THM E

Dear Reader,

I haven’t been adhering strictly to the Trim Healthy Mama (THM) way of eating (WOE; don’t you love acronyms?) in recently months. I still have it in the back of my mind, but have been leaning more towards JUDDD. But my teenage daughter recently expressed an interest in it and so I have been trying to cook THM for her and also to adhere more to it myself in a show of solidarity. It has been working for her, at least to some degree. I try not to ask about it too often.

I don’t know about you, but I find it harder to come up with low-fat (THM E) recipes, especially ones my whole family can eat since we also have other food sensitivities. This recipe fit the bill. It is low-fat, dairy-free, soy-free, and gluten-free. Unfortunately, I had a computer error and lost half the pictures, including the ones of the finished product, so you will have to use a bit of imagination.

Low-Fat Burrito Pie

Ingredients:

3 c cooked rice (a great way to use up leftovers!)

2 cans fat-free refried beans

2x 12 oz. cans chicken (or leftover cooked chicken, cut into small chunks or shredded)

1 tsp salt

chili powder, garlic powder, and onion powder to taste

1x 15 oz can tomato sauce

1/2 tsp salt

chili powder to taste

gluten-free corn tortillas

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 400.

2. Mix together in a large bowl the precooked rice, chicken, beans, 1 tsp salt, and seasonings.

The filling mixture

The filling mixture

3. In another bowl, stir 1/2 tsp salt and additional chili powder into tomato sauce.

The sauce

The sauce

4. Cut tortillas into quarters to make wedges.

5. In a 9×13″ casserole dish, spread a couple of tablespoons of the sauce. Place a single layer of tortilla wedges on top of sauce. Spread with 1/3 of rice and bean mixture. Top with 1/3 of remaining sauce. Continue to layer in this fashion (like you would for a lasagna): tortillas, rice and beans, sauce. End with a layer of tortilla wedges and the last of the sauce.

Beginning the layering process

Beginning the layering process

6. Cover loosely with foil and bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 10-15 minutes.

If desired, you can serve fat-free sour cream or Greek yogurt as a topping for those who can eat dairy.

Enjoy!

Nebby

Fairy Tale Follow-Up (More on Young Adult Fiction)

Dear Reader,

Do you know what I forgot in my last post? Mermaids! In that post, I talked about fairy tales and how so many kids, and especially young adult, books these days have main characters who are werewolves, vampires, etc. But I forgot mermaids. Yet today in my BookBub email of cheap Kindle books, I find that mermaids should indeed be included. The blurb on The Syrenka Series by Amber Garr reads:

“This stunning trilogy of sacrifice and love follows spirited 17-year-old mermaid Eviana as she flees an arranged marriage. But the decision to follow her heart has consequences beyond anything she can imagine… 

Now fairy tales are pretty much as old as humanity but this particular blurb highlights what I think bothers me about these young adult books. If you’ll notice, the protagonist is the mermaid. In most classic fairy tales (as far as I observe in my uneducated opinion), the fanciful creatures are not the humans or the heroes and heroines; they are the bad guys. But these days not only do the witches and vampires take center stage, they are often the main characters; the ones we are to sympathize with and relate to. What does this mean? What does it mean that so many young adults are fascinated by these books? Well, the obvious answer to me is that they are longing for something more and/or different than what they are, for escape from the world they know. This may not seem huge development in the history of teenagers, but I feel that there is something different in tenor about it all. It’s all very subjective, I know.

Another thing I forgot is that it is always wise to finish reading a book before one begins discussing it. This whole topic arose because I was reading Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner. When I wrote that previous post, I had not finished the book. Now I have (and I am also pleased to report that it was a bit shorter than I had thought; one drawback of reading things on the Kindle is that it is hard to know where one is; it turns out that a good chunk of the end of the book is notes and the reading bit ended sooner than I expected). And what I found near the end is that Warner at least begins to answer my questions. She talks about how fairy tales have been reinterpreted and rewritten. A key milestone in this history seems to be there reworking by the feminists in the 1970s. Warner says that:

“The contrary spirit of feminist fairy tale has also enlivened the growth of Young Adult fiction, with unflinching fantasists exploring the lives of girls — and some boys — through revisiting ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Snow White’, and other classics. The furious feminist protests of the Seventies have become axioms of children’s publishing and film producers’ brainstorming sessions.” (Kindle loc. 2075)

Now I can just hear those super conservative Christian parents saying, “Aha! Modern fairy stories are influenced by feminist thought. I knew they were all evil and here is more proof!” And I will admit that this should at least make one pause and think. It is always good to do so when selecting books for one’s children anyway. But I am also not sure that this means we need to reject all such stories outright.

My own inclination is that there is a very real, even God-given desire at the root of this kind of literature. Warner also alludes to this when she says that fairy tales, which she says elsewhere are about escape, are a means that “rational dreamers” use to think about, among other things, “ways of avoiding hell” (Kindle loc. 2264). Isn’t this astounding? Fairy tales are about avoiding hell?? I am not completely sure I know how Warner means this. She does say that such stories allow us to come to terms with real world evils in a context divorced from reality. So I suppose it is not too big a leap to surmise that as we try to deal with the evils of our world that we are also trying to wrestle with ultimate evil.

Another book I reviewed recently, Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner, helps me out here. Horner is a Christian and his thesis is that everything we humans should know about God we suppress but that this suppressed knowledge comes back out in other ways. In other words, we can’t really suppress it. In the case of the young adult novels I am discussing, this would mean that our knowledge that we are meant for something more comes out as stories about teens who are really werewolves or mermaids or half-vampires. It is the only human longing: “there must be something more than this.” And indeed there is.

As I’ve said, I don’t think it is inherently wrong to read books like this. Fantasy itself can be used to convey truths in the hands of the right writers (think Lewis and Tolkien). And even in the works of non-Christians, there can be an awful lot of truth that comes out, at least about the human condition if not about the Divine. I do feel overwhelmed though when I go to my local library to pick out books for my older kids. There is just so much out there and I don’t have time to read it all. There are more of them than me and they read faster. So I do do a lot of judging a book by its cover and praying for the best.

What about you? How do you pick books for teens? Any good recommendations?

Nebby

Pinterest Change

Dear Reader,

I had been letting what was originally my personal Pinterest account get taken over by my daughter’s business. So now I have a new account for me. If you had followed me for homeschooling stuff, you might want to switch over to the new one. I *think* the link on the side to follow my on Pinterest in now updated. My new username there is nebby3. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Nebby

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