Principles of Reformed Education: Living Books and The Living Word

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

My goal in this series is to define a reformed Christian theology of education and to give you practical principles which can be used in selecting materials for that education. Thus far, we have spent a good deal of time on the theoretical side of things (see this summary post). On the practical side, we have discussed the need for a broad education and for an approach that is interesting but not entertaining. Today I’d like to talk about one of the most essenatial parts of any education — books.

Words and The Word

Here is one of the most patently obvious statements of the day: Books are combinations of words. So in trying to get at why we use books and what books we should use, we need to begin with words. And, because everything is ultimately theological, we need to begin with the theology of words.

The Bible has quite a lot to say about words. It starts in Genesis 1 — God creates by the power of His Word (Gen. 1:3). We find out later that this Word is God the Son so that we may say that Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1-3).

Beyond Creation, words in the Bible are quite powerful things. To name something is to have power over it. Thus God names Day and Night (Gen. 1:5), Heaven (v. 8), and Earth and Sea (v. 10). But it is Adam who names the animals and the woman (Gen. 2:19, 23). Later on, when God establishes a relationship with a person and changes their life trajectory in some way, He also changes their name (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16).

Words are not inert. A word has power. We have already seen the power of God’s Word in Creation, but even human words have power. Words cannot be taken back. Blessings and curses in particular are powerful things (consider, for instance, the story of Balaam in Num. 22-24).

It is through words that God chose to reveal Himself to us. He makes a deliberate choice not to use images but to speak (Deut. 4:15).  The Bible, God’s written Word, is His complete revelation to us. The things we see of Him in Creation may reveal His character (Rom. 1:20), but it is His written Word which tells us the things we need to know for salvation. It is “the only infallible rule for faith and life.”  And this written Word again has power; it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12; ESV).

The Power of Words in Education

The primary way our Creator, the One who formed our natures and knows them best, chooses to communicate with us is through words. I have argued that the purpose of education is sanctification, or better put that education is a subset of sanctification. As such it is a work of God. The stuff of education is general revelation. We may learn from what we see and hear and feel, but the information that we gather and pass along to one another is communicated primarily through words. This is not to say that there is no role for pictures and charts and graphs and even music and other media, but in the end when precise communication is needed we fall back on words.

A picture is worth a thousand words. I believe this is a true statement but the connotation it implies — that pictures are therefore superior — is not necessarily true. Movies are usually shorter than the books they adapt. There a number of reasons for this. A movie maker can depict in one image a scene that takes an author pages to describe. He does not need to say what each character looks like or what the scene is because he can convey these details in an instant. In this way images are more efficient.

But images also have their flaws. On one hand, they are too specific. An author may intentionally not tell what a character looks like or what she is wearing. The movie maker has to show the character somehow so he chooses an actress and wardrobes her. In so doing, he makes interpretive decisions that may change our opinions of that character and ultimately may change the story. At the very least,  he makes decisions that the author intentionally left to the audience.

On the other hand, images are often not specific enough. God reveals Himself to us in Creation but when He wants to communicate specific truths He uses words. Pictures are open to interpretation. We can look at the same piece of art and get different messages. This may happen with words as well, but the more we use our words the more clarity we give.

For all of these reasons, I am going to take the completely radical position that words, and particularly books [1], should be the backbone of our approach to education.

“Living” Books

If books are to be the primary means of education, the next question is: Which books?

If you are in homeschool circles, you may have heard the phrase “living books” [2]. Because the term is used in different ways, I am hesitant to jump on the bandwagon and use it as well. Depsite this, I am going to do so because I think it conveys an important truth.

In the verse from Hebrews quoted above, we are told that the Word of God is “living.” In the context of the Bible, to be “living” is to be life-giving. [Recall that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman “living waters” (John 4:10).] The Scriptures are living words in a unique way. Nothing else is on par with them.  Nonetheless, I am arguing that, insofar as education itself is the work of God and is part and parcel of our sanctification, the books we use should be living as well (living with a little “l”).  That is, they should be able, through the work of God the Holy Spirit, to give life.

How do we recognize a living book? There are not going to be hard and fast answers. We cannot go through our local library and make two stacks, living books and non-living books (though there may be some which clearly fall in one category or another). There are guidelines and criteria we can consider, however, among which I would list the following:

  • God tells us what sorts of things we should fill our minds with:

 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8; ESV)

Living books should be true and lovely and pure. They should not be false or blasphemous or smutty.

Caveat: There are circumstances when we may want to read things that we know are untrue or have our children read books that we don’t agree with 100%. It is always good to know what the other side thinks and to consider new arguments. But such things should be read a) by those who are more mature and b) with discernment, knowing that all we read may not be true and that we are commanded to test all things.

  • Living books should be interesting. In my previous post, I argued that the education we give should be interesting but not entertaining. Our subject matter, which is the revelation of God, is inherently interesting, but many authors have a knack for making the interesting dull. On the other hand, many books written for children are designed to be overly entertaining in a way that adults think will appeal to children but which does not actually add content or value. Living books are written by people who love their subject and can convey that love. Because they find their subject interesting, they do not need to use gimmicks to sell it.
  • A corollary to the above: The fewer authors, the better. Because we look for books in which a knowledgeable author conveys his love for his subject, books written by committee are unlikely to fit this criteria. This is not to say all living books only have one name on the cover, but as a general principle books with fewer authors are likely to be better.
  • Living books do not need to be written by Christians. We have discussed previously that all truth is God’s truth and, as God uses the efforts of non-Christians, with or without their cooperation, truth may come to us through non-Christian sources. On the other hand, we should expect Christian scholarship to be better because Christians should have a superior understanding of truth (sadly, this is not always the case).
  • We are sinful people and we are not always attracted to what is best for us. This is particularly true if we have been accustomed to a diet of (intellectual) junk food.  Living books may not always be the most attractive books, and we may need to push our children to read something other than Captain Underpants.
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. When we read the Bible (the only capital “L” Living Book), we find ourselves getting new meaning even from familiar passages. Though no other book can approach it, little “l” living books are often enjoyable when read more than once. They may also have layers of meaning so that it is worth our time to revisit them.
  • Corollary to the above: A good test for picture books is whether the adult wants to read them again. If you groan when your child brings you THAT book once again, say no. On the other hand, if it is a joy to read aloud and the words roll off your tongue, it is probably a living book.
  • Living books can come in all genres and reading levels. They do not have to be non-fiction to be educational. They do not have to be written as fiction to be engaging. Prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, picture books and tomes can all be living.
  • To some extent, a living book is in the eye of the beholder. Many young boys can spend hours poring over what seem to adults to be very dry encyclopedia-like volumes on reptiles (or bugs or cars). If the child is soaking in knowledge, it is living to him. On the flip side, there may be a book you love but the child may just not connect with it. [But note that this requires discernement– the child may just be lazy and used to junk food (see above).]
  • The ultimate test of a living book is its effect: Does it draw us closer to God or reveal more truth to us?  If it makes you say “Wow, that is so cool,” it is probably a living book. The truth we get doesn’t necessarily have to be profound. It could be a small detail about the lives of ants. It could be a quite depressing yet realistic depiction of human nature from an unbelieving author. It could be a mental picture we get of another time or place we would not otherwise have known about. The size of the truth is not as important as whether it tells us something about God, His creation, or our own natures.

Which brings us to a final point: the power of living books is ultimately not in the books themselves but in God the Holy Spirit who enables us to apprehend the truths in them and to understand them within the context of His greater work. Just as the truths of the one Living Book (there’s that big “L” again) cannot be understood without the working of the Holy Spirit, so the truths found in other living books cannot be rightly understood apart from the work of God in our hearts and minds and a right understanding of the bigger picture of God’s creative and redemptive work.

Nebby

[1] I use the term books somewhat loosely here. Shorter works such as essays and pamphlets would fill the same role. There is value as well in the spoken word, aka lectures and talks, especially in a day and age when we can presreve them and return to them at will. The great value of books, however, is that they are timeless. They allow us to “hear” the words of a great variety of people from all points in human history.

[2] Charlotte Mason’s approach relies heavily on living books but classical educators will also use the term.

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] As we discussed last time, when we want to convey specific knowledge, we use words, whether oral or written. This use of langauge seems to be inherent in how we are made. We were created by God’s Word and it is how He, who created and knows our natures, communicates with us. When He chooses to communicate specific truths to us (special revelation as opposed to general revelation), He uses words. […]

    Reply

  2. […] who seek to use “living books” in our schools and homeschools (as I argued we should here)  need to take this crisitcism seriously. Too often we choose books based on the recommendations […]

    Reply

  3. […] which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is […]

    Reply

  4. […] our students should learn and what kinds of  materials they should use (here and here). Today I’d like to talk about what we do with that […]

    Reply

  5. […] I also made the argument that the written word, that is, books, should be the primary tool by which we place such knowledge before our students. There is a place for other media as well, including but not limited to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is God’s truth and He may choose to reveal it to us through non-Christians. On the other, many who claim to be Christian are either not or are but have bad theology underlying what they are saying which affects their presentation of their subject. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and better scholarship to come to through Christian sources. Because this is a tricky area, it is important for us to vet our sources and to consider such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or evil. […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool

A Work in Progress Productions

Learn•Grow•Shine || Based in Attleboro, Ma

dayuntoday

my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment

StrongHaven

A Literary Homestead

journey-and-destination

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more

weeklywalrus

Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Afterthoughts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools