What We Study and Why: Literature

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.

Last time we talked about why and how to study langauge, thinking of language as a whole including those exciting subjects spelling and grammar. This time I’d like to talk about literature. I am thinking here particularly of fiction, no matter its genre. I have already made the case for books, and “living books” especially, as a mainstay of education, but why do we read things that are not factually true?

Why We Read Fiction

Before diving in, I’ll offer a disclaimer that I have blogged on topics akin to this many times in the past. A lot of what follows will refer you to books and articles I have reviewed in the past. A bibliography of these books will appear at the end.

The Scriptures show us by example the value of stories. When God begins to tell us about Himself and how we can and should relate to Him, and how we often fail, the genre He chooses is narrative.  (And, of course, the Old Testament contains a good chunk of poetry as well.) Though these are stories, they are true stories, so the question remains: Why read stories that we know aren’t true? Turning to the New Testament we find that this is just how Jesus taught. He told parables, aka short stories. And while the message of each parable is true, we have no reason to suppose that there ever really was a good Samaritan or a prodigal son.

As long as we understand  that what we are reading is fiction, there is a lot of truth that we can get from these made-up stories. As I discussed in this recent post, narrative can have a power over us that a dry recital of facts does not. It invites us in because we relate to it on a level that goes beyond the rational. Fiction speaks to not just our mind but our emotions as well. It allows us to live through events and to experience people and places that we would not otherwise.

Stories are often a way to explore topics that we don’t want to face directly.  In  Meaning at the Movies, Grant Horner, a Christian, shows how the truth that people try to suppress comes out in the stories they tell. Similarly, Frank Boreham (see this post) argues that the desire in us for something more, beyond the world as we know it, is a sign that there is indeed something more. Rick Stedman in his 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God (see my review here) makes a similar point.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (see this post, this one, and this one) makes the case that we deal with subjects in fiction, particularly fairytales, that are hard to address in real life. Not only do these stories allow us to get a feel for situations which are hard or which we have not yet faced, they provide us with solutions. They give us heroes and show us examples of how to act, or, often just as valuably, how not to act. Charlotte Mason makes a similar point (see this post or this one).

The subjects we explore through fiction need not be fantastical. I found myself recently, through no overt planning on my part, reading a number of books that deal with the subject of adultery. Some of these books were non-fiction and some were fiction. Of the two, I found the fiction spoke a lot more to actual human experiences and dealt in a much more realistic, and biblical, way with the consequences, even if the author was not (to my knowledge) Christian.

I had the wonderful opportunity once to go to a conference entitled the Story-Formed Child. The main speaker, Sarah Clarkson, made the point that we are living in a story, God’s story. It is the meta-narrative of human existence. When we ourselves tell stories, we are echoing our Creator and also contributing to the overarching story, or at least our human understanding of it. This is a paraphrase but it’s what I got from Clarkson at the time: Literature is our human conversation through the ages about what it means to live well. Another author who contributes to this thought is Terry W. Glaspey in his Children of a Greater God. He argues  that we need to create a moral vision for children, something that is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. Stories allow us to do this.

Learning facts is not the goal of any of the subjects we study but if possible this is even more true when it comes to literature. We read fiction to experience times and places and events that we could not otherwise. We read it to explore situations that might be hard to face. We explore options. We learn heroism as well as the negative consequences of our actions. Literature above all is about ideas.

How to Read Fiction, with some warnings

Having said which, we must add that not all books are created equal and that narrative, because it is powerful, can be used for evil as well as good. The fact that stories involve our emotions and draw us in means that they can be easily used to manipulate (think about that next time your pastor uses a sermon example). We need to be discerning in choosing what we read, and even more so in what we give our children to read (I have discussed some of the things to consider in picking books previously in this post).

We do not always need to read Christian authors. Sadly, Christian books are often overly moralistic. Our stories do not need to draw conclusions for us. They are often more powerful when we are left to draw the conclusions for ourselves. The stories of the Old Testament rarely tell us who is good and bad or whether an action is acceptable or not. Think, for example, of when Abraham says Sarah is his sister or when Jacob deceives Esau or when Joseph tells his brothers his dreams. We are not told how to feel about these incidents. but we do feel about them and we see their consequences.

Non-Christian authors sometimes actually have a benefit in that they are able to picture to us a world without God. They may show us our own hearts, and it can be a very scary picture. Which is not to say that we should only read non-Christians either but that we need to look at the overall book rather than judging by the religious affiliation of the author.

We also need to value truth. Our God is a God of Truth. There is some leeway in historical fiction. We understand going in that it may have to supply details that cannot be known, but there are better and worse ways to go about this (see this post). For older children in particular it can be helpful to research what is true and what may have been added or supplied by the author. Not to beat up on Christian authors but I do find they tend to be some of the worst for supplying details, especially when their topic relates to Scriptural events.

In some ways it is safer then if a book concerns a world which is entirely imaginary. I know some Christians have issues with books that contain magic elements and the like. Personally, I do not, at least not inherently. I think we suspend belief when we read books and understand, particularly if they are set in fantastical worlds, that what happens in their worlds might not happen or be okay in ours. Ideas that affect us can sometimes best be explored in worlds that are not our own. I am actually a lot more likely to have problems with books set in the real world but which assume certain dynamics, like that siblings are always opposed to one another.

Fiction, in all its varied forms, can be one of the most valuable things we can read. It allows us to take ideas and to hold them like a gem and turn them over in our minds and explore their facets, but it also requires a lot of discernment.

Nebby

Bibliography: Books on Stories and Narrative

Boreham, Frank. The Golden Milestone. Chariot eBooks, 2014 (originally published 1918).

Clarkson, Sarah. Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children. Storyformed Books, 2014. (I haven’t actually read this one yet but it’s on my list.)

Glaspey, Terry E. Children of a Greater God. Harvest House, 1995.

Horner, Grant. Meaning at the Movies. Crossway, 2010.

Mason, Charlotte. “The Knowledge of Man: Literature,” in Towards a Philosophy of Education at Ambleside Online, pp. 180ff.

Stedman, Rick. 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God.  Harvest House, 2017.

Warner, Marina. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale.  Oxford University Press, 2016.

Zylstra, Henry. Testament of Vision. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958.

One response to this post.

  1. […] audio books (listen to them in the car when your kids are a captive audience!), by all means do so. You can learn from fiction as much as from non-fiction. Ultimately, the reason we learn anything is because it is part of God’s general revelation […]

    Reply

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