Book Review: Landscape with Dragons (updated)

Dear Reader,

It was pointed out to me that I made a pretty grievous error in the earlier version of this post (got the author’s name wrong — whoops!). Fpr some reason wordpress won’t let me edit that particular post, so here it is revised. The original post is from 2014. 

I have heard  a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by  Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.

The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he has to say. These include:

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)

  • Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
  • Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:

“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)

In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when O’Brien gets down to the specifics of what he means.

O’Brien gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:

“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)

These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things which can happen in the real world and what can happen in  stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.

O’Brien also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:

“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)

But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. O’Brien is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:

“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)

I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that O’Brien clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.

Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think O’Brien also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.

Now I would like to address another major point O’Brien makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, O’Brien says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. O’Brien himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:

“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous  because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)

In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).

The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). O’Brien laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:

“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)

O’Brien also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:

“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)

I think part of the difference I have with O’Brien may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a  number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but O’Brien also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:

” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)

And again:

“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)

Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like O’Brien sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man’s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, O’Brien makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.

On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. O’Brien thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. O’Brien doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.

To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things O’Brien says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind O’Brien’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations of these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting point for forming one’s own opinions on these works.

Nebby

 

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mks on May 31, 2019 at 12:03 pm

    This is an excellent review, thank you. I have often found it interesting that so often many evangelical Christians are huge proponents of the works of Tolkien (a Roman Catholic), Lewis and MacDonald (who both held to some unorthodox theological views), while marking other fantastical works as dangerous and to be avoided.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Lucila Feldman on June 4, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    Hello!

    This was a great read, thanks (i hadnt read the original posting of it) despite me not having heard of the book.

    You said here that the influence books/stories can have is limited by God’s sovereignty (ie they can’t save us or stop us getting saved). I agree. But now I’m interested to know what influence you think they *can/do* have? Have you written about this somewhere already?

    Thanks Lucila

    I had a CM vol 6 discussion group at my house a couple of days ago. CM really does think reading great books is the best way to shape a character.

    Do you agree?

    It would be really interesting to know

    Mmo

    Reply

    • Hello, Lucila! Good to hear from you. I do think books and stories have a lot of power. I think we can see that in how God uses them. His communication to us is primarily verbal (where that includes both the spoken and written word) and so much of what He gives us is stories, a hige chunk of the Bible plus Jesus often taught through stories. So I do think it is part of how we are wired that stories can have great influence on us. While it is all ultimately in God’s control, the power of a story is a lot like the power of a person. Whatever the influence of a good or bad friend (and the Bible has a lot to say on that too), books and stories can have the same power. I think that is a very CM idea as well — the concept that when we read an old book we are connecting with the mind of the author, not just a dead text, and that ideas are spread thus from mind to mind.

      I do have a couple of articles which have touch on this. This one is reacting to an article by a secular guy on the power of narrative:
      https://lettersfromnebby.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/the-power-of-narrative-for-better-or-worse/

      This one is short but I love the Boreham quote (he’s one of my favorite authors; do you know him? He worked in Australia and New Zealand):
      https://lettersfromnebby.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/the-power-of-what-we-read/

      And this is a recent one on why we read fiction/literature:
      https://lettersfromnebby.wordpress.com/2019/02/27/what-we-study-and-why-literature/

      As to the other question on whether reading is the best way to shape character — I was actually thinking about this this week talking to a mom whose is struggling with her son. I don’t know if books are the best way but I think they can be a powerful tool. They give is access to so many more examples of how to be than we would otherwise encounter and they help us vicariously work through hard situations before we meet them in real life. CM also suggests that when older kids wrestle with doubt or have particular theological questions that you give them books instead of engaging them directly so that their struggle is with the author and not with you. I do thinm parents need to be involved and I know I lecture my kids a lot about what I believe but I think it can be helpful to have that distance sometimes too. But if there were a list of things to shape my child’s character and I had to rank them and discard the bottom of the list, I’d put a lot of things ahead of reading books — things like going to church every week, praying, interacting with Christians of all ages, just living a godly life before them, and so on.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Lucila Feldman on June 4, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    Oops… i hadnt intended to keep the bits added at the end. They were part of the draft. (But feel free to answer all the same!)

    Also…. another question.

    I read on your blog that because you have come to reject CM as your primary resource in education, you are seeking to develop your own reformed theology (which is as practical as CM’s in contrast to much of the theoretical works of reformed thinkers you have reviewed to date). I’m curious to know, in practical terms, what has changed in how you do school. What are (some of) the things in your homeschool that are decidedly not CM in favour of a more Reformed approach??

    Only if you have time/inclination!

    Reply

    • I don’t think I could call myself a CM educator at this point, especially in CM purist crowds, but I am certainly still heavily influenced by her thought and practices. I have actually been tending more back to her methods and ideas as I read more other Christian writers on education. Often I am finding that what they say is really her idea (they all come later but don’t seem to know her work). Particularly, she seems to be right on target on epistemology (ideas on what knowledge is and how we know). I think there are three big questions that shape how we educate: 1. what is the nature of man? 2. What is the purpose of man? and 3. What is knowledge and how do we know? I would say CM has some level of truth on the first two (though she is off most on accounting for our sinfulness) and that she is very good on the third. In many ways that third one has some of the most practical implications so in our homeschool we still primarily use CM practices like reading good living books and narrating. In some ways I am more CM than I used to be because we do things like CM style exams that I never used to. Ways I have become less CM: I am really not a huge fan of Plutarch. We got some good from it but I am not convinced that it is all that beneficial. Instead we have been reading through Calvin’s Institutes (this is with high schoolers and it is still a struggle for them; I wouldn’t try it with younger kids). We never did Latin (though one son chose to). I do think learning languages is good but I think in some ways CM was still too bound to classicsal culture. I am also more likely to give my opinions and to guide discussion that I think CM would allow. That comes out of her not accounting enough for our sinfulness I think. It’s great when kids get ideas and make connections on their own but if we allow for their fallen natures I think we need to admit they need guidance as well. We don’t do hymn study (though we have done psalm study in the past) because we don’t sing hymns. A lot of the changes are not big (and some are a result of my laziness, like we never did well with music study) but a lot of it is that I just don’t feel bound to do things the CM way or feel guilty if I don’t. Since I started homeschooling, being “pure CM” has become a thing and I see a lot of moms on lists freaking out that the don’t have things perfectly as CM would have done but I just don’t feel bound by that. If you were to observe our homeschool, I think it would seem pretty CM but probably the biggest single difference is that I think we need to discuss ideas with our kids. The Scriptures are pretty clear that we need to be talking constantly to our kids about the things fo God and providing guidance (Deut 6:1-9). I do believe with CM that the Holy Spirit does the work in education but the ordinary means for Him to do that is through parental instruction. (Though I would add that I think CM is right that we often drive children the opposite way by moralizing too much.)

      Reply

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