Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Booklist: Myths, Fables, and Tales

Today’s list is about tales: famous stories retold including ancient myths, fables, and legendary tales. For tales that are adapted from Shakespeare’s plays, see this post on literature.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Myths, Fables, and Tales

Bulla, Clyde Robert. The Sword in the Tree. A Viking story. Bulla’s books are wonderful. Elementary-middle.

Caudill, Rebecca. Contrary Jenkins. Old West tall tales. Elementary.

Climo, Shirley. Atalanta’s Race. Picture book of the classic Greek story. Elementary.

Colum, Padraic. The Golden Fleece. I love how Colum weaves together a bunch of myths within this one narrative. He also has The Children of Odin (Norse myths) and versions of Homer. Middle years +.

d’Aulaire, Ingri and Edgar. Book of Greek Myths and Book of Norse Myths. The d’Aulaires’ volumes are wonderful, illustrated ones. Elementary-middle years.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Wonder BookTanglewood Tales, and The Great Stone Face. Ancient stories and modern ones. All ages.

Homer. The Odyssey, trans. by Robert Fagles. We read this edition together when my kids were in high school. Teens.

Hutton, Warwick. Theseus and the Minotaur. Picture book. Elementary.

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Classic American tales. We used the Rabbit Ears version fo the first and an edition edited by Moses for the second. There is a lot of depth to these stories so they can be read again by teens (see this post on high school literature). Elementary +.

Kellogg, Steven. Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Picture book. Elementary.

Marshall, H.E. Stories of Beowulf Told to Children. Elementary +.

McCaughrean, Geraldine. This wonderful author has lots of beautifully illustrated versions of classic stories: The Odyssey, 1001 Arabian Nights, Gilgamesh, and the Canterbury Tales. Elementary +.

Morris, Gerald. Knights’ Tales (series). Decent chapter book versions of King Arthur stories. Elementary.

Osborne, Mary Pope. American Tall Tales. From the author of the Magic Treehouse series. Elementary. She also has chapter book versions of tales from the Odyssey.

Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Story of King Arthur. Pyle’s books are older and wonderful. Middle years +.

Pyle, Howard. Books of Wonder (series). Shorter folklore like tales. Elementary.

Rabbit Ears Treasury (series). This publisher has a lot of books of tales. Elementary.

Reynard the Fox. A French story in poetic form. Middle-teens.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen. An old British story in poetry. We read selections. Middle-teens.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. King Arthur. Middle-teens.

Zeman, Ludmila. Gilgamesh Trilogy (series). The Mesopotamian myths in picture book form. Elementary-middle.

Scientific Evidence for the Power of Fiction

Dear Reader,

Just a few random thoughts today from books I have been reading.

First from Virginia Woolf, a feminist writer of the 1920s:

“Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact.” A Room of One’s Own (Leonard Woolf, 1957) p. 4

And Abigail Marsh, from a secular professor of psychology and neuroscience:

” . . . books are windows into the minds of the people who wrote them and the people who are written about. Fiction, in particular, represents what the psychologist Keith Oatley calls ‘the mind’s flight-simulator’ — a vehicle for exploring the rich mental and emotional landscapes of people, we have never met.

” . . . fiction enables us to become emotionally invested in the characters we encounter, to care about their plights and their fates.” The Fear Factor (Basic Books, 2017) pp. 243-44

Marsh goes on to argue that written fiction does this better than other media because it requires the use of the imagination in a way visual media do not. She cites studies which show that reading fiction increases people’s compassion and empathy and further says that:

“People who read fiction (but not nonfiction) are better at identifying complex and subtle emotions in others’ faces. And when subjects in one study were experimentally assigned to read a work of literary fiction, they reported increased empathetic concern for others even long after they had closed the book.” p. 245

If you are uncomfortable with these non-Christian sources — and even if you are not — I also highly recommend “Christians and Lit,” a recent episode of the Mortification of Spin podcast in which the hosts discuss the value of fiction, and give lots of good book recommendations.

Off to do some reading!


Booklist: Books about Literature and Authors

Today’s list is one of the shorter one: books about literature and authors.

To keep things as simple as possible, I divide the books into four ages ranges: preschool to early elementary; elementary; middle years (roughly 5th-8th grades); and teens. Keep in mind that many harder books can be read aloud to younger children and that older ones can still enjoy and get a lot out of easier books.

Books about Literature and Authors

Berne, Jennifer. On Wings of Words. Re Emily Dickinson. Elementary.

Coville, Bruce. William Shakespeare’s … (series). Picture book versions of the bard’s plays. Elementary-middle.

Johnson, D.B. Henry Builds a Cabin, Picture books on Henry David Thoreau. Elementary-middle.

Lamb, Charles and Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. Narrative versions of select plays. Elementary-teens.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Louisa May and Mr. Thoreau’s Flute. Re Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Picture book. Elementary.

Ludwig, Ken. How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. This book is for the adults but I highly recommend it, especially if your own understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare is limited.

Maltbie, P.I. Bambino and Mr. Twain. Re Mark Twain. Elementary.

McCaughrean, Geraldine. Stories from Shakespeare. She also has a version of The Canterbury Tales. Lovely illustrated books. Elementary.

Nesbit, E. Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare. Narrative versions of select plays. Elementary-teens.

Stanley, Diane, The Bard of Avon and Charles Dickens. Stanley has lots of biographies. Elementary-middle.

Whelan, Gloria. Pathless Woods. Re Hemingway. Middle years.

Winter, Jeanette. Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World.  Elementary.

Yolen, Jane. My Uncle Emily. Re Emily Dickinson. Elementary.

Lastly, this list is supposed to be books about literature but I wanted to add the Poetry for Young People series (various authors) for wonderful, illustrated introductions to many great poets.

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.



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.

“The great English Universities, under whose direct authority school-children are examined in plays of Shakespeare, to the destruction of their enjoyment, should be prosecuted for soul murder.” (Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, p. 57)

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.


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.

10th Grade Lit: American Bestsellers

Dear Reader,

For 10th grade literature this year I had my oldest do a course on Great American Bestsellers. (You can read about all our Charlotte Mason-y homeschool plans here.)

The idea for this course is from The Great Courses. I based it on and used their audio series of that title. The class actually includes many more books than we were able to do but I picked those that I thought would be the best fit for us. For each one I had my son read the book. After he had finished I gave him an essay type question to answer and then we listened to the lecture together. I also read each of the books. Some I had read in my youth but had a sketchy memory of and I wanted them to be fresh in my mind so I could make sense of his essays.

A couple of notes on The Great Courses: We have used a few of their products. Their quality varies with the professor who teaches them. I tried and rejected another one of their American Lit courses as being dry and unnecessarily mature in content. I bought the CDs but they also have audio downloads and your local library may also have copies (mine has quite a lot of them). They also have frequent sales so if you are in no hurry, wait for one. You could do the course I had my son do without the lectures. I don’t really see any good reason to spend extra money for the video version for this subject. The lectures are each 30 minutes and we did them on the way to his bagpipe lessons when we had to be in the car anyway.

The books covered by The Great Courses’ class are: The Bay Psalm Book, Common Sense, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ragged Dick, Little Women, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Virginian, The House of Mirth, The Jungle, Main Street, The Maltese Falcon, The Good Earth, Gone with the Wind, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, The Woman Warrior, and John Adams.

There is no way we could have made it through all these books in a year. I eliminated some for not being fiction, others for being long and/or not of likely interest to my son. The books he ended up reading were: Common Sense (not a book or fiction but a short selection to get our feet wet), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ragged Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Maltese Falcon, Of Mice and Men (substituted for the much longer Grapes of Wrath), To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catch-22. Huck Finn I actually let him do as an audiobook but he still had to write a paper and listen to the lecture. Little Women, the Last of the Mohicans and Gone with the Wind we watched the movie versions of and listened to the lectures but he did not have to write on. I might make my daughter read them when her turn comes though, but I didn’t think my son could make it through two long girly books. The Good Earth he started but just couldn’t seem to get through so much to my chagrin I let him drop it. Catcher in the Rye I started to (re)read and remembered that it is pretty much annoying teens sitting around talking and using bad language. I hated it and didn’t want to keep reading it so I dropped it. We also listened to the lecture on The Bay Psalm Book. We are already pretty familiar with Psalters so there was really nothing to read here.

Here then are the questions we used for each book we did do. The Great Courses gives sample questions in the guide that comes with the lectures. Occasionally I used these. More often I googled essay questions and selected and/or modified ones I liked.

Common Sense

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t seem to find the exact question I had him answer on this one. I think it was along the lines of: What arguments does Paine give to justify his cause (rebellion)? Are these arguments convincing?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

1. Faith plays a large part in the book. For each of the following characters, write a paragraph saying what they believed and how it affected their actions:

Uncle Tom

George Harris

Augustine St. Clare

Miss Ophelia

Little Eva


the Hallidays (the Quakers)

Simon Legree

2. What do you think Harriet Beecher Stowe’s view are? Is there an overall statement about faith she is trying to make? Can you discern what she believes or which character(s) she would most agree with?

Ragged Dick

What does the author, Horatio Alger, value? What would he say one needs to get ahead? Give specific examples from the book to support your position.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In Ragged Dick we touched upon the moral system of the author– in particular what he views as good behavior and what he sees as the consequences of good behavior.

The situation is a lot more complicated in Huck Finn. Discuss the moral world of the book and its author. The following questions may help you think about this and can figure in your essay (but don’t have to if you don’t find them helpful):
1. Think about lying in the book. Are there good and bad lies (to the characters)? What defines the difference?
2. What about the morality of helping an escaped slave? How does Huck view it? Tom? Why do they do what they do? Who is more moral?
3. Where does Huck draw the lines between good and bad? What actions (his own or of other characters) does he approve of or disapprove of?
4.  where in the book do moral values come from? The community? The family? The church? One’s experiences? You might want to answer this question for a few different characters.

5. What do you think Mark Twain’s view is? In Ragged Dick the author’s opinion was obvious. Is it here? Is there one character that you think Twain would agree with? Does he even give his own view? Or does he maybe just criticize others? Is he saying anything about society’s views?

Again your essay doesn’t need to address all these points. Think about them and see what you can come up with and then link it all together in one essay on the general topic “the moral world of Huck Finn.” I would like you to touch on Mark Twain’s own view though if there is anything we can discern about it.

The Maltese Falcon

It’s one question — answer the main one and weave in the other ones if they are useful: Write an essay about what motivates Sam Spade. Does he demonstrate commitment to his profession? If so, how? Is he a hero or an antihero? Are his motives the same as the other characters’? Are they nobler?

Of Mice and Men

Why does George stay with Lennie? Why does he do what he does at the end of the book? Think about each of the minor characters. What information or insight do they contribute to the story? These seem like 2 question but I think they relate. Try to weave them into one essay.

To Kill a Mockingbird



Is Yossarian crazy? How do he and the other characters deal with the difficult situation they are in? Pick a few characters and discuss how they deal with the hardships or war and life in the military. Who do you think handles it best? Why? Does anyone have a sane response?


Living Books: Victorian England

Dear Reader,

We took a slight detour from our study of American history recently do look briefly at Victorian England. I’m amazed by Queen Victoria, how she managed to have a healthy marriage, a whole passel of kids, and run a country and win the love of her people. She was quite a woman.

When it comes to kids’ books set in or about Victoria’s reign, there is no shortage of wonderful choices. In fact, there really are too many to choose from and we were dealing with a fairly short time-frame.

Let me start by talking about some of the books we didn’t read — though they are some of the best kids’ books ever. The cream of the crop, of course, is Charles Dickens. We have actually been reading Great Expectations as our lunch-time read aloud (a wonderful practice that I highly recommend, by the way; meals make for captive audiences). We have also read “A Christmas Carol,” Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield so I didn’t feel we needed to add any more Dickens at this time. But our goal is a Dickens’ book a year and that is another practice I would highly recommend. Don’t wait too late either. Kids can appreciate the stories earlier than you think. My youngest was 8 when we first read a whole Dickens novel and she was able to enjoy the story despite its length.

Speaking of Dickens, you might also want to check out Dodger by Terry Pratchett in which Charles Dickens is a character. I have only read a few of his books, but Pratchett is becoming a favorite author. Dodger is one I read for myself some time back. It is a wee bit raunchy though the morals of the main character are good. It’s probably better for high schoolers more because of content than reading level.

Next up is a category I am calling “wonderful authors but they are apparently actually Edwardian.” In this group we can include Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, and E. Nesbit of The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet and many more classic children’s books. Because we have read a lot of these in the past and because they technically aren’t quite the right period, we didn’t do any this time (with one exception from Nesbit; keep reading to find out what it is).

Other books to consider on this period but which we haven’t used recently (I told you there were a lot on or from this period):

  • Books I’ve never read but which are on my to-do list: Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
  • Books I couldn’t lay my hands on: The London Child and Country Child, Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame
  • Books I have on my counter and am going to get to soon: The Eleventh Orphan by Joan Lindgard and Montmorency by Eleanor Updale
  • Books we listened to in the car which were pretty good if somewhat fanciful: the Bogle books by Catherine Jinks
  • A Victorian era author to consider: George MacDonald — lots of Christians love him. I have liked a few of his books but found others not to my taste.

Now, on to the books we actually did use. In the realm of non-fiction, I already gave  a preview when I posted on how I choose living books. You can read that post here. Of the three mentioned in that post, I chose not to us Becoming Victoria by Lynne Vallone because, as I said, it didn’t appeal to me early on. I also, regretfully, set aside Edward Ormondroyd’s All in Good Time mostly because it is the second in a series and I’d like to do the first one first.

I did end up having my ten-year-old read Sally Glendinning’s Queen Victoria: English Empress.


She seems to have enjoyed it and to have appreciated Victoria’s family life. I think she made even more of a connection, however, with the other book she read, At Her Majesty’s Request by Walter Dean Myers:


This is the story of an African princess who lived in Victoria’s court and seems to have been quite an engaging one.

My 12-year-old read Queen Victoria by Dierdre Shearman:


It was not the best living book but was alright.

My 9th-grader read The True Story of Queen Victoria: British Monarch by Arthur H. Booth:


It was a little simple for her and is probably better for middle schoolers. In her words, “it was not really a good book but it wasn’t bad either.” I should say she is a very harsh critic of anything she knows is for educational purposes.

I thought about having my daughter read In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap. It is a novel about Florence Nighingale which I loved the idea of, but a cursory examination led me to believe that it had way too much girly, romance stuff in it for my tastes.


I had my 10th-gradre focus in a little more and read The Crimean War by James Barbary:


I don’t know if he enjoyed it but he did a good job narrating it and it seems to have given a good introduction to the Crimean War. I consider it one of my better picks this time. I would definitely look for Barbary’s books in the future.

I read Victoria and Her Court by Virginia Schomp aloud to my younger two:


Again, it was not really a living book. It gave us a very general overview of the queen and her time. I would say it had more about her private life than about public events.

We also squeezed in a couple of  picture books, Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan (a good author to look for) and A Picture Book of Florence Nightingale by David Adler (he has a number of such books and they tend to be good):

Both were quite enjoyable.

The big winners of my “must-read” prize, however, were two books which each give a picture of life in Victorian England.


Long Ago When I was Young is by that old favorite author, E. Nesbit. Unlike her other books, it is not fiction but an autobiographical (or semi-so?) account of her childhood days. It is an absolutely charming book. I couldn’t put it down. I wish I had had time to read it to all my kids, but I did have my 10-year-old read it. (Note that while I said the novels of the grown-up Nesbit are Edwardian, her childhood would have been Victorian.)


Fanny and the Monsters by Penelope Lively is actually a collection of 3 shorter stories about a young girl with a large family living in Victorian times. You get a feel for her life with nursery maids and governesses, she visits the fanous Crystal Palace, and you even get a taste for the controversy over Darwin. And it is very amusing.



Literary Analysis: Lost Horizon

Dear Reader,

As we have before (for the most recent example see this post), my kids and I recently made a stab at literary analysis. We used as our guide Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (see my review here). The object of our analysis this time was Lost Horizon by James Hilton.


Let me start by saying that I loved this book. I highly recommend it as a read aloud even if you are not going to analyze it (beware that I can’t discuss this book without giving some spoilers, though, so you may want to stop here and come back after you’ve read it). Lost Horizon was written in 1933, between the world wars, and reflects the concerns of the time. I have been amazed how deeply World War I seems to have impacted European thought. I think those of us living after WWII have forgotten how profoundly the Great War affected those who lived through it. (We can see this even in the writings of my beloved Charlotte Mason; I touched on that here.) The main character in this book, Conway, is a veteran of the War to End All Wars and has been changed by it. He and three others are in a plane set to evacuate them from Baskul when it is hijacked (a very modern plot device!). They are flown to a distant, unknown part of Tibet where they encounter a secret community known as Shangri-La (I never knew where that term came from, but this is it). Shangri-La, as it names has come to mean, is meant to be a kind of utopia. Its guiding principle is moderation and its purpose is to preserve human culture in the event of ultimate destruction, which its members believe is inevitable. Once there Conway meets the High Lama of the community, discovers its great secret, and is told that he and his companions will not be able to leave.  Three of the newcomers, including Conway himself, are okay with this, but one, Mallinson, is determined to leave.

I began our discussion by asking my kids whether they would have chosen to stay at Shangri-La. I got one unequivocal no, one probably yes, and two I-don’t-knows.

We then backed up and I gave a little historical context. First I asked them when the book was set. They found this pretty easy (between the wars). If your kids are younger or have had less world history then you can just fill them in. Deconstructing Penguins has a nice summary of the era on p. 106 which you can read aloud.

Next came our perennial question: Who is the protagonist? As we learned from our previous discussions, the protagonist is the one who moves the action forward, who is trying to accomplish something. He (or she) need not be the main character or a good guy. The possible answers we came up with were Mallinson, Conway, and the High Lama. After some discussion, we said that Mallinson represents one camp (anti-Shangri-La) and that Conway and the High Lama are in the opposing camp (pro-Shangri-La). I then asked what the action each is trying to move forward would be if he were the protagonist. It was suggested that the High Lama’s goal is to get a new high lama, but this was overruled in favor of the preservation of knowledge and culture. Conway, we said, wants peace but really isn’t trying to do very much. Mallinson is trying to get away from Shangri-La. We also asked what each of these three characters value. For Conway the answer was peace; the High Lama values knowledge and moderation, and Mallinson values living life, real people, and extremes (as opposed to moderation).


We still didn’t have a lot of agreement on who the protagonist is or whether we would want to stay in Shangri-La. So next I asked what Shangri-La represents or how it is characterized. The child who had been vehemently against staying said that Shangri-La is about kidnapping which we had to concede is true. On the negative side of the chart, he also said that it has a bad theology (those who go there seem to lose their Christian theology), nothing new and is not creative. Shangri-La preserves but for the most part does not innovate. On the positive side we listed long life, quiet and peaceful. We also said that Shangri-La represents the old, not the new, and that it is anti-progress.

We still weren’t getting a lot of agreement nor strong opinions on what they would do (except from that one child). We tried to compare Shangri-La and the outside world. The former we said was for peace and moderation but was apathetic. The latter was about extremes, worry, destruction and  a lack of peace.


I tried to them turn the discussion to what the author was trying to say. After some discussion, we decided that we can’t really say why Conway decides to leave in the end, whether he is just helping Mallinson or whether he has been won over by Mallinson’s arguments, though it does seem that he tries after a while to return to Shangri-La. In the end, the main conclusion we reached is that the book leaves us not knowing whether Shangri-La is good or not; we are, like Conway and presumably like Hilton’s original readers, caught between the real world with all its problems and this weird but peaceful alternative. Hilton asks the questions, but he doesn’t give the answers.

The conclusion of Deconstructing Penguins was that Lost Horizon is about the balance between freedom and security which I found to be a very modern concern. We skirted around this idea in our discussion but didn’t end up there. Which just goes to show that there is no one right answer in literary analysis. Any answer you can support from the text is valid.


Is there a place for twaddle?

Dear Reader,

Those new to Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy often wonder if they should allow their children to read “fun” books. Does every book need to be a living one? Is there room in one’s life for Captain Underpants if that is what your child prefers? What about the American Girl books or Magic Treehouse?

From a favorite book of mine, The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham, I find this answer:

“There is a place in life for the novel, the love-story, the frolic of an author’s fancy. It is sometime pleasing and restful to leave a world of facts and sail out on the fairy seas of fiction. The product of a great imagination has its irresistible charm. We are among the shallows of literature, it is true, but then we are only attempting to minister to the shallows of life. The danger comes when we settle down to the shallows; when we never hear the voice of the deep; and when the deep within us becomes neglected and starved. It is good sometimes to get away from the shallows into the deeps; to enter into fellowships with the great masters; to feel the throb of reality; and to grapple with the problems of the universe.” (from The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham; emphasis his)

Now there are fairytales and such that we would consider living books. The test here is not whether a book is found in the fiction of non-fiction section of one’s local library. I think Boreham uses the words fiction and novel more to denote the sort of books which we would today call “popular fiction” or “beach reading.” Nonetheless, his point, I think is a good one. There is a place for our lives, and our children’s, for these easier, more purely entertaining books.  The danger comes when we do not delve deeper and challenge ourselves with deeper works.

Charlotte Mason uses the analogy of food and I think it is (if you will pardon the pun) a fruitful one. Those quality living books are the meat and vegetables of life; they contain the proteins and vitamins which out bodies need and without which they can’t thrive or ultimately even fiction. There are other works which are more along the lines of white bread; they are not awful for one but they would not sustain one in a healthy way for long if they were all one took in. Still others are perhaps the sweets; they may be thoroughly enjoyable and in small doses will do no ultimate harm but in large doses there is danger. And without naming names, I think there are also some which are poison; which should be avoided at all costs.

The lines we draw may be different, even within a  family there may be one child who can tolerate more “sweets” than another. For my own kids, I am willing to put up with a certain amount of Magic Treehouse; I do draw the line at Captain Underpants. But then sometimes if all a child has known is the teeth-rotting books, one must make the transition gradually. And over time, I do find that the palate changes and the child comes to enjoy the “vegetable” books and even to ask for them.

This analogy has probably already been stretched too far but indulge me in one more thought: the good advice which applies to food may also apply here — Avoid battles; Sneak in the healthy things as you can (audio books in the car are one example); Require a bite or two of the quality nourishment every “meal”; But if you find yourself cajoling and wheedling, just stop and back off; and, lastly, Be persistent.


Reading the Bible as Literature (A Book Review)

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading How to Read the Bible as Literature . . .and get more out of it by Leland Ryken. I approached this book with mixed feelings. On one hand, I loved Ryken’s book on Puritans and had high hopes for him as an author. And I would really like to have found a book on biblical interpretation or reading the Bible that I could just hand to my older kids.

On the other hand, someone in an online forum had told me this book was great if you want to use the Bible to study literary concepts and then be able to apply them to other literature. This made me very suspicious, because I didn’t see how it could be true. I know I have said it before, but, in case you are new here, let me explain where I am coming from. I studied biblical Hebrew as an undergrad and in grad school. I have a Master’s Degree in it and was All But Dissertation (ABD) in a PhD program. So I have opinions about how we should approach the Bible. I tend to be pretty opinionated and critical anyway 😉 So my initial thought was that I didn’t see how studying the Bible as literature could transfer to English (by “English” in this post, I will mean English language, whatever its country of origin) or western literature. Poetry was the first thing that popped into my head. Hebrew poetry works differently than English poetry. It uses parallelism and not rhyme and really doesn’t use rhythm either, at least not in any coherent, widely agreed upon way (no iambic pentameter here). So how would studying biblical poetry help one when studying English poetry?

After reading Ryken’s book, my mind hasn’t really been changed. I still have a lot of concerns and I still have some mixed feelings. There are some things Ryken says to which I found myself giving an enthusiastic “Hear! hear!” But if anything, his book just raised more questions in my mind, even about the very nature of this enterprise. There is a lot I could say and I have struggled to write this post in a coherent way. So that you are not as befuddled as I feel, let me lay out the issues I want to address from the outset. They are:

  • Can we/should we use terminology and concepts from western literature to analyze biblical texts? This could also be asked the other way: Can we take literary terms from our study of the Bible and apply them to other works we might study?
  • What does it mean to study a biblical story or passage in its “context”?
  • Should we even be studying the Bible as literature? Is this a valid way to study it or does it erode the truth value of the Scriptures?

Literary Terminology and the Bible

To a certain extent, the reservations I had before reading Ryken’s book were unfounded. The concepts he discusses are indeed applicable to other literature one might study. This is because he does not approach the biblical text as I expected. Ryken starts with a western lit mindset and western literary terms. He takes these and applies them to the biblical text. The problem is not that these terms don’t apply to western literature but that the biblical text is not western. (I will speak mainly of the Old Testament because that is what I know best. His categories and terms may apply better to the New Testament writings, especially those of Paul who was very cosmopolitan and fluent in Greek, though I suspect that even there there is a lot of eastern/Semitic influence.)

The biblical text is ancient Near Eastern (ANE), and to understand it I think we must look at other ANE literature. There may be parts of what we know from western literature that do apply as well, but we need to first ask what applies. Ryken does not ask; he just takes western categories and terminology and applies them without asking if they are appropriate. An example of this would be his discussion of the terms “comedy” and “tragedy.” As I read this section, I thought “Ah, Shakespeare!” because in Shakespeare’s work we can see these two categories so clearly. But are they also applicable to biblical stories? Ryken assumes they are, though he must admit in the end that the Bible has few if any true tragedies (by his definition) and that it has many stories which are potential tragedies but which have (again, by his definition) comic endings. Perhaps, though, instead of needing to contort himself so, it would be just better to say that the biblical stories do not conform to western ideas of comedy and tragedy. And, indeed, why should we expect them to? It is worth noting that Ryken’s sources often betray this western lit bias. In the chapter “Types of Biblical Stories” he references works such as Victorian Poetry and Poetics and The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (pp. 77,79).

This, then, is the first issue I have with How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . — it treats the Bible as a piece of western literature without asking if it is appropriate to do so. A corollary of this is that it does not look to eastern sources to shed light on the text. The example that pops into my head is covenants. How can we understand the Ten Commandments or God’s relationship with Abraham without understanding ANE covenants? Nor does he address what the full range of what prophecy is in the OT(it is more than just visions and future-telling) or how the Bible responds and reacts to ANE creation myths. In his list if types of poetry, he completely neglects wisdom psalms and does not discuss wisdom literature as such apart from proverbs.

A consequence of Ryken’s approach is that it does not do as much as one would like to increase our understanding of the biblical text. Now there are places where Ryken talks specifically about how to read and understand certain kinds of texts, poetry and proverbs in particular, and he does discuss parallelism in the chapter on poetry, though he saves this section for the end whereas I would begin any discussion on biblical poetry with the concept of parallelism and what we can learn from it. His comments on these topics are somewhat helpful and are aimed at enabling the reader to better understand what he reads. Nonetheless, I still think there is so much more that could be done.

When we use the wrong terminology, we also find ourselves asking the wrong questions, and in the end we miss quite a lot of what the text is trying to tell us. On some level Ryken seems aware of that his terminology may not apply. In his discussion of what he calls epic hero stories, he says that “David, in fact, is the closest parallel in the Bible to the epic hero of the Western tradition” (p. 80; emphasis mine). Earlier in the same paragraph, he applies the lens of the epic hero story to the book of Judges. In doing so he must admit that “The Book of Judges lacks a unifying hero and is perhaps better viewed as a collection of separate hero stories” (p. 80). I would add to this that not only does the category fail to adequately explain Judges, we also miss quite a lot of its meaning if all we are looking for is hero stories. There is a definite pattern of rebellion, repentance and redemption which structures the book. When we see this pattern, we see that the main story here is not about Gideon or Samson but about God and His people. It shows us the people’s weakness, their unwillingness to be governed by God and why they so desperately feel the need for a king as the nations around them have. As such, it is a kind of prequel to the books of Samuel and Kings.

Understanding Biblical Literature in Its Context

Up until this point what I have been talking about is reading the Bible in its social and geographic context — that is, understanding it in the light of other works from the same time and place (very roughly speaking); we need to view it in its own world, if you will. But when we speak of context in biblical interpretation we also mean its literary context — what other verses, stories, books surround a given passage and how do these affect its meaning? Most Bible readers worth their salt know that we cannot just take isolated verses out of context and quote them willy-nilly to support any old thing we like. This is poor scholarship. But what exactly the context of a given story is when it comes to the Bible is a tricky question. Obviously, what we have in the Bible are stories within books within a Book. Sometimes there are even more layers involved if we are considering, for example, a story from the Abraham cycle. This nested approach applies as well when we are talking of proverbs, prophecies and psalms, each may stand alone but is also part of a collection which is part of the whole Bible.

So the question we must ask is: when looking at a given passage, how wide a context do we need to consider? We may be able to learn quite a bit when reading a story (or psalm, or proverb . . .)  by itself, but when we become familiar with the whole of Scripture and can see it in the light of the rest of the Bible, we are likely to glean even more. Ryken acknowledges this, and even spends a chapter on it, near the end of his book, when he says:

“The result is a book in which no part is wholly self-contained but instead carries echoes from many other parts.” (p. 186)

Nevertheless, there are times when he does not go far enough in considering the wider context. For example he says that:

“For example, it is quite possible to treat the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) as a self-contained story. But that same material becomes only an episode if we are discussing the story of Abraham as a whole.” (p. 45; see also p. 62 where Ryken again discusses this story)

I would add further that the story takes on a whole new meaning when we consider also the story of Jesus and God’s sacrifice of His own Son. Indeed our understanding of the binding of Isaac would be incomplete if we did not consider this wider context.

Though I don’t have a lot of evidence to back me up, I also question Ryken’s assertion regarding the sayings in the Book of Proverbs that “Beyond these [first] sections, though, the structure is miscellaneous and the unity nonexistent” (p. 127). I suspect that there is actually a lot more to which proverb is placed next to which one than we have yet discerned. [Side note: I love the way Psalms 80 and 81 seem to speak to each other — see this post; this is the sort of intentional placing of texts side by side that I thinking of.]

The Bible as Literature

There is still a larger issue which arises as one reads Ryken’s book, namely, is it even appropriate to read the Bible as literature? Is this something we should do? Or does treating the Bible as one would any other piece of literature undercut the truth value of Scripture? Honestly, I did not go into this book with these concerns. If you had asked me before I read How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . I would have said that while we cannot solely treat the Bible as literature that it is a perfectly valid way to approach the text and could even be useful in helping us delve into its meaning. Ryken made me doubt this, entirely without intending to I am sure. As a little preview of posts to come, let me quote the book I am currently reading, Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield; in presenting her own story, Mrs. Butterfield says that:

“I also learned that the Bible was a literary text, discernible through the lenses of literary devices. It seemed to me that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a metaphor, powerful only in the worlds of words.” (p. 13)

The point here is that when we begin to treat the biblical text as literature, as we would any other literature, we can begin to undermine its truthfulness. If we, for instance, regard some aspect of a story as a plot device, are we then saying that it didn’t really happen that way?

At the outset of this book Ryken said a lot about how literature works that I found myself agreeing with. He says “literature expresses truth in its own way” (p. 11) and “The knowledge that literature gives of a subject is the kind of knowledge that is obtained by (vicariously) living through an experience” (p. 13). As statements about literature in general I would agree. But in the midst of this he also says, “when the Bible employs a literary  method, it asks to be approached as literature and not as something else” (pp.11-12). On the surface this does not sound too bad. But as I think about it I wonder what this means for the historical books of the Bible. If we are taking them as literature, can we also treat them as reliable history? I feel that there is a door here which is being cracked open, a door that Rosaria Butterfield (in the above quote) and others have gone through.

Now the truth be known, I am well aware that history is written by the victors. Or at least that you and I can both write about the same event and yet give very different interpretations and depictions of it. Ryken addresses this as well:

“Authorial selectivity and arrangement of details lie behind every story in the Bible. There is always more than one way to tell a given story. The story as it finally stands has been consciously assembled by the author for a calculated effect on the audience. In short, storytellers control what you see and don’t see, how you see it, and when you see it.” (p. 63)

And again:

“Characters in biblical stories are conscious creations of the storytellers, not in the sense that the writers disregard the real-life person, but in the sense that they decide what to include and exclude from their portrait.” (p. 64)

We see this, I think, in the two pictures of David given in Kings and Chronicles. In the former, Israel’s great king is nonetheless a flawed and hounded human being; in the latter he is much more majestically portrayed. In a different way, we see it in the gospels, each of which gives a different viewpoint on Jesus’ life and ministry (see Ryken p. 133).

Despite these examples, I still found myself, as I read this book, coming back again and again to the question of how we can trust the historicity of the Bible if we are always confronted with the storyteller’s art and all the mechanisms he chooses to use. The lines are very blurry here. On one hand, I don’t believe we ever have truly unbiased accounts of anything, whether we are watching the evening news or reading history. On the other hand, truth is truth. There is a point at which any account goes from the realm of truth into that of fiction. That is why in our courts we are asked to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Any mother who has been confronted with a naughty child knows that there can be a lot of truth that is not the whole truth and that a half truth or a truth that is not complete might as well be a lie.

Ryken himself seems to be trying to preserve the truth value of the biblical text. He speaks, for instance, of the support of archaeological evidence for biblical claims (p. 131). Nonetheless, many of his statements seem to undercut the reliability of the Bible. He notes, for example, that the settings of various stories often have symbolic meaning –“Spiritual revelations often occur on mountains” (p. 35) being one example. When we begin to make statements like this, we can quickly come to believe (or at the very least lead others to believe) that these settings are authorial choices and therefore purely metaphorical. And once we begin to cast doubt upon the details, it is a quick and slippery slope to coming to believe that the whole story is metaphorical and not historical. Elsewhere he says that the gospel narratives “convey an astonishing sense of reality” (p. 133) and in discussing prophecy that the visions of the prophets “exist in the imagination and not in empirical reality” (p. 165) and again that “We know that people do not fly through the air on wings” (p. 169). He may now this, but I believe that if the Bible says that a prophet was transported and/or saw a heavenly vision that he quite possibly did go somewhere and definitely did see something that was more than his imagination.

Drawing Some Conclusions

So what are we supposed to do then? I’m not advocating living in ignorance or taking the Bible in isolation. But I do think we need to acknowledge that it is fundamentally different from other books. I don’t know that I have all the answers but here are some conclusions and ides that have occurred to me:

  • We need to consider the geographical and social context of the Bible. Its human writers, at least for the OT, would have had some familiarity with the myths and stories of the cultures around them (read: ANE other cultures) and so it is reasonable to expect them to have responded to these cultures in their own writings. They also had to some extent a common culture with their neighbors so it is reasonable to look for similar genres and literary devices.
  • We need to exercise more caution in applying western concepts to the Bible (again, especially the OT). These things will be more familiar to us, but we must guard against putting our own expectations on the text.
  • When interpreting an given text, we should consider it on many levels: on its own, in the immediate context of its book, and in light of the rest of Scripture. A corollary: we should become more and more familiar with all of Scripture so that this becomes easier and easier for us.
  • When discussing the storyteller’s art, we should be careful with the phrasing we use. While the speaker may have  a healthy respect for the authority of Scripture, others, especially children, may be led to think that if we call one part of a story metaphor or hyperbole, that skepticism about the whole is appropriate.
  • We need to keep in mind who the ultimate Author of Scripture is. Ryken speaks in his book of the text’s various human authors and, of course, there were many people involved in its authorship and editing. But each of these, I believe, was led by the Holy Spirit. We are told that the Bible is “God-breathed.” While its many human contributors are not infallible and would surely have had their own opinions and biases, we must not lose sight of the fact God has given us the Book He wants us to have. We know for instance that Paul wrote other letters which were not included in the canon and that there were other chronicles which recorded the history of the nation of Israel. But the Bible we have is what God ahs chosen to preserve and hand down through the generations to us. It is this divine inspiration which truly sets the Book apart form all others.