Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Going Deeper

“I do believe in God. That seems to offend people more than almost anything else. I think they would find it…well that is my limited experience, that they have more of a problem with me believing in God than they would have if I was an unrepentant atheist.”  J.K. Rowling

          Before I begin, let me make a few things perfectly clear. First, just because I myself read-and allow my own children to read-particular books or watch particular movies, does not mean that I would have my students read or watch them. Every book I assign in my English classes is on the recommended reading list endorsed by ACSI-the Association of Christian Schools International-and, because this list was compiled by Christians who had actually READ the books and knew what they were doing, it includes not only works like The Scarlet Letter and Pilgrim’s Progress, but also the often-banned To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Huckleberry Finn, The Diary of Anne Frank, Animal Farm, and Of Mice and Men. In order to be educated, one must have read certain books, period. The compliers of the list understood that. Secondly, I have never assigned a book that I have not myself read and I am always careful to explain the purpose behind each book, the author’s background, and the historical context of both the novel itself and the time period in which the author was writing. I teach EVERYTHING through the lens of Christianity, and there is much richness to be found in, I venture to say, the majority of classic literature and probably half of modern literature. Finally, I have been working on this blog entry for several weeks in response to a couple of incidents/comments that I have either overheard or that affected me or my kids in some way. I have done my homework, as the diligent student of life that I am. My conclusion: I want to keep going deeper, and I want my kids to go deeper, and this may involve sometimes reading or watching things that some might find offensive.

          Everyone pretty much agrees that an educated person needs to have been exposed to Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek mythology. Even most atheists say this. Why? Because these three works, in the literary sense, are at the heart of ALL literature. In order to understand everything else, there must be a frame of reference. As a Christian parent and educator, I believe-and teach-that the Bible is the source of all truth, and that all truth is God’s truth. Everything else that we read and watch and even experience points back to this Source. This does not mean, however, that other things cannot supplement, enhance, and enlighten the truth of Scripture-even things with which we do not agree.

          If you want to talk about book banning, consider this: nearly everything has been banned, or boycotted, or complained about by somebody, somewhere, at some time. Do you realize that the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder has been banned in some circles as being “too traditional”, “disturbing in its depiction of family relationships” and, of course, “sexist”? Yep. Now, in the light of the twenty-first century, and equal rights and all of that, I can see how it might be interpreted that way. After all, Ma cooked and cleaned and took care of the kids while Pa went out and worked. That’s the way it was then, in the 1880’s. It’s what people did. And I, for one, have a great deal of respect for Ma.  Have you ever tried to lift one of the irons that was used at that time? I have. I couldn’t do it. Neither could any of the moms who were with us on the field trip to the Heritage Museum, and we all agreed that Ma, along with her frontier woman counterparts, was one tough lady. I love the Little House series and the values that it depicts, with hard work and faith and family at the core. I also love the charming, completely unrealistic works of Louisa May Alcott. Alcott was deeply offended by the works of Mark Twain, stating that his books were “unwholesome for our young lads and lasses”. Ironically, Alcott’s family was not what many would consider “Christian” and had some ideas which would later get Walt Whitman, among others, in a whole lot of trouble with the” Christian” community. To me, when Huckleberry Finn tears up the letter that will doom his friend Jim to a continued life of slavery and mutters, “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell,” it is one of the most profound statements in all of literature-and Alcott, along with much of the country, took it entirely out of context. Those who have screamed down through the centuries that this incredible, beautiful story about true compassion versus the cruelty of bigots and hypocrites have not ever read it-or at least have not understood it. Therein lies the problem.

          The much-maligned Harry Potter series is every bit as Christian as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I say this having read every book and watched every movie and carefully researching Rowling and her intent. She IS a Christian; she has so stated time and time again. Google it yourself. She is NOT a Wiccan, despite rumors to the contrary. Honestly, though, a writer being Christian is not the sole criteria on which I base my reading choices. George Orwell was not a Christian as far as I know, nor was William Golding, nor John Steinbeck. Twain, Poe, and Hawthorne are a bit murkier. Twain’s condemnation of hypocrisy was not necessarily a condemnation of all Christians; Poe was an utterly miserable individual who begged God’s mercy at the end of his life; and Hawthorne was horrified by the actions of the Puritans, especially when he learned that one of his own ancestors was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials and was responsible for the deaths of innocent people. All things considered, the bitterness of these three writers was perfectly understandable, even if it wasn’t right. And if I read ONLY specifically Christian books by Christian authors, there would be precious little left to read.

          Now I am REALLY going to step on some toes, because my experience with much of Christian entertainment has been that it is formulaic, unrealistic fluff. Enjoyable and encouraging, yes, but still way too simple. I call it “Christianity Lite”. At the end there’s a great payoff, like in the movie Facing the Giants. I realize that it was meant to show the ultimate of what God can do, but He doesn’t always work like that. In fact, He usually doesn’t, and so people who are “turned on” to Christianity by these kinds of promises often end up running the other way, heartbroken and disillusioned. The only promises, ever, were that hard times WOULD come and that he would never leave us or forsake us. There are not now nor have there ever been any easy answers. I prefer things like Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts and John Ramsey’s The Other Side of Suffering, which depict real Christians who have gone through very real and terrible tragedy and their only testimony is that God is still good in spite of it all. As far as fiction goes, I like to go deep into the works of the great writers, Christian or not, and explore themes of good versus evil and darkness versus light and the pitfalls of pride. Books about Amish girls who get shunned by their communities and then find true love and happiness at the end are nice, and I have read many of them, but not because I was seeking any deep meaning. They were just for fun. Les Miserables, on the other hand, shows the best and worst of humanity and the miracle of true redemption. I like that better.

          I am not saying that I read absolutely anything. Obviously I avoid things that I know may cause me to stumble or are just trash, and when we researched Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and realized that he is blatantly, intentionally anti-God, and had a goal in mind of turning CHILDREN against God, we chose to stop reading. However, I cannot make that decision for anyone else or condemn them for choosing to read the series. Maybe they will find something in them that I have not found, but when students ask me about them I give my opinion and explain why I feel that way. Likewise, when Raina expressed a desire to read Twilight, because everybody else was (which is never a good reason to do something anyway) we sat down with her and explained that actually, we would prefer that she read Dracula and get the REAL lowdown on vampires first. We had her research the Twilight series for herself, and I had read the first book and could honestly say that it was poorly written and I didn’t like it. Ultimately, Raina decided for herself to pass on those. This was about four years ago, and I would probably let her read them now if she wanted to, but she doesn’t because she knows there are better things out there.

          In our research on Harry Potter, we found nothing that particularly bothered us and, in fact, as we delved into the books and movies as a family, we found much to talk about. As far as people getting all uptight about the “spells” in the book, I hope they don’t think that saying a bunch of Latin words would actually cause anything to happen, like someone being turned into a toad or growing a pig’s tail. That’s silly. If you look up Biblical definitions of witchcraft and magic, you will find something far different and far more sinister than that. True witchcraft, as so well depicted in Macbeth , involves mental manipulation and control. Shakespeare just threw in the cauldrons and broomsticks for fun, as the Elizabethan audiences liked that sort of thing.

          Sometimes I will change my mind about a book or movie, like Life of Pi. I read it a few years ago and totally hated it, but then after talking with a student about her take on it, I am going to give it another go. I am open-minded enough to do that, to think maybe I misjudged. I have been known to do that. I like books and movies that challenge me and deepen my faith, and sometimes they may be things with which I disagree. Then, you see, I have to think about why I disagree, and is my disagreement based on God’s truth, or my own opinion? It’s actually a lot of fun. More people should try it. J.K. Rowling says that she has never had a child come up to her and say, “I really want to become a witch since reading your books.” This is probably because kids understand that the books are not “about” witchcraft. The magical world is simply the backdrop against which the beauty and terror of the story is played out, like Middle Earth or Narnia.

          I will not say what I think about the way some people misuse and misinterpret the Bible for their own selfish motives. That’s a whole other topic for another time, but I will say that I have seen it for myself and it’s not pretty. It’s fairly disgusting and I think it grieves God far more than my daughter reading The Caster Chronicles does. My sixteen-year-old is grounded enough in her faith to handle this series just fine, thank you, and although she is only halfway through the first book, Beautiful Creatures, she is already seeing how the struggle between good and evil, the choice between darkness and light, is going down in the little Southern town of Gatlin. What she will get, I trust, is the message that I got-that we DO always have a choice, even when people tell us otherwise. We do not have to settle for a doomed destiny; we CAN fight the darkness. This is an important message for my kids. They are also getting it, by the way, from our viewing of the excellent miniseries The Bible, lest any should think we leave Scripture out of things. We don’t. It is the center of all that we do, say, watch, and read. It is the frame of reference to which we always return. So don’t judge me because I allowed my fourteen-year-old to watch Les Miserables. Yes, there were some rough scenes, but she handled it. At the end of the film she said, “Why are people even worried about that? Why would you want to miss that movie because of ONE scene?” (The scene in question, by the way, was in the movie to show just how decadent and wicked some people are. My child GOT that.)

          In the long run, you have to just trust that if you are raising your children with certain values, they will make the right choices. They don’t, always, but when my kids fall short it won’t be because they read the Harry Potter books. I do not anticipate them going out there with wands and trying to cast spells on people. They already know to avoid things like Ouija boards and Tarot cards simply because it might open a door they don’t want to open, but reading about fantasy magic does not fall into the same category . If they have questions, they ask. When we play the often misunderstood Dungeons and Dragons (the board game version), they know that we are playing a game, a pretend game where we fight evil and triumph over it. Should I not allow them to play MarioKart because it might promote reckless driving?  How about that book, Black Beauty? Aren’t talking animals Satanic or something? And just FYI-the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” was never about anything other than a dragon and a little boy, and you can ruin nearly anything if your overanalyze it.

          Christians have got to stop being so fearful. To read about an idea or think about an idea is not the same as embracing it. To allow an opinion to be expressed is not the same thing as agreeing with it. Already, my kids disagree with me about a few things and they are free to do so. They understand and cherish and practice the essentials , like loving God and acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Savior and trying to follow Him and seek and submit to His will. They also do those things like loving their neighbor and showing compassion to those in need, and reading The Caster Chronicles or Harry Potter isn’t going to change that. They are not in the least confused about what is real and what is not, and they laugh at “scary” movies as though they are watching a comedy. They fear not, for they know that they are safe in the arms of Jesus no matter what. Yes, we have made mistakes as parents and will make more, but I am confident that my children know what they believe and why. I don’t think allowing my teenagers to read and watch certain things makes me a bad or irresponsible parent. It would, however, be irresponsible to forbid and condemn absolutely everything and not tell them which things can actually be backed up by Scripture and which are matters of opinion. My hope and prayer is that, by allowing them to question and explore, they will not have to find out the hard way that, while drinking a glass of wine is not a sin, getting drunk and getting behind the wheel of a car is not only sinful, but very stupid. Or that, while gambling may not be expressly forbidden in Scripture, it is not good stewardship and it is not trusting God for what you need and it can be extremely destructive. Listening to the Beatles won’t hurt them, but having premarital sex will. Let’s not major on the minors, folks. Let’s be real with our kids.

          Let’s “keep the main thing, the main thing.” 

“I go to church myself, …I don't take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion."-J.K.Rowling