Thursday, 7 June 2018

Literature, the Bible & Redemption

1. The importance of children's literature

Some readers of this blog might know that I also write a blog called "Literacy, families and learning". I've been doing it for 10 years and it aims to reach a broad audience "to provide practical, timely and sound support and advice for parents, teachers and teachers in training". It isn't written with a specifically Christian audience in mind, but if do you read it, I hope that you will see the influence of my Christian faith and worldview. This might be most evident in some of the posts I have written on Key themes in children's literature.
These posts intersect with my writing for a Christian blog that I also wrote (while the Director of CASE). The posts concerned Christian Writing for Children (here and here).

Above: J.R.R. Tolkien
In one of the posts I drew on the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and referred to Tolkien's view that the central Bible narrative account of God’s redemptive plan and work, is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. I agree with him that in every story, there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfills the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Tolkien also suggested to Lewis one night that "... just as a word is an invention about an object or idea, so a story can be an invention about truth."

At the core of the Bible is Salvation History; with a central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity, and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him, and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death, and one day, to usher in a new Heaven and a new Earth. This is God's plan that provides a way for his creation to be redeemed and restored.
In my first CASE post on Christian writing for children, I suggested that while there are many legitimate forms of writing for children (I suggested at least five types), I urged Christians to consider writing good fiction for the secular marketplace. One participant in a workshop I ran in 2008 as part of a CASE writers conference, took me at my word. Some years later 
Danielle Terceiro, wrote an interesting first novel for readers aged 12-14 years, 'Project Hot Potato' that tried to do this. While the echoes of the gospel are not strong in the book, it was an interesting attempt. In my presentation at the workshop I was arguing for the redemption of children's literature for the sake of the gospel, and suggested 5 possible responses and she attempted Type 5 where biblical links or parallels are at the thematic level. My aim at the workshop was to encourage Christians to write good publishable narratives for children that had biblical themes at their very foundation, and an absence of bad language, moral failures and sexually promiscuity and so on.
2. The place of God's redemptive plan for creation in literature

But in this post I want to remind readers that much literature is already suitable for parents to use as an extension of the biblical education of their children. While I'm not suggesting that literature can be a replacement for the Bible as the key text for life, what I am suggesting is that the gospel inhabits literature in stories that echo the central redemption narrative of the Bible. 

I suggest in chapter 7 of my new book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', that to be human is to seek to understand our purpose in life. To live, is "to be immersed within an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape and influence the things we desire. From these stories, we read various representations of the future, and alternative visions of what Aristotle first called 'human flourishing'." In a sense, we are 'persuaded', 'convinced' or, as James Smith suggests, perhaps even 'lured', by these pictures and visions of the future.

Stories are always more than just disconnected and isolated accounts; they typically have a relationship to other larger metanarratives. Christian Smith in 'Moral, Believing Animals' suggested that narratives “seek to convey the significance and meaning of events by situating their interaction with or influence on other events and actions in a single, interrelated account.” 

We are shaped, at least in part, by the stories we absorb, give expression to, and help create. James K. A. Smith suggests this is no simple cognitive process (James Smith, 'Desiring the Kingdom', p.41). Rather, we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. This argument draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imaginary” in 'Modern Social Imaginaries'. This is discussed briefly in chapter 6 of my book. Taylor argues that societies are given direction by an imagined and hoped-for view of the world. This is not expressed simply in “theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories and legends.” Humans are not given their major focus and direction simply by reasoning, but also through the imagination.

The stories that are part of our experience thus shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives. In exploring the relationship between love and community, Oliver O’Donovan reminds us of Augustine’s statement that a community is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.” ('Common Objects of Love', 20–24).  Stanley Hauerwas, in 'The Hauerwas Reader' suggested that in essence, a group of people come to see a common “view of the good,” and are hence capable of common action, cultural practices, and identity.

Classroom life is full of stories in varied forms, hence their importance.

3. So how do we make better use of literature?

In another book of mine 
('Pathways to Literacy', Cairney 1995, p.77-78) which I wrote some time ago for university students and teachers, I suggested that literature can act as:
  • a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • a source of knowledge
  • a source of ideological challenge
  • a means to peer into the past, and the future
  • a vehicle to other places
  • a means to reflect on inner struggles
  • an introduction to the realities of life and death
  • a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
I'm pushing the above claims one step further in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. My point is simple. For many books, there are links or parallels at the thematic level, to the biblical redemption narrative. These stories demonstrate or echo biblical teaching. For example, salvation narratives, stories of redemption and restoration, parallels to biblical narratives or even biblical parables. Other less helpful books distort these biblical themes and require comment and critique. Such stories can be read at one level simply as nice tales, but at another level the key themes that parallel biblical themes can be discussed with children. We see this often in the way some authors treat the Christmas story and manage to write out the major salvation narrative. In many cases, the authors are not Christians, but Christian teaching may have indirectly influenced their writing. Many children's stories offer knowledge of events and life situations, that for the Christian would be seen as:

  • affirming that God is in control of his world and is unfolding his purposes for it;
  • acting as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future in the light of biblical teaching;
  • leading us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc) that once again relate to biblical wisdom and teaching;
  • pointing to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Alternatively, literature can offer perspectives that Christians would see are at odds with biblical teaching and require comment. This type of critical reading of literature 'against the grain', is a vital skill for children to learn, so that as independent readers they will be better able to read books, view movies, listen to songs and read texts of all kinds with a biblical lens. Biblical engagement with literature of this type can begin very early (albeit in modest ways!).

4. An example - Teaching our children about death, human frailty and judgement

The topic of death is not a very popular one for parents. Many parents make the mistake of trying to hide the reality of death from their children, with the result that when their children do encounter it they may have difficulty coping. At this point I should confess to telling my eldest daughter (when she was about 3 years old), that our pet yellow budgerigar ("Mr Hooper") had got out of the cage and flown away. In fact, he had died. As non-Christian parents at the time, my wife and I weren't ready to deal with the topic so we simply lied about the bird's death (sorry Nicole!).

While there is little point in deliberately raising death prematurely for the child before they have the emotional maturity to deal with it, it's hard to artificially put a time frame on when it's a good time to speak of death.
While thankfully few children will have to deal with death and dying at too young an age, some will, and of course we have no way of knowing when,   and if this might be the case. Furthermore, from an early age they will be on the 'edges' of conversations and discussions that will give them their first hints that this life is not permanent for any living creature. An awareness of death may emerge very early with the death of a family member, or more commonly, through the death of an animal (typically a pet like Mr Hooper). However, more often the child's first awareness that all living things will one day die, might be through a book or a film, DVD or television program. As the child grows older, the chance of some first-hand experience of death will increase. By the teenage years a close experience with the death of a friend or loved one will be more common, and might well come in tragic circumstances.

That's where literature (and film of course) can help parents, in particular, to discuss the reality of death with their children. Books that address death can be read with children and by children themselves as a source of insight, comfort and emotional growth. Once again, I stress that this isn't a replacement for the Bible's discussion of death, and the fact that Jesus rescues us from any fear of death. But literature is a complement to our discussion of the Bible's teaching about death. At this point, I also want to stress that I am not deliberately ignoring classic works of Christian fiction that are more allegorical in their approach such as Bunyan's "The Pilgrims Progress", The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis, or R.C. Sproule's, The Prince's Poison Cup. This genre has a different place in our literary traditions that I won't address in this already long post.

Let me offer a few examples of how some books raise the theme of death and dying.

5. Some books that deal with death

a) Traditional fantasy and fairy tales

Fantasy has always been a common first introduction to human frailty and death. Fairy tales from many different cultural traditions have not been afraid of death as a theme. Traditional versions of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'The Three Pigs', 'Jack and Beanstalk', 'The Gingerbread Man', 'The Little Match Girl' and many other tales, all deal with death in graphic detail. However, today it is common for such tales to be sanitised and death expunged or pushed into the background of the narrative. But traditional fairy tales, myths and legends still offer a rich array of stories that deal with death. In contemporary literature there are also many good examples of books that deal with this important theme.

b) Some books for younger readers (0-6 years of age)

I’ll always love you
, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie and the impact of the death on him. This would be appropriate for children aged 3-7 years. There is so much to talk about in this story of devotion and loss. Be warned, children ask the most challenging questions about stories, e.g. "Do dogs go to heaven?"

Granpa by John Burningham - This moving book provides provides an insight into death through simple words and pictures of the relationship between a girl and her grandfather and the impact of his death. Some struggle with the staccato nature of the text (that mirrors the at times disconnected nature of child/adult interaction), but this is a wonderful book! The story shows how their relationship changes over time from the child being dependent on the adult, to Granpa beginning to show the signs of the slow creep from life to death. From dependence to 'independence' but one day when he dies, life goes on.  

Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munsch -- this book tells of the cycle of life as a child grows to be a man and a mother grows to be an old lady; and of course of the relationship between a boy and his mother as they both grow old. Some find it a little unusual, but it is an intriguing treatment of the topic from a well known children's author.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie de Paola - Four-year-old Tommy enjoys his relationship with both his grandmother and great-grandmother, but eventually learns to face up to their inevitable death.

c) Primary Readers (7-12 years of age)

Charlotte’s Web
, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it has been seen first on DVD it is worth reading with your children. In his masterly tale E.B. White shows through Wilbur (the pig), Fern (the little girl) and Charlotte (the spider) how death is part of life; and yet, how death is not the end. Life goes on.

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. It is a novel that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
by Eleanor Coerr - this book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The author does not hide the horrors of death providing vivid descriptions of her pain, weakness, sadness, and loneliness. The book also shows the impact on a family of the tragic death of a child. For the Christian parent there is also the opportunity to talk about pain, suffering and judgement.

d) Teenagers

Death of a Princess, by Susan Geason - When the Pharaoh's beautiful eleven-year-old daughter, Isis, dies under suspicious circumstances, the beautician becomes the prime suspect! This mystery is set in Ancient Egypt during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II. For the older reader there is a lot to get your teeth into here, particularly the contrast of the stories treatment of death and the Bible's

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson - This brilliant book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. It is the story of two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from the death of a friend of her son, who was struck by lightning at a beach. It is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbour Leslie Burke after losing a race to her at school. This touching story ends in tragedy.

6. Some final comments

What I've tried to show in this post is to try to demonstrate in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', particularly in chapter 7, 'Storytelling and life'. If 'education is the whole of life of a community and the experience of its members learning to live this life from a specific standpoint or end goal', then we need to understand that every story, every book, offers insight into the greatest story ever told. 

The purpose of the post is not to encourage Christian parents or teachers to put the Bible to one side and present the gospel according to literature. Rather, the purpose is to highlight how literature has much to offer in terms of the discussion of biblical themes as part of narrative encounters in books and even film. Nor am I suggesting that parents and teachers ruin the reading of literature by dissecting books to such an extent that children are not given the opportunity to simply enjoy the narrative themselves. And I'm definitely not saying that we should all become bibliotherapists, although some psychologists use some of the books I've mentioned as part of their clinical work. 

But I do want to stress that literature offers many possibilities for rich discussions with our children that have significance for their developing faith in Christ.

AN UPDATE - Availability of 'Pedagogy, Education and Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation'

My book is now be widely available throughout the English Speaking world now. Major sites like Amazon have it in all three forms, paperback, hard cover and Kindle version. Let me know if you have availability issues. There shouldn't be problems. The Wipf & Stock model allows for copies to be printed on demand and delivered in very short timeframes (days not weeks).

Visit the Wipf & Stock site HERE if you'd like review copies. Let me know if you have problems.