Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Why Homeschoolers Need to Read Modern Literature

Two months ago, a friend and I were sitting in the back seat of our van, talking a mile a minute as the sun set behind us. We ticked off the miles to that saddest of all sad moments, "Goodbye for now." We were taking her home after a long day of Christian teaching, great food, and some of the most epic conversations about literature I'd ever participated in.

But it wasn't over yet. The crowning delight of that heavenly day was one of our last discussions, about reading modern literature and capturing the hearts of our generation for Jesus.

It's an age-old question we wrestled through. Do you only read what's highbrow classic lit? Do you only read what is really, honestly good Christian literature? Is it OK to read books written by nonbelievers? Or is worthwhile to sample even literature you wouldn't approve of for the sake of knowing what your generation believes?

It's a tough question, and it's OK for the answer to vary from person to person. Today, I want to make a case for reading modern literature. Because Dickens and Elsie Dinsmore are awesome, but if we stop there, we have a pretty serious gap in our arsenal.

Reading modern literature helps us keep in mind what's capturing the heart of the next generation. In saying that, I'm not making an argument that you need to be relevant to modern times. Don't go read Game of Thrones just because everyone else is doing it. But you do need to be aware of the movies and books that are being produced and the elements inside them to know how Satan is countering the efforts of the church and family. He doesn't deal with generalities. He deals with very specific lies that have very devastating impact--and he's more than fine with using the entertainment industry to propagate it.

Yes, I know, I know. "Old authors write better!" But they don't have the corner on the market. And they're not the only authors influencing readers. So get in the game. You don't have to make a steady diet of modern literature. You don't even have to read a whole book if you need to skim. I'd suggest taking a popular book now and then, reading a few blog reviews, Wikipedia synopses, and picking a couple up at the bookstore to thoroughly skim every month. That goes a long way to help you keep in touch.

When you read, you're not there to moan over the writing style or pick apart the characters. (Though I certainly understand if not all the books you read are your cup of tea.) The primary goal in reading modern literature, should be, surprisingly enough, to listen.

Listening tells you what's going on among your peers. There are lots of bad things going on. There are also some good things. You should be aware of them, not only for your own protection, but also for the sake of your outpouring of ministry.

What questions do they have?
This calls for discernment and compassion. It's easy to pick up a romance book and make a swift judgement "modern girls are boy-crazy." Not so fast. Maybe modern girls are hungry for God-wired family and love, and that's the only place they know where to find it. It's easy to look at a fantasy book and say "Battles. boy stuff. Just like a video game." Not so fast. Maybe it's a sign that boys crave adventure, dominion, leadership, and they're finding it in that medium. Everybody's seeking. The books they pick up are yet another indication of questions they want truth on. Questions about religion, life purpose, and relationships.

What answers are they being given? 
Every author gives answers according to their worldview. Some of the answers are good (creation, obedience, family, dominion, submission, authority, and Gospel) others are bad (evolution, autonomy, modernity, individual truth, and individuality). Listen to the answers before you fault the reader for asking the question. Everyone needs answers and growth. The false shepherds are the ones we should really be going after, not the hungry sheep.

What lies are they believing? 
"Girls are tough; fend for yourself." "Any relationship is OK if your love need is being met." "You need a boyfriend." "It's OK to be who you truly are." All of these are major things taught in today's literature. Character journeys can tell you a lot about what your peers believe...and whether you, too, are being duped into lies outside the Bible.

What truth do they need?
Only after you have a basic idea of what your peers are being told, do you have an ability to offer the truth to them. Once you know the story elements they love (adventure, fantasy, romance) can you recommend books to them with those well-loved plots that actually teach truth:  "Women have dignity." "Submission isn't subjection." "God is Love, Justice, Holiness, Master." "Men need adventure." "Families mirror Gospel." You bet girls need some strong lassies. But Britomart will teach them much more truth than Katniss, with the same elements of battle and adventure.

Four simple questions. They're the foundation of any literature experience. These are great questions for any book you read (after all, ancient writers taught truth and falsehoods to their generations as well) but especially vital to apply to modern literature.

I think a lot of Christians are afraid to develop a listening spirit in today's day and age. If they listen, they fear the other side might convince them. And they're right. We're a frail people, and that's why we need to be earnest in prayer for a mighty God's protection and grace. That risk requires being faithful in prayer, setting our standard exclusively by the Word of God, and having wise accountability partners. But if we don't listen, we risk something more important: losing hearts of people who we could bring back to a standard of truth.

John Mark N. Reynolds, in his introduction to The Great Books Reader, made one of the most profound statements about Christian reading that I've ever read:

Once again: Follow the argument, what Plato would call the logos, and keep an open mind. This pursuit is good for your soul and cannot harm you unless you stop being a follower
That might feel scary or tiring: scary because you might think it implies there is no truth, or tiring because it possibly sets up an endless journey. Rather, the passionate pursuit of the argument is hopeful--it assumes that wondering can be wonderful and that humankind can continue making progress toward finding the truth. And the journey is not, so far as we know, endless; death brings us to the as-yet "undiscovered country" where, reports suggest, we will find the full rest. 
[...] If Christianity is true, then every argument will, if pursued to the end, lead to Jesus. 

In other words, listening and seeking won't kill your soul unless you stop seeking, and settle where you are. Reading modern literature opens the conversation about faith, life, love, and religion with our current generation. We should look to the tried and true authors for time-tested standards. Most of all to the Word of God to bring us back when we get out of sync. But we should also read new authors to see how modern believers and unbelievers are wrestling with issues in today's world. Then we can see where they say "I lack" and offer them books that will truly fill them with the bread of Christ.

"Jesus cares for that, too. The sex abuse. The modesty issues. The need for a boyfriend. The craving for fulfilling marriage. The hurting families. And in obedience to him, you can find your full contentment, and full rest."

Jesus doesn't walk ahead of us and say "When you finally get it, you'll catch up with me." He walks with us, and leads us to the place of Truth. We should walk with this generation and lead them to Jesus. Part of that is meeting them where they are, so we can lead them to where they need to be.

Meet them in the books you read. Again, as you feel able. God doesn't call everyone to be a front line soldier, and that's OK. But for those of us who are able and ready to be dominion-minded readers, stay in touch with your peers' reading habits. It's a mission field that needs to be taken captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.


  1. Schuyler, this is truly one of the most powerful posts you've written (I keep saying that, don't I?) But you know, with my desire to study literature, such a post could not have come at a better time. I have struggled and grappled with these questions countless times, and I still haven't found a clear-cut answer; God does really guide His children through His Spirit, though, doesn't He!

    Because no matter how much we realize how much better the olden writers wrote, and seeing as their society was essentially Christian thus influencing their writing, yet we do live in modern times when people don't read those old books too often, and are not influenced by the Christian works of the past. Should we dig our noses, and ignore the issues that our generation is going through? I think not! It is a challenging question, because I do not want to read those kinds of literature, I don't want to have to be confronted with the gritty realities of our secular world. . . yet, I know I'll have to in my chosen calling of being a Christian-minded author. The biggest guide to me whether to read a book would be - is there is anything in this book that will potentially do serious damage to the moral good of my soul and innocence, and is it something that the Holy Spirit warns me against in any way? (He often guides me through parental hints, advice, or through reading an article or a passage from Scripture). If not, then while approaching with caution, I really do believe it is important to be more knowledgeable about these books, read and be more informed!

    Wikipedia and Goodreads are fantastic places to go to figure out the gist of literature and films before plunging into the reading of them that might be spiritually defiling - I did this several times with the Lord of the Rings :)!. I also think when one picks up a modern piece of literature, especially if it is secular, it is so important to really be on one's guard - testing everything in the light of God's Word, and praying; also to counter-balance it with wholesome, edifying and uplifting material. . .

    I really loved the four questions you raised. I would like to save them for future reference!

    It is really affirming to me that you wrote about this topic, Schuyler, as I've lately gotten into watching book-tubers (it's an online bookish community on YouTube where people do vlogs about their reading). Most of them read YA or are studying English literature. I have found them fascinating and learnt a lot about modern (and classic) literature through them, but they also were very secular with their worldview and readings. I found I learnt a lot intellectually about literature (it's kind of a uni-preparation, I guess), but I also often got away feeling discouraged and drained by the constant secular mindset of those books and their analyses. . . feminism, women's submission to men as heads (they consider it oppression!), immorality, and the essence/importance of life, are a big part of modern literature and students who study classic literature. I was very encouraged though when, as a balance to reading and watching reviews about how Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" was a feminist text (it's one of those theories they like to "read into" any woman-author text!), I read Elisabeth Elliot's "Let Me Be a Woman" which was the perfect antidote to that influence. So definitely if one should do reading of modern literature, then it should be counter-balanced with food for the soul! :)

    This month, I read "The Book Thief" - and while I disliked the secular influence of the book, and the course language, it was an enlightening book to read about how the world views things like the Holocaust, death, persecution, destiny/fate, the importance of the written word, Hitler and the meaning of evil, and the hopelessness of War.

    (Sorry for such a long comment, but this post was wonderful, and I love discussing this topic with you!)

    1. Never too long, Joy! I love book discussions. :) You have so many good thoughts here...I loved how you pointed out that books that damage ourselves are not worth reading. We can't minister to other people when we weaken ourselves. And we have to be careful, because that weakening could happen over one book, but it's more likely to happen over a long period of time, if we get used to questionable literature. That's why it's good to be vigilant and be over-cautious rather than under-evaluate. And yes, advice/cautions from parents, pastors, mature bloggers are really helpful in evaluating that.

      I used Wikipedia a lot as well with LOTR. Especially with the movies. There are some books where I want to be fully informed, and the element of surprise is not necessary. These ones took a lot of thought and wrestling through, even though I'm still quite impressed with his works.

      And yes. Women authors are so misrepresented. I should do a post on How To Read Introductions sometime. XD

      Love you, dear friend!

    2. A post on "How to Read Introductions" would be fantastic ^_^.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Schuyler! It touches on a subject that has been on my mind a good deal in the past year.

  3. I love this post, Schuyler!

    It is so important, especially as a writer or a book reviewer, to be able to know and understand the battle that is going on for the hearts and minds of the readers nowadays. And yet we must approach understanding it with discernment. I think you've struck a really good balance here. I could go on a bit longer, but I think you know my thoughts on the subject. ;)

    Seriously, this is one of my favorite posts thus far. Excellent job.

    -E.H ;)

    1. Yes. I'm still wrestling out the discerning/safeguards side, but I love, love, loved the visionary side we hashed out in that back seat. :) I could never have written this post without your perspective. It's like we were Wilberforce and Pitt plotting to conquer the world. ;)

      I'm so glad you liked it. And as long as the Lord gives us grace, we'll take those books captive.

      ~Schuyler <3

  4. This is a late comment, but I very much enjoyed this post. I would have to agree with Joy's comment in that it's one of the most powerful ones you've written. I don't keep up with modern literature (or much of our culture :P) at all, though I hear little bits here and there from people, but I would like to. I think it's important to have a working knowledge of what's out in our culture, whether good or bad, in order to be able to defend the Gospel message.

    Well done. <3

    1. Never too late! I'm so glad it inspired you. I put it together with no idea how warm a reception it would receive. God is good!

      One modern lit genre I'd like to study a little more of is YA. It's so popular right now, and has a huge ability to influence people. I have several YA books on my Kindle that I'm hoping to delve into when I get my laptop back.


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