Thursday, May 05, 2005

Reading the classics?

There’s an excellent discussion over at Ben’s mom’s blog on whether, why and how Christians should read classic works of literature and philosophy. This is an area on which Christian homeschoolers cover the gamut, from those who don’t want their children to ever read anything containing adultery, murder, imaginary stories, witches, talking animals (oops, there goes the Old Testament), ghosts, pagan philosophers or mythology (oops, there goes the New Testament); to those who think children should be reading all the classic writers in the original language, as the basic curriculum for life.

To try to keep the posts to “reasonable” length, I’ll split this into two parts: First, why we think judicious reading of the classics, including some false philosophers, is a vital part of a Christian education; second, our theories on how to minimize the dangers that are, indeed, involved.

We are, first off, firm believers in sheltering children. We will probably be so strict with what our little ones see and hear that most of our friends will shake their heads. But that’s not the sum total of our plans for them. Someday we want these little tomato plants to leave the greenhouse and grow and prosper in the world outside. And that means in addition to judicious sheltering, they’ll need judicious exposure to the world to prepare them for the day when they must face it on their own.

This area is thick with favorite analogies, and all of them are limited to some degree. The problem with the plant analogy is that it acts as if the danger to our children comes from outside them; as if sin and false philosophies are just out there in the world and if we can only shut them out our children will be safe.

That’s not where the problem is. The problem with all of us is in our own hearts. False philosophies would pose no danger to our children if they weren't born eager to listen to the serpent whispering that they could be like God. We could protect them from hearing everything false; they could still just as easily come up with any false philosophy on their own. Sheltering is not enough, we must give them weapons and practice battles to fight the enemy within.

All this sounds as if all this literature is evil. Of course it isn’t. There is much good in it, too: great examples of character and consequences, beautiful writing, and memorable depictions of truth. Yes, even in the writings of the pagans—for God never leaves himself without witness.

This is where another analogy crops up: the water and poison analogy (or, for graphic depiction at the dinner table, the brownies with doggie doo analogy). You wouldn’t drink a glass of water with just a little poison added, would you? So you shouldn’t tolerate a little bit of badness in the book for the sake of some good it also has.

But of course you do drink water with just a little bit of poison in it all the time. Most water contains traces of poisonous substances. So does food. Even the most essential nutrients will kill you if you get them in the wrong proportions. Everything in this world is dangerous.

So it is with ideas. There are no safe books. No, not even the Bible, for our twisted minds are quite capable of twisting it, too. Our minds and spirits must always stay on the alert. Probably the most dangerous thing we can do is to get in the habit of letting our guard down around certain sources we think are safe.

There are thus several excellent reasons for studying classics: to learn from the wisest men of history; to see how even the wisest men can succumb to folly. To learn to appreciate good; to learn to reject evil. To learn the language and ideas that the people we must minister to will speak; to learn how to respond to their false ideas so that we can introduce them to the Truth.

But it is a dangerous business. So next time: my very preliminary ideas on some precautions to take.

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