Reviewing School Book Lists: Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. This post is the final installment in a series about the senior high school student Nathan Austin and the role literature played in his death.
A Picture of Reading
A child. Curled up in a couch. Nestled in an old oak tree with a book. What could be more bucolic? In a church I visit frequently (which doubles during the week as a school), if that—holding The Hunger Games. (See our previous coverage of the book here.) He grips the book, looks up into our eyes, and smiles as if he is eating a strawberry sundae. Would you like to hear what he might have just read? Here’s one sentence from the first few chapters: “He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.” (p.33) Not too bucolic, is it?
Every time I see that picture, I have to fight feelings of anger. And NOT because the kid is reading a possibly age-inappropriate story. No, what makes me frustrated is that the picture illustrates a gaping disconnect between our perception of reading and its reality.
This young man is not merely having a fantastic, mind-expanding adventure as the brochure-like picture implies. With a book like The Hunger Games, he is involved in grave spiritual warfare. That doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t read the book. It certainly doesn’t mean the book should be banned by the government. But if reading generally is spiritual warfare, it changes everything. What we allow our kids to read and when. How they read, and the kinds of support they should receive. In short, it changes the most fundamental ways Christians ought to relate to books.
Reading Is Spiritual Warfare
Christians often disagree about what kinds of books ought to be read and at what age. But our disagreement is more than that, really. Many Christians don’t see reading as spiritual warfare at all. Here are two big reasons I think this is the case:
1. We Think Too Little of Books: Those in book culture (librarians, teachers, publishers, writers) often present English class as primarily about technical analysis and writing technique. In a secular environment, teachers can’t be seen as promoting a particular religion so reading and writing (which engage the deepest questions of life historically answered by religion) are talked about purely in terms of mechanics. Of course, AP English exams which reflect college courses across the nation show this isn’t the case; there is a very strict worldview criteria being used to select books. Authors that reflect conservative and Christian points of view are largely excluded. But because we are told the study of literature is only about secular literary techniques, Christians often miss the worldview clash going on in teachers’ curriculum choices and in students’ hearts.
2. We Elevate Books Too High: On the other hand, conservative readers often put too much trust in good and “great” books. Now, I am a huge proponent of digging up better books for kids. Christians have much to gain by seeking out older, tried-and-true books for their children. But I see two possible ways to fall here: a) Christian and Conservative Fiction “Lite”: If your child only reads cute books written in the 50s or current Christian fiction, your kids will never come face to face with literature’s God-created power and beauty. Sometimes, to keep them from drowning, we keep kids in the kiddie pool all their lives.
b) The Great Books: On the other hand, some parents who realize the peril of pop-culture open the foundational classics to their kids. These books may indeed be better aesthetically and even morally. But students are by no means safe. The Great Books represent an often heated debate among many different worldviews. Students may appreciate the power and beauty of literature in a fuller way, but they will still be practicing spiritual warfare—this time on a level many parents won’t understand. To protect and nurture their faith, readers of Great Books need more—not less—ability to wrestle with what they read in light of Scripture.
What Is Spiritual Warfare?
Perhaps another reason we miss the reality of spiritual warfare in the act of reading is that we misunderstand the concept. Many Christians use the term to refer only to a battle against demonic powers. But whether it’s the world, the flesh, or the devil we are fighting, spiritual warfare is the battle for the spirit—the soul—inside an individual’s heart and mind.
The gospel tells us that man is sinful, and sin has separated mankind from God. But in his kindness, at the right time in history, God became man and died for those sins. Jesus took our punishment, and he gave us his goodness. And now, all those who believe in him will be made whole. Belief. Not works—not what you do. That may sound narrow-minded at first. Why would God love people who believe one thing better than those who believe another? But if we are truly unable to keep his law, then to take salvation out of the realm of law-keeping and put it into the realm of trust is a great grace. It also humbles us. Whether we are a president or a janitor, we are equal because we have come to God on the basis of Christ’s works, not our own.
Spiritual warfare is, in one sense, just a battle over what we believe. Whom we will trust. So what does that have to do with literature?
Books Raise Spiritual Questions
Without going too far into critical theories, I think it is helpful to think of literature in terms of the questions it poses. Questions like: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why do we suffer? And that’s one reason I love literature as a human endeavor: these are questions we as human beings ought to be asking. English literature classes aren’t wrong to push students to ask them.
But these are spiritual questions. And whatever answers we supply—whether they have anything to do with Jesus or not—are spiritual answers. Our answers to the ultimate questions of life—our core beliefs about God and ourselves—will determine how we spend our lives both now and in eternity.
That is why as students wrestle with The Death of a Salesman, they are really engaging in spiritual warfare. If they accept Miller’s view that life is meaningless, they embrace spiritual death. If they see through Miller’s despair to the answer of Christ and his salvation, they embrace spiritual life. Either way, the questions they are dealing with are spiritual questions that have eternal consequences.
If we believe that English lit courses are solely concerned with literary mechanics or great moral teachings, then we won’t see the battle going on at all. But if we know that the real battle in life is the battle to believe and worship God—his Word, his truth, and his view of life—then we begin to see that reading books really is an act of war.
The Nature of the Battle: Seeing What Others See
I read an article recently in which a writer claimed that the reason we as parents worry about our children reading “bad” books is because we do not want our children to be alone. We don’t want them to think things through on their own, without supervision. And that makes sense, if you believe (as many postmoderns do) that books are only a mirror for our own struggles and ideas. You’ll say things like “kids are their best censors,” as one professor told me recently.
However, if you believe what the Bible says about books, you will see them quite differently. The biblical view of books is that authors use literature to communicate with readers. (That’s a little overly simplistic, but if you’d like to hear more, see my description of reading at Worldmag.com.) And that means that when a sensitive reader curls up on the couch with a book, he or she is anything but alone! He or she has entered the consciousness of the book’s author and all the literary voices who have shaped the work. A reader who drinks deeply of an author’s writing, spending hours, weeks, even months seeing what that author sees, hearing what he hears, loving what he loves, hating what he hates…this reader has just enjoyed perhaps the next greatest intimacy possible with that person. He has not been catechized, no, but if he looks long enough, his own sight will be shaped and his own hearing molded.
In Nathan Austin’s case, he experienced all the temptations to suicide, all the hopelessness and fear that the authors themselves felt and communicated in the books he read. He wasn’t merely observing a story from afar. He was receiving a communication of all the spiritual turmoil in Arthur Miller’s and other authors’ minds and hearts.
Sensitive Readers are On the Front Lines
Not everyone is open to hear these messages, of course. Kids who read the Sparknotes version aren’t likely to be impacted by an author’s spiritual turmoil. But “sensitive” readers like Nathan are.
Strangely, though, I hear critics and teachers talk sometimes about sensitive readers as if they were stupid or mentally ill. Oh, this book of sex and gore is FINE for most readers. But sensitive readers might not be able to handle it. Sensitive readers might not be able to live with scars. Honestly, I talk that way too often myself because there is a grain of truth there. Some amount of deadness of heart is required to function in this world, and that includes reading.
But let’s be honest: highly intellectual, sensitive readers like Nathan Austin often see more than everyone else. More of what is really there. More of what was in the heart of the author when he wrote the piece. To belittle a sensitive reader as for being depressed about depressing literature is a bit like saying, “Oh, that doctor is just pessimistic about your terminal cancer because he has so much training and experience.” And it’s that seeing, that knowing that becomes a heavy burden for students like Nathan. They understand more of an author’s sin and doubt, and because so many parents and educators are blind to the spiritual impact of these books, too often, it’s a burden sensitive readers bear alone.
Spiritual Warfare and the Second Death
I want to tackle one other myth about reading. Imagine if I told you I was going to take your five year old out in my Toyota and let him drive on the freeway. When you object, I reply, “Sure, this may be risky behavior, but God is sovereign, so there’s no need to worry.”
Clearly, that is foolishness. When tempted by Satan to throw himself off the temple, Christ explained that we are not to test God. We are not to engage in behaviors that will clearly endanger us and wait for God to intervene. Yet, I recently read a Christian book that makes this very argument when it comes to the stories we tell. Because God is sovereign, we don’t have to worry about the spiritual dangers of stories. Yes, the book admits, there are dangers in entertainment. But with our eternal destinies predetermined, for Christians, the consequences of “bad” media aren’t eternal.
But if we wouldn’t make that argument about temporal things, why would we make it about spiritual dangers?
Yes, Christians are eternally safe. Nathan Austin claimed to be a Christian. And however confused he became, God’s love for him was evidenced in the faith he proclaimed in Christ, which he exhibited for many years prior to his death. Nathan, as best we know, is now in heaven with the Lord. He is happy. He is not suffering. He is rejoicing that the Savior he used to know by faith, though imperfectly, he now knows by sight.
That doesn’t negate the real spiritual battle he was engaged in or the terrible loss his family feels. I doubt Nathan’s parents would say “the world can’t really hurt you” as this author does. Beyond that, Nathan’s death further highlights the peril these stories pose to individuals who don’t yet know God. How many sensitive students are consuming classic literature and not committing suicide, but being hardened toward God and salvation? How many are already experiencing the second death, separation from God, of which physical death is only a shadow?
We may comfort ourselves by saying those who embrace such messages of despair were predestined to fall. But that doesn’t negate the role of those who led them astray–who fanned the flames of doubt. I’m reminded of Luke 17:1-3: “And [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.'”
As terrible as death is, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to our children. The worst thing is for them to be separated from God, eternally. That is the second death. And that is why we can’t just shrug off the spiritual battle raging in the hearts of those who read literature. While most readers won’t die physically for a time, how many will find the books they read to be a noose for their spiritual suicide? How many will scorn the Savior and “rather starve than come,” in some measure because of the influence of the books they read?
How Should We Then Fight?
If reading truly is a spiritual battle, and if it’s a battle we ought to help our kids engage in as Christians, how can we help our kids fight those battles? Here are few ideas:
1. Choose Better Books: Christian educators and parents should not merely mimic the book choices of secular institutions. While our kids will need to read classics like The Death of a Salesman, we can provide richer, wider reading diets of books from numerous centuries—not just the latest bestsellers or modern classics. Authors like Andrew Peterson and N. D. Wilson are doing great work in providing great stories that reflect a Christian worldview. But these authors and publishers can’t keep doing this work if Christians don’t support them. Let’s work hard to find great authors and publishers to support—not merely those who are Christian in name, but authors who really bring something important to the table.
2. Think Critically About Books & Theology: How Christians should respond to entertainment, including books, is admittedly very difficult to parse out. So, let’s talk about it. Write about it. Argue about it, always with speech seasoned with love and respect. Just because it is hard to say what should and shouldn’t be entertainment for Christians doesn’t mean we should give up finding an answer. Or that we have to say, giving in to a kind of postmodern individualism, that conscience is our only guide. The Bible and the God who wrote it are full of wisdom, and I believe if we will ask him, he can help us through these very murky waters together.
3. Provide Worldview Training: If you can’t provide a good Christian education for your kids, you need to be aware that much of what they learn in secular English classes will undermine their faith. But that doesn’t have to mean they will lose the battle! Send your kids to a Worldview Academy camp. Give them worldview training through books like The Universe Next Door. Talk about the books they are reading…or if you can’t, find someone in your church who can. We’ll also try to provide resources here at RR that can help you give them specific arguments—weapons they can use in the fight.
Redeemedreader exists to help Christian families in all three of the actions above. You can support us in that mission by sharing our Facebook page with your friends, or telling a Christian teacher or librarian about our site.
I would like to take a moment to thank the Austin family for allowing me to interview them and for sharing their many resources with Janie and me. We are very grateful for their trust in us, and we pray that God will use their story to help awaken Christians from their slumber.
Nathan Austin Memorial: Would you like to help us create a series of videos or audio reviews that take on classic literature and help teens see them from a Christian worldview? If you would like to contribute to that project, please leave a comment below or email me at email@example.com for more information.