Are you concerned about what your child is reading?

Some Facts and Fiction
About Reading, Truth, and Knowing

Peter Ditzel

This article is far-sweeping, and I hope it will be helpful to readers with children and without. It discusses whether fiction is truer than facts, whether knowing someone is different than knowing about someone (such as whether knowing Jesus is different from knowing about Him), why we should monitor our children's reading, and why we should all be more careful when reading fiction than nonfiction. Along the way, we'll grind the truth out of Thomas Gradgrind, meet poisonous snake dealer Bill Jones, get thrown into a dungeon, learn some facts about the Wotton Electric Picture House, and gyre and gimble in the wabe—so hang on!

Catchy slogans, colorful posters, and summer reading programs at public libraries all try to get kids to read. So do school teachers and homeschooling moms and dads. But while we are encouraging our children to read, how much thought are we giving to what they read? And, as odd as it may seem to those parents who can hardly convince their child to pick up a book, some parents might also consider whether their children are reading too much, or at least too much of certain kinds of books.

While caring parents screen the movies and Internet sites their children see and the video games they play (and also, hopefully, limit their time spent in these pursuits), I get the impression that very few moms and dads have the same concern about books. I think that we parents can be so happy that our children are reading that we can forget that, just as with more modern media, the wrong books can also harm impressionable young minds.

I want to be careful that I am not misunderstood. I am not saying that we should stop our children from reading or, as some advocate, that we should allow them to read only nonfiction. I am saying that we might want to stop and consider whether we are being wrongly influenced by our culture to let our children read anything—at least anything intended for children—that gets into print.

Voices from the Past

Many of us might be surprised that parents in past generations often showed the same concern about books that we now reserve for newer methods of communication.

This was printed in 1820:

The great profusion of children's books protracts the imbecility of childhood. They arrest the understanding, instead of advancing it. They give forwardness without strength. They hinder the mind from making vigorous shoots, teach it to stoop when it should soar, and contract when it should expand. They inculcate morality and good actions it is true, but they often inculcate them on a worldly principle, and rather teach the pride of virtue and the profit of virtue, than point out the motive of virtue and the principle of sin. They reprobate bad actions as injurious to others, but not as an offence against the Almighty. Even children should be taught that when a man has committed the greatest possible crime against his fellow creature, still the offence against God is what will strike a true penitent with the deepest remorse. All morality not drawn from this scriptural source is weak, defective, and hollow. Give children the Bible itself.
(“On Novel Reading,” The Guardian, or Youth’s Religious Instructor, 1820, 48.)

I hope no Christians will argue against giving our children the Bible. But should it be the Bible alone? Notice that this writer points out that even books that we might consider good, books that teach virtue, can do so from an unbiblical and, therefore, harmful point of view. So, while I am not advocating that we read only the Bible to our children, I am urging caution. In an age when we are virtually inundated with a multiplicity of ethics, poorly written novels, well-written paganism, and propaganda for various ungodly opinions and perversions, perhaps some cautions from the past can help wake us out of our lethargy and be more careful about what and even how much our children read.

U.S. statesman, John W. Foster (1836-1917) had this opinion of novels: “I wish we could collect all together, and make one vast fire of them. I should exult to see the smoke of them ascend, like that of that of Sodom and Gomorrah: the judgment would be as just.”

Even writers themselves have given us fair warning. Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774), himself a novelist (he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield), gave this counsel: “Above all things never let your son touch a novel or a romance. How delusive, how destructive are those features of consummate bliss! They teach the youthful mind to sigh after beauty and happiness which never existed; to despise the little good which fortune has mixed in our cup by expecting more than she ever gave; and in general, take the word of a man who has seen the world, and has studied human nature more by experience than by precept, take my word for it, I say that such books teach us very little of the world.”

Fiction Truer than Facts?

Perhaps Foster and Goldsmith overstate the case. So, I’ll balance them out with Douglas Jones, editorial director of Canon Press (they publish Christian homeschool materials). Jones says, “Avoiding fictional stories is one of the most dangerous things Christian parents can do to their children.” He argues, “We tend to ape those thinkers in the Enlightenment who viewed truth as something utterly imageless, purely literal, bloodlessly formulaic…. Stories and imagination and figurative language are not simply nifty decorations on truth; they are the heart of truth.”

That’s odd. I always thought of truth as the body of real things, events, and facts. For example, 2+2=4 is truth. What is all black is not white is truth. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” is truth. But this is apparently too bloodlessly formulaic for Jones. I suppose that for him the following from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a much better expression of the truth:

'Tis the voice of the Lobster; I heard him declare,
"You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair."
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.

Okay, enough sarcasm. It’s just that I have trouble agreeing with Jones that “stories and imagination and figurative language are…the heart of truth.”

Jesus said, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). But Jones has an answer for that, too. He claims that stories, etc., “are the means God Himself has chosen to communicate to us. Christ could have easily described Himself as the ‘prime mover’ or ‘divine being’ or ‘ground of reality’ (all of which are still partly figurative), but instead He revealed Himself with the ‘fictions’ of a lamb, lion, door, bread, path, star, image, and word. Why? Because such fictions capture so much more of His reality and truth than arid intellectual descriptions could ever hope for. The figurative can be ‘more true’ than bare literal sentences. The literal cleaves off too much reality.”

Let’s take a moment to examine this. First, Jones seems to have confused the words “fiction” and “figurative.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says that fiction is, “1 a : something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically : an invented story b : fictitious literature (as novels or short stories) c : a work of fiction; especially : NOVEL 2 a : an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth <a legal fiction> b : a useful illusion or pretense 3 : the action of feigning or of creating with the imagination”.

But it says that figurative is, “1 a : representing by a figure or resemblance : EMBLEMATIC b : of or relating to representation of form or figure in art <figurative sculpture> 2 a : expressing one thing in terms normally denoting another with which it may be regarded as analogous : METAPHORICAL <figurative language> b : characterized by figures of speech <a figurative description>”.

Notice that fiction is “invented by the imagination or feigned…an invented story,” but what is figurative is emblematic, a representation, metaphorical. If we confuse what is figurative with what is fiction, we might say that a national flag is fiction. If we use the terms correctly, we would say that the flag is an emblem of the nation; it represents the nation figuratively.

An even more serious error is Jones’s misunderstanding of the Bible’s use of words such as lamb, lion, door, bread, etc. to describe Jesus. The Bible calls Jesus the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Jesus’ being a Lamb predates the cute little creatures that follow their mothers around in sheep pastures. In fact, God ordered that these creatures be used as sacrifices in the Old Testament because they pictured (were figures of) Jesus, not the other way around. Jesus is the true Lamb. Likewise, Jesus said He was the true bread (John 6:32-35). Jesus is not called bread to figure bread; He is called bread because He is the true bread and bread figures Him! This is true of all of the biblical descriptions of Jesus, including the Word. The Bible’s calling Jesus the Word is not a fiction! It is foundational truth. Our ability to put words together into a rational sentence is because we are made in the image of God, and it is a figure of Jesus, who is the Word.

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Copyright © 2010 Peter Ditzel