For example, we can present facts chronologically. This can help us see the sweep of history and the unfolding of God’s plan. Facts can also be systematized. This can help us see their relation to one another. This is done in systematic theology. But we can also present facts in a fictionalized form.
I might write a nonfiction book that goes through the events of the Civil War chronologically. Or, I might write a book about the Civil War in which I arrange the facts of the Civil War using a system other that time order. I might put them into alphabetical order (such as in an encyclopedia of the Civil War), or I might systematize them by category (politics, economics, war strategies, battles), or I might choose to arrange the facts in my book another way. In any of these books, I might also include some comments about my personal feelings toward war.
But I might also write a historical novel about a boy who lived during the Civil War. The boy did not really exist, and some of the events around him might not really have happened. But many real facts about the Civil War are presented as the story unfolds. So, in this fiction, many true facts are presented. I might also write the story in such a way that it depicts the horrors of war. In fact, if I am a good fiction writer, I might be able to write this in such a way that my message of the horrors of war has a very profound effect upon the reader (as much as, or even more than, a nonfiction presentation of the horrors of war would). But herein lies a danger of fiction.
The Worlds of Fiction
When an author writes fiction, he is creating his own world. Remember from the definition of fiction that it is invented by the imagination. While Jones and Cothran want us to believe that fiction can be truer than nonfiction, the fact is that fiction can just as easily present lies. Like an artist working with clay, a fiction writer molds the world of his story. Not only does it have its own characters and events, but it also has its own ethics.
When we read nonfiction, we are more likely to have our guard up. We think, is this true or not? is this argument valid or not? But when we read fiction, the author’s ethics, which are interwoven into an entertaining story, may get past our guard.
Writers can and do write stories in which they try to get their readers to sympathize and even agree with actions that are contrary to the readers’ normal morality. Christians may find themselves emotionally sympathizing with actions and characters that are opposed to what we learn from the Bible. By cleverly crafting his story, a writer may get readers to side with an adulterer, sympathize with a thief, be angry with those hunting down a murderer, or try to manipulate readers against lawful government. Such fiction isn’t truth; it is a lie.
Some writers truly want to change society to more closely match their personal ethics. They know that they will likely not make much headway with one book. But they know that, over time and many books, they and similarly minded colleagues may succeed in desensitizing readers away from their morals. To be fair, some writers may do this without intending to, by simply injecting their ethics into the story. Either way, when we open the cover of a book, we are about to be influenced by someone else’s mind, and we should be careful.
Our Children Need Our Protection
What is true for adult fiction is also true for children’s fiction. I am convinced that many children’s writers think it is their duty to influence children away from the moral and religious standards of their parents. For example, children’s fiction that promotes the idea that lying to parents is okay because parents are “dumb,” old-fashioned, and will never understand is about as common as grass on a lawn. If these authors have as their goal to alienate children from their parents, they are going about it the right way.
Jesus said Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44). It was Satan who successfully used lies to turn Adam and Eve’s moral standards against their Father, God. Many writers today seem to want to walk in the path of their father, the devil.
I am not saying that moms and dads should only let their children read what agrees with their family’s values. Reading exposes us to a variety of ideas. This can be good. After all, our children will be exposed to these ideas sooner or later, and it is better to be exposed to these ideas in the relative safety of home. But I want to express my concern that the wrong ideas at the wrong age can be harmful. That is, even if a child has the reading ability to read a certain book, the contents of the book may make it inappropriate.
Of course, as children grow older, we must allow them to face more of the world so they can learn to handle it. Their exposure to certain subjects in fiction is a part of this. But as parents, we must realize that children do not have adult critical thinking skills, are easily influenced, and need our protection. We should, as much as possible, be the ones who decide what they are exposed to and at what age. For example, I do not want my eight year old reading stories that contain sexual experimentation, alternate (read homosexual) lifestyles, drugs, or sorcery whether these things are promoted or not. They are simply not appropriate subjects for little children. And neither would I want a twelve year old to be reading novels that subtly or not-so-subtly promote these practices. When the time comes for a child to be introduced to the existence of these things, then sit down together and read a book that addresses the topic. That way, you have the opportunity to discuss the issues.
By the way, the Bible doesn’t tell us that we need to learn about evil in order to avoid it. Over and over, the Scriptures tell us to learn what is good and simply reject whatever doesn’t match it. What we read is what we put into our minds, and the Bible gives us a principle: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Weakening the Mind
Even good fiction can be a problem when there is too much of it. Fiction always takes place in a fictional world. No matter how close a writer tries to get to reality, his world is never close enough. Just the fact that it is entertaining reading brings it out of reality. It is simply not possible to really convey in an entertaining book the every day world of work, school lessons, and drudgery that we must all face. Likewise, a book’s problems lie between its covers, while the problems we face in the real world often simply go on. It is all too easy for a child to run from the real world and hide in a fictional story.
Simply put, too much fiction can weaken the mind so that it rebels against the obligations of the real world or even the straightforwardness of nonfiction reading. This can make educating children or teaching them the responsibility of chores a nightmare. After all, how do you get a child to buckle down to math when his or her head is spinning with swords, pirates, castles, and dragons? It is because of the competition from fiction that so many have tried to make teaching more “entertaining” for the child (and exhausting for the teacher or parent). And how will children learn that, like most people, they will need to make a living working at an ordinary job when they continually read about characters who seem to never lack funds as they run around the world solving mysteries, spend most of their lives riding dirt bikes, or make a living as pirates?
I think this writer sums up this problem very well:
Most young persons are excessively fond of novels and romances. Of this our circulating libraries are full proof, and the rapidity with which a new tale is known to sell, while a book of religious, or some other useful topic, is but seldom enquired after.
All novels are not equally injurious. Discrimination is just, but young people will not discriminate. They like any thing that moves their feelings, and that most which moves their feelings most. Novels are not the picture of real life, although they are usually designed to be such. “They paint beauty in colours more charming than nature, and describe happiness that never existed.” The consequence is that young people, who have formed their ideas of the world from novels, sigh after that which the world can never afford. They are unfitted for the delights of ordinary society—Every thing to them is insipid, because it has not the high seasoning of a fiction—And after all their pretended knowledge of human nature, they are really ignorant of what is the state of the world, because they had been accustomed to contemplate it in a higher state of perfection than it ever can exhibit…. A high excitement must be produced, or there is no pleasure. Ordinary conversation loses its relish. Ordinary scenes of social intercourse become tiresome. No intellectual delight is afforded, because they have not improved their intellects. Hence they must seek other pleasures—other means of exciting their feelings and gratifying their passions…. On these amusements I will not enlarge, but only ask, are they authorized by the Bible? Do they accord with the precepts of Christ?—Are they congenial with the spirit and temper of Christianity? Do those who attend them love their God, the Saviour, their Bible, their secret and public devotions?—are they not for the most unthinking, irreligious, and profane? Is not their conversation and conduct for the most part at war with every principle of virtue and piety? If so, their amusements are sources of corruption, they are attended at the expense not only of time and property, but of conscience and the interest of eternity. Their indulgence will plant thorns in a dying bed, and fill the soul with unutterable anguish in the prospect of judgment.
(“Novels and Romances,” The Guardian, or Youth’s Religious Instructor, 1820, 369-70)
Having trouble getting your children to concentrate on their lessons? Here’s what the same writer quoted above says: “Rarely will a youth engage with assiduity, or even without disgust, in a study requiring mental exertion, immediately after his mind has been relaxed and debilitated; his taste, if not his heart corrupted; and his soul kindled into ardour at scenes of imagined bliss, which probably he will never realize, but which will only prepare his mind for bitter disappointment.”
I have found this to be true in our family. Television is not the only way to create a lazy mind. When children are exposed to too much fiction in any form, they quickly develop distaste for nonfiction, any form of learning, and any mental or physical exertion that does not thrill them to the tips of their toes. They want only the ready-made daydreams of fiction.
And so, this is a complex subject. As parents, we must pray for wisdom. Although it is possible to overprotect a child, we must not cave in to worldly pressure to under-protect. We should screen what our children read, both fiction and nonfiction, but we must be especially careful to analyze the underlying messages being conveyed in the fiction. I believe that, as our children grow older and we introduce them to more complex issues, we should read stories that deal with these topics with our children so that we have an opportunity to discuss them. We must also be careful to limit the amount of fiction so that it does not cause our children to dread nonfiction, lesson work, and mental and manual labor.
Copyright © 2010 Peter Ditzel