Telling Stories

Lists of great books for children invariably include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. But not long ago the book came under criticism. On one side were some Christian parents, who complained that the book taught about witches and the occult. On the other side were politically correct parents, like a mother quoted in Newsday who complained that C. S. Lewis made his girl characters too passive. The entire controversy makes you wonder whether anyone on either side actually read the book. You see, what makes a book good literature is not the themes it deals with but how it treats those themes-the moral stance it takes. As Gene Edward Veith argues in Reading Between the Lines, even immoral themes can be treated with moral sensitivity. For example, the story of King Arthur deals with the theme of adultery, but in a way that clearly portrays it as wrong. The illicit relationship between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere eventually destroys the court of the Round Table. And think of ancient Greek dramas. Oedipus Rex deals with patricide, self-mutilation, and suicide; yet it manages to maintain dignity and a serious moral tone throughout. The Bible itself deals with murder and adultery in the story of David and Bathsheba, yet in such a way that the reader comes to understand why these things are wrong. This is what makes good literature: It deals with deep human problems in a way that teaches us right and wrong-not by preachy moralizing but by a gripping story. This is especially important in teaching children. As William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe write in Books that Build Character, stories, because of their hold on the imagination, can help to create an emotional attachment to goodness. "Who," the authors ask, "can read about King Midas and his golden touch without desiring to always put people before possessions? Who can read To Kill a Mockingbird without wishing to be a little more like Atticus Finch—a little braver, kinder, wiser." I suspect this is true even of adults. We're best motivated not by abstract discourse but by stories of people with whom we can identify. What makes bad literature harmful is that it reverses this process. Bad literature encourages readers to identify with evil characters and draws them into a vicarious experience of sexual fantasies, or dreams of wealth and power, or dark obsessions with violence. In the privacy of their imagination, readers can gratify their secret depravities. They may never do the things they read about, but the Bible clearly teaches that imaginary indulgence is just as sinful. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns that lusting is just as bad as committing adultery; hatred is as bad as murder. This gives a standard that Christian parents can use to evaluate books intelligently-from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to the books on a school reading list. Ask yourself: Does the book depict sin to encourage its practice? Or to show how destructive it is? Good literature is literature that makes us want to be good.


Chuck Colson


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