I want to take a step back from reflection on reading as an academic to think about reading as a parent. Outside of the hope that they'll grow up to love Jesus, one of my greatest hopes as a mother is that my children will be lifelong lovers of books. I think those two hopes are connected, and I want to steward my kids' reading habits in ways that, please God, will steer them toward Jesus and help them live as disciples.
Adults disagree about how to direct children's reading. In an essay in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead quotes the opposing views of Neil Gaiman, an author of books for children and adults, and Tim Parks, a literature professor. Gaiman thinks we should let children be led by love of books:
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children . . . Stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like . . . [you’ll] wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.
Parker, on the other hand, argues for the intrinsic value of good books over and against not-so-good ones:
If the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it-could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.”
What to make of this from a Christian perspective? Should we let children read profligately or should we keep less worthy books away from them and allow them only books of real value? As a parent and a theologian, I think the answer is probably a little of both, though my sympathies are with Gaiman.
Christians tend to agree with Parker’s implied assumption that some things simply are good, beautiful, and true. Beyond that, we know there are things that are broken, twisted, and harmful. Something would be off were parents to ignore the personalities, spiritual needs, and developmental characteristics of their children. I feel perfectly confident telling my second grader there are books she simply can’t read. I also feel confident steering her, and her siblings, towards books that are true and beautiful. This isn’t just because I hope they’ll love what I love but because I do think some books are more likely than others to form readers into people who know how to love as God loves. There may even be some empirical evidence to support this, evidence that reading good books—more than bad ones—improves empathy. The sticky wicket, though, which is both a literary and theological problem, is in determining what books are worthy.
And this difficulty, in knowing which books are worthy, is part of what makes me more of a Gaiman parent than a Parker one. It’s certainly the case that attitudes about what counts as worth reading are influenced by all kinds of things besides the objective goodness and truth that God has built into creation. Books are deemed worth reading, not only because they are good, but because they are lucrative or because they are written by people with power or serve the interests of people with power. Books are deemed not worth reading, not only because of their failures, but also because they are lucrative—funny how that works both for and against certain books—or because they are by people who are marginalized or threaten the sinful status quo.
Still, Christians have ways of discerning what is good, and there is a bigger problem with rigidly circumscribing children's reading than that of determining which books are worthy. This is the problem of loving the world.
Evangelical Christianity as a movement takes a self-conscious, gospel-oriented position in relationship to the rest of the world. Evangelicalism rejects two positions: separatism from the world and conforming to the world. While parents may legitimately fear that profligate reading might lure children into conforming to a sinful world, I think we should also consider the serious danger that restrictive reading will separate us from the world in ways that are inconsistent with the gospel. To be sure, we, like Jesus,“do not belong to the world” (Jn 17:14), but Jesus does not ask for us to be taken “out of the world” (Jn 17:15). As the Father sent Jesus into the world, Jesus sends us (Jn 17:18).
I’m not suggesting that we should have our children read bad books just so they can fit in or so they’ll know what their friends are talking about. (My elementary aged children are annoyed that I won’t let them read The Hunger Games. “All” the second graders play Hunger Games at recess. Hunger Games is the most popular book in the fourth grade. But I won’t let them read it, even though I actually think it’s quite a good book, because they’re not developmentally ready to do so). Instead, I’m suggesting that profligate reading might be a bit like profligate loving: obeying Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. All of them. Reading can help us see a world in need. It can help us understand the humanity of even the most broken persons. It can train us not to be stingy with our relationships, not to restrict our relationships to people we believe are safe. Profligate loving is undoubtedly dangerous, but how else are we to “make disciples of all nations,” (Matt 28:19 NRSV)?
John Wesley disapproved of Christians reading novels—he and I will have to disagree on that one—but he was a great encourager of wide reading, insisting that preachers in his movement read and learn from an extensive library of Christian theology. Wesley is famous for calling himself a “man of one book.” He meant, of course, the Bible, and he knew it and loved it well, but he did not think there was a conflict between Bible reading and reading many other books. He simply understood that things had to be in order, that all those words have to be understood in light of the Word. In the tradition of Evangelicalism, we have a time-honored way of training our reading, and that is to read, first and above all else, God’s Word to us in the scriptures. Shaped by that reading, trained by that Word to recognize the good and true, spurred on by that book to love the whole world, I hope that our children will be able to read profligately and lovingly in ways that just might help them to love Jesus and their neighbors.
Rebecca Mead “The Percy Jackson Problem,” The New Yorker, October 22, 2014, (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study ); both the Gaiman and Parker quotes are as quoted by Mead.
Liz Bury “Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds,” The Guardian, October 8, 2013, (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study)
That is Evangelicalism exists in some opposition to both fundamentalism and liberalism. For a historical account, see George Marsden Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (Scholastic Press, 2010).
See my piece at Faith & Leadership, “The Hunger Games, Christian ethics, and the young, https://www.faithandleadership.com/beth-felker-jones-hunger-games-christian-ethics-and-young