I have one overarching, albeit fuzzy, question in the back of my mind when I’m choosing books for my kids. It pretty much covers all of the pitfalls Haley and I have been writing about, and best way I can articulate it is: “Is this book beautiful?” I believe this is the most important question we can ask of any material we’re using to present the gospel to kids – even more important than “is this true?” (more on why in my next post). And unfortunately, I think it’s a question that goes largely unasked in the world of theological kids lit.
Best, of course, to get some terms straight up front. Unfortunately, we mostly encounter the idea of beauty in skin care and makeup ads, or the “health & beauty” department at Target. In that context, the word’s meaning is pretty straightforward: attractiveness that sells. We buy beauty products to make ourselves more attractive, and we’re attracted to them because of the promises they make in exchange for our dollars. And largely, we carry that definition over to other areas. Something “beautiful” becomes something we want – to consume, to experience, to own.
So there’s one way of asking “is this book beautiful?” that is a profoundly wrong way to ask. Like sentimentality, the shallow prettiness that most of us mistake for beauty offers us something good without asking anything of us. I can become beautiful if I just put the right cream on my face; no need to bother with the heavy lifting of character building. A book can look pretty sitting on my child’s bookshelf and make me feel good about reading it to her without asking anything of us, without challenging or changing us as we get to know it. If my answer to “is this book beautiful?” is simply to gauge its surface attraction, then I’m not really looking for beauty.
Real beauty–the created reflection of the uncreated Beautiful One–is something that confronts us. A veil is lifted, and we’re afforded a glimpse into reality that we now have to reckon with. Beauty is attractive, but it is neither safe nor pretty. It’s certainly not easy to gaze upon casually. Think of Moses descending from Sinai: “behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” Or Peter’s response to the transfigured Christ: “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Or Isaiah’s honest lament: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Have you ever closed a book, or walked away from a piece of art, and thought, “Woe is me!”?)
I’m not trying to suggest, of course, that reading to our children should regularly be a terrifying experience. But is it too much to ask that occasionally, when I pick up a book that is trying to teach my kids about God and his world, I should be seized by the fact that I am reading it with unclean lips? Or that they should start to perceive that they’re hearing with unclean ears? And that maybe we need God to send us that seraph with a coal, too?