Is This Book Beautiful? part 1

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?

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5 thoughts on “Is This Book Beautiful? part 1

  1. I’m really curious to read part two! I’ve generally thought of truth and beauty as two sides of the same coin (what is true is also beautiful and vice versa) so I’m interested to hear your thoughts on why one would be more important than the other.

    But overall, I’m right there with you. The best books aren’t necessarily easy to read or easy to put down and continue on our merry way. I was just reading in The Critique today about the importance of knowing leading to doing, and it seems to me that some books make that bridge more accessible, so to speak, than others.

    • I think you’re right, about knowing leading to doing – but that begs the question, “what sort of knowing?” I know Diet Coke is bad for me but that doesn’t stop me from drinking it. I also know that because I’m forgiven, I have to forgive other people – and while I don’t do that perfectly, I’m really motivated to try. Two true things that I know – but my heart interacts with them very differently. Why is that?

      I think that’s where the beauty piece comes in. This is a goofy example, but: I don’t treat the facts about Diet Coke as if they’re true, because the experience of enjoying a Diet Coke is much more appealing to me than some scientific facts about aspartame. Something more than true fact is required to convert me away from my diet-cola-imbibing ways.

      (In fact, back in college, I quit drinking regular soda because of the calories – a superficial desire for a kind of physical beauty was enough to convince me there.)

      More about this later but: truth and beauty, at a fundamental level, cannot be separated. Like you said, they’re two sides of the same coin. But for a whole host of reasons, I think it’s more helpful for us to ask one question more than the other – not because they’re separable, but because we mostly live like they are.

  2. I am really curious about part two as well! I have usually had the “Woe is me” experience after pondering or reading something that is true, and I tend to feel the same way as Haley – that truth and beauty are generally two sides of the same coin. Perhaps you will go in the direction of 1 Cor. 13 that points out that truth spoken without love is nothing- it isn’t beautiful.

    • So glad to hear from you, Shawna!

      I hadn’t specifically thought about 1 Cor 13, but upon reflection I think your prediction is correct – Paul’s description of the relationship between truth and love there has been so central for me.

      This question isn’t going to be articulated well, but: when you’ve had the “‘Woe is me’ experience after pondering or reading something that is true,” how has that truth been communicated such that you have a real response of repentance, as opposed to my lamentable response in the face of Diet Coke’s deleterious effect on my health?

  3. Dear Sarah and Haley,

    To begin with, I’m fuzzy on how I came to bookmark this endeavor: are you linked by Ransom Fellowship or Sage Parnassus by chance? Anyway, I’ve gathered tidbits when I can between home creating and instructing our kids and can not agree more that the need for these quality written reviews on decent kids lit that delivers the Gospel is sorely needed. Thank you for all the time and effort you place here, really!

    Truth/beauty. I’ve encountered some truthfully written kid’s Bible’s (for example), with fine illustrations, that make my brain mush for it’s so dry and is not excellent in the delivery of Truth. Versions I’ve recieved at baby showers that my kids have never seen nor would I pass on for some well-intentioned individual at Goodwill. Maybe my standards are high, but I want the incarnated vibrancy of God’s truth to ignite questions and longing in my kids not boredom.

    I could see an illustrated version of Walter Wangrerin Jr.’s short story “Ragman” be a “beautiful” children’s book. The nearest thing we have in the house to what you mention is a copy of “The Jesus Storybook Bible” that my children seek to read and re-read.

    I’ve never had a “woe as me” reading experience, at least from children’s literature. I don’t think it is because children are incapable of having such a response to the Living Truth that God ignites in us. I am curious to discover if you have uncovered possible examples.

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