Is This Book Beautiful? part 2

In my last post, I offered this thesis: the question we need to ask of any theological book we offer our kids is, ultimately, “is this book beautiful?” But what about truth? What’s the standard for measuring beauty? What about “true” books that aren’t beautiful? Is that an oxymoron? After a lovely dinner with Haley, our husbands, and the kiddos – at which all of those questions were tossed around – I’ve been thinking hard about why beauty is so important in children’s literature. Here’s my go at an explanation.

First, some definition. When I think of real, genuine beauty – the kind that wins us to itself, that is pure and good and true – the best biblical term I can come up with is “glory.” As in, the glory of the Lord. Sinners that we are, we can often find this beauty challenging or terrifying. We can rarely encounter it and remain unchanged. It draws us out of the prison of ourselves. It is a moment of the great, uncreated reality breaking through. We find that we are part of something much larger, much more lovely than we ever could have guessed – and we learn to see ourselves in the light of God’s glory, rather than the other way around. In this way, beauty is often the vehicle of truth.

In other words, beauty is something that confronts us. It stands whole in itself and makes us reckon with it. It is not easy. The Old Testament reading last week was about Jacob wrestling with the angel: he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. And because he is wrestling with God, of course the blessing is forthcoming. Beauty, I think, is much the same.

But what does this have to do with literature for our kids? Why not primarily evaluate our books by their doctrinal content or faithfulness to Scripture? Isn’t beauty too subjective? Or, if we hail from certain Protestant traditions, even dangerous? How can asking “Is this book beautiful?” be an essential – maybe even the essential – question?

A couple of things. First, I’m definitely not advocating ignoring doctrinal content or faithfulness to Scripture. If a book is going to give a truly beautiful account of the truth, its horizon has to be subject to and shaped by the revealed glory of God, as seen in Jesus and attested by the Bible. Unfortunately, though, when many of us ask the question, “is this book true?” we’re operating with an impoverished category of truth. We’re so used to thinking of it as doctrinal proposition, or confessional summary: some static, complete body of knowledge that is either affirmed or denied. “Does this book affirm the virgin birth, or not? Does it portray Scripture as inspired? Does it treat the Bible stories like they actually happened? Does it acknowledge that all have sinned?” If the answer to these is a bare yes, then I know I’ve been tempted to give it a pass, as long as it’s not too cheesy in the presentation of that “truth.”

But a list of “true” statements, shorn of the living glory that makes them true, is an incomplete witness to the True Word that took on flesh. Something untrue cannot be fully beautiful, and something stripped of beauty is less than true. Ironically, many of us who want to give the best theological books to our children are so focused on the question of truth that we let beauty slide – and so give our children less than the full truth. Not only is God true – not only does he exist – but he is Good, and stands before us as a decision. Will we love and obey the God who is known in Christ, or not? That’s why we try to tell our children the truth about God.

Forgive me a brief foray into academic theology, but I find Hans Urs Von Balthasar‘s observation (in volume 1 of The Glory of the Lord) helpful here:

In a world without beauty–even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it–in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. (my emphasis)

In other words: if we cannot see the beauty in truth, it won’t compel us. That is, we may acknowledge something as true without loving it as good or wanting to submit our lives to it: “even the demons believe–and shudder” (Jas 2:19). But if we look for beauty- rigorous, real beauty, not easy sentimentality or prettiness – we may be won over to the truth more fully than if we simply see words we agree with. And when we are won over to the glory of truth, we can know it as good and bow before it – and that’s what I desire for my kids. I do want them to have heads full of true statements about God, but only if those truths also woo their hearts and lives by their beauty.

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?

That Sentimental Feeling

One thing the old Puritans weren’t: sentimental. Most of our kids now learn their ABCs in brightly illustrated books with apples and cats. The New England Primer (first published at the end of the 17th century), on the other hand, goes right to the heart of the matter. The letter A? “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” That’s right. The first thing you need to know is that you, child, are a bearer of the curse called original sin. Those Puritans didn’t mess around. And why should they, when so much more than their children’s literacy was at stake? It is good to know that A is the first letter of the alphabet, but it’s needful to know that you are marked as an unregenerate sinner before God.

(Other fun entries from the Primer: “Job feels the rod and blesses God,” accompanied in some editions by a soothing engraving of Job covered in boils. “Xerxes did die, and so must I.” In my extensive reading of ABC books, that wins for the ever-difficult “X” entry, with the possible exception of Dr Seuss – “X is very useful if your name is Nixie Knox. It also comes in handy spelling ax and extra fox.” But I digress.)

In my theological neighborhood – evangelical Protestant – we like to make a big deal of the Puritans. As I remember, they were even the topic of the commencement speech when I graduated from college. We like to think of ourselves as their theological heirs, without some of their unfortunate missteps like the whole witch-burning thing. But while we think we see ourselves in the Puritans, I doubt they’d see much of themselves in us, especially if they looked at our children’s bookshelves. Sentimentality seeps from a great deal of Christian kids lit. Even if you don’t particularly like it yourself, chances are you’ve been given a sappy book or two by a well-meaning friend or relative.

So what? Why is sentimentality a problem? Sure, books that are too cheesy might make us roll our eyes, but shouldn’t we be on the lookout for worse things?

To start, let’s be clear about our terms. “Sentimental” is different from emotional or moving. The OED adds the helpful qualifier “exaggeratedly or superficially sensitive or emotional, excessively prone to sentiment.” A book can be properly emotional, perhaps even moving us to tears in its account of something true, beautiful and good. We are confirmed in our love of what is good, and given renewed resolve to incarnate it. Or it can be mawkish and sentimental, appealing to us on a superficial level and making us believe we’ve had some deep experience when in fact all we’ve done is have our feelings stroked. We dry our tears and walk away essentially unchanged – or, possibly changed for the worse. (A prime example: a romantic film that encourages sympathy for adultery.)

The problem with sentimentality in art, including our kids’ books, is that it offers us the enjoyment of some emotional good without requiring anything of us. We live in a fallen world. Grace is beautiful because of our immense need for it. Love makes us good because we have to renounce something to give it. A sentimental portrayal of God’s love, of the Christian life, or of family relationships pretends we are innocent enough to enjoy them without conversion, death to self, and regeneration. “We lost our innocence in the Fall,” writes Flannery O’Connor, “and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.”

“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” The best kids lit – Christian and secular – knows this deep down, and speaks to children as fallen human beings who are on a pilgrimage. It avoids cliché and sentimentalized resolutions. It doesn’t skip over difficult truth or offer (another O’Connor phrase) “Instant Uplift.” It is not concerned with making readers feel good; it helps them to know good and love it.

The Noah Problem

We’ve all see them: Noah’s ark toys, Noah’s ark nursery bedding, and of course Noah’s ark books depicting cutesy animals trotting by in their characteristic two-by-two fashion.  It’s a curious choice, really, for an introduction to the Bible.  It’s not exactly a feel good tale, and if I had to choose one story that was representative of the overarching biblical narrative it probably wouldn’t be that one.

The Noah Problem, as I like to call this particular pitfall, extends beyond the ark.  Many Bible storybooks also focus on stories like Joseph’s coat (Look at all of those colors!  Let’s learn the names of all the colors!).  There are other examples, I’m sure, but you get the point: they’ve entirely missed the point.  When we try too hard to make the Bible relevant to very young children, we risk emphasizing the wrong things in the name of biblical literacy.  Good goal, poor methodology.

My point is not that we shouldn’t tell children certain Bible stories.  Rather, it’s that when we tell children Bible stories they should be faithful retellings.  I want my children to grow up hearing all of the Bible’s individual stories, but only if after hearing them they understand what they’re really about.  I want them to know the overarching story and themes of Scripture – creation, fall, redemption, restoration – and how the individual stories fit in to the bigger picture.  In short, I want them to learn to read the Bible theologically.  If our kids are too young to understand the point of the ark story or of Joseph’s life, rather than trying to find something fun and appealing in the storyline and improperly emphasizing it, let’s just wait awhile until they’re ready for the full story.

On a hopeful note, I’ve recently come across a few good resources on this topic.  This 4-minute Tim Keller video is a good reminder for all of us on what the Bible is basically about, but it also has much application for how we teach the Bible to children.  And just yesterday I spotted an hour long presentation by David Helm, author of the Big Picture Story Bible, on how to teach children the whole story of the Bible.  I haven’t watched that one yet, but I’m planning to do so very soon.  I’m so thankful for great resources such as these!

Children’s Books for a Grownup Audience (or, “I Like This Book So Much More than My Three-Year-Old Does…”)

I was a philosophy major in college, a voracious reader of hefty novels, and I have a half-finished masters degree in systematic theology. Needless to say, my taste in books trends nerdy. I like books  – for me and for my kids – that deal with complexity, that aren’t sentimental, and that make me think. There is a mystery at the heart of things, and I like books that take that into account. Books that aren’t an easy read, but are about the Big Things in human existence. Books that make me feel both vaguely pretentious and totally uncool when I am spotted with them in a public place – for instance, reading the Inferno with foils on my head at the salon. (I conjure up this image whenever I’m tempted to take myself too seriously.)

Now, complexity and honesty in children’s literature are good things. Speaking down to children or sentimentalizing never are. But. As I’ve shopped for books for my daughter, I’ve had a funny experience. Over and over again I’m drawn to books that look fantastic, only to discover they are clearly written for an adult, though they’re on the children’s shelves.

There are two particular ways this pitfall shows up. The first is in books that satisfy some adult requirement – they’re doctrinally thorough, they address some tough topic – but they wind up being clunky. And frequently over a child’s head. These books are just so obviously written to address grownup worries For instance, I was reading a simple Bible verse memorization book to my (3 year old!) daughter one day when we came across the phrase “absolute truth.” To borrow an image from one of my teachers: it went over like a pregnant pole vaulter. The passage was so clearly geared towards a very specific philosophical fear of relativism, and so clearly out of place in a picture book. I’m all for teaching kids that truth is absolutely located in One Man, and that it is in no way relative to our human whims. But let’s do it in a way that makes sense to them, that is beautiful, and that is convincing. Not as some sort of philosophical rear guard action that just flies over their heads.

There are also books out there that look, on first blush, like a fantastic idea. An illustrated version of the Athanasian Creed! A collection of famous icons! A picture book edition of well-known hymns! Add to cart! (I’m making these up, to avoid picking on specific books – but you get the idea.) And frequently, they are wonderful books – at least, for the adults who buy them as gifts. But they are total snoozers for the kids who receive them. A book may have a wonderful subject and lavish illustration, but absolutely nothing in it to interpret the subject for children or make it engaging. Honestly, they’re coffee table books, not kids’ books. Give them to adults being baptized for the first time or to your pastor for Christmas; give them a pass for the little ones in your life.

I don’t want to be unduly harsh. To be fair, I understand the urge to write children’s books that are aimed at adults. In the first place, most of us have an idea of what we want our children to believe when they are adults. So we gear our book choices in that direction. The truth we want our children to give their lives to is complex. It is mysterious. And if presented sloppily, we do run the risk of straying into that unfashionable term, heresy. It’s important to write precisely and not shy away from difficulty. But it can be done in a way that merely satisfies adult concerns for theological propriety and “substance,” or it can be done in a way that invites children in. I could never write a really excellent theological kids’ book, because I know this is the one pitfall I’d leap into headfirst.

I don’t think it’s stretching too much to say that Jesus’ injunction to “suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not” is a word to writers as well as teachers. We forbid them when we choose books that satisfy us, the adult reader, but that fall cold and dead on their ears. Praise God for talented writers who can hear and see like little children, and share their vision with the rest of us!

Poor Writing (or, “How Hard Can it Really Be to Write a Christian Book for Kids?”)

“Ever since there have been such things as novels,” observed Flannery O’Connor, “the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible.” She goes on: “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality.” In other words, a poorly written religious book assumes that form of a message somehow matters less than its truth – that you can disconnect the art of storytelling from the content of the story.

Sadly, this observation often holds true for Christian kids lit too. Wander into any major chain bookstore, leaf through their selection of “religious” books, and you’ll find trite presentations of morality, sorry rhymes, unrealistic characters, and indifference to literary excellence. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had the experience of holding a book in your hand, feeling as though you ought to buy it for your daughter because, well, it gets its theology right. But it’s so poorly written! The story isn’t even interesting – it’s just a vehicle for theological propositions! And it’s so corny! Sigh; put it back. (Or worse: buy it out of guilt, take it home, realize that you’ll throw it out the window if you have to read it aloud one more time, and discreetly let it slip out of the bedtime rotation, hoping no small person ever asks where it went. Not that I’ve ever done that. Ahem.)

To be fair, there’s plenty of really rotten secular kids lit out there. Religious writers aren’t the worst culprits when it comes to cheesiness, cliché, and talking down to children. But the assumption that literary excellence is less important than theological truth is at the root of much poor writing on Christian kids lit shelves. While that is understandable, it’s fundamentally mistaken – and we do our children a disservice when we choose books that are theologically sound but poorly written.

Why is that? Well, in the first place, we’re implicitly suggesting that words don’t matter. At least, not as much as some disembodied truth that the words convey. Any old words will do, as long as they get the right point. But everything in orthodox Christianity suggests that the exact opposite is the case. Words matter, literally. Matter was created by words. They gave it form and meaning. Words are the medium we use to communicate with God, and which God has chosen to communicate with us. God’s Word to all of creation became matter, became material, and physically expressed everything God wants to say to us. At the very least we should ask that books we share with our children honor this reality.

Words are sacred; they should be chosen with care. They give shape and substance to truth! The witness to God’s saving Word was written down in Scripture, and we believe those words were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Every word that’s in the Bible is there for a reason; those of us who confess that Scripture is inspired wouldn’t say that we could rewrite Romans to get the point across a little more efficiently. So why would we be so cavalier about how kids’ books are written?

It’s easy, and tempting, to privilege “truth” in our childrens’ books above the way truth is told. But here’s the thing: when God chose to reveal the fullness of divinity to the world, he didn’t pour a bunch of propositions into our collective minds, as though it didn’t matter how we got the point, as long as we got it. Nope. He showed up in person, and told us that this Person is the truth. In other words: truth has a body, it looks like something. Like Someone. So when we’re trying to tell our kids the truth in our own little creations, we should pay attention to that! The words we choose matter. Do they reflect the craftmanship of the true Creator? Do they honor his own elevation of words and the Word? Or are we dismissing as unimportant what is supremely important to God?

Quality writing matters. Although this may seem terribly abstract when we’re settling in to read with a little one, we teach them something by the very books we select. Careful attention to words teaches our children to take words seriously: the words they speak, the words they read in Scripture, and the words they hear proclaimed when they’re gathered with God’s people. There is some wonderful, beautiful writing in the world of theological kids lit. Why would we settle for less?

Common Pitfalls: Too Much Text

While browsing through children’s books at a local shop, I spotted one that looked promising.  It was a picture book with interesting artwork on the cover and a theme that seemed perfect for young kids.  But when I opened it up, instead of a few sentences per page there were a few paragraphs per page.  Thinking that maybe I misjudged the target age of the book I read a few pages and then flipped to the back cover.  Nope.  It was a chapter book masquerading as a picture book.

Has that ever happened to you?  I’ve been surprised at how many times I’ve run across this issue with theological kids lit.  Maybe all the other young children in the world have a much longer attention span than mine does, but I’m guessing that most don’t have the patience for reading what are essentially chapter books.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for including advanced language in children’s books.  I despise books that speak to children as if they only had half a brain.  One of the reasons that reading is so wonderful for children is the exposure they get to new words and ideas.  Reading books to your child that are above your his or her reading level is fantastic and everyone should do it.  And yet, there’s a reason that we give Goodnight Moon and not The Brothers Karamazov as baby shower gifts.  There is such a thing as developmental appropriateness when it comes to book length and word selection.

Interestingly, theological books that fall at the other end of the word count spectrum seem to be much less common.  While wordless picture books are fairly common in the wider world of kids lit, they seem to be almost nonexistant in the realm of Christian kids lit.  Why is that, when there are some truly excellent wordless books out there?  It’s certainly not because they’re impossible to do well.

My hunch is that both of these trends are tied to the centrality of the Word in Christian belief.  We place a strong emphasis on the Bible, and rightly so, but for some reason that good emphasis sometimes leads children’s book authors to over-explain a theological truth or over-describe a story.  We love love Scripture as God’s words to us, but perhaps that makes us love words so much that we misunderstand how many should be in a books written for early childhood.  Maybe it sounds crazy, but I think there might be a kernel of truth in it.  I think that somehow, deep down, we are tempted to think that truth is more true when we use more words to explain it.  But it’s not more true – and it’s usually not more beautiful, either.

Often, books that fall into the too-much-text category make me sad because I feel like even if the book itself really is wonderful it may not find a readership.  A chapter book that looks like a picture book will likely fail to reach either the chapter book audience (because they want to read big kid books) or the picture book audience (because they have a hard time following the text).  It is a wonderful thing when age appropriate text and themes are matched with age appropriate illustrations and formats: the authors win and the readers do, too.

[One note about this series: There are some authors that somehow make pitfalls work.  Every downfall that we discuss over the next few weeks is really only a potential downfall, because there are books that have “too much text” or another “problem” that achieve excellence in spite of it.  In fact, I can think of one too-much-text book right now that we’re planning to review later this fall!  Our aim is not to suggest strict criteria for book selection but rather to discuss and seek to understand certain trends we’ve seen.]