Whether Conservative Homeschooled Kids Should Read Non-Christian Literature – The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show
My wife Lauren recently showed me a comment made by another mom on one of the homeschooling groups she’s a part of online. In it the question was raised whether we should let our conservative homeschooled kids read classic literature by the likes of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. The mother asking referenced a recent talk she’d heard from Israel Wayne and others, criticizing the inconsistency of some Christian homeschooling families.
We keep our kids home from the public schools because we don’t want them being taught by godless folk who are going to teach things diametrically opposed to our Christian faith. But then we think nothing of letting those same kids read great works of literature written by godless folk.
Whether true or not, I do not think this charge should be taken lightly. A kind of hypocrisy and double-mindedness is being alleged. And I want to answer this because, as should be apparent, we are exactly the sort of parents being described here. We are conservative homeschooling parents who have our children read great works of literature, even those by authors whose positions on matters of faith we do not share.
It is true that much of what is considered great literature may indeed have been written by men and women who were either not Christians at all, or else did not hold to sound doctrine if they did claim a kind of Christianity. And the question asked by Wayne and others is a fair one, after a fashion. But there is an answer.
If we would not send our kids off to be taught godlessness in the public schools, what makes the reading of great literature any different or better? If the authors of said great works held to beliefs which stand in stark contrast to our own, is this really no better than sending our kids to the public schools to be indoctrinated?
When my wife Lauren asked my input, I told her that where there really is no difference, I believe conservative Christian homeschooling parents are free to opt out of reading certain works with their kids they feel unequipped to work through with them. And that we shouldn’t harangue them for it, but neither do we necessarily need to celebrate them for it.
I remember here what the Apostle Paul writes in the New Testament: “All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.” If reading a given work would not be beneficial, then don’t read it!
But there is certainly more to say than just that and no more. A serious charge is leveled against parents like my wife and I, but we do not feel so unequipped. And we do have a difference of conscience, or exercise our freedom differently. And I don’t want it to be supposed we are nonchalant about the concerns raised.
What Is Beneficial?
For starters, it’s important to actually answer the question of what constitutes a benefit, and to answer the question carefully. And as hinted at, a critical distinction ought to be whether the parents concerned can teach their kids – both objectively and by example – to read actively rather than passively.
But let’s be sure to define our terms here. By passive reading, I mean engaging a book on a superficial level without second-guessing whether or how the claims being made therein are good, true, praiseworthy, wise, etc. And by active reading, I mean paying close attention to what is being claimed or alleged and testing the work against an objective measure of truth, goodness, and beauty.
For Christians, this latter kind of reading – active reading – should be our go-to when dealing with all extra-biblical claims. And the difference between active and passive reading is the same as between active and passive listening. For us Christian parents in particular, that means we are comparing the claims of great literature against what God’s Word says is true, good, and beautiful. Herein lies wisdom and prudence, and a full life marked by goodness and justice instead of stupor and malignancy.
Besides this, however, there is a great difference between your kid going through trashy books in the public schools, and your kid going through works of great literature at home with the help of a conscientious mother and father.
On the one hand, the pressure to conform, affirm, and accept is stacked against your kid in the public schools. There they are constantly told by peers and teachers alike to affirm the trashiness. And in the public schools, students are mocked for even entertaining the premise that we want to please God in keeping a close watch over our life and doctrine as Christians.
If the truth be told, students in public schools can’t even get off the ground in critically engaging the works with the Christian worldview; or, if they do, they at least get no help from their teachers and peers who engage the material in a committedly secular, godless way. Beyond this, though, Christian students are often penalized in subtle and overt ways for trying to do this, and that discourages them where it doesn’t outright and totally stop them.
At home, by contrast – and this is why we homeschool – the job of a Christian parent overseeing their child’s education is to encourage and teach their students to affirm what is good and to reject what is bad. But this requires knowing what is good, true, and beautiful. By turn, this requires studying God’s Word diligently. But it does not require studying only God’s Word, nor does it necessitate avoiding all content which even just portrays sin and folly, since that would require not even studying the Bible.
It’s a no-brainer, then, that we should teach our kids how to study their Bibles alongside extra-biblical works. And this teaching should be with the end-goal of cultivating reasonableness and discernment in our students. Our children need to learn also the rules of logic and rhetoric, including especially the various kinds of logical fallacies. And, yes, I believe we should encourage our kids to study at least briefly the lives of the authors themselves to see whether details from their personal lives and beliefs come through in subtle ways in their work.
Israel Wayne points these sorts of things out as a reason to not read great works of literature by godless or unorthodox or heretical folk. Yet I would point out that his knowing as much about these authors presumably did not corrupt him. It did not cause him to instantly lose his Christianity. So then also, as I reason, there has to be a way for our children also to know such things without leaving the faith by default. And, after all, it would be a sorry indictment of our confidence in Christ and the gospel if we supposed God’s Word can only appear true and worthy of our fidelity in the absence of any competing claim.
But there’s more. Taking the long view, it’s neither reasonable nor necessary to expect our kids will go through life without encountering wrong-headed ways of thinking, feeling, and believing. This includes even the written works, and even spoken words, of people we consider to be Christians – and sometimes especially those works and words.
But where will it stop if we even as homeschooled parents try to shield our children from engaging any material or claim whatsoever which would challenge them to scrutinize, double-check, or resist the temptation to err in their Christian life and thought?
The physical equivalent to my mind would be saying we would never have our children lift weights or exercise because they might drop the weights on their toes, or injure their back, or trip and fall in the middle of a workout. Or if they had a chance to run an obstacle course, we would opt them out by default because they may not be so agile. If that were our attitude, our children would never build any strength, endurance, flexibility, speed, or agility at all. But all of these are needed as much in the mind as they’re needed in the body for us to be both productive and prudent as active participants in life as it is.
Quoting Pagan Poets
But that brings me to another complaint I have against the argument being made here by Israel Wayne and others. That is, their philosophy would never have produced, as I see it, the kind of missionary the Apostle Paul was.
I can’t imagine Paul agreeing with Israel Wayne on this. In the New Testament, don’t we see the Apostle Paul familiar enough with Greek poets and philosophers that he quotes them casually to those he’s teaching and preaching the gospel to? We should ask, when we see this in our Bibles, how and why Paul did this.
We can rule out Paul having been enslaved by pagan poets and philosophers and wanting us to join him in his enslavement. When Paul writes that all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial, he says he will not be made a slave to anything. And this sets a good and godly example for us to where, practically speaking, on this topic of homeschooling and great works of literature, we are free to not engage extra-biblical works. But so also, it may mean we stubbornly refuse to become a slave to avoiding the great works of literature too.
On the other hand, we are free to engage extra-biblical works like great literature, but we have to take care that no one – perhaps especially authors of great literature – takes us captive by vain and human philosophy. And thus the choice of whether or not to read and engage with great works of literature by non-Christians should pass the twin litmus tests of benefit and enslavement. We want the benefit for ourselves and our children, but we do not want to be slaves in mind or heart anymore than we want to be slaves bodily.
But again on this question of benefit, here is the rub as I see it. We cannot cultivate critical thinking skills, reasonableness, and the ability to confidently communicate the same if our kids only read the Bible. And this is because even where our children would only read the Bible, God does not require this of us in the Bible!
Or else, putting this in the form of a challenge to those who feel as Wayne does, where in God’s Word is this command, and can you provide me with the book, chapter, and verse to justify the casting of aspersions at homeschooling parents like my wife and I when we disagree with your convictions on this point?
To be sure, some may interpret more broadly or narrowly what the Bible says to mean they can read more or less of great literature. And we should all operate within the bounds of our conscience and good faith interpretation of Biblical principles. Don’t forget about bad company corrupting good morals, or millstones tied around necks in the depths of the sea for those who cause little ones who believe in Christ to stumble.
But on the other hand, if we can use the way the Bible talks about sin and folly, even presenting examples of the same throughout, to teach our kids how to spot sin and folly in real life, then we can use the same to teach them to recognize sin and folly in literature. And in that case, I would argue we can use great works of literature to cultivate discernment and critical thinking skills in our children, as well as making them culturally literate in the way the Apostle Paul clearly was, and to the same end – being conversant with those who need to know our Savior, but do not yet know him.
After all, when reading a book, it’s not enough to know grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vocabulary. Teach those subjects to your kids, homeschooling parents, by all means. But don’t only teach those subjects and no more when you realize that none of them matter if at the end of the day they fail to add up to meaningful ideas and claims being communicable and comprehensible.
Whether sending or receiving ideas, we have to acquire a fluency with apprehending ideas and claims, and testing the same against Scripture. This is the essence of good communication. And on this basis, I would argue our children can, with help from their diligent parents, acquire said fluency reading great works of literature along with their Bibles. And what’s more, I would argue our children should with our blessing, encouragement, and help.
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