When I first began teaching, I used only the material I’d seen other teachers use. I feared veering off the path of the tried and true—even if some of the works chosen seemed hopelessly obscure for my modern high school students.
I decided I wanted to teach literature that would not only expand the kids’ academic experience but also touch their hearts. I wanted to do it all: provoke discussion, inspire sacrifice, encourage right thinking, stimulate writing excellence . . . and all with an eye toward thinking outside the box as far as literature was concerned. And I wondered how I’d know if a piece of literature was ‘safe’ unless it was written by a Christian author.
In order to evaluate a wide variety of resources, I wrote out my philosophy of teaching literature to use as a guide in choosing each book, play, poem, and short story. I decided each piece of writing I used in my classroom should have the following strengths:
- Excellent writing. I looked for literature which would model a superior writing style for my students. The plot had to be interesting and believable. Each complication and episode in the story, play, or novel must advance that plot. The piece of literature had to display high standards in grammar, style, and content.
- Universal themes. I searched for books and stories which discussed the themes meaningful to all people throughout all time: love, death, freedom, oppression, justice, honor, sacrifice.
- Noble characters. I would use only literature in which a noble protagonist fights for a noble goal or fights temptation to become more noble. The characters had to be well-developed within the pages of the novel and grow or change as a result of the complications in the plot.
- Upholds biblical principles. I looked for stories in which good is rewarded; and evil, punished. At the end of the day I wanted to show that a man reaps what he sows. Sin must be treated as sin by the author. (For example, I do not appreciate using drunkenness or promiscuity as sources of humor.) Though I didn’t want preachy stories, I wanted my students to come away with a moral lesson.
- No gratuitousness. I decided to stay away from gory descriptions and high body counts. If there was violence in the book it must be inherent to the plot (war, murder mystery, wild west) and not dwelt upon.
- Few objectionable elements. Some books I wished to use had what I considered objectionable elements. These would be bad behavior, violence, mild bad language, etc. How should I deal with this as a Christian teacher? I decided if the overall tone of the book met my standards, it would be worth reading (for a mature high school student) in spite of a few these elements.
I also submitted my choices to the inoculation theory. A medical inoculation works by introducing the body to a weakened virus, strong enough to trigger a response, but not so strong as to overwhelm the body. In this way, the body builds up a resistance of its own.
The same can be true with attitudinal inoculation. I preferred to teach some pieces of literature which contained disturbing elements to my students. Where better to confront these elements than in the classroom of a Christian teacher who would help the students refute dangerous ideas with the principals of God’s Word? At times, I sent letters home to parents to make them aware of what we were reading and, more importantly, why.
Here’s an example. In the story The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which appears on many reading lists for Christian schools and homeschoolers, Huck’s world seems to be filled with Christians. However, they’re all vapid weaklings or hypocrites. The so-called churchgoers bombard him with the message that hiding and helping runaway slaves is sinful. (Mark Twain presents this world view in spite of the fact that many Christians supported abolition, staffed the underground railroad, etc.)
At a turning point in the novel, Huck must decided if he will do what he’s been told is the “Christian” thing and turn Jim in, or if he will go on being a sinner and wind up in hell. The author describes Huck as being watched by God and under great conviction for the sin he’s about to commit—setting Jim free. Huck thinks to himself, “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” and refuses to return his friend to slavery.
This type of scene provides ample opportunity for discussion in the Christian classroom. Use it to develop your students’ perception of the subtle messages pervading their world through their television show, movie, and music choices. Help them build up their immunity to the poisonous lies that men propagate about our loving heavenly Father, who came to set all the captives free.