by Mike McHugh
A common struggle for home educators is to know how best to approach the task of teaching literature. The following article will help instructors to establish a sound philosophy for the study of literature, and will also provide teachers with useful objectives and principles to incorporate into the teaching process.
The study of literature should illuminate the issues of life with the light of biblical truth. It should dwell on themes of useful work, God’s creation, the Holy Scriptures, and the experiences of those who are striving to lead a consecrated life. In a manner similar to the Law of God, good literature should be like a schoolmaster which leads us to Christ.
One primary distinctive of Christian literature study is that it is preoccupied with helping students love God with all their minds. Contrary to the thinking of many teachers, intellectual love for God is just as valid as other areas of life in which the people of God show love to their Maker. In whatever task we are engaged, passages such as Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Matthew 22:36-38 teach us that it is our duty to love the Lord all the day long with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. No thought or written expression of man is neutral. For this reason, all literature must be evaluated to determine if it is ultimately for or against the truth of Scripture. It is only the Bible-believing Christian that has the ability to evaluate literature in the same consistent manner as everything else; according to the external, objective, and permanent standards of God’s Word.
The study of literature is not limited to or focused upon the glorification of human expression or the freedom of the artist to paint any word picture he pleases. Christian literature study is focused upon the promotion of the student’s growth in the image of God. In other words, a Christian approach to literature study is only biblical to the extent to which it trains minds for the present as well as for eternity. Too often, even in Christian home schools, man’s artistic expression becomes the final determination of what is appropriate style or content. Although Christian educators can and should encourage creativity and unique styles of expression, they must also recognize that there are limits and standards that must be regarded. To place man’s desire to be able to say anything he pleases, however he pleases, even when such expression is clearly contrary to God’s Word is idolatry, not tolerance. The ultimate goal of literary criticism is to think God’s thoughts after Him and so to view a work, as much as possible, as God would view it.
In addition to philosophical concerns, literature teachers must be prepared to stress the fundamentals. To this end, home school instructors need to rally around the truth that the mechanics of Christian literature are central to the process of clear and orderly communication. It is God Himself who commands that all things be done decently and in order. For this reason, literature teachers must stress the importance of proper mechanics such as grammar, the accurate use of vocabulary terms, and correct form.
Another fundamental principle of teaching literature involves the process of helping students to learn how to accurately identify the key components of each reading selection. As a starting point, students should be taught how to identify any or all of the following components of a story:
- the main plot
- the key characters
- the primary theme
- the setting
- the mood or emotional style
- the appropriate life application or moral
Students also need to be taught that good quality literature will commonly include the following components:
- a powerful or provocative opening
- a body of writing that develops the plot and characters of the story in a compelling and balanced manner
- a strategic use of emotional appeals (humor or tragedy/irony)
- a memorable closing
- a message that edifies or challenges the reader (Ephesians 4:29)
The last point in terms of fundamentals is for instructors to expose their students to a wide spectrum of literary selections, including both modern and classic authors. It should be stressed that just because a work of literature is old does not automatically make it worthy of study or praise. In other words, do not assume that older works are free from anti-Christian philosophies. Many modern authors are worthy of consideration. Some of the key literary forms that you will want to give your students exposure to include:
- short stories
- political speeches
- famous sermons
- biblical parables/prose/poetry
In the concluding section of this article we will examine the primary objectives of literature study from a Christian perspective. The listing of objectives that follows is not totally comprehensive in nature, but should still serve as a good foundation on which to build a more complete list of goals for literature instruction. Literature study should strive to:
- increase the student’s understanding of man, the world, and God
- improve the student’s ability to apply biblical principles when evaluating literature
- expose students to character-building literature that will influence their life with positive values
- enhance the student’s appreciation for beauty in written communication
- help the student to discern between worthwhile and worthless literature
- motivate the student to appreciate and desire well-written, wholesome literature
- improve the student’s reading comprehension through discussion of the material, reading aloud, and written quizzes
- increase the student’s vocabulary and writing skills
- acquaint students with various literary forms while encouraging them to be respectful of diversity in styles
- help the student to understand the role of theme, plot, imagery, and figurative language in literature
- ground students in an understanding of biblical literature
It was the great puritan scholar Thomas Carlyle who stated, "The true university these days is in a collection of books." This old saying is as true today as ever. Home educators must instill a love of quality literature in the minds and hearts of their children, beginning first with the Bible. Indeed, biblical literature and classic Christian literature are of utmost importance to a well-rounded education and the time spent on studying these things will pay wonderful, and perhaps even eternal rewards.
Copyright 2006 Michael J. McHugh
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