Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thinking Literarily

As an English teacher and as a homeschooler, I have many times over the years had to address the question of why we require kids to study literature. Students who hated to read asked it. Moms teaching kids who hated to read asked it. Moms who themselves hated to read asked it. And it is a legitimate question.

Legitimate enough that you would think that at some point, I would have sat down to craft a thorough and articulate response to give every time I was asked. But I never did. I just said whatever came to mind at the time, which sometimes satisfied the inquirer and sometimes didn't. I think I realize now why I was never able to give a complete answer to the question before: because I never really put God in the picture before. Now that I'm teaching at a Christian school, God is always in the picture, and the reasons are more obvious.

When I was discussing the plot chart with my kiddos early in the semester, I pointed out to them that this isn't something people made up. It's not like some brilliant ancient man sat down and decided this was the best way to craft a good story. No, the "plot chart" was God's idea. The history of mankind -- the story of the Bible -- goes according to the traditional plot chart. Exposition in the Garden of Eden . . . conflict begins with the fall . . . rising action throughout the course of history as God works to re-establish relationship with mankind . . . climax at the cross . . . falling action in the two thousand years since . . . resolution at the end.

All of our experience comes to us as story. When man creates stories, he is only copying a pattern that God already established. We see the world through the lens of narrative because we are made in God's image.

The same is true of every literary element and device. Take symbolism. No human being came up with this brilliant idea of having one object represent something else. Really, the concept of speaking figuratively at all is an amazing one. It's remarkable that the human mind is able to conceive of things this way -- to see things in layers, to look at the physical and "see" the abstract. We all do it so easily that we cease to be amazed at the process.

And yet, again, this was God's idea. The Bible just explodes with symbolism, analogy, and figurative language. Jesus spoke over and over again in parables. And he used metaphor constantly to describe himself ("I am the Door . . . I am the Good Shepherd . . . I am the Bread of Life . . .").

None of this is man's invention. We can do this because we are image-bearers. Teaching our students to think "literarily" is bringing out the spark of God in them.

Yes, there is value in the actual stories we read -- truth that my students need to understand and grapple with, or sometimes "truth" to recognize as false and argue against. But teaching literature is not just about the books. Although I'd love for my kiddos to catch the bug and enjoy reading great books for the rest of their lives, it doesn't matter if they do or not. They will watch TV. They will go to movies. They will hear people talk about their lives. They will live their own lives. They will constantly be interacting with narrative . . . with themes and irony . . . with conflicts and resolutions . . . with characters, presented directly or indirectly . . . with metaphor and meter and rhythm and rhyme . . .

"Literature" is not imposed upon us from with-out; it is the eyeglasses through which humanity sees its world. I teach literature so my students can see their world clearly and accurately . . . and recognize the beauty of the Creator in it all.

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