Breaking the Code Through Thoughtful Reading
by Nancy Lohr
Have you wrestled a good book lately? That is, have you deliberately grappled with the text, debated its concepts, and identified its real message? Have you come to the conclusion that, based on some criteria, you like the book—or not?
The concept of evaluation, or thoughtful scrutiny, is referred to throughout Scripture as one aspect of a believer’s growth toward biblical maturity. The writer of Hebrews 5:12−14, the milk and meat passage, says that discernment of good and evil is developed through practice or “by reason of use.” Proverbs 24:30−32 uses the example of a lazy man who lacks good judgment—a poor role model—to provide instruction. “I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down. Then I saw, and considered it well: I looked upon it,and received instruction.” (emphasis added) In Paul’s closing instructions to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 5:21) he simply tells them to “prove all things”—to examine everything with great care. Paul also writes about this topic in Ephesians 5:6−17 and in Philippians 1:10.
Each of these passages touches on some aspect of the biblical directive to examine, to evaluate, and to learn from the various aspects of this world we live in. And the stories held between two covers of a book are no exception—for us or for our students.
It is common to gather information about a book from the opinions of friends and colleagues or from published thoughts penned in a review. Those opinions may be fine and even helpful, but in 2 Corinthians 10:12 Paul warned the Corinthians, and us, against “measuring themselves by themselves” and “comparing themselves among themselves,” concluding that those who rely on a human standard “are not wise.”
The basis for evaluating other books begins with a constant and continuous study of the Book. The only reliable standard for the believer is Scripture itself. When the writers of Scripture penned God-breathed words, they wrote widely—of eternity past to eternity future, of battles and births, obedience and obstinance. They wrote accounts of real people; they recorded the parables that came from the lips of our Savior; they wrote the most beautiful literature known to man. And there is not a higher standard against which to evaluate a story.
The storied accounts of the Old Testament include exciting plots, peopled by actual characters not unlike folks we may know. There is sin, providing literary conflict, that sets each story in action; and before the conflict rests in resolution, and within varying timelines, that sin is addressed.
In one instance Jonah receives a command, runs the other way, and begins to receive the consequence in the space of three short verses. His whole story is a narrative told in five chapters, woven into the fabric of the Old Testament. In another instance a longer story is used to tell of Joseph, ill-treated by his brothers and sold into slavery. Long years pass as Joseph comes to manhood and becomes the instrument of God used to deliver his family. His brother Reuben’s guilt begins at the pit and ends—or is resolved—in a palace many, many years later, recorded over a broad span of chapters in the book of Genesis.
While the length and delivery of these stories differ, the resolution of sin—the conflict—is true to the Book as it must be in lesser books as well. The parables of the New Testament demonstrate our Lord’s creativity as He crafted each parable in a unique way to gain the attention of the listeners.
Sometimes He told the story along with the lesson to be learned. Sometimes He spoke in metaphors that required the listener to “read between the lines,” and sometimes He told the story but waited to give the explanation to certain listeners at another time. As these parables unfold, we see that some seeds flourished, and some withered and died; some wedding guests were welcomed, and some were turned away; some servants were faithful, and some were not.
When Christ used the vehicle of story, He set the stage for contemplation that led to biblical understanding, and the same should be true of a worthy book. We can learn much from these scriptural examples. There are good characters (role models) and bad characters; there are good actions and bad but all for our instruction. Some messages (themes) are clearly spelled out while others are set in terms that require the reader to evaluate and draw a conclusion.
Biblical narratives demonstrate variety and creativity, and they offer many different topics to interest a range of readers. There is all of this and more in the inspired Word, the Book that is the guide for believers in all things. And all of these concepts can direct our thinking in our other reading.
Let’s consider The Choctaw Code, published by JourneyForth Books in 2006, over forty years after its original release in 1961 by Whittlesey House. Both then and now this book was viewed as a historically accurate, engaging piece of fiction for young people. The writing is beautiful in and of itself, and it presents a reliable account of life in 1890s Oklahoma that is fully consistent with a Christian worldview.
JourneyForth publishes two types of youth fiction: that which is explicitly Christian and that which, while not overtly Christian, is consistent with or supportive of the absolute truth of Scripture. The Choctaw Code is of this second type. Both types of fiction have their place in the overall growth of young readers, especially when the story is considered from its intended perspective.
The Choctaw Code is set in the 1890s some fifty years after the historic Trail of Tears when the Choctaw people have settled in a portion of Oklahoma. Fifteen-year-old Tom Baxter and his parents have moved from St. Louis to Atoka where Harvey Baxter will become the railroad stationmaster; Hannah Baxter will care for her family, and—since school is out—young Tom will help with chores around their house (p. 3) until he is given leave to explore the hills and countryside.
Early on Tom meets Jim Moshulatubee (p. 6), a Choctaw Indian, whose future (p. 30) poses a challenging reality to Tom—the conflict that drives the plot.
In accordance with the Choctaw code, Jim has been sentenced to die because of his part in a fight that led to a man’s death. Jim has one year to live free, making the most he can of his final year, and then he will give himself up to the Choctaw sheriff. According to Scripture the days of every man are numbered, much as Jim’s are in this story, and his illustration of spending each day nobly is fine food for thought.
It is understandable that Tom, like some readers, will find this inevitable conclusion troublesome. It is understandable that some will want to find a way to change the expected outcome, but an accurate portrayal of history demands that even the hard parts are presented honestly, not gratuitously and not explicitly, but truthfully.
Not all works of fiction end with “happily ever after,” and that is just as truthful as the fact that not all of life ends “happily ever after.” There are hard consequences and difficult realities that a reader can mull over when encountered in a story, perhaps before that same reader needs such knowledge for real life. And certainly in this, the Christian reader has the advantage by virtue of having biblical answers to the troubles of man.
So what about using a heavy or troubling topic to drive the plot? In this story a man has died, and a murderer will be executed—a clear illustration of both the biblical principle of sowing and reaping and God’s mandate for murderers.
The young reader may also recognize that this story conflict refers to the larger concept of capital punishment, a difficult topic, especially when it is viewed through the lens of current culture. Thankfully, for the believer, God set down the punishment for murder in Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The topic is large and the subtleties myriad, but God’s Word is clear. Is it comfortable to consider a result so weighty, so final? No, not by any means, but it is a biblical consequence, and as such it is worthy of consideration.
What about presenting a main character like Jim in a positive light? What about an impressionable boy like Tom spending much time with a man known to be a murderer? Any well developed literary character will have some concerns, some indication of sinfulness, and some areas for growth. So this question might be better stated as “How bad is too bad?” Jim owns up to his own anger (p. 33), but the story goes beyond that one moment, showing Jim to be an honest, diligent, and approachable man.
Jim teaches Tom careful stewardship of the woods he hikes and the animals he hunts. He realizes that Tom has disobeyed his mother, saying, “I’m a little surprised your folks would let you keep coming here now” (p. 35). And he helps Tom admit his own disobedience, going so far as making the difficult trip to Tom’s home on this day to meet Mrs. Baxter. The quiet reproof of glances that follows is so gentle as to appear almost nonexistent. It is a lovely parallel to kind reproof from our heavenly Father, and what reader among us cannot appreciate that?
What about including elements like a practicing medicine man? Chapter 11 finds Jim and Tom returning from the Choctaw Council, and they come upon the cabin of an elderly ailing woman (p. 85). In this historically accurate scene the chanting of a medicine man comes from within the cabin, while tribal dancers circle the cabin outside.
But curiously enough, Jim, the honorable Choctaw, does not join them. When Tom asks why, Jim responds that he doesn’t “believe it will help a sick person to get well” (p. 86). A few paragraphs later he tells Tom that he will bring the missionary doctor to help. Jim does not believe in the power of the medicine man, but he does believe that the missionary doctor can help. This is an interesting and plausible possibility. Does this make Jim a Christian? No, but it does show the influence of a missionary, and however faintly, it may give some hope that Jim has heard the gospel as well.
What if Jim is not saved and is presenting himself for a death that will lead to hell? This is a big concern that a book like The Choctaw Code will raise. Many readers want a story to end with a character’s salvation or his sanctification, two very worthy themes. But not the only two worthy themes. Other themes were written of in Scripture, and so other themes can be used in a work of historical fiction as well.
Jim is a noble character well suited to this work of historical fiction. The reader is never told whether or not Jim is a believer, for that is not the focus of this story. Rather, this is an interesting and accurate slice of history that shows a man who, like us, walks on feet of clay. He demonstrates honor and integrity in the face of difficult circumstances that are worthy lessons all on their own. This aspect of the story further illustrates the biblical principle that even lost men—if indeed Jim is lost—bear the image of God (James 3:9) and can act nobly.
What about the use of dated or insensitive terms? The reader may notice some terms that are presently considered politically incorrect. The Civil War is called “The War Between the States” (p. 2), which shows that the authors favor the Confederacy. Had they used the term “The War of Northern Aggression,” the scales would point more to the actions of the Union. Is that a problem? Not necessarily, but such elements show a bias that informs the reader.
The word Indian is used throughout in the 1890s setting, as would have been the case at that time, and although Native American may be a better term in our present day, its use would diminish the historical accuracy of the story.
The Choctaw culture is given appropriate respect, which is an indication that in this context the term Indian is not intended to be demeaning. The rich details are included not for the purpose to encourage readers to accept contrary beliefs or practices but rather to flesh out the life and background of the man in the spotlight. Certain terms, especially in historical fiction, serve as signposts to establish time and place.
What about the principle of Philippians 4 to think on all things good? There is much in this book to commend: Hannah Baxter is a submissive wife. Jim and the Baxters are intelligent, literate people, as can be seen in the well-used books present in both homes. Jim lives by a code of honor and seeks to help Tom do the same. Jim shows a respect for life in hunting for food. Tom exercises diligence in hunting and persistence in learning to build traps. Tom’s parents demonstrate concern for him but allow him room to mature. All of these observations point a reader toward thinking on good things, and each could serve as the topic of an interesting discussion.
What if the concerns outweigh the commendations? Wrestling with a book is less about keeping score and more about viewing its text through the lens of Scripture in order to recognize and apply biblical truth. In keeping with Hebrews 5:12−14, the balance of commendable and challenging elements—that is, the “dosage” of concerns—must be directly related to the maturity of the reader. Some may still need milk, some “by reason of use” may be ready for meat, and still others may need something in between.
Whether the evaluation of a book leads to the 1 Thessalonians 5:21 instruction to “prove all things” or the Proverbs 24:30−32 to consider a specific man or some other principle of Scripture, if the result is that the reader “looked upon it, and received instruction,” then the book is worthy and the evaluation is profitable.
The Choctaw Code has much to commend it: the accurate presentation of a real period of history; the ingenuity and teachable spirit of a young man and the love and warmth of his family; the compassion and support of a small and varied community; but most of all, the example of honor and integrity seen in one man facing hard circumstances in noble form. A book that stands up to careful scrutiny has much to offer young people, teachers, and parents, and those who plumb the depths of The Choctaw Code will be all the richer for it.
About Nancy Lohr
Nancy Lohr, a former elementary school librarian, is Acquisitions Editor for BJU Press JourneyForth Books.
For further reading, also see Award Winning Books . . .Says Who?