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Evaluating Literature, Part 1

Evaluating Literature, Part 1

Note: This series of articles is a condensed version of the chapter "A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements".

Mention reading or literature in Christian education circles, and a hot topic is bound to arise: censorship. For the Christian, the questions is not whether literature should be censored; concerned educators and parents know well their responsibility to filter out printed material unfit for Christian consumption. The questions, rather, is how to determine what is and what is not appropriate for Christians to read.

On this point well-meaning Christians err on both sides. Some, guided by the mistaken principle that literature is life, are extremely permissive. They take the view that because the believe encounters all forms of sin in the course of living, he should not be protected from it in his reading. The logical problem is, of course, that literature is not life; it is a selective form of entertainment and not a series of often unavoidable experiences (though some students may see their English assignments that way). Therefore, literature falls under the Scripture's rigorous guidelines for Christian thought (Philippians 4:8).

Others, perhaps the majority, err on the other side of the issue. Meaning to avoid the pitfalls of permissiveness, they eschew any literature containing offensive material, regardless of academic considerations. Such a stance requires adding restrictions to the Christian life beyond Scriptural guidelines, which, taken to its logical extension, would rule out not only most literature but also the Bible itself.

A quick and easy "solution"--one which finds favor with many home educators--is to follow the dictates of an approved reading list, in which books containing no objectionable elements appear. Certainly book lists can be helpful, but in dealing with objectionable elements, book lists take the guidance process out of the hands of the parents, without regard to individual student maturity or sometimes literary merit. A far more satisfying solution for achieving a balance in censorship is to discover and apply Biblical criteria for a literary analysis that both honors God and edifies the believer.

The first step to establishing these criteria is defining what is objectionable. Dr. Stewart Custer, chairman of the division of Bible at Bob Jones University, has classified objectionable elements in literature into the following seven categories:

  1. Profanity
  2. Scatological realism--pertaining to excretory functions
  3. Sexual perversion--homosexuality, adultery, fornication
  4. Erotic realism--explicit descriptions of legitimate sexual love
  5. Lurid violence
  6. Occultism
  7. False philosophical or religious assumptions--the most dangerous, yet the most overlooked, of all objectionable elements.

Certainly no Christian should take pleasure in reading material that draws him away from personal holiness; but neither ought any Christian to seclude himself or his students unnecessarily from worthy literature simply because it contains offensive material. Scripture itself includes notable examples of each type of objectionable element.

For example, John 8:48, II Samuel 16:5-8, and I Samuel 20:30 all demonstrate the use of profane language (although these examples seem mild to twentieth-century readers). Isaiah 36:12, II Kings 18:27, Ezekiel 4:12-15, and Malachi 2:3 contain examples of scatological realism. The Bible frankly discusses sexual perversion (see Judges 19:22-25; II Samuel 11, 13; Proverbs 6:25-35; 7:10-21). An entire book--the Song of Solomon--is a love song from a man to his wife, full of explicit language (4:12-5:1; 5:9-16; 7:1-9; compare Proverbs 5:18-19).

Scripture also portrays scenes of lurid violence; the dismemberment of the Levite's concubine (Judges 19:28-30) and the disembowelment of Amasa (II Samuel 20:10-13) are but two examples. There are several examples of occult activity, the most well known of them being Saul's consultation with the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28; compare Acts 8:9-11; Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7, 18). Scripture even presents subtly false religious and philosophical assumptions. The entire book of Job pits the main character against friends who offer seemingly sound reasons for Job's sufferings.

The fact that God includes objectionable passages in Scripture is not grounds, of course, for indiscriminate reading of objectionable literature. But neither should the Christian think he must never read those passages. All Scripture--even that which a critic may consider offensive--is inspired by God and is therefore profitable (II Timothy 3:16). If the Christian parent, therefore, adopts the Holy Spirit's criteria and guidelines for the inclusion of objectionable elements in God's Word, he will have a good basis for determining the worthiness of other literature.

Of course, the Holy Spirit perfectly chose and correctly handled all the objectionable elements in Scripture; unfortunately, human authors rarely do. Thus, even after having selected the literature appropriate for his child and necessary to the course, the Christian parent has fought only half the battle; he must still deal with the unavoidable objectionable elements in the otherwise good literature he has chosen. The next issue of the Helper will present a method for teaching this literature in a way that honors God and edifies His child.

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