(Click here for Part I)
Welcome to Part II of our new series of visits to Christianist America, a parallel universe where the Universe is 8,000 years old, scientists conspire to destroy God, and the only way to save children from left-wing bias in public schools is to explicitly indoctrinate them with right-wing ideology. Every Sunday we’ll see what we can learn about the worldview of some of our fellow Americans. And we will point and laugh! This week, we continue dissecting a 10th-grade textbook, Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, (Bob Jones University Press, 2001), which exhorts readers to evaluate literature on the basis of “whether God — the Biblical God — is present and active, at least by implication, in its imaginary world.” Reading, like just about everything else, is fraught with peril, and a Christian reader must be careful, lest a good book tempt them away from The Good Book.
But first, what is the difference between public education and Christian education?
The Public School System has planned education primarily as a benefit to the State, as well as society in general… Christian education is primarily planned to benefit God, as well as the student… Christ stated: “He that is not with Me is against Me” (Matthew 12:30). Education that is not purposely for Christ is against Christ. For this reason God has warned His people: “Learn not the way of the heathen” (Jeremiah 10:2).
The editors obviously faced a dilemma: while a textbook must survey literary techniques and genres, literature is just packed full of dangerous ideas. And so Elements follows up each selection with an “About the Author” note, where the editors try to inoculate young readers from dangerous thoughts.
Mark Twain: American Icon, Blasphemer
Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.
At first glance it seems weird that, if Twain is so awful (you know who else rebelled against God Almighty?), he’s also the first author to appear in the anthology, but maybe that’s deliberate. If Twain’s the guy who secular texts frame as the quintessential American writer, then it makes sense to give him a Godly smackdown right out of the gate.
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Twain presents God as a mere clock-winder of the universe and man as insignificant. Twain also believed that morality and the Bible were human inventions, asserting that men are shaped by environment and education. He states that “to trust the God of the Bible is to trust in an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master.”
Having denied God’s revelation to man through Scripture, Twain naturally denied the individual’s accountability to God… He claimed that man was “most likely not even made intentionally,” presenting as proof the imperfect nature of people.
Weird. That Twain fellow does not seem at all like America’s greatest humorist! What did Twain actually say? Oh yeah, he said Man
was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn’t served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working his way up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably [a] matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.”
Oh, right. That’s funnier.
Emily Dickinson: Too Big For Her Bloomers
We learn that Dickinson was influenced by a mentor who “believed in the immortality of the soul, not because the Bible taught it, but because he saw the principle of rebirth in the cycle of seasons.” Worse, just as Rick Santorum feared, education was her ruination:
During her stay at [Mount Holyoke ] she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle “the one thing needful.” A thorough study of Dickinson’s works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.
Now, class, what sent Emily Dickinson straight to Hell? She read the Bible and appreciated its language, but ignored its absolute authority. The main theme running through the author sketches in Elements is that most well-known writers Did The Bible Wrong. Ralph Waldo Emerson found truth in nature, but “Christians recognize that such observations are not ends in themselves. What we see in creation should turn our focus toward the Creator.” Walt Whitman wrote beautiful poems, but “we must, of course, be careful to evaluate their message in light of Scriptural standards.” (Oddly enough, the texbook doesn’t mention Whitman’s probable homosexuality — maybe the editors prefer not to open that can o’ worms at all).
No, You’re Not Christian Enough, either
Even writers who aren’t open troublemakers like Twain and Dickinson must be carefully watched for hints of dangerous scientific thinking:
John Ruskin’s personal religion emphasized a love for beauty and goodness and a thorough knowledge of the English Bible. However, his writings also show that he espoused empiricism, a philosophy which teaches that knowledge stems directly from man’s experience. According to this dangerous doctrine, we can only trust what is felt or seen. Although the study of Ruskin can help us better appreciate the visible world, we must remember that truth is not bound by man’s experience.
Yes, that is totally about evolution, in case you had any doubts. These guys will not even let someone agree with them. Elsewhere, after an initial suggestion that John Updike might be on their side because he “frequently writes about the breakdown of the family, forcefully presenting the consequences of America’s current lack of faith and fidelity,” we lean that “Unfortunately, his observations — though poignant — fail to acknowledge God’s provision of salvation through Christ and man’s individual responsibility to accept what God has graciously provided through His Son.” (For our money, David Foster Wallace’s take on the “Champion Literary Phallocrat” is some of the best bookish trash talk ever published.)
It was a pleasure to burn
When it comes right down to it, the editors seem to share the suspicions of the firemen in the film version of Fahrenheit 451: “Books make people unhappy, they make them anti-social.” Some of the author sketches are far longer than the actual literary selections, simply because there’s so much to warn about. A two-stanza poem by James Joyce gets three paragraphs of commentary, which warns that “Although a comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal, a general awareness of his literary impact helps us better understand contemporary trends in literature” — particularly Joyce’s emphasis on the personal, the cryptic, and the obscene, a focus which the editors imply permeates 20th-Century literature. Even a fairly innocuous fantasist like Ray Bradbury, whose “powers of imagination are exceptional and admirable,” must be condemned, since such talents “are ultimately fruitless if not used in the service of God who bestowed them.”
In its mix of praise for writers’ technical achievement and nattering on about their spiritual shortcomings, Elements of Literature for Christian Schools seems almost schizoid, until you remember that its true goal is indeed dual: to provide a basic grounding in academic skills while also persuading young readers that “there is no writing in English that equals the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible.”
It’s a remarkably perverse achievement: a literature textbook that ultimately argues that literature is bunk.
Next Week: World History: It mostly happened in Europe!