As you can probably guess by now, I really enjoy stories where everything doesn’t end well, where a hard fall illustrates difficult truths, and where there’s a dearth of sunshine and kittens. I enjoy tales of winter not only because they appear in the literary canon, but also because they turn up in Scripture. And as Jonny Duddle’s The Pirate Cruncher and John Christopher’s The Sword of the Spirits trilogy show, such stories can instruct even young readers. I believe that, really and truly. But I also believe that exposing one’s children to such material can sometimes have a profoundly negative impact. Why would I express approbation and concern in the same rhetorical breath? Well, because with tales of winter …
… darkness sometimes accompanies downbeat endings.
Sure, unhappy conclusions don’t necessarily translate into grim narratives. In the best tales of winter, failures point out eternal principles. Unfortunately, many of these sorts of stories fall short of that standard, treating the world as if it was (in the words of novelist Stephen Hunter) “a stainless steel rat trap with a 4,000 pound spring.” Unpleasant imagery for an ugly worldview, one that parents need to make sure their children avoid. After all, nihilism doesn’t nourish little minds.
… objectionable content can abound.
If we want to be biblical about stories, we need to approach nasty content very carefully. On the one hand, the words of God record the scatalogical sarcasm of Rehoboam’s young counselors (1 Kings 12:6-11); Joab’s gory murder of his rival, Amasa (2 Samuel 20:8-12); and a jaw-dropping metaphor from the mouth of the Almighty Himself (Ezekiel 23:19-20). These inclusions make me think that it isn’t necessarily sinful to read portrayals of such stuff. On the other hand, God repeatedly warns His people to avoid foul language (Colossians 3:8), a love of aggression (Psalm 5:6) and sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:5). So we absolutely shouldn’t do any of those terrible things. In Ephesians 5:11, we plainly see this tension between depiction and action: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Putting these two Scriptural suppositions together leads me to think that stories with objectionable content which aim to show it as sinful get something of a pass, but any narrative that tempts me or my family to indulge in wrongdoing (no matter its author’s intent) needs to be consigned to the proverbial dustbin. And that leads to my next point.
… means of communication can sometimes overwhelm the message.
True story: When Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, a friend of mine fixated on a shot that occurred during the movie’s intense Omaha Beach landing, waxing rhapsodic about the moment when a shell-shocked soldier bent to retrieve his own severed arm while the battle raged around him. My friend seemingly failed to grasp that director Steven Spielberg included that instant to highlight the horrors of war, not to celebrate them. I mention this to point out that misinterpretations and bad applications abound. No artistic effort is impervious to them, and our children can get the wrong idea from even well meaning stories. It’s always wise to weigh subjective elements such as intellectual development, temperament and maturity level before introducing a new title.
… sad stories can obscure the grand sweep of redemption.
We all know that bad news is integral to the Gospel. We inherit Adam’s bent nature, transgress the commands of a high and holy God, and persevere in unrighteousness despite the numerous gifts He graciously provides. Even after trusting in Christ’s atoning work, we find that the world conspires against us, our flesh fights every step we take toward holiness and the devil sets snares along life’s path. Tales of winter can push us toward a necessary acknowledgment of such bad realities. But they have a harder time reminding us of the good news. God is making all things new, triumphing over our wayward hearts and every enemy, including entropy itself, that final foe. One day we will be “ancient in our youth again,” our physical pains and perverse passions disappearing down the long well of time. What glory! What grace! And what a terrible truth to miss should we become too fixated on smaller sad stories.
This post is getting long, dear reader, but please persevere a little longer and hear my heart: While I think your children could benefit from tales of winter, I also know that they aren’t without risk. By all means, please consider expanding their literary consumption beyond the typical titles that tykes take in. They have much to gain from it. But never place it above their holiness, for without that no one will see God.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Djuliet)