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Workshop Outline: Teaching Literature in High School

Hereunder are the notes from Mike McHugh's speech at the 2005 CHESS conferences in Melbourne and Sydney.

Opening Statement: "The study of literature should illuminate the issues of life with the light of biblical truth. It should dwell on themes of useful work, God's creation, the Holy Scriptures, and the experiences of those who are striving to lead a consecrated life. In a manner similar to the Law of God, good literature should be like a schoolmaster which leads us to Christ."

The Distinctiveness of Christian Literature Study

One primary distinctive of Christian Literature study is that it is preoccupied with helping students love God with all their minds. Intellectual love for God is just as valid as other areas of life in which the people of God show love to their Maker. In whatever task we are engaged in, we must love God all the day long with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Two passages that make this objective clear are found in Deut. 6:4-9, and Matthew 22:36-38.

The study of literature is not limited to or focused upon the glorification of human expression or the freedom of the artist to paint any word picture he pleases. Christian literature study is focused upon the promotion of the student's growth in the image of God. In other words, a Christian approach to literature is only biblical if it trains young minds for the present as well as for eternity. (Tell story by Attorney William Ball from court case Wisconsin vs. Yoder) When asked by the prosecuting attorney whether students from Christian schools would be ready to face the world, he responded, "That all depends upon what world you are talking about."

The mechanics of Christian literature are central to the process of clear and orderly communication. God commands that all things be done decently and in order. For this reason, literature teachers must stress the importance of proper mechanics such as grammar, the accurate use of vocabulary terms, and correct form. Although Christian educators can and should encourage creativity and unique styles of expression, they should also realize that there are limits and standards that must be regarded. Man's artistic expression cannot be the final determination of appropriate style or content. To place man's pleasure in saying anything he pleases, however he pleases, over the standards of God's Word is idolatry.

Christian literature study rejects the pagan ideal of relativism. Because all of education begins with God and His Word, Christians have a solid basis for interpreting any work of men, including literary expression. Christian educators reject the concept that all interpretations are equally valid. Every writer is understood to be transmitting some truth or falsehood, some fact or meaning, during the writing process. There is, therefore, in a Christian philosophy of literature no such thing as a neutral or insignificant point. All human expressions must be weighed or measured by the scale of the truth of Scripture. The Christian evaluates literature in the same consistent manner as everything else; according to the external, objective, and permanent standards of God's Word. Christian teachers must guide their students to evaluate literature by applying the biblical standards for beauty, truth, and edification in a balanced and holistic manner. Eph. 4:29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. Christian criticism regards a work of literature as good to the extent that it reflects the biblical standards for truth, beauty, and goodness that God Himself as ordained to be right. The ultimate goal of biblical criticism is to think God's thoughts after Him and so to view a work, as much as possible, like God would view it.

Christian literature teachers must direct their students to reject the humanistic goal of pragmatic persuasion. We live in a day and age in which truth is often sought through the mere exercise of clever literary persuasion; as if truth can be manufactured by the successful swaying of the masses. Christian literature teachers must stress biblical ethics as well as biblical methods of persuasion as they teach their students. High school students need to see that much of the written communication that passes itself off as truthful advertisement, or legitimate public relations propaganda is, in fact, a pack of distortions and falsehoods. We need to train a new generation of writers, journalists, and authors who believed in what the late Dr. Francis Schaffer called true truth.

Objectives of Literature Study

To increase the student's understanding of man, the world, and God

To improve the student's ability to apply biblical principles when evaluating literature

To expose students to character-building literature that will influence their life with positive values

To enhance the student's appreciation for beauty in written communication

To help the student discern between worthwhile and worthless literature

To motivate the student to appreciate and to desire well-written, wholesome literature

To improve the student's reading comprehension through discussion of the material and oral reading

To increase the student's vocabulary and writing skills

To acquaint the student with various literary forms and to make them respectful of diversity in style

To help the student understand the role of theme, plot, imagery, and figurative language in literature

It is very important that students learn how to accurately identify the key components of each reading selection. As a starting point, students should routinely attempt to identify any or all of the following components:

  1. the main plot
  2. the key characters
    LI the primary theme
    LI the setting
  3. the mood or emotional style
    LI the appropriate life application or moral.
Readers may also wish to utilize the following questions as they seek to properly analyze their reading selections. Some of these questions will not apply to each and every literary selection they encounter.

What is the main idea or thrust of the author's writing?

Who was the leading character(s) in the story?

Who were the secondary characters in the story?

Is there a key paragraph in the author's writings?

Do you agree with the message of the author?

Do you think that the writing style that the author used was effective? Would another style have been better?

Was the main message of the author consistent with Biblical Christianity?

Describe the mood of the story, as well as your own emotional response to it.

What purpose do you think the author was trying to accomplish with his story or poem? All authors have pre-suppositions that guide their literary theme and works.

Good quality literature will commonly include the following components:

  1. Powerful or provocative opening
  2. A body of writing that develops the plot and characters of the story in a compelling and balanced manner
  3. Strategic use of emotional appeals (humor or tragedy/irony)
  4. Memorable closing
  5. A message that edifies. Let no corrupt communications proceed out of you except for the use of edification.
Finally, expose your students to a balance of literary selections, including both modern and classic/ancient authors. It should be understood, that just because a work of literature is old does not automatically make it worthy of study or praise.

Short Stories
Political Speeches
Famous Sermons
Biblical literacy

Closing Thoughts:

"A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education."

- Theodore Roosevelt.

"The true university these days is in a collection of books."

- Thomas Carlyle

The knowledge of the Bible and classic Christian literature is of utmost importance to a well-rounded biblical education.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Mike McHugh.

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