Wednesday, October 30, 2013

reading with kids

One of the joys of South African life has been that no one does anything in the evening. For the most part, families go into their houses and that's about it. And so with no meetings, no church events, no social events, and no extended family time, we and our kids have moved through vast amounts of children's literature during our evening reading sessions.

Having finished all the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books in one year with Isaac and Moses, we are now reading the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Redwall chronicles various points in the history of Mossflower woods in which the virtuous Woodlanders--mice, otters, hedgehogs, moles, and badgers--come up against sinister forces--rats, wildcats, ferrets, weasels, and stoats--wishing to enslave them and take their woods. Reading these three epic series in quick succession in conjunction with morning Bible reading has led us to reflect on a number of characteristics of evil similarly portrayed in all three series. 
  • Evil is quick to turn even on its own. Voldemort, Saruman, and Tsarmina the Ruthless are all ready to turn on their followers for any offense.  In contrast, the side of good is loyal to its own and even seeks to restore the servants of evil to their own true selves.
  • Evil requires a level of uniformity absent in the side of good. The evil forces wear robes or armor that bring them into a mass that is programmed to destroy and never to disobey. The side of good is peopled with individual characters who serve out of devotion to the cause and whose individual best gifts are called forth.  
  • Evil overlooks the contributions of the weak and unattractive.  Good befriends the weak who in turn provide the key to victory. Sauron never expects hobbits or trees to feature in the plans of his enemies; Voldemort never even notices the house-elves; and Cluny the Scourge knows nothing of a baby squirrel who doesn't talk. In failing to notice, they secure their own demise.  In giving honour to the weakest members, the side of good finds its redemption.
  • Evil does not necessarily need to be destroyed but merely turned on itself. When the Hobbits are tied in sacks, awaiting the decision on whether they are to be boiled or fried for the trolls' dinner, the greed of the trolls needs only a few insults to bring forth a rage that results in them destroying each other. In a similar fashion Frodo and Sam escape from the orc tower, Harry and friends escape from Malfoy Manor, and countless woodlanders walk unscathed from scenes of terror.  
  • Self-sacrifice is the only means of true triumph, triumph that is not a simple re-appropriation of power. It is only when Frodo and Sam decide that they will not be coming back and eat the last of their food that the fortunes of good turn. Harry defeats Voldemort only when he willingly gives his life. While less prominent in Redwall, each book's hero must go off on a quest that could end the character's life but, if successful, will bring victory. 
There are many more things to say about these books.  Gospel themes are not hard to find. One element that bears constant discussion is the tendency toward redemptive violence.  In one such discussion last night, Isaac and Moses showed us the depth of their moral reasoning shaped by our reading of literature and the Bible. I was commenting on how, in Redwall, the side of good can use violence to achieve its ends and the books still end with peace and tranquility. There seems to be little repurcussion from the brutality of war, the "soul splitting" that results from killing, as JK Rowling emphasises.

I remarked on the fictional world in which there is a side of pure evil and a side of pure good. Moses chimed in: "there is no such thing because in real life it depends on your point of view." Later, I paused my reading during a description of an evil owl to comment that I liked owls.  Isaac reprimanded me, "but mom, you have to see it from the mouse's perspective."  Isaac and Moses' comments show a gospel understanding. Each side has its story to tell. We are all created good, all fallen, and all in need of redemption. For this reason, Jesus does not allow us to kill our enemies. As my boys seem to understand, the books we read personify the resistance to "the cosmic power of this present age" which is to be distinguished from the killing of "enemies of blood and flesh" (Ephesians 6:12). In real life, there is no one side of good and another of evil. Each of us must daily decide whether to follow the Christ who gave his life even for enemies.  Only insofar as we do that can we resist evil and work for good.


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