5 Ways God Forms Character Through Literature | Character Building Literature
My wife Naomi and I first heard of homeschooling in the 1978, at our church in Oklahoma. We were stunned. “Is that legal?!”, we exclaimed. Well yes, it is, we were informed. It did sound like a neat idea. We could teach our own children what we actually believe and not turn them over to strangers to be taught what they believe. How about that? We went for it.
But one of our first questions was, “How will we choose books without the school? Where are we going to get the books we need?” Well, for math and English skills, there was always the local Tulsa school book depository, where many old texts were stored and anyone with an interest could pick up these allegedly “outdated” texts at no charge. And we kept hearing from the veteran homeschoolers, “Look for those older books. They’re better.”
That puzzled us at the time. Why are these homeschoolers saying the older books are better?
In the 38 years since then, we’ve learned a lot. So much that, we now publish about 40 books ourselves from the 1800s. Most of them, children’s stories from that era. We’ve found those to be remarkably different than many a children’s story of today, even the ones written by Christians. They were written at a time when a Christian worldview permeated our culture more; and so they just fit the aspirations of Christian parents who want their children to grow in godly character. And how does that show itself?
Well, I’ve noticed at least these five features in children’s books from those past eras which seem to me a striking match for some of the ways the Bible itself says God forms character in His children. These traits are noticeably present in those 19th century books:
1) The Word of God is Given Prominence
The Lord tells us that taking in His own Word has a prominent role in building character in us; and the children’s stories from the 1900s are flat-out loaded with the Word. They quote it, apply it, illustrate with it, they keep it in front of a child’s mind all the time. If you try to talk to kids about good behavior, right and wrong, family values, all that good stuff, but you leave the Bible out of the conversation, you’re evaporating the Spirit’s power. You’re delivering do-good-ism with the power cord unplugged.
2) Good (and bad!) Examples are Vividly Presented
Children don’t learn about character from theory; they have to see it in practice. Chances are, so do you. You’ve probably heard only a few life-transforming sermons in your times; and you have forgotten a thousand sermons. But that person who has really had an impact on you from the example of his life, the way he walked with God, and the way he portrayed that to you — that is someone you remember.
And children’s books from the 1800s have this tendency to put the power of good and bad example in front of the reader in potent ways! Ways not found as much in literature today. The good guys were very notably good, and the bad guys – well, they were decidedly bad, and you couldn’t miss it! The design of the book was that you wouldn’t miss it. Let books that keep these examples clear be the constant companions of your kids.
3) Growing Through Worthwhile Work
Children grow – and again, really everyone grows! – in part by having some worthwhile work and service to others in their routine. If a child is going to amount to any kind of adult one day, he’s going to need parents who teach him to serve for the benefit of others as part of daily life. And the children’s stories from the 1800s tended to show children in setting where their help was needed – it was vital! They contributed valuable work to the household. It apparently wasn’t child abuse then!
Of course, if you know even a little about American history, much of this was because, in many past times, every member of the family had to pitch in if they were going to make it. So that’s why the stories were written that way. They show that, character consists in part of, what you are day in and day out, doing the commonplace duties of life.
4) Growing in the Midst of Suffering
It doesn’t take being in the Christian life for very long before you start to notice that God builds character in you through trials. His Word is quite frank about that, and even though we may not like it, it’s really just comparable to how exercise makes you stronger. The trials He sends our way make us wise up and walk more closely with Him.
And older literature for children from the 1800s faced the truth that God sent trouble, pains, trials, suffering, for good purposes. The families depicted in such stories are commonly found in situations which test their faith. Tough times; and the children are found right in the midst of it all, taking up their share of the burdens, bearing their cross too. From which, the children who read it learn that a genuine walk with God will require that we can’t always shun pain – sometimes, the only path to honor God means we’ll have to walk right through it. But – even when that’s happening, we must add:
5) Making Plain the Wonder of God’s Grace!
No matter what we’re going through, God is treating us better than we deserve. That’s one side of it. Our endurance for Him never makes us heroes – He’s always the real hero of the story of our lives.
But the other side of this truth I meant to point to is: stories for children can’t just be obsessed all the time with what we’re supposed to do, how we should behave, being obedient and all that. At some point, we’ve got to be faced with the admission that, we’ve still got plenty of sin in our lives and we need His forgiveness. We’re not going to be right with God based on our good deeds! I’m saying, excellence in Christian character will never be achieved without understanding grace. The most godly people I know are those who have a firm grasp on the fact that, it’s not about me and how good I am … it’s always been about God and how good He is to me.
Many a story that is filled with wonderful, moving lessons about behavior does not tell a child anything about the grace of God. And we’ve got make sure that our children get it: that we are made right with God by the mercy of Christ to us, contrary to what we deserve. We can’t ever live well enough to earn His favor. We don’t gain it by our good deeds, and make sure you feed them Christian stories that do not neglect this.
So use books to plant sound thinking. Gospel-focused, grace-filled, Christ-honoring thinking! Fill your family library with books like that, and pour on this blessing in your home. Because really, you’re doing more than providing an education: you’re preparing someone to know God, for eternity.