Christian student, for the love of God, study literature at school.
Our local newspaper reported this morning that the number of students studying Literature in upper school in our state has plummeted over the past two decades.
So much so that some Western Australian schools are no longer offering it as a university entrance subject.
The report maps out the spiral:
English teachers have warned that the subject has reached “a state of crisis” in WA schools after a dramatic 20-year decline in enrolments.
An analysis by the English Teachers Association of WA found the percentage of Year 12s studying literature plummeted from 26 per cent in 1998 to 11 per cent last year.
That’s a huge drop off.
There are a number of reasons including the pragmatism of vocational desire to get a job when you finish university, and literature no longer being seen as a pathway to that – or at least not a well paying one. Western Australia is nothing if not pragmatic about how it view education.
Will this course of study set me up for the good life, a well-paid, meaningful career that gives me satisfaction, the chance to live by the coast and creates an identity for me? If the answer is “yes”, then it’s a no-brainer. Literature doesn’t fit into that schema.
There’s also the problem of the capture of university Arts departments by an agenda that is openly hostile to a variety of philosophical and political opinions. Some parents will be warning their kids off literature because they don’t want them to be constantly fighting against ideologues.
It’s no coincidence that the drop-off coincides with the one-eyed fundamentalism of university literature departments and their hostility to true diversity.
I must say with a Year 12 daughter whose interests lie solely in the Arts quadrant I have been telling her to gird her loins for the scorn and derision she will face as a young Christian dare she transgress the progressive narrative of the university Arts department.
But I won’t be deterring her from studying literature at university, even though my experience of it thirty years ago was confronting enough.
Confrontation is no reason to avoid studying literature. In fact it’s a darn good reason to study it. And a darn good reason to stand firm against the complete deconstruction and desecration of the text by those who hold the keys to our university Arts faculties. After all we’re going to need those with a wide reading experience to counter the falsities of secular ideologues.
In calling for a renewed interest in literature studies, State Education Minister Sue Ellery said:
“it helps develop research, analysis and critical thinking skills, which are transferable across many careers”.
I’ll be honest. It was my study of literature at university that gave me the basis of the vocational direction I have headed in since in ministry. I have lost count of the number of people who thank me for the manner in which I write. But just don’t thank me – thank the ardent atheists who taught me creative writing at university. This has been a slow-burn pillaging of the Egyptians.
Christians shape their lives on the teaching contained within the most important piece of literature the world has ever had – the Bible. The Bible is literature par excellence, spanning thousands of years and numerous genres, with a complexity and depth of meaning that I am still mining all these years in ministry. And that’s quite aside from its God-breathed qualities (or perhaps because of them!).
Even that most rabid of atheists Richard Dawkins sees the merits of the Bible. And check out the impressive Lord Bragg’s reassessment of Christian faith in light of the literary genius of the King James Bible.
Speaking in pragmatic terms, a good grasp of Literature will set up those involved in Christian ministry for a good grasp of biblical literature. For understanding how a text is put together, for appreciating nuance, linguistic devices, the way story is shaped, the way OUR story is shaped, how texts hold each other in tension. The list is endless.
And I unashamedly say, I want more excellent Literature students to end up as teachers of the Bible.
Why? Because often they can bring a colour to their teaching that just simply isn’t there for the engineer or the doctor or the whoever who ends up teaching the Bible. Too much Bible teaching in modern evangelicalism is like the moon – clear, bright and cold.
We want Bible teaching that is like the sun – illuminating, warm and allowing us to see the rest of reality in its light. And without a good appreciation of literature we risk getting the moon served up to our people week in, week out. Small wonder the dazzling alternate “gospels” on offer are so alluring.
Young Christians with an eye on the future of the church in an increasingly hostile and fractured age should take a deep breath and study the hostile texts too.
Even if that means having to study texts that oppose their worldview and are full of icky stuff like dystopian futures and graphic depictions of sinful humanity, especially if that is what it means.
When I read articles bemoaning the fact that Literature texts in high school are too dark and too dystopian, it simply reveals that most people can’t face reality.
It’s not as if popular culture is not already replete with Rom Coms and happy endings and foolish trivialities that don’t get to the heart of the human condition. A literature course that covers dystopia is swimming against the denial of a culture hell-bent on happy endings with no reason for such confidence.
So Christian schools should be able to lean into difficult texts in their English departments and stop giving in to fear. Let’s not become the right wing, conservative equivalent of the left-wing university book burners.
Rory Shiner said this recently on The Gospel Coalition Australia site:
Being a Christian will be harder for my children than it has been for me. We need to disciple the next generation for challenges that mine did not face. We won’t be able to get away with a lite, ill-disciplined programme of Christian entertainment. They will need a thick, rich, deep and compelling vision of the Christian life and of Christian thought. I’m pretty sure this will also involve a stronger sense of Christian history than was typically imparted to my generation. People will need to know they are part of something bigger. The years ahead are surely the years for our best possible teaching and instruction. If we skimp now on deep thought and a vision of Christianity that is true, good and beautiful we will leave the next generation hopelessly vulnerable.
True, good and beautiful. Studying literature won’t guarantee that we offer such a vision, but it surely will give us a framework upon which to hang a story that rivals, indeed surpasses, the parodies of true, good and beautiful the world offers.
And goodness knows Christian bookshops are full of rubbish half-baked novels – the ecclesiological equivalent of the “penny dreadful”, which themselves were the literary equivalent of gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free chocolate-free mud cake. The fact that the theological framework of much that passes for Christian-lit these days is as half-baked as their literary quality only highlights the problem.
Where will the next Pulitzer-Prize winning Marilynne Robinson and her astonishing depiction of life as a parish minister in her novel Gilead, spring from? I have yet to read any theological text on ministry work that captures the heart, pain and love of ministry life like that book does.
In these pressing times we often hear about how the church needs to position itself as a “creative minority”. What word leaps off the page? Minority. Why? Because it taps into our fears and fills us with angst.
But how about we refocus our attentions on the word “creative” instead? When that word leaps off the page it fills us with intent. It helps us see that in a world that is fast running out of creativity – and the sharp decline in literature studies is proving this – we can shine with a creativity few others can match.
So Christian student, for the love of God, study literature. For it’s not our task to make the biblical literature true, good and beautiful, but it is our task to showcase it and show that it already is. And in these pressing times, that will take all of the literary intelligence we can muster.
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