Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Landscape with Dragons, Part I

A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind by Michael O'Brien

Mr. O'Brien begins with a description of neopaganism and Gnostic tendencies in today's society. He then describes problems in the symbolism he sees in many popular movies and books, striking at those more recent Disney films in particular. In the end, he gives us an analysis of three authors who do a reasonably good job of maintaining the correct symbolism and shares an extensive list of children’s books for parents to explore.

For the first time on the Range, I’m going to split this review into more than one post. There’s simply too much I want to share. It’s not clear what impact Mr. O’Brien’s assertions will have on our family, if any, but his book has certainly garnered some spirited discussions.

A few notes before I begin:

This book is written for Christian parents. Mr. O’Brien’s goal is to adequately prepare our children for the most serious battles they will face, battles for the state of their immortal soul. He very seriously believes there are forces at work to pull our children away from Christ and the Church. I do not disagree. If you are a non-Christian parent, however, it’s not clear you would consider anything he presents as a danger at all.

Mr. O’Brien is a Catholic. Personally, I think there is much here that can be shared by non-Catholic Christians, but it’s important to note there will be some differences.

I won’t delve too much into Mr. O’Brien’s descriptions of neopaganism and Gnosticism, mostly because I’ve already returned the book and didn’t copy down many quotes because I never intended to tackle that part of the book in my review. I am easily convinced of the pervasiveness of the ideas he presented.

He doesn’t say we should avoid fairy tales or fantasy or myths. On the contrary, these types of tales can provide insights and profound truths, ones that cannot easily be portrayed in straightforward stories. He also encourages us to ensure our children are engaged and entertained.

The principle at stake in this issue is not so much our laudable desires to raise compassionate children. The real question is: What approach will best raise compassionate and courageous children? Normal childhood play, riddled with joys and conflicts as it always has been, "educates" at a profound level. The secret is not to deprive a child of his sword but to make the sword with him and teach him a code of honor. In other words, chivalry. Responsibility. Character. Justice. It is a distinctly modern prejudice that holds that a boy with a sword will probably run it through his little sister. The truth of the matter is, most boys, unless they are mentally disturbed, quickly learn that it is far more heroic, exciting, and rewarding to protect a little sister with that very sword by chasing off dragons and bullies. (pp. 36-37)

His point is not that brothers should have swords and sisters need to be protected; it’s that all children should encounter books and stories that teach, through actions and plotlines, that there is a Good and that we may seek out opportunities to do battle for that Good. The stories depict the battle in a physical way, but Mr. O’Brien contends that children innately understand that those battles may be spiritual in the “real” world.

In protecting our children from the dangers of neopaganism and Gnosticism, Mr. O’Brien is careful to separate those ideas from science and research.

Authentic Christianity has no quarrel with genuine science, with the pursuit of knowledge for good ends. But because the Church must maintain the whole truth about man, she warns that unless the pursuit of knowledge is in submission to the pursuit of wisdom, it will not lead to good; if it is divorced from God's law, it will lead to death. (p. 54)

Consider environmentalism. Our family is concerned with proper stewardship of the land and resources entrusted to us by God. It would be wrong, however, to place the state of the environment above God himself. The size of our family, for example, will be determined through prayer and petition to God, and not limited because a larger family would put a greater strain on the earth’s resources. I haven’t seen many children’s books that say you shouldn’t have little brothers and sisters, but I do try to be careful to select books that do not place the environment above people.

When the moral order of the universe is reinforced...man begins to know who he is, where he is, and what he is for. When the moral order of the universe is corrupted, his perception of reality itself collapses. The collapse may be slow or rapid, but the end result is a mass submersion into a swamp, in which creation is radically devalued, life becomes meaningless, and man, no longer able to know himself, is driven to desperate escape measures. (p. 40)

We must give our children a firm foundation in what is right and what is true. That includes a grasp of where man fits into God’s creation. We can only be partners in His creations, but that partnership is an ultimate Good.

Chesterton understood that culture is a primary instrument of forming a people's concept of reality. And he warned that when shapers of culture slough off authentic faith, they are by no means freed to be objective. They merely open themselves to old and revamped mythologies. When men cease to believe in God, he observed, they do not then believe in nothing; they will then believe in anything. (p. 53)

So we are charged with giving our children a firm foundation in Truth.

Because true culture has an inherent restorative power, and furthermore because art always has an authoritative voice in the soul, we must trust that over time works for truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man. It goes without saying that culture alone will not restore a society to sanity, for culture can reinforce both the good and evil impulses in man. The question we need to ask is not so much what sort of surgery should be applied to a sick body but what are the first principles of health. And in this respect, I think the classical fairy story has a great deal to teach us. (p. 119)

I don’t agree with everything Mr. O’Brien says in this book, but I think he has an apt description of our current society:

I would call [this] the Age of Noise. In the entire history of mankind, there has never been such a continuous battering of the human brain. The ever-present background throb of machinery, the roar of traffic, the high-pitched buzz of fluorescent lights and computers, Musak in elevators and supermarkets, herds of joggers wearing Walkmans, a gaggle of talk shows. A world drowning in chatter! Words, words, words!...[snip]...The mind is not renewed simply by packing more and more into it; rather it is renewed by grace and by habits of discernment and by a sincere search for what is good and beautiful and true. Silence is the natural habitat of truth. Prayer is the dwelling place of right seeing. (pp.164-166)

More to come...

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