Earlier I talked a bit about Mr. O’Brien’s assertions that what we read with our children is important on a grand scale. Later in the book, he presents some specific movies and books and shows how damaging they can be. I highly recommend this part of the book. He very clearly shows the worrisome aspects of familiar movies that really brings the concerns of the first part of the book into focus.
When one listens carefully to many of the programs made for children, one frequently hears the strains of modern Gnosticism: "if you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends."--"You decide. You choose. Truth is what you believe it to be."--"Right and wrong are what you feel are right and wrong for you. Question authority. To become what you want to be, you must be a rebel."--"You make yourself; you create your own reality."--"We can make a perfect world. Backward older people, especially ignorant traditionalist, are the major stumbling blocks to building a peaceful, healthy, happy planet." And so forth. it's all there in children's culture, and it pours into their minds with unrelenting persistence, sometimes as the undercurrent but increasingly as the overt, central message. What stands in the path of this juggernaut? What contradicts these falsehoods? Parental authority? The Church? In film after film parents (especially fathers) are depicted as abusers at worst, bumbling fools at best. Christians are depicted as vicious bigots, and ministers of religion as either corrupt hypocrites or confused clowns. (p. 63)
I agree with him on the atrocious depiction of authority and wisdom of parents in current movies and books. For example, I found Happy Feet to be egregious in its depiction of the "elders" who thwarted the dancing penguin’s attempt to show the rest of the penguins the error of their ways. They were frightened of anything new and different and therefore banished it. In the end, of course, the elders were proven wrong and saw the error of their ways. Our kids mainly watch VeggieTales and we haven't yet had to fend off requests for any movies or shows we find worrisome.
In another time and place such films would probably be fairly harmless. Their impact must be understood in the context of the much larger movement that is inverting the symbol-life that grew from the Judeo-Christian revelation. This is more than just a haphazard development, more than just a gradual fading of right discernment in the wake of a declining Christian culture. This is an anti-culture pouring in to take its place. Some of it is full-frontal attack, but must of it is subtler and pleasurably packaged. Still more of it seems apparently harmless. But the undermining of a child's perceptions in forms that are apparently harmless may be the most destructive of all. (pp. 72-73)
It's easy enough now to weed out those books that present an obviously troubling view. It’s just those that are “apparently harmless” that can cause the most damage. We let them into our homes and only realize later (if at all) that they’ve been working against us. Mr. O’Brien takes some time to discuss some books in detail, pointing out the use of such imagery like dragons (for example), which historically were evil, as good. His point is that the twisting of the symbol of the dragon, from evil to good, is dangerous to the integrity of the child’s Christian foundation.
I know first-hand there are books, very engaging and well-written books, that can lead our hearts and minds astray in subtle ways. I read Orson Scott Card's books and enjoyed them for many years, but after reading more on the Mormon faith, I could see troubling elements in the books and am not sure I'd encourage my children to read them.
Mr. O’Brien classifies all children’s culture into four categories (p.86):
1. Material that is entirely good.
2. Material that is fundamentally good but disordered in some details.
3. Material that appears good on the surface but is fundamentally disordered.
4. Material that is blatantly evil, rotten to the core.
As he says, “There is no perfect work of art, nor is there any work of fiction that does not in some small or large way fall short of a complete vision of reality. But there is a crucial difference between a flawed detail and a flaw in the fundamental vision” (p. 103). He seems to suggest we can draw different lines in terms of reading material, depending on the age of the child, the concerns of the parent, and the amount of time we have to devote to the task. With a more mature teenager and a parent with lots of time, the more flawed material could be read and addressed with the issues causing concern being a main topic of conversation.
We must ask ourselves some hard questions here: If a child's reading is habitually in the area of the supernatural, is there not a risk that he will develop and insatiable appetite for it, an appetite that grows ever stronger as it is fed. Will he be able to recognize the boundaries between spiritually sound imaginative works and the deceptive ones? Here is another key point for parents to consider: Are we committed to discussing these issues with our children? Are we willing to accompany them, year after year, as their tastes develop, advising caution here, sanctioning liberality there, each of us, young and old, learning as we go? Are we will to pray diligently for the gift of wisdom, for inner promptings from the Holy Spirit, and for warnings from guardian angels/ Are we willing to sacrifice precious time to pre-read some novels about which we may have doubts? Are we willing to invest effort to help our children choose the right kind of fantasy literature from library and bookstores? (pp. 110-111)
I'm just not convinced that the symbolism he's pulled out of the books is reason enough to restrict all of the reading he believes is dangerous. I can see what he's saying, but I'm not sure it really makes a difference. I am, however, ready and willing to admit my own love of many books Mr. O'Brien would deem fundamentally flawed could be clouding my judgment. (Translation: I'm not ready to give up my Harry Potter.)
Mr. O’Brien does provide us with some authors that provide strong consistent Christian imagery: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald.
Ultimately, Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald are each concerned with the destiny of human souls. Their primary concerns are salvation, grace, virtue, and spiritual warfare. If at times we are uncertain about how they have used various symbols, this can be turned to the good, for it can stimulate fruitful discussions with our children...[snip]...Hard questions, sometimes unanswerable questions. But if you want your children to grow up to be thinking people, here is a golden opportunity to enrich that process. Genuine literature stimulates the asking. It is not primarily about the implanting of praiseworthy ideas, though of course that is one of its roles. Most of all it is about the imparting of the great adventure, the majesty and mystery of the moral cosmos. (pp. 158-159)
Here on the Range, we've decided to decide later. We plan to return to this book when our children are a little older and assess the situation again, erring in the meantime on the safe side by setting aside any books of questionable symbolism and depictions of spirits, dragons and nature-as-ultimate-good. (To be honest, I'm not sure we have any books like this to set aside at the moment, so it's not really a change in our reading material...yet.)
There is an extensive list of suggested reading in the back, books for various ages. I've copied down the lists for picture books and early readers. As you may be aware, previewing books for my kids is one of my absolute favorite things to do!