Word Magazine January 1989 Page 16-17
READING AND CHILDREN IN CHRISTIAN FORMATION
by Father Jack Norman Sparks, Ph.D.
The Department of Christian Education is pleased to bring this series of articles on reading and Christian nurture to our Archdiocese. Father Jack Sparks is a specialist in this field and makes for delightful reading himself.
For further suggestions of readily available books with Christian themes, order Creative Activities I from the Department of Christian Education, 358 Mountain Rd, Englewood, NJ 07631. ($6.60, including postage and handling). —John L. Boojamra
For me, at least, words and paper can do something no other medium of communication can approach. Books have always created worlds for me, put me in those words, and make me part of an environment, a setting, with a breadth and a history I could never have experienced in the “real” world. I’m sure this is true for many other people as well, and can and should be for others.
Above I wrote that books have “always” done certain things for me, but such drastic effects upon a life have to start somewhere, sometime. As far back as I can remember, my parents and grandparents read to me, though as tenant farmers, their time and resources were quite limited. But those efforts on their part caused me, as a very small child, to start spelling out words and forming relationships among them on my own.
Still, the largest jump for me probably came in the summer of 1937, when I, an eight-year-old child, had a ruptured appendix and spent weeks and months in a hospital following and between surgeries. By some special arrangement, my mother slept in the hospital to be by my side at all times. The good offices of relatives and neighbors enabled my father to cope with farming and care for my younger brothers and sisters.
My mother read to me, and I read. We soon exhausted the small library of the hospital and had to go further afield. That was the summer I read all the Oz books as well as other well-known children’s books — and discovered the pulp Western, sports, and detective magazines common to the thirties. Having no discerning tastes, I became every hero, experienced his adventures, saw what he saw, smelled what he smelled, thought his thoughts, had his history and prejudices. I learned to live in books, to find worlds in words on paper. As time went by, I even learned a degree of discrimination. But to this day, there are many books I finish reluctantly, because I know I must leave a world and the people that exist only in it.
Oh yes, I had my favorite radio programs also — Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, The Lone Ranger, Terry and the Pirates, and others. My parents will tell you it was with great reluctance that I missed an episode of those programs. I’ll never forget the shivers produced by the lonely howling of Sherlock Holmes’ Hound of the Baskervilles. I did enjoy these adventure stories. They were exciting or funny or intriguing. But when they were over, it was back to books. Radio could tell you of a far wider world, with more breadth of experience than do television or the movies, but a book was a world I could enter.
I could become a grim marshall of the Old West, stalking an outlaw gunman, hard-heeled boots striking sound from the wooden sidewalk. Dust, sweat, horses and stale whiskey scenting the air. Sweltering heat oppressively dulling everything. Voices and the sound of a tinkling piano floating down the street from the one bar in town. Tension all over. The world of the book was mine.
That same power of books meant I could stand on a hillside as a youth named David facing a fearsome giant Goliath, a jeering army by his side, a half-hopeful, fearful band of warriors on mine. Then, just one stone and victory, exultation! God’s people in triumph.
I am tempted to say that all the years of reading built a background to help me understand with more depth the gift and grace of God — which is, after all, yet too much for our understanding and certainly not possessed just because we can read. It might be a bit much to say that books alone have had such a dramatic effect, but my mind and heart and spirit have nonetheless been enriched and prepared through the gift of reading. If I am willing, that enrichment can help me in the quest to grow in the likeness of God — not that reading makes me better, but it does help me to visualize, to grasp concepts, and even to communicate.
In the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel we read, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” When I read those words, I see a heavenly table, our Lord in His deified human flesh, the One True Altar, and the heavenly hosts in that all-encompassing world which is ever here, yet invisible to human eyes.
Similarly, when I read in St. John’s Revelation, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” I see glory beyond all words.
When I read St. Athanasius’ account of the battles fought in the desert by St. Anthony against demons, I have a reference by which I can visualize something of the sternness and nobility of the fight — and the victory in Christ.
Thus has the written page helped make me what I am, for good or for ill. And my wife and I set out from the beginning deliberately to make readers of our four children. We read to them. At first the usual picture books, graduating upwards as the years went by. We read Mother Goose and Bible story books, Silver Pennies and A Child’s Garden of Verses. We read Wind in the Willows and many other classics. As our children grew, they became readers on their own, but we still read aloud. I can remember driving across country when they were teenagers, taking turns reading aloud. Over the years I have sent my children many books, and still do, often browsing the shelves of used bookstores to find particular volumes I want them to own. Having a home library is just as important as having a community library.
Now our children have children, and they are pursuing the same path with them. Just yesterday I received a snapshot of my eldest son, children draped all over his chair, reading a story book to them. That, believe me, is an important aspect of making readers of our children, especially in these days when we are beset by the allure not only of radio, but by the especially seductive television set.
Of course, not all children will become readers, but most can get a glimpse, at least a slight feel for words on a page. This is especially important for Christian formation, for the building of Orthodox Christian character. Radio these days has forgotten the versatility it once had, has lost the use of its power to tug at the imagination. Today it mostly offers music — and music which has no clear and vital connection with what it means to be a member of the body of Christ, and may, indeed, run counter to it. Besides, radio never had the breadth, depth and variety to be found in books. But left unchallenged, it will often beat out books in the battle for attention.
What I have said of radio is even more true of television. It offers a narrow range of content, with less choice, far less use of the power of the mind than we find in books. There is little to be found in television which can contribute to the growth of a person toward that ultimate of potential for which God has created us. Certainly little of the content of the Orthodox Christian faith or of the lives of those who have lived it can be found in television programming. Neither radio nor television has much value in helping a person to develop an inner sight. But television, with its colors, its constantly changing scenes, together with the passive nature of its use, possesses an especially strong appeal as a way to spend time. It therefore remains for us to do our best to make readers for our children, to entice them to spend more hours with books than with television. Otherwise, they will have small chance to become literate in our Christian culture.
So, we read aloud, and we lead our children by the hand into the marvelous worlds to be found in books. If you have room on your shelf for only a few books, make one of them Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook, because he will help you choose books to check out of the local library. Make sure you also have William E Russell’s Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children — an inexpensive volume of excerpts. Also get The World Treasury of Children’s Literature edited by Clifton Fadiman — two volumes in three books — expensive at $60, but well worth it. Get one of the standard Bible story books, such as Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible. Grab up as many as you can of the collections of stories of the saints and heroes of the faith, such as John Young’s Victories of the Saints. And start collecting the classics of literature in good hardbound editions. Then there are very useful stories which can help to build up a foundation of general and Christian culture. Sigrid Undset’s 1920’s Nobel Prize-winning trilogy Kristin Lavansdatter is especially appropriate for teenage girls, but lots of boys will appreciate it — secretly. A recent novel by Gillian Bradshaw, The Beacon at Alexandria, gives a broad picture of the fourth century Christian and pagan world. That is a slim beginning, there is no end. Within the year, I hope to put together a listing of a basic library — but it will not be definitive, for other people will have other choices. Remember as well that your children can profit from reading some books under your supervision and guidance that you would be very unhappy to have them reading under the supervision of strangers.
After all, I have barely touched upon the role of books in the Christian formation of children. There is much more to be dealt with. Readers or not, we can go the wrong way, turn from God. Often the greatest tools are the most dangerous. But in our churches and in our homes we have a job to do — it is our task to guide our children in the direction they should go, not neglecting the potentially valuable because it is dangerous, but utilizing it wisely. So must we do with reading. Perhaps we can most appropriately end this article with the familiar words: to be continued. .
(Fr Jack is a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, serving in the Antiochian Orthodox Evangelical Mission. He is presently Dean of Students at St. Athanasius Academy/College.)