Take Your Family to the House of Mourning: Children’s Books that Move Us

My son was hiding under the art easel so I couldn’t see him.

“Simon, come here. What are you doing?”

He shook his head, fighting back tears.

“Simon, please come here.”

He slowly crawled out of his hiding spot and walked over to me.

I brought him in close and said, “If you feel like crying, you should cry. What you’re doing is good, Simon. It’s good to be sad about death. Death is wrong.”

“It is?” he asked.

I said yes, we cried a little bit and held each other, then kept reading.

No one in our family has died recently, I’ve just been reading out loud to my six year old son from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It’s been a mixture of tears and laughter and some healthy discussions about hard topics. I’ve found the element of story to be a great way to talk about hard things with my son. Great children’s literature is wrought with deep universal topics and questions that have been shared throughout history.

Even from a young age, we can ask our children good questions to build healthy discussions about hard topics. When I’ve not avoided difficult topics, like death, loss, and racism, my son and I have bonded more. It’s crucial to listen to Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:2:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

It’s good to be reminded of our own mortality, because it humbles us to our rightful place as feeble humans, teaches us wisdom in order to number our days rightly, and helps us learn empathy for our fellow image bearers.

We don’t have to always scout out non-fiction by solely Christian authors in order to teach our children. We must not underestimate our children’s capability to absorb a story rich in ideas. Even if they don’t understand all of the concepts in the story on the first read aloud, it will become a treasure buried in their hearts and minds that can be re-discovered in various ways and connections later on. The point is to continually expose our children to these types of inspirational stories over the years of their childhood and even teenage years.

Here are a few literary stories that enable discussions over death, loss, and racism. And don’t forget that even if the discussions don’t “take off” in the ways we imagined, the main point is the exposure to the ideas in the text.

Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie

On our walk to church one morning my sons were observing and delighting in all the freshly blossomed flowers. Then we stumbled upon a dead bird. Right in the middle of new spring life was a dark death. We must all be confronted with death at some point in our lives. My sons can’t even escape this reality on an innocent walk to church.

In Peter Pan,  J.M. Barrie helps children confront death and loss through a magical and imaginative place called Neverland. A place where children never grow up and are always on an adventure. Though I’ve had to talk to my oldest son about the inappropriate names and portrayal of Native Americans in the book, we’ve laughed and cried together too.

We marveled at Peter’s Christ like sacrifice when he let Wendy have the balloon to escape from drowning. Then we cried when the rising waters of mermaid lagoon threatened to take Peter’s life, and after a bout of fear his courage returned as he cried, “To die would be an awfully great adventure!” The ticking clock of the crocodile, in constant pursuit of Captain Hook, clues us into the sure fate of us all. As J.M. Barrie says, “Time is chasing after all of us.” Hook only has so much allotted time until he is swallowed up in death. So, how should we spend the time we are given?

My son and I were able to talk about orphans when we realized Peter Pan and the lost boys had no parents and desperately desired a mother. We felt empathy for Peter as he gazed through the barred windows at the joyful family reunion of the Darling family. Especially, when we remembered his own personal loss: coming back to his nursery window from Neverland to find it closed, as he peered inside to see his parents with a new baby boy. My son and I shed our own tears at this loss of family. We felt for Peter. Entering into another’s loss, learning about time and death, and courage and sacrifice are life lessons we want to share with our children. Peter Pan can help us do this.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Wilbur the pig comes into this world with a natural human desire: he doesn’t want to die. He’s saved from eight year old Fern who wants to keep him as her pet, until he grows too big and is sold to another farm. He finds himself on death row again, but this time he’s saved from a spider named Charlotte who can weave words into her web. Her plan to rescue Wilbur works and even makes him famous in the process. Charlotte and Wilbur show us that death is a part of living, and that death teaches us how to live. As Charlotte tells Wilbur:

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Charlotte sacrificed her short life for Wilbur so he himself could live. A spider can show us, and our children, that life is short and we must spend it for others. And as we deal with the loss of a loved one, Wilbur teaches us that they can never be forgotten or replaced:

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry Box Brown by Sally Walker

This title is different from the first two books. It’s not an old book, like the other two, and might not neatly fit into the idea of a true “literary” read, but it still helps convey the idea of slavery to young children. It’s a picture book and tells a true story from the perspective of a slave. I’ve explained slavery to my oldest son before, but reading this book helped him see it as something more concrete and human. He felt the injustice.

Music also plays an important part in this story as Henry longs for freedom and creates his own songs in the midst of hope and despair. He is separated from his family when he is sold to another master.  But we find happiness with him as he marries and starts his own family, only to feel his loss as his family is ripped away from him and sold. He hatches a plan to hide away in a box to the north, and the desire for him to be free is born in us. There is another similar picture book about Henry Box Brown by Ellen Levine called, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad.

The right story can be a powerful tool to display truth and beauty to our children. Along the way, story teaches us to feel and to know. To know about slavery and to feel the pain of bondage and separation. To know about death and feel that we must learn to live our lives rightly. To know about loss and feel the right way to respond. In our day and time it’s more important than ever to raise up children who feel moved on another’s behalf and who desire to tabernacle among the suffering.

This originally appeared at Morning by Morning >>

Classic Summer Reading: An Intro to Science Fiction for Serious Christian Readers

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The summer is almost over. Maybe you already have a summer reading list or maybe you’ve had no time. Either way, if you are looking to start that list now or continue to add to it, I have some book suggestions for you. I started this Classic Summer Reading list a long time ago, and my friend and former guest writer, Ryan, is back to carry on the tradition with some of his favorite science fiction. 

Science Fiction. What comes to your mind when you hear those words?

Do you think about silly movies with aliens trying to end human civilization and harvest us for our organs? Or do you think of forty-year-old men that still live in their moms’ basements and who speak fluent Klingon?

The reality is that, at its best, Science Fiction is a serious genre of literature that delves into the ethical, philosophical, and even theological problems posed by the modern world. Ever since Mary Shelley first introduced the world to Frankenstein’s monster almost two hundred years ago, Sci Fi has provided a venue for wrestling with worldviews and answers to ultimate questions in light of the technological and societal changes that humanity is undergoing at a rapid pace. Great Science Fiction authors speculate about humanity’s future (or even about alternative histories), pontificate about human nature, and envision ideal societies.

For Christians especially, Science Fiction provides a unique challenge and opportunity.

Here’s why:

We live in a day and age where we will be forced to deal with ethical challenges and changes to society that our forebears simply never had to think through. Case in point: on August 4th, the National Institutes of Health announced a proposal to lift a ban on funding for experiments that use human stem cells to make animal embryos that are partially human. Now, we could easily just dismiss this sort of thing as “playing God,” and I think we’d be right in that assertion. But what a missed opportunity that would be to engage with the question on a deep level, and to offer a fully formed Christian ethics in response.

And who amongst us thinks this will be the last scenario we’ll face like this? Science Fiction offers us a “practice field” for such questions.  Many Science Fiction authors present worldviews that contradict the Christian faith, and which can challenge us to think through what our own responses would be. We can develop our thinking and our worldview in fictional worlds as we await the inevitability of technological advance in the real world. We can be proactive, rather than reactive, about how we will witness to our faith in the “brave new world” we (and our children) will face in the coming years.

Not only is Science Fiction enjoyable, high quality literature, it’s also a great way to sharpen your mind and your worldview.

So read some good Sci Fi! Not sure where to begin? Here are some lightning reviews of a handful of classic Science Fiction novels that would be a great place to start:

Dune by Frank Herbert

A lot of people consider Dune to be the greatest science fiction novel ever written (and I’m certainly sympathetic to that belief). It’s been said that Dune did for Science Fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy. A complex novel that is vast in its scope, the issues in play in Dune include ecology, economics, psychology, educational theory, and the role of religion in society and politics.

Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, the heir to a ducal throne in a distant future on a far away planet. He and his family are caught up in a political intrigue over control of the planet known as Dune, the only known source of a spice that enables inter-stellar travel. Paul is betrayed by a close member of his father’s entourage, only to discover that he may be at the center of multiple messianic prophecies. In order to avenge the betrayal, and safeguard his loved ones, he has to figure out quickly how to survive unbelievably harsh desert conditions, fit in to a completely foreign culture, and watch out for giant sand worms the size of buildings.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Phillip K. Dick

You may not have heard of Phillip K. Dick (or PKD, as he’s known to his fans), but you have definitely heard of movies or TV shows based on his works: Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report, and The Man in the High Castle are all screen adaptions of PKD works. His worldview can fairly be described as Gnostic, though many of his ideas are also clearly influenced by mental health problems and drug abuse. His outsized influence on recent Science Fiction is a testament to both his brilliance and his originality as a writer.

 Androids is a post-apocalyptic novel that follows a bounty hunter’s attempts to earn enough money to buy an animal (a huge status symbol on a planet where most animal life is extinct). In order to do so, he picks up a job killing six androids that have gone rogue. It’s one of PKD’s more accessible works, and a great introduction to some of the philosophical themes he deals with. Among the issues dealt with in the novel are the question of what it means to be human, as well as epistemology and the nature of reality as a whole. It also tackles an issue that Christians are going to likely encounter very, very soon: should artificially-created beings that share human DNA be afforded the same rights as humans?

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This one is often considered to be another contender for “greatest Sci Fi novel of all time.” Here we get to grapple with war, genocide, drone strikes, our ethical obligations to other species, the effect that video games have on the minds of children, and all sorts of other current issues. This novel has actually been on the recommended professional reading list for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Earth has narrowly managed to survive an attack from insect-like aliens, and must prepare for their inevitable return. A child prodigy named Ender is recruited to train for zero-gravity warfare by being put through a series of simulations along with other precocious children. Ender and his older siblings find themselves dealing with an adult world and a military mindset that, brilliant as they are, they aren’t quite mature enough to handle.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

A much more recent novel than the others on this list (it was published in 2006), Eifelheim is also the only work in this list written from a Christian worldview. There are two simultaneous narratives presented in this story: first, we meet the inhabitants of Eifelheim, a 14th century German village in the Black Forest, who become the first people to make contact with aliens after a spaceship crashes nearby. The second narrative follows a modern historian and his theoretical physicist girlfriend as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of Eifelheim from the map after the year 1349.

Michael Flynn does a great job diving into the problem of evil and the role of philosophy in the Christian faith. The Medieval German Christians in the novel grapple with whether a non-human can become a follower of Christ, even as they question their own faith as the Black Death begins to devastate Europe. Although this novel is a bit more “hard Sci Fi” (meaning it dives into a lot of technical details, and actual science and math features more prominently) than some of the others on this list, the narrative is compelling and enjoyable, and the novel as a whole is extremely rewarding.

Ryan McLaughlin is a math teacher, husband, and father of three. He lives with his family in the Tampa, FL area, and is a member of St. Andrew-the-First-Called Orthodox Church. When not enjoying quality works of Science Fiction, Ryan likes to read Russian novels, Irish poetry, Greek theology, and English political theory, all preferably accompanied by Floridian craft beer.

Classic Summer Reading: In with the Old, Out with the New

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Forget about The New York Times Bestsellers list this summer; invest your hours into some classics. There’s nothing wrong with reading popular literature, but it’s good to offer your reading palette some variety. It’s also good to be challenged.

Maybe you think the classics should stay buried in the past and aren’t relevant today. But behind the dated time periods and language are unchangeable universal themes. There are questions presented in classic literature that are still being asked today. The characters are still relatable, because they have the same inward struggles and feelings of present day people.

Many titles from the bestsellers list are inspired knowingly or unknowingly from classic authors. Today’s literature is built off of the pen of classic literature. What else can I say? They are called classics for an obvious reason: quality and timelessness, just to name a few.

Here are lightning reviews of some (emphasize some) of my favorite classic pieces of literature:

To Kill a Mockingbird

Written by Harper Lee in 1960, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is set in 1930s Alabama. A small town steeped in racism is seen through the eyes of two small children, Jem and Scout Finch. Their father, Atticus, represents in court a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Along with a host of other interesting characters, Lee explores the towns hatred and kindness and their blind irrational thoughts and behavior. Lee begins her novel portraying innocence, but progressively leads us to the climactic court scene where innocence is undone.

Fahrenheit 451: A Novel

Written in 1953 by Ray Bradbury (one of my all time favorite authors), this short novel is set in an imagined future. A future where firemen don’t put out fires, but start them. What are they burning? Books. Why? Because in Bradbury’s future world censorship is taken to the extreme.

This future world slightly resembles our present world and sends off an alarm of warning to readers. The protagonist is fireman Guy Montag who meets a 17 year old girl telling him of a past when people were not afraid. Montag then meets a professor who tells him of a future where people can think for themselves, which is exactly what Montag begins to do.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Written by Oscar Wilde in 1890, this book tells the tale of a beautiful and wealthy young man named Dorian Gray. Wilde gives us a complex look at art, morals, and beauty through his three main characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry.

The book starts off with Basil painting a portrait of Dorian. As we continue to read we find out the painting is not ordinary. In fact, it appears the painting is bound to Dorian in a supernatural way. An exchange occurred through the painting; an exchange of soul for youth and beauty. Dorian remains young and beautiful, while his inward corruptions are transferred  to the painting. The question is… how does it end in this dark and seedy tale?

Great Expectations

Written by Charles Dickens in 1861, this classic stars an orphan boy named Pip. The tale opens with Pip in the marshy mists of a village churchyard where he encounters a convict on the run. Pip then meets Estella, a snobby rich little girl who captivates Pip with her beauty. Estella belongs to the richest lady in town, Miss Havisham. A decrepit old lady who appears to be frozen in time on her wedding day and living in a run down mansion.

Estella is an unrequited love and represents all Pip can’t have, so he becomes disenchanted with his poor lifestyle and his future as a blacksmith. He longs for the life of a rich gentleman, so he can be closer to Estella. What ensues is Miss Havisham becoming the marionette puppeteer for Pip and Estella as they grow up. Pip finally does achieve the lifestyle he wants, but is haunted by his true self represented in the ghostly convict from the opening scene.