The Right Kind of Books

Wondering what kind of books are the “right books”?  Trisha Williams, Instructor at Veritas Press Scholars Academy and member of the Emmaus Academy Board of Directors, shares her thoughts on the importance of reading the classics.

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Who would the twenty-nine pilgrims from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales be if we met them today? What would they be wearing? Where would they be going? These questions must be answered by my students as they attempt to modernize the Prologue of the medieval classic.  The point of this project is to demonstrate how timeless the rascally bard’s rhyming characterizations can still be today.  Another point is to compare and contrast the vastly different worldview of medieval society that saw God as sovereign with a contemporary society that likes to pretend he isn’t. The Wife of Bath becomes a character from Desperate Housewives reality TV, the Knight a retired army General, and the meek Parson somehow always a pastor from small town Iowa.  Their destination, instead of pilgrimaging to the bones of martyr Thomas Becket at the famous Canterbury Cathedral, might be Disneyland, Mall of America, Las Vegas, or someplace else seemingly devoid of eternal significance.

Students who enjoy the process so much wonder why can’t they just read and study their own updated version.  After all, it is much easier to understand and way more accessible than the original. Right?

This idea of updating classics is not new.  The Austen Project is one such recent attempt to reimagine Jane Austen’s six classics into modern best sellers.  Val McDermid reworked Austen’s satire Northanger Abbey in 2014.  The Times had this to say about her achievement: “McDermid’s reworking of the original novel is intelligent, amusing and well-written… captures beautifully how it feels to be a teenager… Her obvious pleasure in the task is as contagious as Austen’s wit.”

I chuckled out loud at two points in this review.  Miss Austen would have no idea what the term “teenager” meant, and equating the author’s pleasure in her task to Austen’s sharp wit is not quite the same thing as saying McDermid’s wit rivals Jane’s.

Now before my expected diatribe against classic rewrites begins—you are all expecting that, correct? After all, I do teach classic literature at a classical school–let me clarify that all great writers are unoriginal.  I would even go so far as to say that some of the greatest authors of all time—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare—borrowed their ideas and simply rewrote classic stories.

Shakespeare especially was famous for this.  His source material for Romeo and Juliet starts with Alfred Brooke’s poem written in 1562.  Brooke was inspired by Pierre Boaistuau who was inspired by Matteo Bandello who was inspired by Luigi da Porto who was inspired by Masuccio who was inspired by Xenophon of Ephesus who wrote a story about star-crossed lovers from feuding families in fifth century A.D. Besides Shakespeare, did you recognize anyone?  Why not?  The simple answer is that Shakespeare told the story better than anyone else.  His plot, themes, characterization, and script outshine his source material.  His “new” version of the tragic “love” story became classic and is still considered the best version of this ancient tale; the tale of the sex-crazed teenager who convinces a fourteen-year-old girl to disobey her parents, elope with him to have a marriage that ends with their accidental death and suicide.

Only one original storyteller exists.  His name is Jesus—the Word of God.  From his words he created the world ex nihilo.  Out of his great love he didn’t just speak mankind into existence, but shaped Adam with his hands.  He breathed into Adam and man became a living soul.  Woman came from man’s side as “whoa—man! 2.0” to be his beautiful partner, and together they used God’s gift of language to become storytellers to each other like their Creator whose image they bore.  So first there was Love, but if you know the story you know Death comes next due to Adam’s sin.

My college professor, Dr. Johnson, said long ago that you can spot a classic because it is only ever about love or death and the best of all stories will hold love and death in tension.

That’s the gospel story isn’t it?  Because of sin, Love himself had to die in order for the zombie curse to be broken, so that we could regain true humanity and love him back and love each other.   Part of loving each other is telling the old and new story of our miraculous rescue from the evil Dragon by the Knight in Shining Armor.  We are all the damsel in distress longing to be rescued and loved.   This is the standard classic plotline by which all stories are measured.

So if we are to be Christian storytellers, should we mess with or rewrite the classics? Yes and no.  As already established, none of us are original storytellers nor can we be.  But as my students in my medieval literature class casually forget when they become so pleased with their “invention” of twenty-nine misfits going to Las Vegas, their invention had a source, and I do sadly have to inform them all without exception that their work, while having promise, in no way surpasses Chaucer’s.  But I am careful to add—“One day I hope it will.  Keep writing.  Your work might just be the next classic this world needs to read.”

The genius of Homer, Austen, Tolkien, Dostoyevsky, Dante, Augustine, Milton, Shakespeare, Twain, O’Connor etc. was not born into them.  They were readers before they were writers.  Educator Charlotte Mason said in the nineteenth century:

“Now imagination does not descend, full grown, to take possession of an empty house; like every other power of the mind, it is the merest germ of a power to begin with, and grows by what it gets; and childhood, the age of faith, is the time for its nourishing. The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times–a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story books.”

Mason is speaking of developing the moral imagination—so essential to living out the Christian faith—by reading, as C. S. Lewis puts it in Narnia, “the right kind of books.” Once children read the right books, they perhaps will go on to write the next classic.

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Busted.

thefoxbustersJust a few minutes ago, I finished a read aloud with my son Seth, who is 9 and a 1/4 – this 1/4 year being an important distinction that cannot be forgotten.  Our epic tale was The Fox Busters by Dick King-Smith.  It is a story of fierce courage and unmatched perseverance, blood-thirsty revenge and searing loss.

It is about foxes and pullets.  Of course.

Between the pages of this story, a story recommended by a someone, somewhere that I cannot remember, we meet animal characters that have strikingly familiar personalities.  The reserved and wise mother, the brash and loving father, 3 fabulously gifted pullets and 4 resourceful foxes, to name a few.   We witness tragic loss of life that would be so difficult for a young person to process in a “human” story and bravery reminiscent of the great battles scenes of history, which all garnered the response, “Well, that was dramatic…” from a 9 year old boy.

There are so many, many reasons to read literature.  And I cannot do justice to the many words that have been spoken by men and women much wiser than I about the reasons we should read literature… and great stories about chickens and foxes.  But, I can take a moment to speak to a unique opportunity we have as we read these great stories.

Be quiet.

Let the story speak.

Oh, I had so many opportunities to make deep and meaningful comments during the reading of this story.  “Seth, did you notice how brave X character was?  Which of the 3 sisters do you think is the wisest/bravest/most skilled, etc.?  How would you compare the pullets and the foxes?  Let’s do some research on chickens to see if more “grit” will give them stronger eggs, shall we? Which character do you admire the most?”

None of these comments would have been horrible.  There ARE times for such leadings.  Frankly, there is the chance that those questions might have led to some delightful conversations in which I could have imparted great wisdom and reveled in the brilliant comments that he might have made in  response.

But, that is a chance I am not willing to take.  Because, there is also the great chance that through all my well-intentioned leading questions, the story will be… BUSTED.

Story is powerful.  It speaks to a child.  It will speak to you and if you can quiet down enough, you just might hear it.

Fear is also powerful – a powerfully gnawing evil.  Fear that Seth didn’t really get it.  Fear that he didn’t recognize the traits exemplified in the story that I so want to see exemplified in his life – courage, perseverance, wisdom, family bonds, teamwork – just to name a few.  Fear that if there is no outcome from this event, it is as if it did not occur.  Fear that I am failing him, each and every day.

The victory tonight – and every day – is found in the truth.  The truth that Seth and I are image-bearers of a God who is truth, who loves truth, and who loves us.  That He has created us to love story and to have a place in this chapter He is writing right now.  That He has placed in my son’s heart a touchstone for truth.  While his 9 year old mouth may not have the words to express the truth that he understands, his 9 year old heart has an ear to hear it.   So, right now, as he crawls into bed, I wonder with delight – is he thinking about Spillers and Ransome and Sims and Jefferies?  Will they enter his dreams and his imaginings?

But I also know there is a good chance he is thinking about Cheddar Cheese Pringles.  Nevertheless…

Read to your children.  Then, be quiet.

Let the story speak.

The Road to Emmaus

Sometime you will have to share the story of how you chose the name Emmaus Academy. I’m sure you didn’t just pick any random name. There must be a reason behind it.”

No, we did not. Yes, there is.

This very conversation has repeated itself multiple times over the course of the last few months. Some have never heard the word “Emmaus.” For others, there is a recollection of hearing that name before – is it something from the Bible? And then there are those who know the story and want to hear how it connects to ours.

Not random at all. A result of much thought and prayer.

We do not often have the privilege, the responsibility in this life of bestowing a name upon something. Most of us only go through this rite when we bring children into this world, and we reflect and contemplate as we undergo the process of choosing. That is because it means so much. In a sense, we are blessing those we name. We are recognizing that, while we know they are individuals born with their own personalities, characteristics, and gifts, their names will be a portion of who they are. My children are all named for someone from in our family; their names give them a sense of history, a place in this ongoing familial story. My friends have children named Sophia, which means wisdom, or Charis, which means grace. Names like these are the very prayers of a parent’s heart; prayers that the Lord would not only be gracious in showering them with His wisdom and grace, but also that He would cultivate those virtues within these children. Names can define who we are, what we become.

So how is it that we settled upon “Emmaus”?

It was the desire to create a learning environment modeled after the one the disciples experienced on that road so long ago. A place where questions and conversation are encouraged. A place where historical and current events are examined in light of eternity. A place where hearts would burn with the recognition of Truth, perhaps even before they can see it with their eyes. A place to commune and grow with others. A place that prepares them to eagerly share what they have learned with others, so that they, too, may have hearts that are prepared to receive Truth.

Concluding that this would, indeed, be the right name, we stood and moved from one room to the other. As we did, we passed a picture hanging on the wall, which none of us had noticed earlier. It seemed to me a blessing and a confirmation that we were on the right path.

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This is the history. This is the prayer. This is the mission of Emmaus Academy. And while we are laboring to create this environment for the students, it is our desire to provide a similar community for our families … a place where we can converse, question, discuss. A place where we can learn with and from one another. A place where we can grow.

At a time when so many blogs are truly devoted to the trivial, we launch Notabilia and devote its pages to truth, goodness, and beauty, with prayers that it will bless you.

That is the story. That is the purpose.