Catholic Exchange Articles
“You know,” a young student remarked thoughtfully to me one day, “a good movie is better than a bad book.”
Long after the child left, I was still pondering this comment. The knee-jerk reaction of our present culture would likely be to protest this child’s point. Literacy beats screen time hands-down…right?
On a level playing field, it does. Like many, I am wary of screens and fond of books. We do a grave disservice to children when we placate them with massive amounts of digital entertainment. Yet, is reading a book always better than watching a screen? The answer, I believe, depends not on the medium, but on the content.
Contemporary culture readily admits that children’s movies and TV shows vary in their moral content, and so we have a rating system (however flawed) in place to warn parents of the potential for offensive or mature material in a given movie or show. Most people would agree that parents have the right to make sure that their children are viewing movies that adhere to the value system of their families.
When it comes to books, however, our culture seems to turn a blind eye to quality and especially to content. After I recently wrote an article about the common (misguided) mantra, “Whatever gets kids to read,” I was surprised to learn that many discerning parents have been scorned for exercising caution about what their children read.
The scorners adhere to a line of thinking that goes something like this: “Reading is essential for academic success and is the best possible thing a child can do with his time. We must promote literacy in every possible way. The child should be permitted to go to the library and choose any book that makes him want to read. It doesn’t matter what children read, as long as they’re reading.”
It sounds correct in the ears of a culture that sees reading as the pinnacle of education. But examined more closely, this argument is problematic. Reading, in essence, is the communication of words and ideas. Words and ideas are as capable of being either helpful or harmful on a printed page as they are in a movie, a song, a political speech, or anywhere else in life. Poor examples and moral dangers are communicable in the written word, and tragically, they inhabit the realm of children’s books.Ten Minutes in the Library
In preparation for this article, I conducted a small experiment. I imagined that I was a child who was sent to the library for ten minutes and instructed to choose any books I wanted to check out. First, I went to the children’s section and pulled a few books; then, I went to the young adults’ section and did the same. (In order to demonstrate a point, I chose books I would normally stay away from. I suspected, but did not know for certain, what I would find inside. If I had wished to show the good in children’s literature—of which there is much—I would have chosen different books, but my intention was to convey the risks. These were easily accessible books, some prominently displayed, from a wide variety of popular series and authors.)
A cursory glance into several books for younger children revealed the following contents:
- characters regularly using vulgar insults, and embracing sarcastic and disrespectful attitudes (without reprimand, correction, or remorse from which young readers can draw lessons)
- books modeling incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation, without correcting the mistakes for emergent readers who learn proper (or, in this case, improper) language conventions from the books they read
- an illustration showing a large group of children simultaneously wetting their pants to accompany a story line in which a villainous “drop of pee” steals their toilets
- teachers and other adults in authority routinely depicted as dimwitted idiots compared with the children who enjoy making fools of them
- imagery that normalizes violence and desensitizes young readers to its horrors
- an episode in which a small boy attacks another character by striking him in the head with “a solid gold crucifix” that causes a bloody head gash
- books in which occult practices are portrayed as positive forces used to defeat evil (Note: the objection here is not to the mere portrayal of the occult in books, but specifically to its portrayal as morally neutral or even a means to good ends—a dangerous lesson that blurs the line between good and evil and risks giving readers a positive and alluring view of the occult.)
A short glance through two books from the “New Releases” display aimed at high schoolers divulged, among other issues:
- heavy use of profanity
- frequent blasphemy
- a detailed account of a sexual encounter between teenagers
- a teenager fantasizing about graphic violence and watching pornography
- a character using the worst of obscenities to describe a Catholic priest
These and other dangers can strike anywhere, from trendy pop-culture thrillers to critically acclaimed and award-winning books. Even when the warning signs are not immediately obvious upon leafing through a book, problems might emerge on a deeper reading.
Let me be clear: This article is not meant to criticize the library. I love the library. Countless wonderful books line library shelves. Those shelves, with their good and not-so-good choices, are merely a reflection of our world.
And I am not a book burner by any means; I recognize the right of authors to write what they wish to write. But I also recognize the God-given right (and responsibility) of parents, teachers, and authority figures to protect the innocence of children, to feed their minds with food that will help them to grow in intelligence and virtue.
Writers have the right to pen their books, and adults have the right to refuse to give poor literary and/or moral guides to children.The Principle of Presumed Innocence
A rating system for movies and television shows helps many parents to screen content for their children. Why is there no rating system for books? Why does the culture seem to automatically assume that because a book is a book, it is wholesome and educational?
As author Michael D. O’Brien explains in his book, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, (attributing this idea to French writer Mona Mikaël), we have a “cultural norm of presuming children’s books are always innocent, and the principle of innocence is beyond suspicion.”
Yet, as O’Brien quotes Mikaël, “in the last forty years the Western mass culture has seen a crescendo of unrelenting horror stories, including children’s material that has long lost its innocence.”
The holy innocence of a small child is the joy of heaven. So it makes sense that the enemy of heaven would enter every possible door in order to corrupt this innocence. Parents who stand guard at the door of digital media might not realize that the enemy is entering through the back door of children’s books—an arena that the general public lauds as being above reproach.
“Just read a book. Any book,” the culture says to a child. And I understand the thought behind it all too well.
When I was a classroom teacher (years ago, before I had children of my own), I operated in this mindset. I required children to read books of their own choosing, and the only books I refused to approve were books that were too far below the child’s level. Otherwise, as long as it was challenging enough, I didn’t weigh the content. Perhaps I figured their parents would be monitoring that end. (Perhaps their parents thought I would be.) Reading level mattered; moral code didn’t. After all, they were children’s books, and the children had either checked them out of the library or received them from their parents, so how could they be anything other than educational?
One day, a student came to me. He had borrowed one of the books from the bookshelf in my classroom.
“Miss Roan,” he said sheepishly, “this book has bad words in it.” I took the book from him and was aghast to confirm his claim. The book had been in the classroom library since before I had worked there, and I had never thought about checking the books on the shelf. I’d just assumed that because they were children’s books in an educational environment, they were safe. I still cringe at the memory. Sometimes, vigilance is hard learned.Sheep in the Midst of Wolves
So, can we rightly say that a child who reads a book is always doing something better than a child who watches a movie? No, as that wise child once said to me—not if it’s a good movie versus a bad book. Will limiting screen time help children to choose reading? Yes, absolutely. But an honorable movie is better than a poisonous book.
Although it might seem like these threats are unique to our day and age, Scripture reminds us that the world has not been without the danger of evil since the Garden of Eden. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus warns his disciples to be vigilant.
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves;” He tells them, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” There are wolves everywhere, and the world of children’s books is no exception.
At first, Jesus’ warning to be wise as serpents might seem puzzling. Ever since Eden, the serpent has been a symbol of evil, of the enemy who tempts us against God. Why would God want us to be wise as the enemy? But if we think about it in another way, it makes more sense: The serpent is wise in the ways of evil. To be wise as a serpent, then, is not to be like the enemy, but to know the enemy’s tactics, to be aware of his tricks, to not allow ourselves to be fooled into complacency.
At the same time, Jesus says to be innocent as doves. Parents and educators who wish to guard children’s innocence must be wise as serpents about the dangers that abound in children’s books, and innocent as doves in surrounding children with better books.
We must be wise as serpents in a culture that says literacy is more important than morality. Literacy is a precious gift; our children’s souls are even more precious. There is no reason that children cannot have the best of both worlds: Good morality coexists with good literature in myriad books.
We must be innocent as doves when we confront the misguided notion that strong literacy means nothing but the ability to read books. If a child can read a line strung with obscenities, does it contribute toward the goal of literacy? If he can read a line filled with poor grammar, a bathroom joke, a graphic account of violence, or a derogatory insult, is this the literacy for which we strive? The remedy for this plight is a renewed devotion to innocence.
It is important to remember that the motivation behind this vigilance is love. We are not compelled by any personal animosity toward the author. As O’Brien says, “Despite everything we might find objectionable…we cannot presume to judge an author’s motives.” Only God can do that. We are, however, compelled by a loving desire to give our children what is best for them, and this includes giving them literature that nourishes the mind and spirit.Doing the Best We Can
Just because I write about these goals does not mean I am perfect in implementing them. If an inappropriate book slips under the radar, all is not lost. We can only do our best and pray for grace, recognizing that although perfection is impossible, God will bless our efforts.
And while discernment is essential, not every book with problematic content needs to be abandoned. Some types of problems can become teachable moments if we read the book aloud together, keeping in mind that children must not be left to navigate murky waters alone, without the guidance of truth.
I’m not saying that every book we give children must be intellectually rigorous (though I do think we should never underestimate the ability of a child’s capable mind to understand challenging books, and regularly read aloud from the classics); there is a time and place for light, fun reading as entertainment.
Nor am I saying that we must all read overtly Christian books; many worthy books do not contain overt references to Christianity but still impart truth and virtue. And I do not mean that every book must be happy and peaceful, either; conflict in books can help children understand the spiritual battle we are in, when the moral sphere is represented accurately.
At the very least, any book we offer children should model decent writing that doesn’t mislead or degrade children with careless errors, immature jokes, derogatory references, or spiritually dangerous lessons.
I am also not suggesting that children should have no choice in what they read. Rather, they should have plenty of choices within the parameters set by a discerning adult. Instead of giving children unrestricted reign of the library, parents can provide a selection of worthy books (there is no shortage!) from which the children can then be free to choose.A World of Literary Hope
Thanks be to God, we live in a world with great literary hope. Many wonderful authors the world over have contributed to a huge treasury of beautiful children’s books. When we sit together in our homes each day and read aloud wonderful books that honor the dignity of our children, literacy becomes a lesson in love.
And these books are not hard to find. Those ten minutes that we might have given children to find books in the library can become ten minutes of exploring good book lists and ordering titles from inter-library loan. (For those wondering where to begin: Michael D. O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons is an excellent resource that contains a good, long book list. If you’re looking for online lists, many that espouse Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of “living books” will be helpful, such as this one—with the caveat that I cannot 100% guarantee every title.)
As the serpent is the symbol of the enemy we are fighting, the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, our protector and guide on this journey. May the Holy Spirit pour out His wisdom upon us, so that all children will be given the chance to read books that nurture their minds, hearts, and souls.
Children are made in the image of God. They will feel most at home, safe, comfortable, understood, and loved when they read books that echo the innocence, purity, and truth of the Creator in whose image they were made.
“A child whose innocence has been preserved through good instruction is a treasure more precious in God’s eyes than all the kingdoms of this world.”
–St. Anthony Mary Claret
Today’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is very important. It reminds us of the grace and mercy of God when we were first initiated and welcomed into the Church as adopted children of God and when we were washed clean of the stain of original sin. It is also a reminder that we are to participate in the mission of salvation. It is a commitment. Through baptism we are to share with others Christ’s healing presence. Wherever we are, we are called to be Christ for others.
During a baptism the minister says, “My dear child, the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of the Cross.” It is by our baptism that we become Christians, sharing in his divine mission of redemption and salvation.
It was in our baptism that Christ shared his light with us, when he freed us from sinfulness and greed and brought us out of darkness and separation from God so that we might live in communion with God and with our brothers and sisters.
Let us put our faith into action by living this call of our baptism. May it bear much fruit by leading us and others closer to Christ and one day lead us all to our eternal home in heaven.
—Dom Hubert Van Zeller, How to Find God
There is very little information handed down to us about Saint Adrian, but this much is certain: He was born in Africa in the seventh century and while still a very young man became abbot of a Benedictine monastery near Naples. He had turned down an appointment as archbishop of Canterbury, persuading the pope to name a Greek monk by the name of Theodore instead.
When Saint Theodore was appointed archbishop, the pope sent Adrian to accompany him to England as an adviser. Theodore then appointed Adrian as abbot of Saints Peter and Paul monastery (which later changed its name to St. Augustine’s because it had been founded by St. Augustine) in Canterbury.
Saint Adrian established numerous other schools in various parts of England. Many saints, scholars, and missionaries were educated in these schools and went on to do great works for the faith.
Adrian spent 39 years as an abbot in the monastery during which time it became well known as a center for learning. Adrian died there in Canterbury on January 9 in the year 710.
We are thankful, Father, for saints like Adrian who were not only devout and pious disciples of Your Son, Jesus, but great intellects as well. Through their teachings, others learned and continued to enkindle and inflame the hearts of many through their teachings of the faith. We pray that many more will answer the call to teach, instruct, and lead so that your Gospel will be carried to the ends of the earth as Jesus commanded. In His name we pray. Amen.
Other Saints We Remember Today
Saints Julian and Basilissa (304), husband and wife, martyrs
Epiphany is a celebration of the manifestation of the Lord to the whole world. Pope St. Leo says it is the day that Abraham saw and longed to see. This celebration includes the mystery of a radiant star whose mysterious light draws pilgrims from afar. It is a light that shows, discloses and reveals where those who seek the Lord might find him. The radiant splendor of this light is the source of jubilation for those who find it: “Behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star” (Matthew 2:9-10).
What did the Magi from the East mean when they explained, “We saw his star rising and have come to do him homage” (Matthew 2:2)? Were these Gentiles wise because they knew the Scriptures and prayed over its meaning? These astrologers seem familiar with the the ancient oracle of Balaam, “A star shall come forth from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17).
These Persians of the priestly caste were part of prophecy, witnesses that what was once promised was now being fulfilled, “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” As they followed the star, they came to the conviction that the hope of the Gentiles rested with the newborn King of Israel, “Nations shall walk to your light and kings will come to your dawning radiance.” “Bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” they experienced for themselves how “The Lord will be your light forever” (Isaiah 60:1, 3, 6, and 19).
The light these travelers saw was like the light St. John describes in the Apocalypse, “The city had no need for sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure” (Revelation 21:23 and 24). So important is this manifestation of glory that the Evangelist indicates this mystery at the very beginning of his Gospel, “In Him was life, and this life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). This saving glory and this guiding light is found by following the Lord in faith, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The Star is connected to the Word disclosed in the words of Sacred Scripture. Those who want to find this Star for themselves must search the Scriptures like the Magi searched the heavens. As St. Maximus the Confessor explains,
“A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge. For surely the word of the Law and Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.”
This search, this prayer imbued gaze on the Scriptures, this lectio divina is worth the effort. The Light of this Word brings peace and is transforming glory for those who gaze on it. St. Augustine encourages, “The Lord of hosts is himself the King of Glory. He will transform us and show us his face, and we shall be saved; all our longing will be fulfilled, all our desires satisfied.”
In the encounter with Christ this start establishes us in, the soul falls in love with the Lord in deeper ways and is moved to a loved filled adoration of the immensity of God and the greatness of his mercy. The stillness and peace which brilliant radiance of the Word envelops the soul is so great, mystics like Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity are moved by this splendor to cry out in prayer, “I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.”*
Art for this post “Following the Star”: Detail of Homburg Kirchegemaelde (Homburg church painting [Adoration of the Magi]), artist not identified, photographed by Pingelig, 9 October 2014 own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons.About Anthony Lilles
Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John’s Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy.
Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book “Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer,” a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books “30 Days with Teresa of Avila” and “Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux”. And, his book “Fire from Above” was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.
The mission of St. Mary’s Parish is to proclaim and celebrate our salvation through Jesus Christ,our pilgrimage to the Father’s Kingdom enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Our Catholic faith community is nourished by our sacramental life, especially the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. With Mother Mary as our model, we demonstrate our faith through worship, education, vocations and service.