About Literary Catechesis



About Literary Catechesis



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Now we must honor heaven’s warden,
the power of the Creator, and his purpose—
work of the father of glory, as he of every miracle,
the everlasting Lord, established the beginning.
He first shaped for the sons of the earth,
heaven for the roof. The holy Creator,
mankind’s warden, then Earth,
the everlasting Lord afterward adorned
the earth for people, the master almighty.

--Caedmon's Hymn



I spent last year teaching nine Catholic third-grade girls. Among all of the amazing experiences I had and lessons I learned, one stuck out in particular: it is very difficult to teach religion from a text book.

Well, I suppose I knew that already. I grew up Southern Baptist. Anyone who has ever suffered through cheap newsprint Sunday School curriculum will understand what I mean when I say that finding Jesus at the middle of a maze will never help anyone find him in real life. Even the rigorous curricula on which many devout Catholics cut their teeth seem to promote memorization rather than thought, leading me to the conclusion Saint Thomas Aquinas reached several centuries before me: "If we resolve the problems posed by faith exclusively by means of authority, we will of course posses the truth--but in empty heads!"

The best religion discussions I had with my third graders were inspired, not by the authority of the religion book--regardless of how much truth it holds--but by our reading books! The Light Princess by George MacDonald got my girls talking about Christ's sacrifice and how it is both a gift and a responsibility for those who accept it. The Little Princess by Francis Hodgenson Burnett turned into a conversation about perfect charity. Even totally secular texts, like The Best Christmas Pagent Ever by Barbara Robinson, taught us about life-changing encounters with the Truth. These third graders learned to ask deep and probing questions many adults seem afraid to ask with real curiosity and insight. They weren't memorizing; they were understanding. I had unintentionally, and through nothing creditable to myself, stumbled upon something very worthwhile.

English literature  is actually very rich in edifying religious and secular texts. Caedmon's Hymn, the first poem recorded in English, was a hymn given by God to an illiterate cowherd. Since then, our literature has moved from heroic epics like Beowulf, to often bawdy medieval Romantic poetry like Troilus and Criseyde; from Puritanical novels like Robinson Crusoe, to ironic social critiques like Pride and Prejudice; from grand stories of social justice like Hard Times, to simple moral tales like Little Women; from to  gorgeous mythopoeic works like The Princess and the Goblin, to high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings. Every English-speaking author has reacted, in some way, to his or her interaction with Christianity and its God. Each and every English text offers a lesson for he who seeks God through words.

Ultimately, Christianity is an experience that should consume every aspect of your life--or, as one of my third-graders worded it, "God made everything, so it's kinda like every subject is religion class!" Literature is my area of expertise, an area where I most readily "see God," and I have found that useful for guiding young people deeper into their faith. I do not claim to be an authoritative source of theological truth or perfected educational strategies. I only wish to introduce new ideas into the world of religious education in the hopes that we can show students of all ages how interesting and relevant Christianity really is.