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Morris: Challenging faith is part of our journey

POSTED: February 22, 2008 5:01 a.m.

There has been much talk lately of the strong influence of atheism in the book and movie "The Golden Compass." My youngest son, William, received that book from his devoutly Christian aunt several Christmases ago. An avid reader, he set it aside until recently and worked his way through several series books, including "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Lord of the Rings" series. Just as he read his way to "The Golden Compass," concerns about its message surfaced.

I believe it is a parent's place to monitor the reading and viewing choices of his or her child. To date, I have only limited works on content that is disturbing, especially Holocaust literature.

William has inherited my sensitivity to words in books and songs, and I feel this genre is all the more powerful for its historical truth. These stories of survival and death are important, but they require a certain level of intellectual and emotional maturity to process. William has time to read them as he moves toward high school and beyond.

There are some books that I have prevented myself from reading, at least until absolutely necessary. This is by choice, not censorship. Contrary to popular opinion, English teachers do not automatically love all books.

I had hoped and intended to die in the far-off future without having read "The Call of the Wild." A few summers ago, this book was required reading for the class I teach, English I for high school credit taught to eighth-graders. I consider this the best of all possible worlds, truly, as I teach literature I love to the age I prefer. Yet as I sought to maintain consistency with the high school curriculum, I was faced with the most disliked book I had never read.

Like the conscientious student I once was, I read "The Call of the Wild" and then spent the first month of school grading summer projects. I was right. I really did not like that book. Yet I now know why I do not like it.

To me, this is education. Not reading a book I dislike, but reading it and now knowing why I dislike it. Before, I was ignorant in my dislike of a story told from the point of view of a dog. And while I recognize that some people really enjoy the works of Jack London, I do not. And I could tell you why in great detail, but alas, I shall save that for another day.

And this, dear readers, is education. If anyone noticed the previous sentence and its allusion to "Jane Eyre," you have a teacher to thank. I replaced that book with a science fiction selection in my honors class, largely in deference to my male students. Yet we can all learn from things we do not like, even if we learn why we do not like it.

The science fiction book I now teach to honors is "Fahrenheit 451," a post-World War II book that challenges the ethical, moral and social responsibilities facing America as we entered the Cold War. In this story, books are burned in order to control thoughts and ideas. Yet the final analysis indicates that new ideas may come in any form - discussions, poetry, movies and television - anything that allows us to see the world in a new way or through a different lens.

Yesterday, William and I saw a movie that is sticking with me. In it I saw great religious imagery, as well as the issue of ethics in medicine. While I was entertained, screaming multiple times as mutants attacked Will Smith, I saw great messages of hope and faith in "I Am Legend." William and I had a long discussion afterward, tracing the role of hero, the theme of sacrifice and the moral dilemmas incumbent in fighting mutants.

Yes, movies and books do influence us. Yet I allowed William to read "The Golden Compass." I do not think he has yet finished it. All the discussion surrounding the anti-God message of this book also encouraged William to bring out and read another book that had been set aside: "What Christians Believe" by C.S. Lewis.

One of our discussions of "The Golden Compass" led to a talk of Lewis's own crisis of faith, and the resultant "Narnia" series that is a reaffirmation of his Christian beliefs. We also discussed Mother Theresa and her recently revealed doubts and questions.

As with education, I do not believe that the issue of faith ends with what we believe, but rather with why we believe it. Why do we enjoy some books and not others? Why do some songs, books and movies resonate within us, while others leave us cold? Who are we in this world, and what do we believe, and why?

We must sometimes be faced with what we do not believe, in order to know what we indeed do believe.
Through challenge, we affirm our view of the world. Education, faith and doubt are not all mutually exclusive. After all, there are many oxymorons in faith: We lose to gain; we die to live.

I am reminded of the recent words of Dr. Bill Coates, minister of First Baptist Church, in speaking of faith as the inscrutable. As he indicated, doesn't it make our journey interesting as we try to figure it out for ourselves?

As for me, I still dislike Jack London books, and I am still mulling the religious symbolism in "I Am Legend" -- at least until another thought-provoking catalyst comes along.

Renee Hand Morris is a teacher and resident of Maysville. Her column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Jan. 4, 2008.



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