The Antithesis and Teaching Literature (1)

Miss Lubbers is a member of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

American literature is one of the required courses for students who graduate from high school. This was true when I taught literature at Covenant Christian High School, Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and it is true today. One of the main reasons that schools teach American literature is that citizens of the USA, who ought to know the history of their country, should also study the literature of their country. In a certain sense the literature of a country is the result of the historical development of that country. Dr. Henry Zylstra wrote in an article for the Reformed Journal, March 1955 the following:

If you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time, you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that time and that age. In the novels and stories and poems and plays of a period you have a good indication of what, deep down, that period was about. I am thinking now, of course, of the real literature, the valid and undissim-ulating literature. I am not thinking of the quantities of drugstore fiction, surefire Broadway hits, “slick” magazine stories, or of the tons of synthetic entertainment and pastime books in which people in our time seem determined to hide from themselves and their problems (Testament of Vision, p. 5, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1965).

Although it is certainly appropriate that one adopt the position that American literature is taught to students because they should study and know the literature of their country, there is a more fundamental reason for teaching literature. A parent led me into thinking about this more fundamental question when he asked the probing question whether I could teach the antithesis in literature. I believe the question deserves an answer. The responsible and thoughtful teacher ought to ask, “How can I do more than merely teach literature? How can I use literature, both Christian and secular, to teach transformed young Christians to read and study literature from a Reformed and Christian perspective—one that is distinct from the philosophy and ideology of the world? Because I do not believe in world flight (een boekje in een hoekje mentality or, literally, a little book in a little corner mentality), how can I use literature, both Christian and secular, to teach young Christian students to understand the antithesis and to think antithetically?”

Although some literature is so immoral that it ought to be censored and avoided, antithetical teaching cannot be identified or equated with mere avoidance of non-Christian literature. If one were to use this approach, it would not be possible to have an authentic course in literature. R.C. Sproul stated that “the school cannot have an authentic course in American literature if non-Christian books are excluded. If a student is to become knowledgeable of American literature, he cannot completely bypass Steinbeck or Hemingway or a host of other authors who are not Christian …. For a student to understand major themes of literature that shape the American culture, he must be able to study them” (R.C. Sproul, Pleasing God, p. 66, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois, 1944).

It must be observed in the first place that formally the study of literature in the Reformed Christian classroom will not be different from the study of the literature in the secular classroom. When Christian school students, who are new creatures in Christ, study the literature written by the American authors, they will attempt to understand the content and comprehend the craft and style of the writers. Students in literature classes must be taught to identify and explain such poetic and literary qualities as alliteration, consonance, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Students must also be aware of the philosophic bias of the writers. They should understand the difference between the writer who is a Calvinist, and the writer who is a Transcendentalist, a Deist, a Pantheist, a Romanticist, a Realist, or a Naturalist.

The Reformed Christian teacher must, in the second place, understand that the antithesis comes to expression in the life of believers (both the writers and readers), because they have been spiritually changed from those who serve Satan to those who serve God. Redeemed Christians have died unto the world and live unto God (cf. Rom. 14:8). Redeemed Christians are new creatures in Christ, and as new creatures they are called to read, to play, to work, to marry, to write, to read, and to study in a world of sin, chaos, apostasy, and error. God’s people do the same things as the reprobate wicked but with a different purpose. Formally there is no difference, but essentially and materially there is a great difference. Grace and regeneration have made all the difference. Because the natural man is not changed from darkness to light, he can understand only the horizontal relationships of man to man and man to the creature. Even this understanding is inaccurate and perverted because he does not have the key of knowledge to understand even the horizontal relationships correctly. It is absolutely impossible for the natural man to understand the most important relationship—the vertical relationship of the man to God. This is impossible because he hates God. The new man in Christ who has experienced a spiritual change of heart can understand correctly both the horizontal and vertical relationships. This understanding will have an effect on the basic attitude toward life. The attitude toward life and the interpretation of life by God’s people will be radically different, because they are not conformed to this world but are transformed by the renewing of their minds (cf.Rom. 12:2).

It is important to note that the renewal of the mind is to be distinguished from the current emphasis on the part of many that Christians are commanded to make all things new and engage in the renewal of the world. There are those who teach that, because God speaks of renewing all things, it is the task of Christians to make all things new. The Bible does not teach that man must renew all things. This is impossible for man, and it is not the responsibility and calling of the Christian. In Christ all things have been made new. In principle Christ has saved the entire creation (i.e., cosmic redemption).

To teach that man cannot contribute to the recreation of all things and that he is not commanded to contribute to the recreation and renewal of all things is not to teach that man is passive and inactive. Although man is not required to redeem all things, he is required to live an active life in obedience to God.

World flight is not the correct response of the Christian. The Scriptures do not teach world flight. The child of God is in the world and must live as a Christian in the world. The creation is ours and we may use it and enjoy it. We may live in it and work with it in such a way that we rule it under Christ to the glory of God.

Redeemed Christians will not serve God perfectly but they will fall into sin in their activities. Nonetheless, it is impossible for them to sin as those who do not love God. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that “it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Lord’s Day 24). The child of God has been turned from sin, he is sorry for his sin, he confesses his sin, and by grace he willingly walks in all the good works which God hath before ordained (Eph. 2:10). II Timothy 2:21speaks of one who is sanctified and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. God wills that those who are consecrated to Him shall be diligent and faithful and be good stewards. We are commanded to wake up and work before the face of God in God’s world with God’s talents.

The Word of God teaches thatthe man of God is a new creature, and therefore old things have passed away and all things have become new. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature (creation); old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (II Cor. 5:17). The saved and regenerated Christian possesses a new desire, and he has a new goal in life. His goal is to live unto Christ, to fight against sin. He prays for the coming of the kingdom. The coming of the kingdom—the spiritual kingdom of Christ—means that all things of this present time will pass away. All things will become eternally and perfectly new in the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. The Christian yearns for, earnestly seeks, and prays for the coming of the spiritual kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, when Christ with His redeemed church shall be all in all (cf. Rev. 21:4).

David Engelsma identifies and explains the Reformed view of the antithesis in Reformed Education, Chapter 3, “Reformed Education and Culture,” pp. 56, 57, Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000.

In the world, the Reformed man lives the antithesis. God has established the antithesis between His people, chosen out of the world, and the reprobate wicked. God calls His people to live antithetically. This is the deathblow to the theory of common grace.

The life in the world of the regenerated elect has its source in the new life of Christ and is directed by the power of God’s grace in Christ…. Advising God’s people to find the source and power of life elsewhere, as, for example, in common grace, is intolerable, is attempted murder of the Christian life. It is exactly the struggle, day in and day out, of the child of God to think, will, feel, speak, and act out of Christ Jesus by the power of the grace of the Spirit.

The life of the unregenerated unbeliever, in contrast, has its source in the flesh, that is, depraved human nature, and is directed by the power of sin. It is a living and walking in sin.

Therefore, the life of the believer and the life of the unbeliever are in opposition.

This radical, spiritual difference shows itself in all of life. First, the life of the believer is subject to the Word of God, whereas the unbeliever’s life is independent of the Word and in rebellion against it. Second, the goal of life is different. The believer directs his life towards God. His life is God-centered. The unbeliever leaves God out. His life is man-centered.

Herman Hanko summarizes the antithesis in For Thy Truth’s Sake, Chapter 13, p. 257, Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000. “The antithesis between the people of God and the wicked is an antithesis which comes to expression in all of life.”

With respect to the application of the principle of the antithesis to the teaching of literature, it is imperative that teachers and students understand that the approach and method of the Reformed Christian must be rooted in and based upon the radical spiritual difference between the believer and the unbeliever. Although the Reformed Christian teacher uses the same literary works as the secular teacher, the Christian student must study and analyze these works from the Reformed Christian perspective, the biblical and confessional perspective. The student must most certainly be taught to develop an appreciation for the message, the form, and the style of “good” literature. However, the Reformed Christian instructor must emphasize that an antithesis, a fundamental difference, exists between the elect chosen people of God and the reprobate wicked. This difference will come to expression in the literary works of the unbeliever and the believer, and Christian students must be challenged to recognize and identify this difference in the analysis and evaluation of the writings. Reformed Christian students are commanded to recognize and identify the unbelieving response, a response of rebellion and rejection of the truth of God’s Word in the literary productions of unbelievers, and the believing response of glad acceptance of the truth of God’s Word in the writings of believers.

The literature teacher in the Christian school must expose students in Christian schools to the ideas of non-Christian writers and Christian writers. In the school that honors and acknowledges God, students and teachers must examine the antithesis that exists between the perspective of this world and the Word of God. To teach antithetically is to teach the truth as it is founded upon the Scriptures and Reformed confessions. Covenant youth in their interpretation of life and their interpretation of the products of men must be led to use the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions. It is crucial that covenant youth be given an opportunity to manifest that they are not of this world but belong to a new humanity. Students must not only be given the opportunity, but they must be urged to examine the antithesis that exists between the perspective of this world and the perspective of the Word of God. Reformed Christian students should use correctly the many opportunities they are given to interpret what men and women say in their writings about life, death, and the world in which we live. The Christian world-and-life view must come to expression. This world-and-life view is rooted in an allegiance to the inspired and infallible Word of God. The response of the believer must be such that it indicates that he thinks, wills, feels, speaks, and acts out of Christ Jesus by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

(I hope to demonstrate in the next article how the teacher can help students, who are commanded to live antithetically, to explain and react to a specific literary work.)