The Cure for Cultural Blindness

An early illustration for Huckleberry Finn by E.W. KembleMore readers will soon get a chance to read Huckleberry Finn. That’s the good news. Twain’s book was the 5th most challenged book of the ’90s, according to the American Library Association, and 14th in the first decade of the 21st century.

The bad news? The new readers might not be reading Mark Twain’s version.

According to Publishers Weekly via CNN, NewSouth Books will be removing the racial words from the book, including the “N-word” and “Injun.” The Twain expert in charge of the “update” contends that he’s not censoring but contextualizing Twain and his novel’s race matters to the 21st century.

This is troubling for at least two reasons. The first has to do with the idea of contextualization. The CNN writer mentions that some books need “context” to be enjoyed, and this is most certainly true. But who provides the context? Is it up to the reader to seek to understand the cultural milieu that gave birth to the troublesome book? Or should we clean up the book itself so that it does not offend us?

Unfortunately, the Twain expert and plenty of others think the book (and its curmudgeonly author) is the problem. Contrast that view with C.S. Lewis’s. He notes that reading old books exposes our blindness about our own century. In his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, Lewis writes:

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.

I expect Lewis would call “modern” any book contextualized for its century. Perhaps a better approach to Huckleberry Finn would be to read it alongside Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to ask how the same historical time could produce these two books.

The second reason a new Twain edition should trouble us is because it represents another altar to “progress,” a new ritual in the cult of the new. Things change, and as Lewis said, our blindnesses and biases will change. Consequently, the things we “update” will change as words and their meanings expand and change. I contend that there is value to understanding words, and the concepts they represent, throughout their history. Simply changing the words in a work of literature requires nothing of the reader, and it makes him more and more a consumer of literature rather than a discerning reader.

Lest you think the Twain update is an isolated incident, or has little effect, we have seen this approach affect Bible translation as well, most notably in the update of the New International Version, the TNIV. The TNIV translated many masculine pronouns in the Scriptures with gender-neutral pronouns, in an effort to contextualize the Scriptures for our troubled day. While this seems like a good idea on its face because of the need for universal access to the Scriptures, the work is misguided. After protests from some groups, the committee of scholars who produced the TNIV shelved it, resolving to update the NIV. (They’ve released the new version, and it shares many of the TNIV’s problems.)

What does this have to do with education? And with Dominion education in particular? As a base, we work to ensure that our students will understand that they need not fear words. We also help them read with understanding, discernment, and wisdom, seeing every cultural artifact—book, movie, painting, poem—situated in its historical context. Furthermore, we teach them to see the world through the lens of the eternal Word, God’s revelation of himself. Most importantly, we constantly remind them that God revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ—the ultimate “contextualization”—knowing that some would be offended by him and his gospel.

How do we accomplish these things? In part, by teaching students to use the “tools of learning,” three of which are questions, metaphors, and categories. First, we ask, and teach them to ask, the right sort of questions, believing that the quality of our questions will affect the quality of our life. Next, we give them metaphors, without which no one can speak or think very deeply. The literature and art they read and see gives them a rich metaphorical vocabulary for understanding their place in God’s world. Finally, we give them categories, usually in the form of words. They help students to break down and distinguish their experience of the world, so we must give them an abundance of enriching categories. Without understanding noble categories like justice, mercy, forgiveness, sacrifice, wisdom, and beauty, their thinking and living will likely be smaller and pettier.

Here is a real example of these tools in action. This morning in Recitation, a second-grade student asked me why Jesus had to be a boy and not a girl. That may seem a question to dismiss, but in light of the above examples, we dare not do so. After all, we believe that “man” and “woman,” “son” and “daughter” are words that represent real categories of creation. In my answer, I explained that ultimately, God chose how he would reveal himself, and that although some things are mysteries, we can trust that God governs all to his glory and the good of his creation. I could also have pointed out that the Son is the eternal Son– according to the Scriptures. After my answer, another second-grader wondered about Creation and Fall, whether God’s creation of Adam first and Eve’s subsequent submission to her husband (Gen. 3:16) had anything to do with it. I replied that the Scriptures do call Jesus a “second Adam” (a powerful metaphor). It was a great moment, and a bit of a terrifying moment.

Without the proper tools, these word-related tools, such a discussion would be impossible. They enable us to read the great books of the past with discernment, to discuss the great ideas with wisdom, and thus they are at least part of a cure for our cultural blindness. I’m grateful for a school like Dominion and for the classical method that make learning and practicing the tools a priority. I’m all the more grateful since our culture’s verbal poverty seems destined to continue.

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