Every year, I return from the Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati with a few themes that seem to capture my mind and heart over and over again from the various talks that I was able to attend. This year, one of those prevailing themes was the idea of creating. As humans, we are created in the divine image of God. It is part of our inmost being to imitate our Creator and one way that we do that is to create. The God of the universe spoke into existence the Heavens and the Earth and everything in them, and while we cannot will into existence a beautiful sonata or the next greatest fresco, we can direct our efforts to glorifying and praising God by doing the work of creating, too. In so doing, Christ can bear fruit through us to grow His Kingdom here on Earth.
In the Christian classical tradition, we hold at the forefront of our minds that our children are image bearers of Christ and so, fittingly, our job as homeschooling parents is to help them imitate their creator by creating. It is a true joy to help our children realize that they were knitted with particular gifts that can grow the Kingdom of God. It is an even greater gift to seek out ways to help them cultivate these gifts to bring truth, goodness, and beauty to those around them. And while every child is not blessed with the gift of ease in writing, or an innate sense of pitch, or an eye for creating a masterful print, all of us are given unique gifts to build the body of Christ here on Earth. Sometimes our gift is simply to help spread the goodness of those who have been gifted with a particular talent that helps raise our hearts, minds, and souls to Heaven. In this way, some of us are called to be curators for the creators.
In one of his talks this past weekend on critics, creating, and curating, S.D. Smith challenged those in attendance to spend more of our time and energy creating and curating the true, the good and the beautiful than on spending time criticizing. I mean, really, if we step back and think about that challenge, it’s not hard to see that most of us are guilty of falling into criticism. It’s so much easier to speak of the evil, the darkness, and the brokenness than it it is to put forth the energy, time, and creativity to create or curate something that embodies the transcendentals.
“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do.”
I look at writers like S.D. Smith, Andrew Peterson, Jennifer Trafton, N.D. Wilson and others from the Rabbit Room and have the utmost respect for the work that they do because they are doing the good work of drawing us closer to God through their writing. They are emulating our Creator with their creations. These writers are persevering in a world that does not always value stories where good triumphs over evil, and where suffering happens, but God’s glory always prevails. These creators have taken the words of Cicero and planted them deeply into their souls:
“I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.”
They’ve taken notice and instead of making it their mission to tell the world how broken it is, and how broken we are, they are creating stories that inspire children and adults alike to not fear the darkness and brokenness, but instead to know that God is greater and stronger than the darkness. And in doing so, they inspire heroic virtue in children. This is being a creator in its finest form.
During another one of S.D. Smith’s talks at the conference, which was just as full of children as it was adults, a girl no older than 7 was sitting in front of me with a little notepad, carefully capturing her thoughts about S.D.’s talk. After spending a bit of time asking the audience about their favorite characters in various stories and what it was that they love about those characters, S.D. shared his simple message that his desire for them was to know that they are characters in their own story—that they, too, have the opportunity to be a hero or heroine just like their favorite characters. And the story they are in is one in which God’s goodness will always prevail over the darkness and hardships of this passing life. And with those words, that little girl sitting in front of me pulled out her pink pencil and carefully wrote,
“I am a heroine in my own story.”
That, folks, is the result of the work of a creator, not a critic. S.D. Smith’s stories and his words have inspired this little girl to greatness. What more could we want for our children?
And you know what is even more grand about that little girl whose heart was touched by S.D. Smith? She was able to meet this author in real life. She could listen to him share his love of writing, the Bible, and his family because he is an author in the 21st century. He is someone she could look to in order to be inspired to create like our Creator because his stories, like works of old, are cultivating her moral imagination in all the right ways. And even though we know this, some still find it easier to criticize the work of current authors simply because they are alive today.
Recently I shared my thoughts about some of the authors from the Rabbit Room with an acquaintance only to have that person remark that only if these authors were lucky would the works of a few still be around a hundred years from now. This, of course, came from a critic who had not yet even opened up the pages of a single one of these delightful works. This is being a critic for the sake of criticizing!
“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do.”
Yes, they do.
Why do we take on this idea, the mind of a critic, and make the assumption that living authors are unworthy of our time? I know there has been a time, up until recently even, when I was one of these critics who did not see the value in taking the time to read from current authors, at least not on a regular basis. I loosely took C.S. Lewis’s recommendation:
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. . . “
What I love about this quote from Lewis is that it encourages balance and virtue. It helps us to understand that works of old inform works of new and both can lead us to God. Though, like with anything that is good, it is easy to criticize and swing the pendulum off balance. My bias towards classic literature came from teaching in public and private schools and this encouraged me to swing the pendulum towards the old and shy away from the new. When I was teaching, I was appalled with the literature selections that filled our libraries, and thus the minds, of the children I was entrusted to educate. I still remember the tinges of sadness I felt when the majority of my second graders didn’t know basic Mother Goose nursery rhymes, had never read an original fairy tale, or delighted in the works of Beatrix Potter or Robert McCloskey.
Add to that, the majority of the books in my students’ hands promoted perverse worldviews and idolized characters that embodied selfishness, hatred, and a myriad of other character traits that I would never want my children emulating. I was determined to do things differently with my kids because a child’s moral imagination is sacred ground and we ought to be careful what we allow into it, especially when their little souls are tender and fragile. Our culture today, and many creators within it, are not sensitive to this reality. And so I fell into the camp that said that the only good books that are worthy of my family’s mind are those that come from the best curated lists, like those of John Senior. From there it is easy to fall down the slippery slope of criticism and begin to choose old books simply because they are old not because they are innately better than current works.
As usual, Lewis was correct. He suggests that the ratio of old to new be one to one, so clearly he understood that authors of today are worthy of our time. I was a little slow on the up-take with that one.
As Sara Masarik, from Plumfield and Paidea, recently posted, “I am a lover of old books and am usually fairly skeptical of new ones. Sometimes, however, new authors with old souls do something really special. They build on the of the truly great children’s authors. They show a respect for the genius that came before them and they add their humble contribution in the hopes that it makes the world a better place.”
Recently, our family has begun opening up the pages to the work of authors like those from the Rabbit Room, and have found that our hearts and minds have been changed and challenged in just as powerful ways as when we read our favorite classics. We have come to delight in these authors who are making this world a little brighter, a little more Christ-like, a little more full of the true, the good, and the beautiful. God didn’t stop His mighty work of creation by gifting no one since Chesterton or Tolkien with the ability to write in such a way as to lead us closer to Him. God’s work of creation continues today and will likely continue for generations to come.
I’ve come to hold that there are authors today who are writing works that I truly believe will stand the test of time in physical form—their books will be carefully handed down for generations to come . And even if I am wrong and no one else but my kids reads these books, their story will live on because they too, like the great works of authors before them, have touched my children’s souls and helped them to develop heroic virtue and cultivate their moral imagination and that will last into eternity.
And so when I see little girls in conference centers carefully writing the words, “I am a heroine in my own story,” because her little soul has been touched by the goodness that drips from S.D. Smith’s works, I am reminded of the truth that criticizing and condemning for their own sake will never be as powerful or be able to wash away the work of creators who are emulating their Creator. He is the source of all that is true, good, and beautiful, and we have valuable and worthy opportunities in front of us to emulate that in our creations and in our ability to curate these works of today.