“You’ll go to the Bad Place,” said Mary Jane Broom. “My mother says anybody who doesn’t go to church or Sunday School will go straight to the Bad Place when they die.”
Eleanor turned pale. “The Bad Place?” she said. “You mean…?”
“I’m not supposed to say that word,” said Mary Jane primly.
Eleanor’s little brother, Edward, swung his lunch box around in a big circle. “She means you’ll go to Hell,” he said.
Quite a start for a gradeschool children’s novel! I confess I was a little nervous reading Jane Langton’s The Astonishing Stereoscope to my kids, but I am glad I did. It does not shy away from big questions, but it keeps them at concrete levels that kids relate to. As the story goes on, Eleanor celebrates Halloween by calling down a curse on her house in a cackling witch voice, only seconds before a family friend falls from their roof and ends up in a coma. Her feelings of guilt, and questions about life and death, launch the story from there.
Langton has a very particular perspective. She loves the writings of the American “Transcendentalists,” Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she is not shy about it. But Langton presents her ideas respectfully, and often beautifully.
While the kids who taunt Eleanor at the beginning are bullies, Eleanor finds authentic and caring grown-ups as she visits a Catholic Mass and a Congregationalist Sunday School. (A Catholic Priest presents an oddly Protestant explanation of the Eucharist, but I’ll try not to quibble.) She also takes magical journeys to witness things like Jesus’s Last Supper, a colonial Puritan schoolhouse, and the wonders of nature as small as the atom and as large as the Milky Way. The children have a vision of the evolution of life on earth through the ages, and Eleanor is led to wonder what the ultimate goal of humanity is. She first considers with horror whether it might be the people at the local bank who relish having the power to take her family’s home in foreclosure. But then she concludes instead that the height of humanity is embodied more in her uncle Freddy, who is flawed, but is kind and generous, smart and thoughtful.
The big challenge of this book from a parenting perspective is that I do not ultimately agree with Langton’s perspective. I am a Christian rather than a pluralist like Uncle Freddy, who embodies Transcendentalism in the story. He tells Eleanor his own view of religion at one point, though he does not demand that Eleanor embrace his worldview, instead urging her to continue her journey and find what she believes. For what it’s worth, Eleanor leans toward Christianity in the end. Yet Langton artfully stops short of giving her readers a clear answer about her choice. When the plot is settled, Uncle Freddy asks Eleanor and Eddy if they have decided what religion they will embrace, but they both have already turned their attention toward other concerns of childhood. They are not finished products, but seeds for growth have been planted.
As for my family, I don’t leave it to my kids simply to search for what they believe; rather, I teach them the Christian faith explicitly. But when my kids disagree about the faith, I make it a point to explain gently and leave it at that, rather than demanding they fall into line. They have to attend church whether they want to or not, but I do not presume to control their minds. I do confess that I paused after reading them Uncle Freddy’s advocacy for pluralism, and let my kids know that some people believe that way, but that we hold to the Christian faith. But I didn’t paint Freddy as a villain, as if he’s an enemy of our family and what we stand for. Indeed, a key part of what he said becomes quite true when our kids grow up, whether we parents like it or not: they will ultimately choose what to believe.
Fearless but Not Triumphalistic
A good playground does not expose kids to narrow rope bridges over deadly ravines, but neither does it just have plush paths over flat ground. It has challenging things to climb, low enough that no one’s life is at stake, but high enough to help kids face their fears when things aren’t completely safe.
For a similar reason, I think The Astonishing Stereoscope is a fine part of a Christian education. I always continue to lay a solid foundation of what I hope my kids will believe, but in that context a book like this is a great way to expose them to something that is challenging without being damaging. (Personally, I would worry more about something like the Christmas movie Elf, where “believing” is presented as holding to something we know to be a fairy tale, just because it makes everyone feel good.) Langton gives readers something to consider, but she does not manipulate or lie, she does not bully or shame the audience into agreement. Ancient child-sacrificers and modern-day bankers get a bad rap, but otherwise no one is painted as a villain because of what they believe.
Reading this book helps me show my kids that, while we do not agree with everything we read, people who disagree are not something that we fear. But neither are they simply people to be vanquished, as if the only way to avoid fear is to destroy whatever is different, or whatever we believe to be incorrect. Rather, we look for what we can learn from what is good, while admitting where we disagree.
To me, this is the spirit of critical reading, and of Christian engagement with the world. Its goal is to form adults who are not afraid of different ideas, who can think clearly and recognize the cracks in their own worldview. It is to form adults who can engage others sympathetically and critically at the same time, and who will not be conscripted blindly into culture wars where it is quite likely that no one side can adequately be labelled “Christian.” Kids won’t understand all the ideas underlying a book like this, but I think reading it with a caring parent can help form them into people who are both anchored and open at the same time. In the meantime, The Astonishing Stereoscope is artfully written and tells an engaging story, with characters who embody traits worth emulating.
The morning after we finished the book, my kids and I got donuts to celebrate the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas. As we ate, one of my kids brought up the topic of death, after which another kid talked about Jesus dying, which led to a discussion of the Trinity and beyond. I offered a bit of catechesis.
Then after breakfast we sat down and read about Thomas Aquinas, who found at the end of his life that the Presence of Christ was greater than any idea he could think of, or write of in a book. Yet this same Aquinas was quite ready to draw on the ideas of non-Christians, in particular the pagan Aristotle and the Muslim Averroes, to help him understand the Christian faith and the world. In other words, his faith was squarely fixed on Christ, but his mind was ready to learn from the whole world. I’m not sure I could have a greater prayer than that for my children.