A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing?

Dear Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin,

I’m 16 years old, I’m home schooled and (surprise) I love to read . I’ve always read ANYTHING I can my hands on from Jane Austen to Stephen King to John Steinbeck to Anthony Burgess and back again. My Mom and Dad, never prohibited me from reading anything, from the time I was about 11 years old, I pretty much took control of my reading censorship, and I’m not afraid to say I’ve had a awesome time with it.

My Mom and Dad are good God fear people who put a great love of Jesus in me, and I don’t want you to think they haven’t given me guidance, because truly they have. In fact, I think by giving me that intellectual freedom, they gave me “so much more” than if they had only allowed me the “proper” or “age appropriate” literature.

I’ve been exposed to ideas and opinions few people encounter until collage. Some of them made me doubt my Christianity, for a short time I considered myself somewhat of an agnostic. But in the end that doubt made my faith stronger,

as it says in 1 Peter 1:7 So that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Basically what I’m trying to say is, I think you may be doing a disservice to the young women reading your blog. By telling them to so carefully guard they’re hearts, you end up turning them from learning. If your Faith is true, it will survive any false opinion, idea, or doctrine. Instead, you should more vehemently encourage curiosity about the world and its ideas. I realize young minds can be pliable, but only through the observation and study of things, can we understand them. I.E. We cannot understand redemption unless we understand sin. We can’t understand what it is to be saved if we’ve never been in trouble.

God Bless the both of you.
Your sister in Christ


Dear ______,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful email! Anna Sofia and I really appreciate hearing from girls with the self-discipline and gumption to take their educations by the horns, and much of what you said struck a personal chord with me. Like you, I’ve always been a bookworm, and also like you, I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to read widely. I also liked Animal Farm better than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, so I think I know where you’re coming from.

When you saw our post about our new audio message, “Jane Austen and Vampires: Examining Girls’ Literary Appetites and Literary Eating Disorders,” you might have been concerned that we were warning girls away from books that would expose them to a broader world of ideas than found in standard “safe” girls’ literature. Maybe even to stay in the safe realm of books about bonnets and dollies and far away from the danger zone of the war of ideas. If your point is, “You’re not getting a full or useful education if you only read Amish princess novels or Victorian sermonettes,” Anna and I couldn’t agree more.

The Bible gives girls a thumbnail sketch of the world as God sees it, and it’s a pretty robust saga of tyranny, slavery, economics, warfare, jurisprudence, and crime, which includes very few bonnets.

In fact, one of the key points to this message is that it’s time to re-think the merit of what most consider “proper” or “age-appropriate” literature for girls. Young women have a long history of insulating themselves from the reality of the spiritual warfare around them with fantasies of a world all in pink – a world made up entirely of chick lit. components (romance, girlfriend rivalries, love triangles, clothes, parties, feminine pastimes, etc.) instead of the things that actually make the world go ‘round (war, politics, economics, agriculture, theology, etc.) And from Green Gables to Mansfield Park to Forks, Washington, this is the world most girls’ literature takes place in.

This is not the real world. The Bible gives girls a thumbnail sketch of the world as God sees it, and it’s a pretty robust saga of tyranny, slavery, economics, warfare, jurisprudence, and crime, which includes very few bonnets. Besides being infallible on all other points, it’s the perfect model for the breadth of universe girls should immerse themselves in.

The premise of this talk is that girls need to read books that will equip them for this real world, rather than mentally loll in a safe, pretty, imaginary world of dainty hobbies and romantic fantasies. This is why I would be more likely to give my daughter One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch than Daddy Long Legs, and it would be because of the gritty realism of the content, not in spite of it.

The problem with Twilight, for instance, is certainly not that it shows girls too much of the big bad world. Its problem is that it plunges them more deeply into a world that doesn’t line up with the rules of reality. And in this way, it’s not that much different from Amish romance novels (except for the buttons) — both let us wallow in an extremely artificial world instead of dragging us into reality – a world of duty, consequences, and people at war with our faith.

Women also have vigorous roles to play, both in public and private, in peace and in war; any woman who wants to discharge her duties on the world stage is going to need an education with teeth.

I’ve always admired John Milton’s summary of “a complete and generous education,” as “that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of peace and war.” But why stop with men? Women also have vigorous roles to play, both in public and private, in peace and in war; any woman who wants to discharge her duties on the world stage is going to need an education with teeth. If we’re going to be useful in the great fight of faith, we have to understand the terms of the fight, and the weapons of our – and the enemy’s – warfare. We have to know about the ideas that have been warring against Christianity through all history. But more importantly, we have to know how to identify them and how to combat them, or we’re going to be worse than useless soldiers. We may end up on the other side.

This is because ideas aren’t neutral. Every idea is either true or false; every thought either lines up with God’s truth or defies it. And every time we come in contact with a book, as we point out in this message, we’re not just coming in contact with a story – we’re coming in contact with another mind, a mind with its own worldview and religion, a mind that’s either with Him or against Him (Luke 11:23). The question for us is: Which mind will be the dominant mind? Are we grounded enough in our knowledge of the Lord’s mind to see where the other falls short? Or will this new mind become the standard by which God’s mind will be weighed in the balance and found wanting?

I’d love to know more about your story. You say that some of the ideas you encountered in your reading made you doubt your Christianity. Do you mean that you were a believer, and then you stopped believing, and then started believing again? Or that through your reading you came to realize you were not a believer, and were cut to the heart and born again? What exactly did you doubt, and what convinced you to believe? When your books made you doubt God, did God come make Himself more real to you, or did the books make Him more real to you? What was it that proved to you “that He exists and that He rewards those who seek him”? (Heb. 11:6)

If false ideas force us to acknowledge our lack of a spiritual foundation and drive us to Scripture to find our footing – wonderful! But if we know we aren’t grounded enough in the Word to know how to process confusing new ideas, the answer is not to drink more deeply of those wells. If our faith is weak, Romans 10:17 tells us what Book to read to strengthen it: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

On the strengthening of our faith, you quoted 1 Peter 1:7 (one of my favorite verses) – but there’s a difference between embracing the trials and tests God sends to try our faith (James 1:2-4), and willfully flirting with ideas that we know will undermine it. Experimenting with dissenting beliefs until we realize that we don’t know what’s right anymore may sound intellectually fair and scholastically noble, but it’s not a virtue; at least, not in God’s eyes. The Bible actually does tell us to avoid chasing certain kinds of ideas. I didn’t say it; 1 Timothy 6:20,21 did. “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.”

Willful doubt is not one of the steps to higher faith or higher wisdom. “[T]he one who doubts,” according to James 1:6-8, “is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” We may need to doubt whether we “are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5), but if we doubt that God is real and His word is true, we’ll never find truth.

Getting familiar with His Word – the field guide to every heresy in the world – is square one. After all, our job is to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5) The right attitude isn’t, “If you see a false idea, pretend it isn’t there and maybe it will go away” (or even “If you see a false idea, close the book!”). The attitude of someone fighting firmly on God’s side is to recognize a false idea, see it with God’s eyes, call it out, and prove it false. There is no alternative option; at least, not for someone who wants to claim, “I hate vain thoughts: but thy law do I love.” (Psalm 119:113)

In other words, I believe every girl should know the Bible’s answer to agnosticism, to existentialism, to transcendentalism, feminism, chauvinism, socialism, fascism, racism, mysticism, Darwinism, Zoroastrianism, Rastafarianism, Swedenborgianism, and every other idea books have to offer.

The point is that our minds, as well as our hearts, as well as our bodies – have to bow the knee. Our minds must acknowledge that Christ is Lord of the world of ideas. Our minds, howsoever intelligent or rational, must accept that they are not the standard – the mind of Christ is.

“Man must think God’s thoughts after Him if he is to know anything,” wrote William Blake in The Foundations of Christian Scholarship. “How does one know whether he is thinking God’s thoughts? To the extent that God’s thoughts are revealed to us in Scripture, to this extent can we think His thoughts after Him.” The goal, as John Calvin put it, is to “give up our own understanding, and renounce the wisdom of the flesh, and thus we must present our minds to Christ empty that He may fill them.”

There is indeed a verse (Prov. 4:23) that tells us to guard our hearts “with all vigilance.” Does that mean shielding our hearts from knowledge? Proverbs 15:14, 18:15, 22:17, and 23:12 all say to do the exact opposite. We just don’t have the option of leaving our hearts open to loving the things God hates. In other words: If you felt like you needed my permission to read Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book, you have it. If you want God’s permission to love it, you don’t.

But then, we should also ask, to what end do we read books like this? This is where I got it wrong in my reading habits as a girl. If we read to amuse ourselves, to get away from it all, or to make ourselves feel smart, then we should ask ourselves how well we’re doing at “taking every thought captive” and “redeeming the time.” When I was in my mid-teens, I became convicted that I needed to be much more deliberate about what I put into my mind and why. Our goal, I realized, should be to look for the books that are the most profitable, the books will equip us to be a more faithful soldiers of Christ. And the goal is also to grow in our appreciation for the perfection of God, God’s reality, and God’s law – and how far superior that is to any invention of man.

You say, “We cannot understand redemption unless we understand sin. We can’t understand what it is to be saved if we’ve never been in trouble.” True – the fact is, we’re born already knowing sin and in trouble. It’s not something that should require much further study. And every girl saved by grace understands that she is sinful enough to be justly condemned for ever, without needing to study sin or experience new varieties of trouble to know that she needs a Savior. She sees enough blackness in her own heart to know that what she needs to pursue is the light. The other fact is, we clearly still don’t understand redemption if what we mostly want to understand is sin. We clearly still don’t understand what it is to be saved if we prefer trouble. “And this is the judgment, declares John 3:19: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

I’d like to send you a copy of the “Jane Austen and Vampires” message. I think you’ll find that the heart of it is to “vehemently encourage curiosity about the world and its ideas” – and more importantly, to encourage girls to see that world and those ideas with God’s eyes. I’d love to hear what you think – please write and let me know. And again, I very much appreciated your email and your concern. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to clarify a message very close to my heart.

May God bless you richly as well…

Your sister in Christ,

[By the way, congratulations to Leah C. for winning the giveaway for a copy of “Jane Austen and Vampires”! We hope the message is a blessing to you.]

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