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Reading Classic Literature From a Christian Perspective: Part I

By Adam Andrews
If you have never read Jack Londons classic 1908 short story To Build a Fire, you should
put it on your winter reading list. This harrowing description of a mans struggle for survival
in the sub-zero temperatures of the Yukon Territory will make the upcoming seasons
coldest day seem balmy by comparison.
The storys protagonist (referred to only as the Man) has been warned about the dangers of
extreme cold, and yet as the story opens he foolishly begins a day-long hike on foot toward
a distant mining camp, accompanied only by his dog. As the temperature falls, the Man
slowly realizes that he is engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the cold. It will take
careful planning and foresight to survive.
Unfortunately, the Man is plagued with bad luck from the start. He accidentally steps in an
icy stream. He builds a fire to dry himself but stupidly locates it beneath a snow-laden tree.
The fires heat dislodges the snow from an overhanging branch, which falls on the fire and
puts it out. By the time he arranges wood for another fire, his hands are too cold to
manipulate the matches.
A dull sense of dread overtakes him as he realizes that he has miscalculated the cold and
his own powers to withstand it. He tries to kill his dog so that he can use its body for
warmth, but the animal senses his fear and will not allow him to approach. In the end, the
man quietly freezes to death while the dog slinks off to find another, wiser master.
A Common Approach
One day recently I taught this story to a class of Christian parents. At the discussions end,
one parent approached me with a familiar reaction.
This book does not seem to have any Christian lessons in it, she said. Its disturbing and
full of hopelessness and despair. Is there a way to redeem this story, or at least understand
it better, by reading it from a Christian perspective?
She was absolutely correct in her initial observation, of course. There arent any obvious
Christian lessons in To Build a Fire, because the story was written by an atheist as a faithful
expression of his own naturalistic worldview. It is disturbing and full of hopelessness and
despair because the author wanted it that way.
The parents question about redeeming the story revealed a common error, however: she
assumed that the trick of reading from a Christian perspective involves finding Christian
lessons in a story where none seem apparent at first. In other words, reading like a
Christian means reading Christianity into everything you read.
We parents often do this when we mine classic literature for examples of Godly character
traits for our students to emulate, or ungodly ones for them to avoid. We do this when we
use the Man in To Build A Fire as an example of some character flaw (laziness, lack of

planning, carelessness, arrogance)and say to our kids, See what happens when you
ignore good advice?
Meeting Only Ourselves
Obviously, it is important to work hard, plan ahead, and heed sound advice. The problem
with using To Build a Fire to teach these lessons is that they flatly contradict the point Jack
London was trying to make with his story. The importance of diligence and humility are our
ideas, not his.
Londons point is that the Man could not possibly have worked hard, planned ahead, or
listened to the advice offered him. He was doomed before he started by deterministic forces
utterly beyond his control, from the merciless cold to his own inherited lack of imagination.
Furthermore, the Mans lack of character had absolutely nothing to do with his failure,
because the concepts of character and morality appear nowhere in To Build a Fire. Londons
message is that you are stuck within the limitations of your species and there is nothing you
can do about it but dieand your death will come all the more quickly if you fail to kill your
dog.
To Build a Fire was intended to be a dark story, devoid of moral lessons. When we use it to
teach such lessons anyway, we misread the story on purpose. In the process, we teach our
students to ignore the authors words and substitute words of their own, and eventually to
remake every book they read into the sermon they heard last Sunday.
In his masterful book An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis warns us against this error in
words that could easily have been directed to well-meaning teachers of To Build a Fire or
any non-Christian story:
We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work
on us. Thus increasingly [in our reading] we meet only ourselves. 1
True Christian Reading
But why does it really matter if we use an authors words for our own ends? We parents are
trying to teach Christian morality to our students. Does not this all-important end justify
whatever means we choose?
Not in this case, for the means involve breaking the Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt not
bear false witness. When we use a story like To Build a Fire to teach moral lessons that the
author did not intend, we tell a lie about the author, making him out to be someone he
wasnt. Worse yet, we make our students complicit in the lie, even teaching them to tell lies
of their own. Some moral lesson!
The Epistle of James, which was intended to teach moral lessons, exhorts us to . . . be
swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath . . . (James 1:19). This is the very heart of what
it means to read like a Christian. Let the author say what he means to say, and dont
interrupt. Again, C. S. Lewis puts it best:

The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.
Get yourself out of the way. There is no good asking first whether the work before
you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly
find out.2

What About Non-Christian Books?


You may well ask, what good is To Build a Fire, then? If it is dark and depressing and
hopeless but cannot be redeemed by reading Christian values into it, why in the world
should we read it?
Ill discuss the powerful, inspiring answer to this question in Part II.
Adam Andrews is the Director of the Center for Literary Education and a homeschooling
father of six. Adam earned his B.A. from Hillsdale College and is a Ph.D. candidate at the
University of Washington. He and his wife Missy are the authors of Teaching the Classics,
the popular reading and literature curriculum. They teach their children at home in Rice,
Washington. For more information, visit www.centerforlit.com.
Endnotes:
1. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto ed. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1992), p. 85.
2. Ibid., p. 19.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the October 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, the family education magazine.
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