The GEM Approach: A Biblical Approach to Objectional Elements in Literature

Ever since we started reading picture books to our daughters, my wife and I have evaluated the content of the books we bring into our home. Now that our six-year-old is reading on her own, evaluating for objectionable elements is even more important. Below is an excerpt from Elements of Literature Teacher’s Edition. This is the philosophy we use when reviewing books for our children, and it has served me well ever since I read it as a student. I hope you find that it is helpful for your family as well.

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“Educational censorship remains one of the most controversial issues in public life, linked as it is to political censorship and freedom of the press. The basis of a truly biblical position concerning censorable elements is the following distinction. If a work of literature or other element of the curriculum treats evil in the same way that it is treated in the Scriptures, we regard it as not only acceptable but also desirable reading. If it does not treat evil in the way evil is handled in the Scriptures, its content is not good.

“Evil in the Bible appears dangerous and repulsive. Reflections of evil appear in the form of negative examples so as to create a defense against what they represent or to give hope to the fallen for forgiveness and recovery from sin.

“We may draw the following three criteria from the Scriptures for judging literary and other works with respect to their content.

Gratuitousness

“Is the representation of evil purposeful or is it present for its own sake? We know that ‘all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Nothing in the Scriptures is superfluous or irrelevant to this high spiritual purpose.

Explicitness

“Is the representation of evil, if purposeful, present in an acceptable degree? Or is it more conspicuous or vivid than the purpose warrants? No one with a high view of Scripture would charge it with inappropriateness or excessiveness in its representation of evil. The presentation of evil in the Bible is realistic enough to convince us of its threat as a temptation but not so realistic as to become for us a temptation.

Moral Tone

“Is evil made to appear both dangerous and repulsive? What is the attitude of the work toward it? ‘Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,’ says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5:20). A good work of literature does not glorify human weakness or encourage tolerance of sin. It allows evil to appear in a controlled way in order to develop in the reader or hearer a resistance against it. In literature, ‘vice,’ wrote Samuel Johnson, ‘must always disgust.’ Its purpose is to initiate the reader through ‘mock encounters’ with evil so that evil cannot later deceive him—so that he will be better able to maintain a pure life in a fallen world.

“These three criteria are complementary. None is alone sufficient to justify the censorable in a work of literature or another element of the curriculum. Together they work powerfully, because they work biblically, to preserve moral purity while providing for a developing moral understanding and judgment.”

Editor’s note: Excerpted from Elements of Literature Teacher’s Edition  (p. viii), published by BJU Press. 

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Ben About Ben

Ben is a homeschool graduate who works at BJU Press. He's passionate about sharing biblical worldview education with the next generation. He and his wife, Megan, have three little girls. Growing up as a homeschooler, Ben participated in debate and eventually went on to earn an MA in communication. Now he serves in leadership in a local outreach ministry. Ben also enjoys writing about history, education, and faith. Read more posts by Ben.

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