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A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education

This selection is an excerpt from Handbook of Christian Education.

Censorship in education is a controversial topic in both Christian schools and public schools. A Christian teacher has the Bible as a guide and example for making wise choices about objectionable elements students will encounter in literature.

Christian Educational Censorship

Educational censorship remains one of the most controversial issues in public life, linked as it is to political censorship and freedom of the press. It has deep moral roots and therefore possesses determining implications for Christian education. Disagreements on what is allowable can raise a challenge to almost all of what has been discussed so far. The centrality and complexity of the issue and the sensitivity that surrounds it merit the extended treatment given it here.

The censorship question is sometimes framed as if it were only religious conservatives who insist on moral controls and apply arbitrary standards in excluding uncongenial elements. Nothing could be further from the truth. Secularist educators, no less than Christian, censor according to their educational aims.
ducational censorship remains one of the most controversial issues in public life, linked as it is to political censorship and freedom of the press. It has deep moral roots and therefore possesses determining implications for Christian education. Disagreements on what is allowable can raise a challenge to almost all of what has been discussed so far. The centrality and complexity of the issue and the sensitivity that surrounds it merit the extended treatment given it here.

These aims are moral and religious in nature as much as intellectual. To exclude racism, sexism, and all religious coloration from secular teaching and materials is as serious a goal and as holy a cause in the progressive agenda as to develop the child in the image of God is in the Christian educational program. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is avoided in many school districts today for its perceived racial volatility whereas it was avoided in conservative schools a century ago for its religious cynicism. The reason is obvious. The shape of the curriculum will affect the shape of society in a nation with universal compulsory education.

Censorship, therefore, whether in Christian or secular schools, is inescapable. Every thoughtful teacher makes choices according to criteria devised to implement specific course objectives, which in turn reflect general educational goals. More and more in public schools, these choices are being made for him. The general goals of public education reflect a liberal social agenda that has moral content antagonistic to Christian belief and traditional values. Recent textbook controversies make clear the determination of the liberal educational establishment not to relax its grip on the content of public education. The issue is not whether to censor but what.

The issue of what to censor not only separates Christian educators from secular but also divides Christian educators themselves. Though united in purpose, they may differ in what they deem appropriate methods and materials for accomplishing their purpose. Is the traditional curriculum in literature compatible with or a betrayal of Christian educational goals and standards? Can Christian students be rendered culturally literate without compromising the spiritual objectives of Christian education? These are questions that conscientious Christian teachers and administrators wrestle with. Not only must they justify their decisions to themselves; they must be able to defend them to inquiring parents, pastors, and lay leaders of the church and, perhaps eventually, to civil authorities.

Beleaguered by doubts and conflicting advice, the Christian teacher or administrator turns to Scripture for standards he can confidently apply and uphold. The Bible itself is the most important textbook in the Christian educational curriculum. It not only contains the most important information for the student but also provides a pattern for the instruction. Other textbooks are Christian to the extent they reflect and conform to this spiritual and pedagogical model. Classroom teaching is Christian to the extent that it emulates the objectives, approaches, and methods of the Scriptures.

The Bible speaks of itself when it says, “Every word of God is pure” (Prov. 30:5) and “Thy word is very pure” (Ps. 119:140). Every part of Scripture is free of that which is in conflict with or extraneous to its purpose. The Christian teacher, led by the same Spirit that inspired God’s Holy Word, will scrutinize prayerfully his methods and materials to ensure that they likewise are free of that which hinders and diverts from his purpose: the conforming of his redeemed students to the image of God in Christ. He will censor for the sake of his students and, in the case of the materials he uses, ascertain whether the necessary censoring has been done by the authors or may otherwise be done by himself.

Censorable Elements

To do his job of censoring in a biblical way, the teacher will need to be aware of the common categories of censorable elements.

1.    Profanity (blasphemy whether in statements or epithets; all sacrilege)
2.    Scatological realism (specific references to excrement or to the excremental functions)
3.    Erotic realism (specific references to physical love between the sexes)
4.    Sexual perversion (the portrayal of any sexual relationship or activity—such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, or incest—other than what is sanctified by God in marriage)
5.    Lurid violence
6.    Occultism (Satanism, witchcraft, necromancy, astrology, fortunetelling, and the like; a representation of the supernatural powers that oppose God in a way that fascinates the reader or implies the existence of a supernatural order other than the biblical one)

7.    Erroneous religious or philosophical assumptions (unbiblical root ideas or attitudes expressed overtly or covertly, explicitly or implicitly, in theme, tone, or atmosphere; these appear, for example, when a writer invents a fictional world in which no divine presence is felt or in which no moral order is perceptible.)

It is not difficult to spot the censorable elements of categories 1–6 and to miss the often subtler and more dangerous elements of category 7. The practical atheism and antiestablishmentarian attitude of Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn, the pantheistic mysticism of Wordsworth and Thoreau, the naturalistic thesis of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” the melancholy pessimism of A. E. Housman’s lyric poems—all would appear safe enough by criteria of the first six categories. Too often it is the unbiblical premises of a work that are taken least seriously in discussions of censorable elements and in the formulation of policy concerning them. This category, like the others, requires serious attention.

Positions on Censorable Elements

Those who discuss classroom censorship tend to adopt either of two diametrically opposed positions. Each position, by its deficiencies, fortifies the other. A third position results from the preceding two. All require examination in the light of the biblical standard.

Permissivist Position

The permissivist view is common among evangelical intellectuals. Those who hold this view allow at least a degree of the censorable on either of two bases: (1) the existence in a work of compensating aesthetic qualities; (2) the necessity in art of an honest view of life. These constitute what the courts have called “redeeming social value.”

The weakness of the first criterion is apparent in the uncertainty that has characterized the history of court rulings on censorship. It is too subjective and utilitarian a rule to be an adequate guide for Christians. It requires a judge who, though ignorant himself concerning the aesthetic merits of a work, is competent to identify expert witnesses who are knowledgeable and impartial. His problem is complicated by the circumstance that aesthetic values nowadays tend to be subjective and relativistic, easily affected by extraneous considerations. The aesthetic criterion in censorship rests not on absolute moral principles, which biblical ethics requires, but on the tolerance of the social community.

The second criterion—the necessity in literature of an honest imitation of life—is the standard defense by modern writers of the sordid and salacious elements in their fiction. But ideas of the world and of life vary widely. Every serious secular novelist invents fictional worlds that vindicate his moral and religious preferences. Moral libertines nurture private worldviews that justify and reinforce their licentious lifestyles. Even were there an accurate biblical consensus of the nature of life and the world, it could hardly be maintained that literature, while imitating reality, need include all of reality. The Bible speaks of some realities we are to flee (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22). Moral considerations must override the aesthetic and mimetic in a Christian’s perspective on literature and life. That which threatens the moral and spiritual life of the young cannot be justified on other grounds. Permissivism arrogantly elevates human wisdom above divine.

Exclusivist Position

The exclusivist view is held by conscientious pastors, Christian educators, and laymen concerned for the moral preservation of their children and for the moral wholesomeness of their communities. They reason that, because evil is evil, any avoidable exposure to it is wrong for even the most praise-
worthy of purposes. It follows, they argue, that one should avoid any work of literature or discard any element of the curriculum that contains any amount of any of these elements. It can follow as a corollary that, since the Bible is a sufficient guide in all important matters of life and since there is peril in other reading, we need not read anything else.

Our spiritual affinities are with these who hold the exclusivist position, and our sympathies must be also. They are the ones with the sensitive consciences, the zeal for what is pleasing to God, the vigilance toward the moral erosion of society. But they should consider the implications of their position. To reject a work of literature or subject of study because of the presence of any amount of these elements within it is, first, to apply a standard that precludes the possibility of a liberal arts education. We forego the major works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Hawthorne, Melville, Clemens, Frost, and almost every other standard writer. We do not teach the Declaration of Independence, for its arguments are based on the secularist idea of natural rights. Even Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is suspect, for the key to the outer gate (the iron gate) of Doubting Castle, Bunyan tells us, turned “damnable hard.” Bunyan, of course, meant “able to damn,” but he must also have been punning.

Now if eschewing evil requires foregoing a liberal arts education even in a Christian educational environment, then so be it. No human values should be allowed to compete with spiritual. However, Moses, we recall, “was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). Paul, we know, had the learning of the Greeks, for echoes of pagan writers appear here and there in his epistles. He knew Greek poetry well enough to quote from memory the Greek minor poets Aratus and Epimenides of Crete on Mars Hill. Then there were Daniel and his three friends, of whom we are told that “God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom” (Dan. 1:17). Evidently in these instances the divine preparation for leadership included some familiarity with the writings not only of the inspired authors of the Scriptures but also of the poets, scientists, and philosophers of pagan intellectual and literary traditions. The exclusivist view, if consistently held, rejects the manner in which God conducted the preparation of these great men of Scripture or implies that God while allowing it did not approve of it.

A more serious implication of the exclusivist position is that it precludes the reading of some portions of the Scriptures themselves. Elements of all seven categories of censorable ele-
ments appear in certain ways and to certain degrees in the Bible. The following list is illustrative, by no means exhaustive:

1.    Profanity: “As the Lord liveth, I will run after him, and take somewhat from him” (2 Kings 5:20); “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” (John 8:48)
2.    Scatological realism: Rabshakeh’s coarse language (Isa. 36:12)
3.    Erotic realism: Proverbs 5:18–19; Ezekiel 23:20–21; Song of Solomon
4.    Sexual perversion: the sin of Sodom (Gen. 19); the seduction of Joseph (Gen. 39); the rape of Tamar (2 Sam. 13); the liaison in Proverbs 7
5.    Lurid violence: Joab’s murder of Amasa (2 Sam. 20)
6.    Occultism: Saul’s dealing in necromancy (1 Sam. 28:7–25)
7.    Religious and philosophical assumptions: the misrepresentation of God by Job’s three friends (though in no pervasive sense can such assumptions affect any large portion of Scripture)

Clearly the exclusivist view, consistently held, places the Bible in conflict with itself and opens its advocates to charges of self-contradiction.

The exclusivist position is based on a misconstruction or misapplication of certain passages of Scripture. We need to deal briefly with each one.

“I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes.” (Ps. 101:3)

This resolution of David may refer to an idol or to some evil device or scheme. It certainly does not refer to all representation of evil, for David read the stories of moral failure in the Pentateuch and, in his capacity as judge, had to scrutinize wrongdoing continually. The sins described in the Bible—for example, David’s own adultery with Bathsheba—are wicked, but their descriptions are not wicked. The examples of Scripture, both positive and negative, are good in the sense that they are “written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). “All scripture . . . is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), even the parts that render vividly the depths of human degradation. What is represented is evil, but the representation of the evil has value for Christian moral understanding.

“I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” (Rom. 16:19)

The Greek word here translated simple is translated harmless in Matthew 10:16 (“Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves”) and in Philippians 2:14–15 (“Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation”). Paul’s command echoes a passage in Jeremiah in which the prophet complains of Israel, “They are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge” (4:22). Elsewhere Paul admonishes believers, “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men” (1 Cor. 14:20). The meaning of these passages is clearly that the believer should be clever in ways to do good rather than cunning in ways to do harm. On the other hand, believers should not be “children in understanding.” One of the meanings of simple at the time the KJV was translated was in fact harmless, and the translators followed Wycliffe in using it in this sense in this passage. The Bible puts no premium on moral ignorance.

“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 5:3–4)

Evidently Paul does not mean that such sins as fornication and covetousness should never be mentioned at all, for he has just spoken of them himself, as do the other writers of the Scripture. Mentioning these and other sins is necessary if the preacher is to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). Every pastor and parent must mention particular sins by name if he is to perform his responsibility to God for those under his care. Paul here, as in Romans 2:24, is insisting that the conduct of God’s people give no occasion for these sins to be named as existing among them. Their conduct should give cause for thanksgiving rather than for gossip and reproach.

“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thess. 5:22)

The commandment has been interpreted in two ways. The first is that one avoid giving any appearance or impression of evildoing. The believer’s conduct must be above suspicion and give no occasion to any disposed to find fault. Paul gives the same command in Romans 12:17 (“Provide things honest in the sight of all men”) and in 2 Corinthians 8:21 (“Providing for honest things . . . in the sight of men”). Daniel’s life was such that his enemies could find no pretext for condemning him in any way to the king. The Bible stresses the importance of reputation as well as of moral character. The more likely interpretation, however, is that one abstain from every form or manifestation of evil. The commandment completes the preceding verse. We are to “prove [test] all things,” adhering to “that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and abstaining from all that is evil. One must encounter a phenomenon before he can distinguish the good from the bad.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

This grand prescription for mental, moral, and spiritual health expresses the principle that dwelling on good will help to drive out evil. The believer’s main subject of meditation should be the Scriptures, for blessing (Ps. 1:2) but also for protection (Prov. 6:20–24). The biblical commands to center mental life on the Scriptures do not exclude those passages in which evil is described even graphically. On the contrary, such passages, Paul says, were meant to be pondered as negative examples (1 Cor. 10:1–14).

The Bible uses both positive and negative examples to enforce its message. Good literature does also. A person whose mind has been fortified by convincing examples against the evil in his environment can better live in that environment with his mind focused on the things of God.

Pragmatic Position

The pragmatic position is held by those who, acknowledging God’s standards to be absolute, consider some compromise necessary if one is to get along in a fallen world. Misapplying Paul’s concession in 1 Corinthians 5:10, they allow a degree of contact with the world’s evil but not too much. It is inevitable, they maintain, that passing on our way through the world we would pick up some dust. The pragmatist, in reaction to the bankruptcy of the permissive view and the impossibility of the exclusivist view, falls back on a rule-of-thumb utilitarianism that makes Christian evaluation entirely subjective. Each person must decide for himself how much evil is tolerable in a literary work or other materials of teaching.

This view is theologically the weakest of all, for it implies that it is impossible to order our lives according to the will of a holy God or that God will accept from us less than His standards require. On the question of what is and is not censorable, adopting a mean between extremes or a policy of convenience is no solution. Biblical choice is not a matter of expediency or of proportion and degree but rather of principled discrimination.

Biblical Position

Fortunately there is another position, the biblical, which takes the Bible itself as the supreme literary and pedagogical model. It accepts the biblical purpose of moral education as stated in Proverbs 1:4: “To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.” It recognizes that the image of God in redeemed man—Christlikeness—includes moral understanding and that moral understanding requires an awareness of both good and evil and “the end thereof” (Prov. 14:12). It identifies as spiritually “of full age,” or mature, “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14).

The biblical position adopts the pedagogical method of the Scriptures in teaching moral understanding. The Bible teaches by means of precept and example. Its examples are both positive and negative. The writers of the Old Testament enunciate the commandments of God and enforce them with examples of right behavior and behavior to be shunned, showing the consequences attending them. New Testament writers draw on these examples, positive and negative, for encouragement and warning.

The Lord Himself made full use of negative examples in His teaching and preaching, citing the degeneracy of Sodom (Matt. 11:23), Cain’s slaying of Abel (Matt. 23:35), the debauchery of Noah’s generation (Matt. 24:38), and many other instances of wickedness. Paul’s warnings to the Corinthians run nearly the full gamut of human depravity, including incest (1 Cor. 5:1) and homosexuality (1 Cor. 6:9), distinguishing among the latter type between active participants in “abusers of themselves with mankind” and passive in “effeminate.” We regard these accounts of wickedness in the same way that the New Testament writers regarded those recorded in the Old Testament: as “ensamples” given us for our profit (1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Peter 2:6). To exclude the negative example from the Christian educational experience is to depart from the pedagogical method of Scripture.

Does this mean that we must accept in our reading and include in our teaching the full range of the censorable that the permissivist would allow? Not at all. The guidance of Scripture controls our choice and handling of material in a way that most pragmatists, let alone permissivists, would find suppressive. Though defense attorneys in pornography cases can point to portions of the English Bible that seem to violate the Bible’s own admonitions concerning preserving the purity of the mind, the Bible is in reality completely consistent and purposeful in its presentation of evil. Evil is represented in the Bible in certain ways, for certain purposes, and to certain effects. Understanding the biblical manner of representing evil is a far surer and more workable guide for the conscientious Christian parent or educator than the subjective criteria and arbitrary lists conceived by some conservative moralists, well-intentioned as they may be.

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, listening, or viewing for someone of sufficient maturity as to benefit from comparable portions of the Scriptures (with the qualification that the impact of the visual or auditory is more potent than that of reading). If the work does not treat evil in the way it is handled in the Scriptures, as dangerous and repulsive, its content and delivery are not good. Reflections of evil appear in the Bible in the form of negative examples so as to create a defense against what they represent or to give hope to the fallen for recovery from their sin.

Criteria of Worth

We may draw from Scripture three rules, termed the GEM criteria, for judging works respecting their content.


Is the representation of evil purposeful or is it present for its own sake? This is the criterion of gratuitousness. 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 Tim. 3: 16–17). Nothing in the Scriptures is superfluous or irrelevant to this high spiritual purpose.


Is the representation of evil, if purposeful, present in an acceptable degree? Or is it more conspicuous or vivid than the purpose warrants? This is the criterion of explicitness. No one with a high view of Scripture would charge it with provocative excess 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. Some sins are referenced but not enacted in the text.

Moral Tone

Is evil presented from a condemning perspective? Is it made to appear both dangerous and repulsive? What is the attitude of the work toward it? This is the criterion of moral tone. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” says the Lord through His prophet Isaiah (Isa. 5:20). A good work of literature does not glorify human weakness or encourage tolerance of sin. It causes 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, he said, is to initiate the reader through “mock encounters” with evil so that evil cannot later deceive him—so he can maintain a pure life in a fallen world.

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

Let us now consider how some censorable elements in Shakespeare’s plays appear in the light of these criteria. One of the most violent scenes in English Renaissance drama, and one of the most violent in all dramatic literature, occurs in Act 3 of King Lear when the earl of Gloucester, loyal to King Lear, is charged with helping him escape and is cruelly punished. The cruelty takes place on stage in full view of the audience. Gloucester is tied to a chair, and hair from his beard and scalp is torn out by Lear’s daughter Regan. Then her husband, the duke of Cornwall, tips the chair backward onto the floor and with his spike heel gouges out first one eye and then the other.

The scene, acted faithfully, would scarcely pass the permissive television censors of today and, if so, would raise an outcry among conservative viewers. Why did Shakespeare bring this action before the audience and not at least have it reported by a messenger as most other dramatists of his day would have done?

In King Lear Shakespeare uses parallel plots, the stories of two old men who undergo severe ordeals because of moral imperception. Each wrongs his loyal child and favors his disloyal child or children, learning too late that he has misread their characters. Lear’s moral blindness is the consequence of pride. He involves his loyal daughter in a contest of flattery with her two sisters. When she will not participate, he disinherits her, leaving himself at the mercy of his two faithless daughters and their husbands to whom he has ceded the kingdom.

Gloucester’s moral and later physical blindness derives, ultimately, from a sin of lechery. He has begotten an illegitimate son, who deceives him into disinheriting his legitimate son and eventually betrays him to the enemies of King Lear. Lear’s sin is mental, the arch sin of pride; and his punishment is fittingly mental: he loses, temporarily, his mind. Gloucester’s sin is physical, sensuality; and his punishment appropriately is physical: he loses, permanently, his eyes. In the last scene, the loyal son remarks to his disloyal brother, whom he has mortally wounded:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got [begot]
Cost him his eyes. (5.3.200–204) [1]

Both plots depict the relentless unforeseen consequences of a casual, thoughtless immoral act. The audience takes the moral tally as the chickens come home to roost.

The punishment of Lear recalls God’s dealing with Nebuchadnezzar, who because of his self-exaltation lost his reason and was, like Lear, turned out-of-doors to live as a beast until purged of his pride. Gloucester’s punishment also has strong biblical warrant. The aged earl has been governed by the lust of the eyes. As he approaches the hovel in the darkness with his lantern, the fool exclaims, with double meaning, “Look, here comes a walking fire.” (3.4.114) Though the process of Gloucester’s punishment is horrible, we may construe the effect as beneficent; for the Scriptures counsel, “If thy right eye offend thee [cause you to stumble], pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members [bodily parts] should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29). Gloucester seems to understand his ordeal in this light when he acknowledges, “I stumbled when I saw.” (4.1.20) Like Samson’s blinding, Gloucester’s is not gratuitous, nor is it arguably, in relation to what Shakespeare means to emphasize, overly explicit. It is part of a scheme of moral consequences, and the moral tone is clear.

In the comedy Twelfth Night, there is some questionable humor associated with the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sir Andrew, unwelcome suitor of the countess Olivia, is a companion of the countess’s freeloading uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and Feste, her court jester. Their opponent is Olivia’s vain steward, Malvolio. Sir Andrew’s surname, like Belch and Malvolio, has moral meaning. Aguecheek indicates the effects of syphilis, known as the pox or the French disease. Andrew’s face is evi-
dently pocked and his nasal cartilage shrunk from lechery. Andrew also has the thinness of hair and the mental debility associated with the later stages of this disease.

When Maria reveals her plan to humiliate Malvolio, Sir Toby exclaims, “Excellent. I smell a device.” Andrew, understanding as usual only in part, sighs, “I have’t in my nose too.” (2.3.147–48) His mental debility (evident in his construing of “smell a device” as “smella thee vice”) and physical deformity (indicated in his nasal reference) produce humor, but humor for a serious purpose.

For Sir Andrew is ruled by the lust of the eyes. When he first enters, he stands transfixed by the sight of Maria, Olivia’s fair lady in waiting. Sir Toby, reading his mind, encourages him to “accost” her (“Accost, Sir Andrew! Accost!” [1.3.145]), knowing full well that the word “accost” is beyond the narrow bounds of Andrew’s comprehension. Andrew takes the bait. “Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.” Maria corrects him: “My name is Mary, sir.” To which Andrew replies, “Good Mistress Mary Accost.” (1.3.49–51) In these passages and elsewhere, the lust of the eyes is associated, by the intermediate cause of social disease, with physical deformity and mental debility.

The vice of the rotund Sir Toby Belch, as both his name and his amplitude of girth indicate, is gluttony. This vice, one of the traditional seven deadly, included drunkenness. Sir Toby detests moral restraints as much as he hates “an unfilled can of ale.” (2.3.6)  He is ruled by the lust of the flesh.

Malvolio’s vice is prideful ambition. His name, mal volio, means “bad volition.” He is ruled by “inordinate ambition.” As Olivia’s steward, Malvolio has risen as high in the household order as a commoner legitimately can. As the chief servant, manager of Olivia’s house, he is answerable only to the countess herself. That is not enough for Malvolio. He aspires to marry Olivia, to be Count Malvolio. Malvolio is ruled by the pride of life.

Each of the three characters is humorously yet purposefully degraded in the play. Each is rendered a fool by his vice and is punished according to the nature of it. The sin of Malvolio is like Lear’s of the mind, and like Lear he is punished mentally. His household enemies expose him to the laughter of the court and, having confined him in a dark room, taunt him to desperation. Sir Toby’s and Sir Andrew’s sins, like Gloucester’s are physical, and they like Gloucester are punished physically. At the end of the play they appear humiliated before Olivia, thoroughly pummeled with bloody heads. They have themselves become the court spectacle they rendered the hapless Malvolio.

The humor of Twelfth Night is morally targeted. The references to Sir Andrew’s licentiousness, like those to Sir Toby’s gluttony and Malvolio’s pride, are not gratuitous or, one might contend, improperly explicit, but instead part of a scheme of moral consequences. Furthermore, they are qualified by moral tone. We are not permitted to admire these characters. A wounded Sir Toby shows his true colors in the last scene in his ugly repudiation of Sir Andrew’s offer of assistance: “Will you help? An ass-head and a coxcomb and a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull.” (5.1.199–200) Olivia, indignant, orders her drunken uncle away.

In both King Lear and Twelfth Night, the censorable elements are not gratuitous but instrumental to moral purpose. They condemn evil and uphold a biblical standard of virtue. The pitiable Gloucester and the silly Andrew Aguecheek appear aberrational and absurd in relation to the morally normative Edgar in King Lear and Viola in Twelfth Night. Reflections of evil in the two plays are a function of their morality rather than of their immorality or amorality. Both plays condemn and enact judgments upon evil character.

Criteria of Use

There remains the issue of whether works that do not fulfill the criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone have a place in the curriculum. The same criteria apply to evaluating the censorable as literature that pertain to judging the censorable in literature. Can a censorable work or part of a work function justifiably and usefully as a negative example? We can put the questions in this way:

1.    Is the teacher’s or textbook’s use of the censorable material purposeful, or is it presented only for its own sake? This is the criterion of gratuitousness.
2.    Is the censorable material too potent to serve well as a negative example in the classroom in which it is to be used? This is the criterion of explicitness.
3.    Will the censorable material be presented emphatically as a negative example? That is, will what it portrays appear dangerous and repulsive, regardless of the author’s intentions? This is the criterion of moral tone.

If so, including this material is justifiable and desirable, for in the hands of a wise and skillful teacher it will create a defense against that which it represents.

There is therefore a place in the Christian English curriculum for a paganistic poem by Robert Herrick or William Blake or a pessimistic novel by Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad, if these are taught within a proper context, for a proper purpose, and in a proper way. There is a place in the American-literature curriculum for an essay of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau or a story by the naturalists Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser if it is intended to show, for example, in addition to its literary merit, the result of religious unbelief in nineteenth-century American thought.

We must recognize, of course, that the shocking indecencies of much twentieth-century fiction disqualify it for use as negative examples; for the censorable language and description may be too potently explicit to be offset by a supplied moral tone. For instance, whereas a conscientious Christian teacher might assign a Willa Cather novel to a Christian high school class, he would not assign John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel for the profanity of the one and the sexual explicitness of the other. There are indeed many modern fiction works more objectionable than these, not to speak of poetry. The field of choice narrows increasingly and drastically as we apply our biblical criteria to the writings of recent times.

We also must recognize that all literary works assigned as negative examples must be taught and not just listed for class reading. With such works the teacher must supply the moral tone. The teaching should precede and accompany the reading of such works rather than just follow it the next day. Class discussion of the works should be planned and controlled. Only then can the students be certain to experience a censorable work in a way that will give them benefit and not harm.

A useful analogy for explaining the proper handling of censorable materials is inoculation. The moral purpose of Christian teaching is minimally to enable the young to escape the infection of evil. There are two ways of escaping an infectious disease: (1) avoiding contact with it, which of course should be done whenever possible, and (2) developing a resistance. There are two ways of developing a resistance: (1) inoculation and (2) having a nonfatal case. Developing resistance is certainly more desirable than assuming one can escape contact with infection in a world where contagion constantly threatens. Of the two ways of developing resistance, having a nonfatal case is not the kind of experience that one can plan; and even if one happens to be successful, it may leave him scarred and disabled. Clearly inoculation is superior.

The process of inoculation is familiar to almost everyone today. Inoculation takes place in a disease-free environment. There the recipient receives a controlled exposure to the disease along with the resistance of the donor so as to fortify him against future infection. The sterile environment and controlled dosage ensure present safety. The resistance of the donor ensures both present and future safety.

The factors determining the success of inoculation are three: (1) the strength of the dosage, analogous to the amount of exposure to evil; (2) the resistance of the donor, analogous to the controlling perspective supplied by the teacher; and (3) the strength of the recipient, analogous to the readiness of the student to benefit from the negative example. Inoculation is inappropriate for a recipient who is weak—either too young (the maturity consideration) or too sick (the background consideration). Factors one and three have to do with explicitness; factor two, with moral tone. The very purpose of moral inoculation satisfies the criterion of gratuitousness.

The book of Proverbs inoculates the reader against sexual immorality by a vivid account of an adulterous liaison (7:6–27).
The reader’s ability to profit from this account depends on his maturity. But such instruction is an important part of the young man’s defense against one of the most dangerous temptations he will face in the world. The story of the strange woman and the young fool illustrates the method of Scripture, which offers vivid accounts of sin and its consequences not for titillation’s sake but “to the intent we should not lust after evil things” (1 Cor. 10:6).


We need always to distinguish between the educational and recreative purposes of reading and viewing. The Christian cannot read for pleasure works or parts of works whose censorable elements do not pass the scriptural test. The Christian’s enjoyment of a work must be determined by the degree to which its form and content approach the biblical standard.

However, the educational purpose may require at times a greater latitude than the recreative. If we are to obey the Lord’s commandment to be “wise as serpents” as well as “harmless as doves,” we need to know what we are to be wary of. We need to be conscious of events and developments that have a bearing on our lives for the Lord. We need to regard our own well-being as well as that of those under our care. One cannot read far in even National Geographic or U.S. News & World Report without encountering censorable elements. A person with leadership responsibility must be prepared to expose himself to some materials repugnant to his Christian morality and theology so that Satan may not take advantage of him and those he leads. This latitude does not extend to idle curiosity; it stops where the recreative interest begins.

Genuine Moral Education

Christian moral education aims at the moral development and preservation of Christian students. This aim entails teaching them to discern and desire good and to recognize and abhor evil before they encounter the crucial subtle moral choices of adulthood. Commonly in literature as in life, good and evil are intertwined. The older the student, the more easily he can be taught to separate out the strands, categorizing his responses. But the Christian educator must take up his task early, not only judging but also teaching judging, if he is to engage in biblical moral education.

Education, then, is preparation, and preparation implies a process. There are two notions of moral education that are not really education at all, for they involve no process:

1.    Immediate immersion (immediate exposure to the evils of the world). The permissivist view assumes there exist from the beginning the capabilities it undertakes to teach.

2.    Ignorant innocence (complete seclusion from the evils of the world). The exclusivist view provides for no development of discernment and resistance to the evils of the world. This view is what Christian educators are often charged with holding and what, in fact, some actually think they hold.

Neither of these concepts of moral education includes a preparation for discerning and vanquishing the deceptions of the world. In reality these conceptions are not moral education at all, but moral noneducation. If we wish to educate a person to survive in water over his head, we may, of course, push him in suddenly (the method of immediate immersion) and trust his innate swimmer’s intelligence. We can, on the other hand, try to keep him away from the water (the method of ignorant innocence), though we cannot be sure he may not someday be trapped in a flood or on a sinking vessel. The better way, we think, is to teach him to swim. We will introduce him to the water gradually with someone present to instruct him so someday he can survive on his own.

In order not to leave doubts unanswered, we need to give special attention to the two censorable elements that are most flagrantly prevalent in the modern moral environment and yet are not entirely absent from Scripture. Occurrences of erotic and scatological realism in the Bible suggest two mutually qualifying principles in the divine attitude toward them. The first is the goodness of nature as God created it. The second is the propriety of concealment because of the fall.

The human bodily functions are part of the divine creation that God approved and blessed: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Since the fall, the body has shared the corruption of the fallen nature even in redeemed man, and the redemption of the body will be the last step in God’s restoration to man of what he has lost. However, it is clear that the human physiology itself and the physical desires created in man by God are to be not despised but be respected as part of His handiwork. “Every creature [creation] of God is good,” wrote Paul, speaking not just of the pre-Edenic creation (1 Tim. 4:4). It is possible to dishonor our physical selves, he warned in Romans 2. “I will praise thee,” exclaimed David, “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well” (Ps. 139:14).

Both the procreative and excremental functions are recognized in the Scriptures and mentioned without shame. They are regarded as private: in the case of the marriage union to preserve its meaning; in the case of the excremental processes to prevent offense. Modern thinking typically supposes, on the one hand, that the goodness of nature justifies the flaunting of nature, and on the other that the impulse for concealment implies shame. The divine view combines high respect and secrecy. Upon those parts that fallen nature regards as uncomely—those kept clothed—God, says Paul, has bestowed “more abundant honour” (1 Cor. 12:23–24).

Erotic Realism

Eroticism in the Scriptures is both fervently approved and vigorously condemned. Physical intimacy within marriage is not only tolerated (as in Roman Catholic theology) but also commanded and celebrated (1 Cor. 7:3–5; Song of Solomon in various places). Physical intimacy between the sexes outside marriage is fiercely denounced and threatened. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4). The measure of the divine approval of the sexual relationship in marriage is the measure of the divine disapproval of its perversion outside of marriage. Behind the commands to “flee . . . youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22) and to “flee fornication” (1 Cor. 6:18) is a recognition of the power of perverse sexual desire to destroy the spiritual life. “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?” asks Solomon (Prov. 6:27–28). Divine wisdom in Proverbs juxtaposes accounts of licit and illicit eroticism with exhortations to enjoy the one and shun the other (Prov. 5–7).

The biblical view of the marriage union is both more idealistic and more realistic than the common view today even among Christians. In both Old and New Testaments, the marriage union images the relationship between God and His people. Christians through the ages have found in the celebration of the physical loveliness of the bride and the fervent desire for physical consummation in the Song of Solomon a picture of the love between Christ and His Church. The prophets depict Jehovah’s grieving over Israel’s rebellion in terms of a failed marriage relationship. Ezekiel represents the broken relationship in strikingly erotic terms (Ezek. 16, 23). Spiritual infidelity is represented as harlotry from the prophetic books onward to Revelation. The defilement of the temple in Jerusalem by the heathen after Jehovah’s abandonment of Israel to her lovers is described as a sexual violation of a once-holy sanctuary (Lam. 1–2). The use of this imagery to express the relationship of God and His people indicates the high value He places upon the marriage union, not excluding the physical experience, and the favor with which He regards those who preserve it undefiled.

Combined with the idealistic perspective of the Scriptures is also the realistic. The Scriptures speak matter-of-factly about the “duty of marriage” (Exod. 21:10), “the natural use of the woman” (Rom. 1:27), and the need to “come together” regularly to avoid the temptation of the devil (1 Cor. 7:5). Discussions of marriage today tend to be either idealistic or realistic rather than both. The result tends to be either sentimental or coldly practical. The most fervent idealism and the most practical realism come together in the biblical view of the marriage union. Its purpose in the English Prayer Book is threefold: happiness, the replenishing of the species, and a defense against incontinency. A fourth purpose, often overlooked, is to produce “a godly seed” (Mal. 2:15)—in the words of the poet, “Of blessed saints for to increase the count” (Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion, 1.423). The function of the erotic in old Abraham and Sarah’s obedience to the covenant promise is obvious. Isaac was born a year to the day the angels appeared.

The representation of the erotic in the Scriptures exceeds what in literature would be the tolerance threshold of many moral conservatives but is less obtrusive than its manifestation in modern literature generally. Its explicitness in the Scriptures varies somewhat according to whether the Holy Spirit is depicting virtuous or vicious love, whether (in the case of virtuous love) the perspective is ideal or practical, and whether the eroticism is being rendered metaphorically or is the metaphoric vehicle of another idea—namely, the relationship of God to His people.

In the case of virtuous love in particular, the privacy associated by the Scriptures with the physical union is reflected in a certain tact with which manifestations of it appear in the sacred text. This privacy, as indicated above, is not because of shame but for the protection and honor of an exclusive relationship. The purpose of figurative expression in the Song of Solomon is both to protect from profanation and to glorify the reality to which it refers. Frank description exists to a certain degree and figurative representation thereafter. In its affirming the goodness of the marriage union, this description is the very antithesis of the pornographic in purpose and effect.

As the metaphoric vehicle rather than what is rendered metaphorically, eroticism appears with greater explicitness, notably in the prophets’ denunciation of Israel’s disloyalty to Jehovah. Israel, charged Ezekiel, “doted upon their paramours [the Babylonians], whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.” This Israel did as in “the lewdness of thy youth, in bruising thy teats by the Egyptians for the paps of thy youth” (23:20–21). The loftiness of virtuous love in the Song of Solomon permits less explicitness than the searing scorn of Ezekiel toward the profaned relationship of Israel with Jehovah. Idolatrous Israel, as a stripped harlot, had nothing left to conceal.

The explicitness of the practical perspective in the Scriptures appears in Paul’s commands concerning the physical obligations of the marriage relationship in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is straightforwardly answering the questions of the Corinthians. The passage is a model of spiritual advice. An even bolder explicitness appears in Paul’s discussion of circumcision in Galatians. Angered by the Judaizers’ insistence upon circumcising the Gentiles, Paul exclaims that castration might quickly allay their concerns: “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Gal. 5:12).

The Christian turns to the Bible for his standard in evaluating erotic realism in literature. Is the biblical moral perspective present? Is there an affirmation of the good and the true and a condemnation of the evil and the false? If so, is there also a mutually qualifying idealism and realism in the presentation of the good? Is there a controlled and purposeful explicitness? On this basis the Christian teacher can reject the overwhelming majority of instances of explicit erotic description that attract modern readers, listeners, and viewers without rejecting those instances, rare as they be, that reflect the practice of Scripture.

Scatological Realism

Scatological realism, like erotic, is more apparent in the Scriptures than most moral conservatives would find tolerable in literature but less apparent than in much of today’s writing. References to excrement or to the excremental functions appear usually in passages expressing divine disgust and contempt. Divine indignation appears in the language of the prophet Ahijah addressing the disguised wife of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:7–10.

Go, tell Jeroboam, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Forasmuch as I exalted thee from among the people, and made thee prince over my people Israel, and rent the kingdom away from the house of David, and gave it thee: and yet thou hast not been as my servant David, who kept my commandments, and who followed me with all his heart, to do that only which was right in mine eyes; but hast done evil above all that were before thee: for thou hast gone and made thee other gods, and molten images, to provoke me to anger, and hast cast me behind thy back: therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.

Similar detestation appears in the rough language of the divine message to the wicked priests through Malachi (2:1–3).

And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.

Paul, comparing the attainments he once valued so highly (and which, by the way, God continued to use after his conversion) to his present life concerns and goals, said he counted them “but dung” that he might “win Christ” (Phil. 3:8). Expressing God’s contempt for Israel’s facade of respectability, Isaiah wrote, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). The reference is to discarded menstrual napkins. To the Laodicean church, the Lord Jesus has John write, “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue [vomit] thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).

These and other such references assume the obnoxiousness of excrement to civilized man.

They also associate spiritual purity with physical cleanliness. To leave human excrement uncovered in the camp of Israel was to offend the sensibilities of man and of God (Deut. 23:12–14). This offensiveness exists presumably when excremental references gratuitously cover the pages of literature or appear in conversation. Both speaking and writing are social acts subject to moral censure. The most naturalistic of writers in fiction or nonfiction have not considered descriptions of urination and defecation necessary to support realism. Gratuitous scatological references in verbal communication are quite properly regarded as defilement—all the more when they degrade the pure and noble. They are rarely employed by today’s writers to portray the vileness of a thing in the eyes of God.

Should Christians consider acceptable the kind of rough language used by God in the Old Testament in response to Israel’s degeneracy? The criteria of gratuitousness, explicitness, and moral tone apply here as elsewhere. Is the occasion analogous to those conditions in Scripture that elicited this language? Is the target of the language reprehensible to a degree that would be equally disgusting to God and His people and incur a similar rebuke? Is such expression similarly motivated? Will it be similarly received? Are social sensibilities today such that similar expressions will have a similar effect, or will they complicate the impact in a way that will produce confusion? Advanced societies with sanitary conveniences live further from “nature” than less well-developed societies are able to do and can be more fastidious than they about such matters. The biblical model along with a sensitivity to social norms will be a sufficient guide for judging instances of this type of the censorable.

These considerations must also control our own practice. Nature, as God created it, is not evil, but neither is concealment, whether for protection of the precious or the accommodation of others’ sensitivities. Extreme wickedness merits strong though not reckless language. The believer’s speech should be “seasoned with salt,” not salty. It should communicate “alway with grace” (Col. 4:6). The enemies of Jesus tried but failed to “catch him in his words” (Mark 12:13)—words with keen edge but also graciousness (Luke 4:22). The biblical standard, today as then, is “sound speech, that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:8).

Christian educational censorship extends directly from the Christian philosophy of education. All non-Christian material in the Christian classroom functions to make a Christian point. It is godly to present ungodliness in a biblical manner, for a biblical purpose, and to a biblical effect. It is ungodly to use what might seem the liberty of Scripture for “a cloak” of ill intent (1 Peter 2:16). Genuinely Christian teaching, permeated with Scripture and directed by the Spirit of God, remains spiritually well-targeted in choice and use of materials. It meanwhile does not deny accountability to the trustees, administrators, principals, and parents it serves.

[1] Line numbers from King Lear and Twelfth Night taken from Shakespeare-online.com.

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