This post reviews Deb Esposito, World War Me: Soul Survivor(Cresco, PA: Monty Media, 2012).
In earlier reviews of children’s literature I have frequently had occasion to note that though conservative Christians make up the lion’s share of homeschoolers in this country, almost every piece of children’s lit that has homeschooling characters tends to feature the small minority who are drawn to the practice for more secular reasons ranging from hippie-type rejections of formalism and desire to live in nature to concerns for a child’s health.
Well, here is a book about Christian homeschooling. It’s also very, very didactic. Esposito begins brilliantly by creating two vivid characters, twelve-year-old Brandon, who has been homeschooled all of his life, and his mother Betsy, who I at first thought Esposito was intending to portray as an excessively overbearing, almost tyrannical mother. In the early chapters of the book Brandon and Betsy are at one another constantly. She nags him about everything and piles on the rules. He resents the rules and goes out of his way to hurt her feelings. She responds to his insolence with more and more punishment. Brandon’s mom throws his Nintendo and all his games in the dumpster. She won’t let the kids watch any TV ever because there might be something bad on. They can eat no refined sugar, beef, or pork products because she thinks they will kill you. When she catches Brandon staring off into space for 1/2 hour when he’s supposed to be doing his grammar exercises, she freaks out and tries to take away his Narnia books because he says that’s what he’s been dreaming about.
I thought I knew where this story was going. I thought it was going to be a story of an adolescent boy learning to respect his mother even as she learns to lighten up and let go. Esposito has the narrative skills to write a good story like that. But that’s not the story she tells at all.
I don’t want to go into too much detail because it would give away the whole thing, but there is a key plot device that allows Brandon to begin to radically rethink his life. The story quickly moves from the Brandon/Betsy conflict dynamic to Brandon’s own internal struggle with God. This transition happens about 50 pages into a 150 page book, so you’ve got about 100 pages that are more about Brandon’s inner spiritual struggles than about what’s happening with the story. As a piece of children’s lit, I think that’s a big problem. I don’t think most kids would find the story very interesting after the first few chapters, and by the time you get to about page 100 it gets so overbearingly preachy I just can’t imagine a child staying with it. I think a lot of homeschooling mothers, however, would love it, for what basically happens is that Brandon comes to see the error of his ways and grows into a docile, sensitive, thankful, helpful, obedient, angel of a son who comes to have great respect for all of the work and care his mother exerts on his behalf.
So that’s the story. But as I said, the last 100 pages or so are more a work of popular theology than story, and it’s here that I’d like to dwell a bit. Two principles seem to be driving Esposito’s didacticism, and they both reveal a lot about contemporary Evangelicalism as practiced by so many Christian homeschoolers.
First, Esposito’s story is full to the gills with the sensibility recently described by Tanya Luhrman in her fascinating book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrman explains how many contemporary Evangelical churches expend enormous effort to train members to think differently about reality than many other Americans. The mind is trained through constant exhortation to think in terms of God being actually present, interacting with the believer at all times. Faithful Christian life becomes a perpetual dialogue with God, speaking our concerns to Him and listening to His “still small voice” inside of our minds as He responds. This is exactly what Brandon learns to do in this book thanks to the incessant exhortation of every adult he encounters.
There are many, many examples from the book that I could draw on to illustrate this, but I want to use one in particular because it introduces an unintended irony or dilemma for Esposito. Brandon has been thinking through several biblical passages, and he recalls to mind Paul’s statement (from 1 Corinthians 13), “When I was a child I thought as a child and spoke as a child. Now that I am a man it is time to put away childish things.”
Brandon remembers how he used to believe in superheroes but eventually outgrew them. He remembers “his treasured ‘blankey’ and how, at one point, he couldn’t sleep without it.” (p. 133) But he outgrew blankey too. Esposito concludes, “Maybe God was like a superhero that is able to make you feel safe, and like a blankey that gives you comfort.” Maybe so. That is certainly how Brandon is being taught to think about God. God in this story is warm, cuddly, loving, gentle, always wanting the best for his precious children. Esposito doesn’t seem to notice that by her own logic it would seem that if a child outgrows superheroes and blankeys, perhaps this view of God might also be outgrown.
This view of God of course has a dark side. It’s usually called the problem of evil. Why, if God is this all-good, all-loving being who is deeply interested in every tiny detail of everyone’s life and longs to pour out blessings on His children, does He allow bad things to happen to them? This becomes a big deal in the story, for it turns out that a major character grows alienated from God because he finds out that his father has cancer. Esposito has this character write, “No one that loves his children could possibly watch them suffer a devastating illness or have their family stand by helplessly.” (p.151) She dismisses this thought as absurd, but it’s not absurd at all. It’s completely logical. Her story’s answer is the answer C.S. Lewis gives, not in his excellent book The Problem of Pain but in his Narnia books. In Narnia, when things go wrong Aslan always shows up and makes it all better. In Esposito’s story the family prays and the cancer goes into remission. Problem solved and God is off the hook. But in real life people die. Lots of people. Things go wrong and aren’t set right by the end of the story. If one begins with a doctrine of God that has God actively superintending over every little detail of life, then you’re going to eventually end up having to blame God for the bad stuff.
This is why Christians have debated the topics of predestination and free will for so long. Calvinists, believing in the absolute sovereignty of God, fall down on the predestination side and thus find the problem of evil one of their major challenges. Arminians (and their contemporary progeny the Open Theists) propose a self-limiting God who allows human free will to make a mess of things. This view raises its own problems, but it does provide a way out of the classic problem of evil. I note with interest that in Esposito’s “About the Author” page at the end of the book she says, “Deb’s weapons of war are a faith in the sovereignty of God and a personal commitment to ‘count it all joy.’” (p.162) Said differently, she’s a Calvinist, whether self-consciously or not I don’t know.
The second Christian theme this novel emphasizes follows from the first. If God is utterly sovereign then the chief human task is to submit to Him. God is the cosmic chess master and we are the chess pieces. We should behave like good chess pieces and go where we are told to go, but unfortunately we tend to try to do what we want to do. The goal of the Christian life is to stop trying to do things on our own and learn full, unquestioned obedience to God. This is why some think of Christianity as a “religion of unachievement.” In the early Church, the Christian East, and in the West well into the middle ages the highest ideal of the Christian life was martyrdom, or, barring that, a life of self-denial as realized in the virtual martyrdom of the monastic calling to poverty, chastity, and obedience. This kind of Christianity has been on the wane since the Reformation’s more sanguine view of worldliness gave birth to the secular age, but there remain pockets (sometimes very deep pockets) of Christians who keep to the narrow path of self-annihilation.
Evangelicals are a mixed bag here. Many sectors of ostensibly conservative Christianity have embraced prosperity preaching, and pop culture Evangelicalism is sometimes seen as a betrayal of historic Christian faith. But more counter-cultural conservative Christians, including many in the homeschooling world, continue to stress the more historic Evangelical emphasis on submission of the will to God. In Philip Grevin’s classic study The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America, he explains how the most conservative Protestants in early America felt it necessary to break a child’s will so that they could learn obedience. Obedience to earthly parents would lead ultimately to a faithful conversion and obedience to God. This is precisely the message of Esposito’s book. I personally did not anticipate that this was going to be the message, for it seemed to me that Brandon’s mother was being far too strict and then far too harsh in her judgments and punishments. I thought her character would grow in sensitivity. But no. The clear message of the book is that Brandon needs to learn to submit. He gradually becomes aware of this after he is told it over and over by every adult in authority over him. The message of the book to kids is that they should obey their parents in all things whether their parents seem reasonable or not.
There are other fascinating theological points the book raises that I won’t take on today. But to return to the point I made above, I think Esposito has forgotten her audience. She began with an interesting mother/son pairing whose conflicts would be instantly recognized by thousands of homeschooling families. But the way she resolves the conflict to me seems so unrealistic that Brandon by the end is no longer human. He’s an idealized fantasy created by a mother who wishes her little boy would never grow up, would always want nothing more than to snuggle up in his mother’s arms, have a good cry, and praise her for all the sacrifices she makes for him. I used to be a 12-year-old boy and I now have a 14-year-old boy. That’s just not the way boys work. And I can’t imagine any boy I’ve ever met taking this book seriously. What boy is going to think something like, “[Brandon] struggled to remember the last time he told his mom how beautiful she was”? (p. 53) When was the last time a 12-year-old boy “became painfully aware of how much he missed the smell of his mother?” (p. 54) You get the idea.
I sent my comments to Esposito before posting them, and she graciously emailed me a lengthy and articulate response. You can read it here.