When Literature Supports a Culture of Life and Changes Hearts
By Mary Kizior
Everyone loves stories. That’s one of the reasons Jesus taught many of His lessons through parables. He gave His listeners a chance to relate to and understand the message of the kingdom of heaven. Stories are also a great way to teach your students about the culture of life. But where do you start?
It’s one thing to teach the culture of life in academic subjects where students learn scientific facts and ethical principles. It’s another to teach it through stories. When a child reads a story, particularly a work of classic fiction, his ability to see life from another person’s perspective is heightened. Research shows that reading literary fiction improves empathy in the reader.
Literature has the profound ability to teach subtle lessons about how we should live our lives and how we can better show respect for our fellow human beings. In a story, characters are tested with decisions between good and evil, often involving saving the life of another person. Through these tests, characters are able to strive toward the good, no matter the cost, and rise triumphantly.
When children read such stories, they develop an idea of what it means to live out the gospel of life in the real world. So where can you find such powerful stories? Catholic and Christian publishers print many good books which feed a child’s moral imagination, but literature that supports the culture of life can also be found at your local bookstore. Rely on old classics like The Secret Garden, but don’t shy away from new favorites—like Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which demonstrates that the inestimable worth of each human being does not depend on appearance.
Always judge a story by its message, not its cover. Not all classical literature supports a culture of life and not all modern fiction is anti-life. Determine if a story supports the culture of life by looking at the central message of the book. Examine the fundamental truths that inspire the imagination and clearly draw a line between good and evil. Look for stories that affirm the idea that humans are God’s greatest gifts. Here at the Culture of Life Studies Program we call these fundamental truths in a story a “Life Theme.”
What is a Life Theme?
Within all of our free discussion guides we include a short blurb called a Life Theme—a pro-life theme or message in the book or film that firmly underscores the dignity of each human being, the importance of the family in society, and the duty we have to defend the marginalized in society. A truly pro-life story doesn’t just raise the question of whether or not a human being is sacred, it reaffirms the dignity of the human person without sacrificing the moral integrity of the characters.
In our discussion guide on Silas Marner by George Eliot, we unpack Eliot’s theme of the inestimable worth of each human person and how each child is a gift from God. Each discussion guide presents an analysis of the Life Theme, discussion questions, background information, and a short author biography. To help students draw the connection between the pro-life message and their everyday lives, the discussion guide shows students how they can apply what they have learned in the Life Theme.
However, not every story about unintended pregnancy or the murder of innocent human beings supports the culture of life. For example, in our critique of the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, we describe several instances where the books do in fact support a culture of life because of the way the characters deal with the deplorable Hunger Games going on around them. Yet, the series as a whole does not go far enough to embrace Saint John Paul II’s vision for a culture of life.
For a book or film have a Life Theme, the culture of life should be strongly present through the way that the characters deal with their difficult situations and how they ultimately are changed by their experiences. Characters who embrace a culture of life should always respond with respect for every human person and an understanding of the powerful gift of life that God has bestowed on us all.
How can you find a Life Theme?
Finding a pro-life theme in a book or film isn’t always easy because any given story contains multiple themes and lessons. Focus on the main theme of the story and examine the reactions of the characters when they are placed in difficult, life-or-death situations. To dissect a book or film, ask yourself these questions:
What aspect of the culture of life does this story support? (Examples: respect for the preborn, adoption, disabilities, dignity of the human person, the importance of the family, etc.)
· What is the main message of the book/film/?
· How do each of the characters treat human beings?
· Do the characters value human beings?
· Do any of the characters stand up for justice, even if it means shame, exclusion, or loss?
By reading stories about brave characters who live out the pro-life message, children gain insight into what it means to be pro-life. Stories don’t just work to inform the mind, but also the heart, reinforcing the truth that the culture of life is not about winning or losing a political debate. It’s about caring for each individual person as a special creation of God and seeking justice for those who are oppressed.
What books and films do you use in your home to instill a culture of life in your children?
Mary Kizior is a content developer for American Life League’s Culture of Life Studies Program, which stresses the culture of life as an integral part of every academic discipline. CLSP is dedicated to helping students become effective communicators of the pro-life message. Sign up for our e-mail newsletter to see how we can help you foster a culture of life at home and in school.