Like so many other topics, since I have been studying the philosophy and pedagogy of Charlotte Mason, I have pondered the idea of living books. It seems to me that this topic, like many of Mason’s ideas, has layers of meaning coming from her years of work and study in education. I want to share some of my ponderings about how living books are connected to some deeper meanings of what it means to live.
Let’s begin by considering what the word living means, according to The Free Dictionary by Farlex at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/living:
1. Possessing life: famous living painters; transplanted living tissue.
2. In active function or use: a living language.
3. Of persons who are alive: events within living memory.
4. Relating to the routine conduct or maintenance of life: improved living conditions in the city.
5. Full of life, interest, or vitality: made history a living subject.
6. True to life; realistic: the living image of her mother.
7. Informal Used as an intensive: beat the living hell out of his opponent in the boxing match.
1. The condition or action of maintaining life: the high cost of living.
2. A manner or style of life: preferred plain living.
3. A means of maintaining life; livelihood: made their living by hunting.
4. Chiefly British, A church benefice, including the revenue attached to it.
Synonyms: living, alive, live2, animate, animated, vital
These adjectives mean possessed of or exhibiting life. Living, alive, and live refer principally to organisms that are not dead: living plants; the happiest person alive; a live canary.
Animate applies to living animal as distinct from living plant life: Something animate was moving inside the box.
Animated suggests renewed life, vigor, or spirit: The argument became very animated.
Vital refers to what is characteristic of or necessary to the continuation of life: You must eat to maintain vital energy. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.)
Among the various definitions of the word living, I want to consider the very first two—“possessing life” and “in active function.” And, in relation to humans, one who possesses life or who is active in function is also one who is “full of life, interest, or vitality.” So, we might say that a living book is one that “possesses life,” but before we look closer at what “possesses life” might mean, I want to consider why this is an important topic to begin with.
In our current western culture the view of matterialism (the idea that matter is all that exists so life is made up of the physical) is prolific and informs much educational practice. But Mason’s view of life encompassed more than the material and she understood the human, as a person to need material/physical food and spiritual food. As Mason (1953) and others (Wright, 2011; Moltmann 1985; Macaulay and Barrs, 1978) have said, “It is so much the habit to think of the person as a dual being, flesh and spirit, when he is, in truth, one, that it is necessary to clear our minds on this subject. The person is one and not several, and he is no more compact of ideas on the one hand than he is of nervous and muscular tissues on the other. That he requires nutriments of two kinds is no proof that he is two individuals” (p. 64). If we are both, then we need both physical food and spiritual food. Children as well as adults need both.
It might help us to consider for a moment a short understanding of spiritual. Mason (1954) defines spiritual as everything that is not corporal (relating to the physical) (p. 24). What are some concepts that we might think of as spiritual? Of course we would consider religion spiritual, but that is not everything. For example, honour, trust, integrity, beauty, love, thankfulness—are all spiritual ideas. They are not physical, and thus, remain in the spiritual arena.
When we look at the feeding episode (the crowd that followed and wanted more and its desire to have a king who would feed it), we are reminded of Frederic Engels’ program that people need bread, not ideas. With Marx, the revolution promised to provide not only bread but also cake for all. But the Bible’s directive is the opposite, as found in Jesus’ words. People need bread in the immediate emergency. But for lasting provisions in the hardships of life, they need ideas and living words about the truth of the universe. They need answers to the pressing questions of life.
Udo Middelmann (p 51 and 52)
If we are merely physical beings, then bread and cake would satisfy, but it seems that what Middelmann is getting at here is that humankind needs “spiritual” food as much if not more than “physical” food. If one has read Mason at all, this sounds very familiar, and therefore, we need living books with living ideas, not just because they are skillfully well written books, but because they feed the spirit, the Mind, and we need well nourished spirits.
Some educational programs can leave the student spiritually malnourished. The use of textbooks, even those dealing with Christian content, can be dry, desiccated texts, providing little if any spiritual nourishment. An unbalanced use of manipulatives and “hands on” teaching can also lead to spiritual malnourishment. The use of manipulatives, science experiments and all such “physical” teaching should always be situated inside of good living books. When not situated in living ideas, an experiment or hands on learning project can provide a momentary thrill to a student without providing him with the life sustaining ideas. Manipulatives are wonderful to use and we should use them. But since humankind needs spiritual as well as physical nourishment so any learning that is physical must be grounded in spiritual ideas.
Mason understood our human need to be fed both physically and spiritually so living books were core to her educational beliefs. Living books then “possess life,” and a vitality. Our definition for vitality is: the state of being strong and active; energy or the power giving continuance of life, present in all living things: the vitality of seeds. (from Dictionary. Apple, Inc., 2005-2007). It would seem to follow then that living books which house living ideas are necessary for the continuation of the spiritual life. They are the food one eats “to maintain vital” spiritual energy.
As I ponder that living books give “vitality of life,” I see the relational connections that have the potential to make an impact on communities. It goes something like this: As a person reads a living book and has a relationship with those ideas, and because it comes through her unique personality, it produces something original in her, becomes part of her, a living creation on which the living books then make an impact. The living book, then, lives not only through the persons who wrote and who read it, but also touches people with whom the reader comes in contact. This is relationship and so we must say that a living book will then make an impact on the community through the life of the reader.
It would seem to me that a living book would “possess life.” It therefore would give life as naturally as living tissue does wherever it is transplanted. (I’m thinking of organ transplant or even grafting into a tree.) Therefore a living book would “possess life” and because of that possession would “give life” (Mason, 1954, p. 18). It is akin, it seems to me, to the word shalom. How so?
I am reading a book, suggested to me by Dr. Deani Van Pelt, Living at the Crossroads. The authors, Goheen and Bartholomew make an interesting comment about the word shalom that I believe applies to the concept of living books. Using the word shalom as a description of the original creation these authors suggest that although the word shalom is usually translated as “peace,” it carries a richer and fuller definition. “Shalom describes the creation as it was meant to be, a life of flourishing and prospering in which our relationships with God, with each other, and with the nonhuman creation are luxuriant and thriving. A world of Shalom is characterized by justice, love, thankfulness and joy” (p. 45).
They go on to quote Cornelius Plantinga (1995) who said about shalom:
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom . . . . In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which the natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. . . .In a shalomic state each entity would have its own integrity or structured wholeness, and each would also possess many edifying relations to other entities. (p. 10)
There are several points that can be made. It seems to me that a living book is a book that not only is “a life of flourishing and prospering in which our relationships with God, with each other, and with the nonhuman creation are luxuriant and thriving,” but a living book produces this kind of impact or “life” in the reader. A living book creates in us a “luxuriant and thriving” life, especially of the mind. But we cannot stop there because this could become self-serving and narcissistic. Rather, a living book helps us continue God’s creation and work towards, “A world of Shalom [that is] characterized by justice, love, thankfulness and joy.” Therefore a living book produces in us “Shalom.”
Goheen and Bartholomew also refer in their “Notes” (p. 184) to the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff, who says, “Shalom incorporates delight in one’s relationships. To dwell in shalom is to find delight in living rightly before God, to find delight in living rightly in one’s physical surroundings, to find delight in living rightly with one’s fellow human beings, and to find delight even in living rightly with oneself” (p. 23). Along with a sense of social justice from thinking Christianly, such “living rightly before God” brings delight. Wolterstorff suggests that, “Shalom incorporates delight in one’s relationships.” A Mason curriculum is full of living books so children’s lives, as they engage with these luxuriant living ideas and live out their education, would be more shalom.
Another thing I have pondered is how the idea of our being created in the image of God is connected to living books. Middelmann describes some of who God is: “Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica with praise, for they “turned from [many confusing, competing, and invented] idols to the true and living God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This God is “true” because you can argue with him and challenge his statements, acts, and promises to see whether they stand the test of history, logic, and fact. He is “living” in that he speaks with words that can be checked, that carry clear meaning and relate to the most common human experiences. He must be a God of passions and emotions, of laughter and tears, of sadness and disappointments and power. Only the God of the Bible is such a God” (p. 60). God is living, true, relational, communicates, and so forth. Living books are the creative expressions of humankind– finite personal beings made in the image of the infinite relational, communicating God and in a way living books also communicate, are relational, whose ideas have power and live on through the readers. That is they must communicate well, provide beauty, provide a richness of words and images; they must be written so as to connect with our personhood or our ‘self.’ They cannot be dry desiccated tests written for behaviourial beings, but rather they must be books that use language and images that are rich, beautiful, graceful, that are written for spiritual beings and feed our spiritual nature.
Thus, the great conversation continues.
Just a few thoughts about living books for you to ponder.
References (All of these are well worth reading!)
Goheen, G. & Bartholonew, C. (2008). Living at the crossroads: An introduction to Christian worldview. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group.
Macaulay, R. & Barrs, J. (1978). Being human: The nature of spiritual experience. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
Mason, C. (1954) An essay towards a philosophy of education: A liberal education for all. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
Mason, C. (1953). Home and school education: The training and education of children over nine. Oxford: The Scrivener Press.
Middelmann, U. (2007). Christianity versus fatalistic religions in the war against poverty. Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster Publishing.
Moltmann, J. (1985). God in creation: A new theology of creation and the Spirit of God. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Plantinga, Jr., C. (1995). Not the way it’s supposed to be: A breviary of sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Wolterstorff, N. (2004). Educating for shalom: Essays on Christian higher education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Wright, N. T. (2011). “Mind, spirit, soul and body: All for one and one for all; Reflections on Paul’s anthropology in his complex contexts.” Retrieved from http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_SCP_MindSpiritSoulBody.htm.
© J. Carroll Smith 2011