The Thistle

Children’s Books by Christians and Non-Christians – Jerram Barrs

Children’s Books by Christians and Non-Christians
Jerram Barrs
Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture Resident Scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute

An important question one might ask is: Why, Jerram, have you included books by non- Christians in this list of books you recommend for our children and teens? (See page 4 for the children’s list and page 12 for the teen list.)

Perhaps I could focus this question by asking it another way: Are Christians better artists than non-Christians? Put this way, the question ought to seem unnecessary, if not foolish. But, the truth is that many believers speak as if it is impossible for the Christian to enjoy or to be edified by the creative works of unbelievers. However, there is not a single Christian in the world who does not daily benefit from the creative gifts and hard work of the unbelievers around him. Our clothes, our food, our homes, our decoration and furnishings, our public buildings, our transport, our machinery, our technology—the greater part of all of this has been designed and made by people who are not Christians. And, much of this is very beautiful. Because these things are well designed and beautiful they enrich our lives.

On even the briefest reflection of the daily benefit the Christian receives from the work of non- Christians, it is obvious that God has given his creative gifts to believers and unbelievers alike. Scripture acknowledges this in many ways, and we should need no other evidence than the insistence of God’s Word that all human persons are made in his image (see Psalm 8, which insists that all human persons are crowned with glory and honor, or James 3:9–10 which charges us that to speak poorly of a fellow human being is to blaspheme against their Creator).

In Acts 14:17, we see Paul talking to the idolatrous pagans in the city of Lystra about God’s generosity. He says, “God has not left himself without a testimony; but has shown kindness by giving you gifts from heaven.” Jesus calls us to be like our heavenly Father, who gives his good gifts to the believer and the unbeliever, the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 5:43–48). The writer of Proverbs declares that God’s wisdom raises her voice not just to the people of Israel but to the whole human race so that there can be good laws and just rule in every nation (Prov. 8:1–4, 15– 16). In 1 Kings 5, we read how God is pleased that Solomon is hiring the finest craftsmen of the day, unbelievers from Hiram, king of Tyre, to build the temple and to work on its interior design.

This is a particularly interesting example, for it teaches us that it is perfectly appropriate for us to use the gifts of non-Christians to help us build our houses of worship or to aid our worship in other ways. On this subject of what is generally called the “common grace” of God, John Calvin writes with great passion about the folly and blasphemy of denying that God has given his gifts liberally to unbelievers:

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.II.XV)

And again:

The sum of the whole is this: From a general survey of the human race, it appears that one of the essential properties of our nature is reason, which distinguishes us from the lower animals, just as these by means of sense are distinguished from inanimate objects. For although some individuals are born without reason, that defect does not impair the general kindness of God [the Battles translation here has “general grace”; the French is “la grace generale de Dieu”], but rather serves to remind us, that whatever we retain ought justly to be ascribed to the Divine indulgence. Had God not so spared us, our revolt would have carried along with it the entire destruction of nature. In that some excel in acuteness, and some in judgment, while others have greater readiness in learning some peculiar art, God, by this variety commends his favour toward us, lest any one should presume to arrogate to himself that which flows from His mere liberality. For whence is it that one is more excellent than another, but that in a common nature the grace of God is specially displayed [Battles translates here “Why is one person more excellent than another? Is it not to display in common nature God’s special grace?” The French is “la grace special de Dieu”] in passing by many and thus proclaiming that it is under obligation to none. We may add, that each individual is brought under particular influences according to his calling. (Institutes, II.II.XVII)

Calvin in this passage speaks of “general grace” and also of “special grace” as he reflects on the generous giving of gifts by God to the whole human race. He is quite happy to acknowledge that in many areas of human activity unbelievers may be more gifted and have more wisdom than believers. If in reading this statement you are troubled by it, just think of the planes in which you fly, the buildings that you admire or in which you live and work, the technology or medical care from which you benefit—almost certainly the majority of these have been designed and made by non-Christians. This truth should not trouble us at all, but rather cause us to magnify the grace of God, who gives to all so generously. The question we need to ask about any human artifact is not “Is this made by a Christian or a non-Christian?” Rather, we should ask the question that Genesis 1 prompts us to ask: “Is this good?”

This brings us back to our first question: Why does this list of books for our children include many books by non-Christian authors? The simple and biblical answer to this question is that these are good books that will enrich the lives of our children. I will give one example, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. From what I read of her life she does not appear to have been a Christian believer, though she clearly has some conviction of the existence of a Supreme Being. This beautiful book has a wonderful account of the loveliness of creation, the appalling consequences of neglect and abuse of children, the destructive impact of self- centeredness in any child, and, above all, the central theme of the book is the restoration to life of the two children who are the main human characters and the re-creation of the secret garden by the children. Read and enjoy without feeling the need to ask the question: Is this author a Christian believer? Just as you buy lovely clothes or choose what you will wear each day without asking the question: Who designed and made this? God can use the creations of even unbelievers to bless and build up his people. Let us rejoice in this fact and be glad in it.

This article is copyright © 2011 by Jerram Barrs and is reprinted with permission.  For reprint permission, contact