Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Robinson Crusoe: An unexpected encouragement

I had never read Robinson Crusoe until I started to read it to my sons aged 5, 7 and 8 last week. Of course I knew the basic story, about a man marooned on a deserted island for many years, and about his companion Man Friday. I'd heard re-tellings of the story, and had read The Swiss Family Robinson to the children last year, which clearly has parallels. But I had never read the original, and we have found it a treat.

I want to draw out two ways in which I have been delighted by this book.

Firstly, I must comment that I found the first few pages quite tough-going to read aloud, in terms of the literary style. The language is rich and complex, but beautiful. Initially, I was concerned that my sons might not understand it well, especially the parts where the author is describing the thoughts and reflections of the main character. However, they have rapidly adjusted to the tempo, and apart from the occasional question over a specific word, are very much learning through hearing a rich vocabulary used in context. This reminded me of some articles I recently read, describing the differences in second-grade literature in 1879 compared with today, and comparing middle school reading lists from 100 years ago with today. Why should an eight year old only be expected to understand very simple vocabulary and basic plots? And does that not become self-perpetuating, whereby our expectations of our children diminish? I confess I have been surprised by how much my boys are enjoying Robinson Crusoe read aloud, but I have been delighted and also have noted them using many new words correctly without having been 'taught'. As is their style, they have been acting out sections of the book in the garden, building shelters and defences, and this clearly shows their understanding (it's almost like their form of 'narration').

The second thing I was unaware of was the strong Christian message in the story*. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Robinson left home against his parents' wishes at the age of 18 to go to sea. He met with quite a number of early trials and near-disasters, and whilst grappling with his conscience, turned his back on his parents' wisdom and on any consciousness of God challenging him. However, later on, on the island, he became conscious of the blackness of his own heart, and having found a Bible amongst his possessions on the shipwreck, began to diligently study God's word and listen to His voice.

So even whilst alone on the island, the character described his situation thus:

'I spent the whole day in humble and thankful acknowledgements of the many wonderful mercies which my solitary condition was attended with, and without which it might have been infinitely more miserable. I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in the liberty of society, and in all the pleasures of the world; and He could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state, and the want of human society, by His presence and the communication of His grace to my soul; supporting, comforting and encouraging me to depend upon His providence here, and hope for His eternal presence hereafter.'

'From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than I should ever have been in any other particular state of the world...'

This is rich gospel truth, and providing plenty of food for hearty discussions with my children. That it is embedded in one of the most famous novels of all time, not in a book specifically marketed as 'Christian', is an unexpected and wonderful treat.

If you are looking for adventure, rich literature, reflections on resourcefulness and creativity and a clear reflection upon God's amazing grace, this book has it all!

*Clearly, I had not done my 'homework' but had simply picked up a 'classic' novel. Daniel Defoe, the author, was a Puritan who wrote books on other topics, and had a very strong sense of God's sovereignty and providence. That makes a lot of sense - and I have found it refreshing to have that strong worldview come across through literature.

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