For years John Grisham has been capturing readers with his page-turning stories of the legal arena of life. His most recent book starts a new shelf in his legal fiction library as he targets a younger reading audience with “Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer.” Engagingly written, the story explores the adventures and dilemmas of a 13-year-old middle-school student fascinated by the law.
Reading the book brought to mind Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” still a standard in young readers’ literature classes, which explores such themes as integrity, racism, poverty, abuse, loneliness, parenting, vulnerability and the redemptive power of human connection.
The impact of this reminder has led to some reflection on the use of literature for teaching ethics, especially with younger pilgrims on life’s journey.
We are familiar with the development of ethical thinking from the basic obedience of rules designed to protect our survival (“Don’t go into the street”) to the development of principles for guiding responsible decisions (“Think about the consequences on others”) to the discernment of truths (love, justice, integrity). The teaching of ethics, formally and informally, involves the cultivation of that discernment.
Stories that draw us into ambiguities, even if through fictional characters, can stimulate thought and create opportunities for conversation about values and perspectives that naturally find their way into the real situations that people face.
For young people especially, cultivating the capacity to see and understand the complexity of human situations, moral dilemmas and global issues would seem a worthy goal for parents, educators and church leaders.
The teaching of ethics is often seen as offering rules, standards and principles by which behavior can be guided. Indeed, “business ethics” and “professional ethics” in various categories tend to follow this pattern.
Perhaps a more foundational focus could be the nurturing of a capacity for ethical discernment, with which issues can be analyzed, options evaluated and choices made on the basis of a deeper understanding, as opposed to choosing the “right” option on the basis of an ideological template.
The need for this kind of discernment is illustrated by the evolution of our political process into a constant campaign and election cycle that allows no time for the kind of public deliberation that is not conditioned by how it will play on Election Day.
Consequently, there is little modeling of Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding,” because the volume gets turned up so high on a particular understanding of the “faith” part that no one can get a hearing for seeking understanding.
A consequence of this is the inability of many to see the difference between a faith tradition and what extremists do in its name, or the difference between a plan for a cultural center/mosque near Ground Zero and a hypothetical memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz.
Perhaps in addition to the many prophetic voices that are speaking with courage and insight to these current issues, we can also be conscious of our younger generation’s need to learn and practice the discernment they will need to deal prophetically with the issues that will present themselves in their future.
Sharpening the blade of discernment takes more time and effort than stoking the fires of fear and anger that are so prevalent in our public discourse, but sharpened instruments are more useful tools for building a future than are wildfires.
It will be good for writers with reputations and perspectives like Grisham’s to continue providing age-targeted resources that will help with the task of nurturing the discernment that is essential for the kind of responsible, mature ethical thinking that is seriously needed for our well being as a society.
I can’t help thinking of another teacher who is reported to have used stories to teach ethics: “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. He replied, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves ….”
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies in Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.