Teaching American Literature Antithetically

American literature is one of the required courses for all students who will graduate from high school. U.S. students, who want to know and should know the history of their country, must study the literature of their country. Dr. H. Zylstra said in his Testament of Vision:
If you really want to get at the spirit of an age and the soul of a time you can hardly do better than to consult the literature of that time and that age. In the novels and stories and poems and plays of a period you have a good indication of what, deep down, that period was about. I am thinking now, of course, of the real literature, the valid and undissimulating literature. I am not thinking of the quantities of drug store fiction, sure-fire Broadway hits, “slick” magazine stories, or of the tons of synthetic entertainment and pastime books in which people in our time seem determined to hide from themselves and their problems.
It is true that many of the students who must satisfy the English requirement to graduate from high school do not enjoy reading the literature included in the American literature course. Many students have to learn that reading is work; reading “good” literature is very hard work. Many students wish to read only that literature which is pleasant; or read that literature which excites their fancy and their lust; or only read that literature which is geared in sentence structure and vocabulary for the person with a sixth grade reading ability.
One morning in October, I walked into my American literature classroom and asked my students why they were studying American literature. I certainly did not want the usual answer, “I am taking this course because it is required so that I can graduate.” In order to provoke the students to think about the most basic issue which would cause them to give a meaningful, Scripturally-oriented answer, I asked them another question. “Why do you do anything in this sin-cursed world?” The existentialist would say, “I do it because I exist.” What is the Christian student going to say? Will the Christian say, “I do it to make this world a better place in which to live.” Will the Christian say, “I do it because I am curious about the world in which I live.” I didn’t receive an answer to this question from every student.
A few days later I was approached by a minister. He was not from the Protestant Reformed Church. When I told him that I teach literature in Covenant Christian High School, he asked me: “Can you teach the Antithesis in your literature courses?” That was quite a question. I believe it deserves an answer just as certainly as the question to my students deserves an answer. I am convinced every teacher should ask himself the question asked by this minister. How am I making my course a living testimony to the truth that I am Christ’s and He is mine? How do I testify in my instruction that I have died unto this world and live unto God?
Have you ever heard the statement: “We have all things in common with the world except grace.” That has a familiar Reformed, specifically Protestant Reformed sound doesn’t it! That’s the way our courses should be taught in our high school and the grade schools.
We have in common with the world the literature of the country in which we live. We read the same newspapers, we read the same short stories, we read the same poetry, we read the same novels, we look at the same art work. How are we different? How do we live antithetically?
We have been changed! We have died unto the world and we live with Christ. We are new creatures in Christ. We are new creatures who are reading, playing, working and studying in the midst of this world of sin and error. Because we are new creatures we do all things differently. Grace has made all the difference. Formally, there is no difference; the change is a spiritual ethical change and this will affect our basic attitude toward and interpretation of life and products of the men of this age.
We believe the students at Covenant Christian High School are new creatures in Christ. They are such because of the work of God. These new creatures are required to study the literature of America so that they may graduate from Covenant Christian High School. To have studied American literature means that one knows something about the craft of the writers of American literature. Permit me to illustrate. These students must be able to identify such poetic qualities as alliteration, consonance, assonance and onomatopoeia. Students of American literature must also know the philosophic bias of the writers in America. The writers were Calvinists, Transcendentalists, Deists, Pantheists, Romanticists, Realists or Naturalists. Just because we study the craft of literature and the philosophy of the writers, are we teaching antithetically? Certainly not! This the student can do in any public high school which commits itself in its instructional program to a sound system of teaching the facts. We have the bare facts in common with the world.
That question of antithetical teaching still bothers me. Doesn’t it bother you? It bothers me because I have to be able to demonstrate what it means to teach antithetically. It is easy to say what antithetical teaching is; it’s harder to show how it is done. I will try.
Not long ago we were studying the poetry of that implied pantheist, William Cullen Bryant. What a student of nature he was and how he loved “Nature”! That can be dangerous, you know. He deified “Nature” to the extent that “Nature” with its “everlasting smile” became his god. In his later life he may have believed in a being or “god” that transcended the creature but really he worshipped the creature and not the Creator (Cf. Romans 1). He made of creeping and four-footed beasts his god. This is idolatry. That’s terrible! That’s heathenism and paganism!
To teach antithetically is to teach so that covenant youth are told the truth, bathed in the truth. However, covenant youth in their interpretation of life must also begin to use the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions to evaluate life and the products of men. This is serious, hard work! Because of its seriousness, covenant youth must be given an opportunity to manifest that they are not of this world but belong to the new creaturehood with Christ at the head of this new creaturehood. They must be able to show in their attitude toward and in their interpretation of life that they belong to the party of the living God.
One of Bryant’s poems is entitled “Thanatopsis”. This meditation on death was written by Bryant when he was nineteen years old. After the class had uncovered the meaning and intent of William Cullen Bryant, these juniors (eleventh graders) at Covenant Christian High were asked to read Psalm 16 and Psalm 49. What a contrast! Both Bryant and the Psalmist exhibit tremendous poetic skill, but the message of “Thanatipsis” and the message of the Scriptures stand antithetically opposed to each other. These sixteen-year-old students were told to evaluate the poem of Bryant in terms of the Psalms and all other pertinent passages of Scripture. I quote several products of these American literature students. I am humbly proud of our Covenant youth.

William Cullen Bryant in his poem “Thanatopsis” speaks about his fear of death and the comfort he found in the hold of “Nature”. That comfort was the thought that he would share his destiny with all men in that one great sepulcher of “Nature”, the earth.
After reading Psalm 49, I realize that the peace after death for which Bryant sought was really corruption. The Bible teaches that a man that does not understand is like the beasts that perish. Death will feed upon him.
If Bryant’s confidence had been in the salvation of his body and soul through Christ, he would have had true peace. The ransomed of the Lord will never see corruption because God redeems body and soul of the upright from the power of the grave.
By Priscilla Bol
“But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave” (Psalm 49:15) is a great comfort to God’s children. In “Thanatopsis” Bryant has no comfort. He believes that every man dies since it is natural, but he sees it as a passage into the “silent halls of death”. As God’s children, we say with David in the Psalms, “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil,” because we believe God is with us.
Bryant says, “To mix forever with the elements.” This contradicts Psalm 16:10: “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (grave).”
Bryant’s attitude is wrong. We see the grave as a passage from death unto life while he sees it as a passage from life unto death or “eternal sleep”.
By Kathy Koole
God grant that our students may continue to study antithetically, that our teachers may teach antithetically and that living the antithesis our lives may be paeans of praise to God.
Note: I am sorry that I have not continued my series in the field of history. I have not had time to work on this series. I will try to continue this series in my next article.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 29 No. 7 November 1969