God doesn’t want us to be shy with his gifts, but bold and loving and sensible.
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
It’s Banned Books Week, the week where we “celebrate the freedom to read.” I love this week – it caters to the rebel in my soul who wants to shout against unjust authority and stand up for artistic rights. But it also reminds me of something that I need to remember from time to time – censorship is about fear.
As a kid, I was allowed to read pretty much anything I wanted. Of course, my parents steered me away from Stephen King until I was old enough to manage the scariness and put it in proper perspective, but I was allowed to read George MacDonald’s romantic novels when I was about 8. The Scottish brogue kept me from understanding much of it, but still, even at 8, my parents were confident that I could understand love. The only things we were expressly prohibited from seeing were TV shows that my mom did not care for – Golden Girls, Three’s Company, and Solid Gold – because the sexuality was too explicit for us to understand. But we not kept from them because my mother feared them; we were kept from them because she knew we were not ready or able to understand them. There’s a difference.
So much of censorship is about people being afraid – The Grapes of Wrath was challenged as required reading “due to the book’s language and portrayal of a former minister who recounts how he took advantage of a young woman.” The Color Purple was “banned in the Souderton, PA Area School District (1992) as appropriate reading for 10th graders because it is ‘smut.'” In 2006, The Lord of the Rings was “burned in Alamagordo, NM (2001) outside Christ Community Church along with other Tolkien novels as satanic.”*
Burned! A church burned Tolkien’s classics that, without doubt, show the triumph of good over evil. I don’t even know how to make sense of that.
But most fear doesn’t make sense. Most fear comes out of those dark places in ourselves where we say we need to be afraid because no one will protect us if we don’t look out for ourselves. It comes from the places where we have tucked away words that someone told us when we were younger – “If you go to a party by yourself, you’re going to get raped.” “If you masturbate, you’re going to go blind.” “If you do yoga, you’re opening up your body to demonic possession.” – and those things are almost always whispered by people who are controlled by fear themselves and want us to be controlled, too.
I know this feeling. I grew up around people who told me that if I listened to secular music I was basically worshipping the devil, and so in a fit of fear, I quite literally ripped the magnetic tapes out of all my cassettes, including an original “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” (I still regret that.) I was told many times in my teenage years that kissing boys was bad but sex, that was horrible and dangerous . . . until I got married – then, it was supposed to suddenly become beautiful and powerful. (Anyone else see a problem with this language?) Out of fear, out of a misguided desire to protect me, people terrified me, and honestly, it’s taken a lot of years of thought and diligent prayer to heal from those things.
Still, today, people – who mean well, I think – have decided that fear is the best way to protect me. “Are you sure you’re okay to live alone way out there? Don’t you want an alarm system?” “Internet dating – how is that possibly safe? What if the guy you’re meeting at the coffee shop at 4pm is a serial killer?” Instead of having a conversation where we can parse out the complexities of these situation, instead of sitting down and letting me share my concerns, people leap to hysteria because that’s the most efficient way to get across their point.
I wonder what would have happened if, instead of burning Tolkien’s trilogy, that church had done a group read of the book and then met to discuss what worried them, what enlightened them, what seemed true, what didn’t. Maybe they all would have grown. Maybe they would have felt God’s real presence instead of the frenzied fanaticism of a book burning. Maybe the teenagers in their midst would know how to separate real danger from false danger.
The thing I know is that books are safe places. In books, we can see monsters, and witness rapes, and watch horrors without having to experience them directly. I wish we could do more of that in our conversations – tell our stories and share our pain without resorting to hysteria or censorship.
In honor of Banned Books weeks, I’m making a promise to myself and to the people I know, particularly to the children and teenagers I’m honored to have as part of my life. I will not stir anyone up in fear. Instead, I will sit down, listen to them, and share my thoughts. Maybe we’ll have a few less book burnings; maybe we’ll have a lot less fear.
What about you? What were you taught to irrationally fear?
*Examples taken from the American Library Association website.