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I’m delighted to be back in my usual Wednesday slot here on the Reformed Journal blog. My thanks to Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell for allowing my extended leave. And a huge amount of gratitude to the wonderful Olivia Mason who has filled in for me in my absence. I so enjoyed her insights about place and art-making and community. Can’t wait to see what she does next as a writer and maker and citizen!
I’ve been away because last summer I signed a contract with Intervarsity Press to write a book (tentatively) entitled Nourishing Narratives: How Story Can Give Us More To Be Faithful With—and my contract stipulated I wasn’t allowed to write/publish anything else while I was working on the book. I’m happy to report that my manuscript got turned in on deadline at the end of January, and now the long process of moving towards publication has started; my editor tells me I’m quite far down in his editing queue, so I’m working on being patient until it is my turn. I’m eager to tell you more about the book when the publishing date is set!
Since I’ve been thinking a great deal in these last months about story’s power, I’ve been saddened (but not surprised) to see another round of book banning: the Tennessee school board that removed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the mother who pushed to have a biography of Michelle Obama removed because it could make white girls like her daughter feel “ashamed.” Or the Texas state representative who has started an investigation into “problematic” books and has produced a 16 page list of texts that, according to the Dallas Morning News, he felt “’might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress’ because of their race or sex.”
Notice that it’s not the texts themselves necessarily that are the causes of distress: it is a response rooted in the readers’ race or sex. In other words, the argument seems to be that students of a particular race (one presumes here white) and gender should not be faced with any text that might challenge or unsettle them or cause them to make a moral judgment about themselves or their history. Now, I’m not sure what the representative has in mind for a syllabus, but he sounds a bit like the “old lady in California” from whom Flannery O’Connor once received a letter in which the woman claimed “that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read.” In this model, comfort is the purpose of reading. Placidity must be maintained.
Now I’m not opposed to the odd comfort-read—the bookish equivalent of mashed potatoes or a candy bar–but a steady diet of it, whether at home or in an educational context, leads to the same kind of ill health, except emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. Instead, if we are not experiencing “discomfort, guilt, anguish” when we read, it feels like we need to re-examine our literary choices. And asking: why are we feeling these things? What in the text is activating such a response? Are there plot points that are educating us to something new? Reminding us of something about which we are ashamed or want to deny? Are we uncomfortable seeing people who resemble us do things we want to believe we never would or could? Does the narrative challenge our notions of progress? Do we want to avoid examining questions of race and gender altogether, and particularly the systems of power that are associated with them?
Instead of resisting these reactions, we need to embrace them and figure out what they are leading us towards. Here, it will be useful to distinguish between guilt and conviction. Guilt reminds us of our corporate wrong-doing as a species and traps us there, but conviction acknowledges evil while asking us to move towards reconciliation and making things right. As O’Connor noted about the tired old lady, “I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.” Discomfort while reading, then, is its own spiritual discipline. Or should be. After all, if reading the Bible itself isn’t raising some moments of “discomfort, guilt, anguish,” I’d wager we aren’t reading it very deeply or engaging it very truthfully. If your Bible is only pious platitude, you may want to check your edition.
And I can’t imagine a classroom space where there is not an active wrestling with whatever the text at hand. Some time our discomfort comes from the complexity of the language and complications of the imagery. Interpretation is hard work. At others, we confront subject matter that is provocative, perspectives that may challenge worldviews, ideas that are perplexing. This is as it should be. One does not take a class to understand what one already knows, one takes a class to put one’s ideas in conversation with other ideas and see what results. The best learning starts in humility (I don’t know everything, I could be wrong) and moves towards recalibration as new facts are learned, more perspectives acknowledged. I’m certainly not suggesting that the classroom is a place where all pre-conceptions are blown away by “better” ideas—not at all. Instead, I am saying that the classroom should be a place where self-examination (which, let’s admit, is almost always uncomfortable) can happen well and respectful disagreement can be expertly cultivated. All guided by some key related questions: how does what I’m reading make me engage with what I already know and believe? How can what I read help me move towards greater love of God and neighbor, including helping me know when I need to repent? How can what I read give me a more capacious view of God and God’s creation?
One way to do that is to admit that there is not one story for one group and something else for another. I find Isabel Wilkerson’s metaphor incredibly helpful here:
America is an old house….When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not….Many people will rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joist, but they are ours to deal with now. And further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands. (Caste, 15-16)
In other words, the discomfort that comes with identifying and understanding the problems of our collective “house”—be that the history of America (as in Wilkerson’s imagining), the long narrative of the church, our family sagas, whatever—is a necessary feature, not a bug. We do not live in perfect houses—literature shows us this, over and again. But to avoid seeing issues because we find them upsetting is not to avoid them at all, but instead to hurry along the destruction that is already there.
Banning books is often couched in language of protection, particularly of the weak or innocent. But in another essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor gives us this encouragement: “It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life….” Part of our witness, then, is to bravely move towards all the stories that need telling, towards a full acknowledgement of the fissures in our own house, even as we proclaim the sure foundation who undergirds us all.