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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.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? I also now chair the department. And along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

12 Comments

  • Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you, Jen. Solidarity and many amens from this fellow teacher.

  • Wow, you are back, and this is great. How sad when we choose to live with the discomfort that is actually there in all of us instead of letting a book or conversation bring it to light, where we can discover that it will not kill us, but will help us live more fully with ourselves and others. Thank you for this.

  • Beth P. says:

    Another yes and Amen here–from a public librarian who is horrified at the number of state legislators who are proposing felony charges and prison for librarians based on what they have on the shelves. As Christians, I always thought that we had an obligation to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    So great to have you back. One summer, when I was a very pious and preachy Calvin student, and working behind the counter at at a fish market in the resort of Fire Island, New York, a regular customer reached over the counter and handed me Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. The book turned me upside down. For which, since, I am ever grateful. (The customer was a Jewish psychiatrist from Germany, Dr. Riebenfeld, who also handed me one of Schweitzer’s books on St. Paul). The Hesse was a challenging gift that he gave me. What he saw in me, and what he saw that I needed to wrestle with, I can only assume. But quite a gift to give a pompous young Kuyperian.

  • Tim Brown says:

    Thank you Jennifer, what a gift! I am going to read your article three more times today and send it to all my students who recently finished my “Preaching in the Dark” course who would have finished wiser and better able to preach difficult sermons if they had it then! Thank you again!

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    This fear of learning is causing me to feel discomfort, with a taste of incredulity. My career is in science where almost every day, questions come up that require reading research that fails to answer said question. If I avoid any resource that challenges my approach, it’s not science. I have to evaluate everything available and keep looking for new information that may send me in multiple directions until the correct answer is developed. Where would this country be without curiousity? Science provides a look into the mind of God.

    The construction image is great. Building on a weak foundation can’t make the house stronger. Maybe a story like that should be in the Bible? Oh, look, it is.

    That books are even at issue means someone must be reading, if not before then surely after their notoriety is announced. What better way to get children to read than tell them they can’t.

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    Welcome back to this space, Jennifer, and thanks in particular for this gem: ” If your Bible is only pious platitude, you may want to check your edition.”

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Often a student would preface the presentation of the poem she had composed with “I’m sorry that my poem is so depressing. It’s from something that happened.” And once again I would say, “Hmmm. What happened to you, yes, is depressing. But I am all but sure your poem is going to, in one way or another, even ironically, bring out the best in us.” Invariably it did.
    Thank you so much, Jennifer. And may your important book be attempted to be banned, and be widely celebrated for its valuable purpose.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Amen to this post. Thank you and welcome back.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I’ve always thought that if discomfort was the prerequisite for banning a book, the Bible should be banned. That may actually help with increasing its readership, as nothing increases interest (especially among the young) than banning it.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    This is a wonderful essay that I’ve shared with my Upper Zoom Bible Study group at Suttons Bay Congregational. It was just last evening that our session ended with encouragement from our pastor to share the uncomfortable.

    Your writing is beautiful and your timing is perfect. Thank you.

  • Cortney Housman says:

    Greetings! I am curious when your “Nourishing Narrative” book will be released. My husband and I are facilitating a group of beautiful people in Vantage Point 3’s “the Journey, anxiously anticipating the upcoming narrative process.

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