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My colleague Gary D. Schmidt is an award-winning author of Middle Grade fiction and so speaks all over the country. He also has connections with librarians in many far flung locales. Recently when Gary led a morning of a seminar I was co-leading, he gave a pretty chilling report on what the world has become like for the average librarian.
One story he told involved a librarian from Texas. Her car sports a bumper sticker that says: “Ask Me: I’m a Librarian.” One day recently, however, as she was driving home, suddenly a pickup truck flying the flag of a certain presidential candidate roared up from behind and proceeded to engage in some serious and threatening tailgating. He followed her all the way home. Thankfully he broke off his pursuit at that point but needless to say she was terrified and thoroughly shaken.
Such stories can be multiplied. School and public libraries have become a kind of new ground zero in the culture wars. Of course attempts to ban books is nothing new. But today’s atmosphere is heavily influenced by a firm desire on the part of some to control what people and particularly younger people may read. The threats and intimidation and even bomb threats have become severe enough that this spring the American Library Association issued a condemnation of those engaged in this kind of activity against libraries and the people who work in them. And a lot of this has been going on according to various news stories like this one from NPR.
Let’s stipulate that of course parents need to exercise discretion in terms of what they want their children to read. No one would disagree that there is such a thing as age-appropriate limits on books and literature. And for Christian parents, a desire (in circles where infant/child baptism happens in particular) to fulfill their baptismal vows for the education of their children is surely a prudent and understandable consideration.
Those concerns, however, are different than telling a whole library that there are many books they cannot even have anywhere in their collection regardless of who reads them. And if it is understandable that parents don’t want their children to be exposed to practices that fly in the face of a desire to see children to learn how they might bear the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives, that is a different kind of consideration than something driving at least some of the current atmosphere: a desire to control how children understand a country’s practices and history of racism. Not a few of the actions of some state legislatures in threatening to defund libraries has been driven to a degree by a desire to control historical facts and narratives. Indeed, some seem intent on erasing certain uncomfortable historical facts. Perhaps a cancel culture of a different stripe.
Here is where I suspect some thoughtful reflection from the church is needed. Recently I have been preparing to update a sermon series I did some years back on the biblical Book of Genesis. When I look at the stories of Genesis, I am always struck by Scripture’s honesty. The fact is that the history of God’s people cannot be told as though it had been a long series of plastic saints who always managed to walk along perfectly straight pathways. The Bible is far more honest than that about the history of people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and others.
Abraham failed in trusting God. Instead he passed his own wife off as a sister and allowed her to be sexually defiled by others to save Abraham’s own skin. How easy would it have been to leave those unhappy stories out of Genesis? Or did we really need the whole narrative detour in the Joseph Cycle of stories when Genesis 38 goes into disquieting detail about how Tamar and her father-in-law Judah engaged in a charade involving prostitution and extortion? Again, any editor anywhere along the line could have hit the proverbial “Delete” button on that one and the latter half of Genesis would be none the worse for the wear had that happened.
But no, history gets told flat out. Jacob spent most of his life as a liar and a cheat, and Genesis makes no bones about it. Joseph’s brothers were not swell fellows and allowed their own father to wallow in soul-crushing grief for years as the necessary cost the old man had to bear so the brothers could rid themselves of a little brother they found annoying.
All of this goes beyond Genesis. We cannot know David’s story without knowing about a dreadful adultery that also led to murder. The whole Book of Jonah seems to be in the Bible to remind us of how insular and ethnocentric God’s people have the capability of being. Move into the New Testament and we don’t get to delete Peter’s denial and then by the time you get to the Book of Acts, we see a dreadful (and easy-to-leave-out) story involving a couple named Ananias and Sapphira. When Peter behaved in cowardly ways, Paul called him on it, and that had to have been one dramatic and uncomfortable argument to witness. (Even early church meetings of synod could get tense!)
One wonders what those who have made libraries the epicenter of desires to tell only a certain cleaned-up version of history would do to the biblical narrative if they had the chance. How much of God’s Word might be deemed in need of getting rid of lest our children or anyone else read such things?
In truth, I have no idea how many Christians have been engaged in some of the bad actions that have been directed at libraries and librarians in these areas. Hopefully such actions by Christians have been few and far between. But God’s own Word may give us pause if we insist on seizing control of historical narratives and facts, hiding from our children (and perhaps denying in our own minds) things we don’t like (but that we’re actually better off knowing about so that we can then repent of them). God’s Word does not present its “warts and all” narratives to give the rest of us a pass when we mess up similarly. But maybe those stories are there to remind us that it is a constant struggle to follow God and that we none of us can do it without a whole lot of grace dispensed by God’s Holy Spirit. Being honest about the past’s failures is a vital step in seeing that.