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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.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • RZ says:

    Yes. Very convincing, Scott. Ban the Bible. Too graphic, too subversive, too socialistic. But keep Leviticus there in the library, KJV of course.There are a growing number, it seems, who really do not trust democracy and wish to seize control of the narrative, by intimidation and force if necessary. There are books in the library that I have no use for and would keep from my children, even myself. Same for television and social media. But to dismiss and cancel an ever growing number of professions, races and groups of people is dangerous. This is the way of totalitarianism ( condemned by history and the Bible). Everyone should have the right to tell their own story and history as THEY experienced it. Democracy is tedious, imperfect and shaky. But it is SO MUCH better than the alternative! There is much more at stake here. Did we learn nothing from the McCarthy era? Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you again, Scott, for having the courage to name the truth. Wouldn’t it be convenient for us if we could expunge the memories in our minds of parts of our own history, where we were cruel, thoughtless, sin-filled? Instead, we turn outward to erase the things of our shared history and lives so that all seems perfect. It all boils down to power and control and fear.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you for this helpful and needed post. I’d like to address a difficult issue with the honesty of Scripture concerning the peccadillos of the faithful. It is true that the Bible is honest, often brutally so. A few additional examples include: Lot and his daughters (How we get Ruth eventually and then Jesus, so a bit relevant), Dinah’s rape (maybe not a rape? and the mass murder that follows), all of Judges (maybe focus on the Levite and his concubine and the near extinction of Benjamin, etc. It’s awful), Then we get Jephthah and his daughter, which we can say, Oh that’s the OT, but of course, Jephthah is held up as one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. See Numbers 5:11-31 (consider the sanctity of life of the unborn). I could go on. Here’s the point: The Bible is honest, but are we? How many of these honest and troublesome tales make it into the RCL or the Narrative Lectionary or any kind of regular preaching schedule? How many of these stories have never been preached in a pulpit or taught in a Bible study? The Bible is honest, unfiltered, and raw, but are we? I get the sense that we edit or censor it to “protect” the flock, and I wonder if we reap what we sow …

    • RZ says:

      Hi Rodney,
      Not sure if anyone responded, but I always appreciate your willingness to go one step further and deeper, to raise the inconvenient questions. Literalists like Pat Robertson and John MacArthur do preach on these passages, quite inaccurately and presumptuously, I might add. It begs the questuon: What is the Bible? For me it is the story of God but not the verbatim words of God. The authors can only speak within the confines of their cultural contexts. Yet, God’s overall narrative prevails. Thanks again for your probing insights!

  • Beth Postema says:

    As a public librarian, thank you. The rhetoric towards us has been rather nasty for quite some time, but the directed threats are new, mostly. In August of 2009 there was a Tea Party rally outside the public library where I work. A couple of the signs had the slogan “The Final Solution: Eliminate All Government Employees” accompanied by a picture of President Obama. From my history classes, I remember well that “The Final Solution” was code for genocide. Now I fully realize that their anger/hatred was directed at the President and the federal government, but there we were–myself and my colleagues as municipal government employees,but government employees all the same–helping protestors find the restrooms and drinking fountains on a hot August night while some in the crowd were by their rhetoric calling for our executions.

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