Book-Burning: As Christian As It Gets

Book-Burning: As Christian As It Gets August 28, 2018

Earlier this month, Alex Jones compared his banning from various social-media platforms as basically “book burning.” I suppose he wanted people to forget that it’s normally his tribe that does the burning in these situations. But we won’t forget, nor allow him or his fanboys to forget. Really, book burnings are as Christian as crusades, misogyny, and pseudoscience–which is to say, as Christian as it ever gets. I’ll show you what I mean, today.

This will be relevant shortly. (I took this pic in 1987. Nobody got hurt by the fire, at least that I saw. I got there before the emergency responders did. Literally, the freeway was empty right then except for this truck and the guys who’d escaped from it.)

Set the Wayback Machine for 1987.

When I first met Biff, I was a newly-minted 17-year-old. The previous year, I’d converted–and then left–the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), then the United Pentecostal Church (UPCI). Now I was just a normal teen again. But a few months after we began dating, Biff converted to the UPCI that I’d just left!

His life mission became saving my soul, which I regarded as beyond tiresome.1 He’d begged me to let him prove himself to me, though, and it seemed to me at the time that if I loved him, I should at least allow him to try to make his case. Today’s story always strikes me as especially and equally hilarious and sad because he’d made that request.

I’d gone out of town with my school’s French Club to a big symposium elsewhere in Texas to compete against other French Clubs to prove our Frenchiness. I’d participated in grammar and vocabulary drills, creative writing contests, and even a costume competition.2 I hadn’t done super-great, but it’d been a good time with good friends. Plus, I’d gotten a cool photo of a truck on fire on the way into the town where the competition was held.

But Biff was not at my high school when the bus pulled in right on time that Sunday. Nor did he show up with his habitual tardiness (of all the forms of disrespect he could inflict on people, he loved tardiness the most). The minutes stretched into hours.

Finally.

In the late afternoon, Biff finally showed up–about three hours late. He arrived about ten minutes short of me deciding I’d had about enough forever of his thoughtlessness and idiocy.

But he was beaming–and a little sunburned. I was absolutely furious, but he didn’t care. He’d been at the beach in Galveston–which was damned near an hour’s drive away. And he had an excuse, he said.

“We burned all my gaming books and worldly art!” he told me, grinning ear to ear.

I was set back on my haunches at that. I knew what all the words meant individually, but together they didn’t parse at all.

“You went to Galveston to burn a bunch of your stuff?” I asked.

He nodded happily, like I’d just repeated a very complicated sentence in French. As we continued on to my parents’ house, he told me all about it.

How a Book-Burning Goes Down.

Biff said he’d been hanging out with some friends from church (“Jimmy” and “Tim”). They had gotten to talking about their previous worldly lives.

In Christianese, worldly stuff is the opposite of Jesus-flavored stuff. It pulls people away from TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ rather than immersing them further in it, or else it inspires people to behave or talk in ways that proper Christians shouldn’t. Sometimes the word even carries with it implications of demonic interference or possession.

The word worldly can also describe stuff Christians liked or did or wore from before their conversions. In Biff’s case right then, the word meant all the artwork he’d created, media he’d bought, and all the tabletop gaming books he’d owned (mostly Dungeons & Dragons).

All three of the young men got disgusted with their previous lives all at once, and they decided that a perfect way to handle their disgust was to destroy all that stuff.

I was always a big believer in the necessity and power of libraries and books. I was considerably past horrified.

When you get down to it, though, book-burning is as Christian as a cross necklace.

Stuff Authoritarians Love: Destroying Challenges.

Authoritarian regimes have always destroyed printed material they felt was challenging to their control-grabs. As with every other terrible aspect of Christianity, book-burning transcends the religious window-dressing of those doing it. Wikipedia gives a number of examples of this form of destruction, many from pre-Christian times and in non-Christian cultures.

Since nothing truly divine–or, for that matter, supernatural–inhabits any religion, Christians certainly have no reason to do anything differently. And indeed, they don’t.

Only a fraction of literature from the ancient world survives today, thanks to Christians’ affection for this form of destruction. Indeed, we know some of those ancient authors–notably Celsus–almost entirely through what Christians wrote in pathetic, mealy-mouthed rebuttals of what must have been devastating critiques of their religion.

Give Christians tangible coercive powers, and this is what they do with it. Literally no version of Christianity stands immune from these flaws, despite what some Christians imagine as original Christianity. (We’ll have to talk about notion later on.)

Modern Book-Burning.

Book-burning by then had become a sort of shorthand: if you are on the side of book-burners, you’ve already lost the argument.

Lily RothmanTime, May 18, 2018

Nowadays, we associate book-burning with authoritarian regimes. The free exchange of information that literature represents poses the most danger to that level of control.

In the modern age, despots and tyrants have utilized this blunt-force tool in the same way that ancient regimes did. Nazis outraged and horrified the world with a huge book-burning ceremony in Berlin in 1933, for example. But the event was hardly Germany’s first, nor its last. Berlin had another in 1945 after the Nazis fell; this time, they burned Nazi literature.

By then, however, the ceremony had already entered the public lexicon as a mark of ignorant savagery, brutal control, and unthinkable intellectual violence.

In America, after the Red Scare got rolling, book-burnings became fashionable in Freedom Land. In fact, they got so popular that the American Library Association and President Eisenhower issued separate pleas in 1953 begging Americans not to “join the book burners.” Fahrenheit 451 came out that year as well, playing upon a custom that had once been so enthusiastically embraced by terrible people.

Not long after those years, Mao Zedong and his followers burned and destroyed countless books during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. This time, we had a vocabulary for thinking about such destruction. When North Dakota’s TRUE CHRISTIANS™ did the same in 1973, Americans could respond with condemnation, not praise.

When authoritarianism combines with the glorification of ignorance, that’s when things get seriously dangerous for anybody who values critical thinking and learning.

How Book-Burnings Go Down.

In the Book of Acts in the New Testament (Acts 19:19), we find a description of Jesus-approved book-burning:

A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas.

Notice the way the event came together:

  • Participants had joined TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ from lives they claimed were filled with debauchery.
  • These participants categorized some media as Jesus-approved and some as non-approved.
  • They brought the non-approved materials together for one group event.
  • The event occurred in public.
  • Everybody added up the value of the destroyed materials and wow did it ever sound impressive, though the writers never shared how that value was calculated.

That’s about how the early Christians did a proper book-burning. For centuries, even into modern times, that’s about how they’ve always gone down.

Book-Burning: In Perfect Order.

Man oh man, my old tribe of fundagelicals loved them a good book-burning.

Christians who participated in these ceremonies saw them as a public show of commitment and piety. Even more than that, they also saw them as a direct counter to demonic activity. Those were the days of This Present Darkness and the Satanic Panic, after all.

We were all surrounded by the imagery of book-burning. Remember that “Dark Dungeons” Chick tract and movie we talked about a while ago? The story ends with a book burning. The heroine, Debbie, attends a revival service. The evangelist walks Debbie through a proper Sinner’s Prayer, whereupon all sorts of evil demons fly out of her. Then “Debbie burned all of her occult material that night,” says the tract on the official site.

At least one other edition has Debbie cursing “that lousy D&D manual,” while that one’s book-burning panel shows much more D&D-oriented stuff being burned.

The one on the official site seems like it’s been adapted for a less Satanic-y Panic-y world. (Click to embiggen.)

After a book-burning, participants were supposed to feel cleansed emotionally, even purified. And maybe they did feel that way, for a while. For sure, they didn’t have much to do with their spare time. They’d thrown away everything they’d once enjoyed.

They were new creations–again.

The Pyre.

So Biff, Jimmy, and Tim packed up all their worldly stuff. For Biff, that was anything not specifically Christian. He even threw in his SCA stuff and his bottle of Drakkar Noir, a popular men’s cologne at the time. It smelled too sexy, he thought; it was too great a temptation for me.


In the 1980s, young men wore either Polo or Drakkar. The squabble always reminded me of the Luke vs. Han fight going on around the same time. I still have an affection for neroli, I must admit.

But more than that went with him. For all the criticism I could (and do) level at Biff, he created incredible art before he converted. (Except painting. He was a painfully inept painter.)

He packed all that stuff into the box, and his friends did likewise.

After filling the back of Tim’s pickup truck, the three young men schlepped their boxes of stuff down to Galveston Beach. There, they built a fire pit and set it all on fire. Of course, they also prayed and annoyed passersby with impromptu evangelism. Biff claimed that a few people he’d pestered had shown interest in hearing more later, but nothing came of it (a fact I didn’t miss even then).

Sure, Biff knew he was supposed to be at my high school at noon to fetch me from there (neither of my parents were even home that day, so I really needed the ride). And he knew that at 11:30, he and his two friends were heading to Galveston. But he figured I’d be chill with him being three hours late when he returned with a powerful testimony of the day about how Jesus had moved on that beach.

A Friend, Lost Forever.

One of Biff’s best pre-Christian friends, Arnie, had begged him after conversion to please give him the artwork if he ever decided he needed to get rid of it. One of the pieces was one Biff had created for Arnie himself and wasn’t quite finished drawing–a gorgeous portrait of Arnie’s persona in the SCA. Biff had promised to give his oldest friend the art instead of destroying it. I guess Arnie saw the writing on the wall long before Biff decided to piss all over it.

However, Biff ignored that promise that day on the beach. “Jesus,” he claimed, had called for him to destroy all of his art, and so he had. The way he saw things, Jesus’ orders took precedence. And Biff was the only person who could hear those orders. Even then, I immediately perceived how self-serving Biff’s entire thinking process was.

Sometimes I look back and I’m just astonished I ever fell for Christianity. I remember thinking this stuff back then, and I still re-converted. Fear speaks more strongly than knowledge, if someone doesn’t know how to critically evaluate threats. Biff lost his best and oldest friend that day, and not only that, he also lost any hope of recruiting Arnie into Pentecostalism.

I wish I’d had the sense to walk away with Arnie. But if I had, maybe we wouldn’t be here today. As it was, it took Biff quite some time to persuade me not to dump him that day.

YAY MOM!

Like most narcissists, Biff was, above all else, a boundary-seeking missile. Once he had re-secured his narcissistic supply he floated the notion of heading back to Galveston later to burn a box of my stuff. In addition to a lot of D&D books, I also owned the amount of fantasy and science-fiction books and pop music that any teenager in the 1980s would be expected to have, plus a huge comic-book collection I never let Biff touch.

Biff thought that if I burned that stuff, I’d get a rush of Jesus Power and thus be instantly persuaded of the truth of his various supernatural claims.

Wow, did that suggestion ever backfire.

Remember, I wasn’t Pentecostal then. I was actively disgusted by the whole idea of book-burning.

My mom happened to be within earshot of Biff making that suggestion. She was even more disgusted than I was.

While I scrambled to find a way to tell him to jump off a pier, my mom walked into the living room where Biff and I sat together talking. Her voice sounded as even-toned and as terrible as an announcement of war. She informed Biff that she had paid for my stuff, and therefore she owned it. If he touched any of the stuff she’d paid for without her permission, she would see to it that the law got involved.

Biff tried to play the situation off like he’d been “just talking,” but Mom made clear that she wasn’t “just talking.”

He never brought up the idea again.

(After I headed off to college, incidentally, Mom took all that stuff with her, and I ended up with a great deal of it back again after she passed away, including a Lovecraft-mythos version of Deities & Demigods, ZOMG! I’m still grateful to her for what she did that day. Biff only responded to absolutely unequivocal threats he could not possibly neutralize or cheat his way around. For all the power he claimed that “Jesus” represented, Biff knew better than to test those boundaries.)

Yes, this is me, and SO 80s. Taken during the French tournament. (Check out the Walkman earphones around my neck!)

History Repeats Itself.

My then-boyfriend could be incredibly persuasive, and he was working with concepts that had no basis whatsoever in reality. That combination of truths turned out to be a winning combination for him.

After my reconversion and our marriage, he talked one of our fundagelical friends (“Brenda”) into burning her vast library of bodice-ripper romance novels. Obviously, since the romance novels our friend Brenda liked best all involved completely unapproved sex, they were worldly by definition. And worldly meant demons.

Moreover, Brenda struggled mightily with all kinds of serious emotional problems, including an eating disorder and severe anxiety. Her church, Maranatha, taught basic fundagelicalism (like the SBC of today). She believed that romance novels were iffy but not forbidden.

Because she followed a church Biff believed to be lukewarm, he saw her problems as rooted in the supernatural. Consequently, if she offered our god a big display of commitment and piety, our god might grant her in return enough Jesus Power to defeat the demons oppressing her.

And not much said commitment and piety like burning one’s possessions.

Wait, How Many?

After Brenda agreed to undergo this ceremony as a show of her faith, Biff spent a solid day helping her burn her romance novels in our apartment complex’s parking lot. Brenda brought them out and Biff burned them. By mid-afternoon, neighbors began complaining about the smoke and smell.

I dropped by to see how things were going. By then, Biff had enlisted some friends to help keep the fire going in the barbecue grill they were using–Jimmy and Tim and some others. If you remember that aspiring novelist I mentioned a while ago who’d fanfic’d my life in the most disturbing way possible, she was there too.

Biff came over to me, all puppy-dog enthusiasm, covered in soot and reeking. After realizing just how big a collection of these books Brenda had amassed, they’d begun just tearing off the books’ covers off and burning those.

While I was visiting, Brenda came out with another big box of books. Biff asked, with a great deal of forced enthusiasm, how many were left. She looked down at the box, calculating in her head. Finally, she responded, “We’re about halfway through the collection.”

The look on Biff’s face at that exact moment was priceless.

I left around then, and Biff came home not long after. We didn’t talk about it. The next time I went to Brenda’s place, however, I noticed a row of romance novels on her bookcase shelf.

Biff whined a little to her about the new romance novels, but Brenda never again entertained the idea of burning any of her stuff. She seemed embarrassed by it all. It hadn’t done for her anything Biff had promised it would.

Martyrbation.

What’s weird about book-burning is that the people doing it don’t tend to view themselves as aggressors. If anything, they view themselves as the real victims here. They see themselves as reacting defensively to protect themselves or THE CHILDREN from evil demons and forces of secularization. And they love nothing more than feeling like martyrs. (That unwholesome delight with the feeling of martyrdom is where the Slacktivist community’s term martyrbation comes from.)

I ain’t the only person who noticed that, either. Rebecca Knuth, who wrote Libricide and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries, said much the same thing to the Smithsonian last year. There, we discover this observation:

The unifying factor between all types of purposeful book-burners in the 20th century, Knuth says, is that the perpetrators feel like victims, even if they’re the ones in power.

Little wonder that Alex Jones tried to bring forth that feeling of martyrbation!

Books–and the knowledge and information they represent–may well be the iron chariots of the modern age: a force that Christians can’t defeat.

Some Hope, Maybe.

Perhaps we have cause to hope that maybe this barbaric custom is dying out. In 2001, a bunch of fanatics at the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Pennsylvania burned Harry Potter books, along with other Satanic forces like Mormon books, pop music albums, and Disney movies. The pastor of that church, George Bender, told one news outlet at the time that he’d gotten the idea from Acts 19:19.

Bender had kinda hoped to provoke a big protest from worldly people. But no protesters showed up; indeed, only 30ish people attended the ceremony at all, and they were mostly church members.

That church no longer appears to exist. I can’t even ascertain what happened to Bender afterward. In similar fashion, another pastor who loved him some book-burning, Terry Jones, has been scrambling to make a living after his publicity stunt (burning a Quran) in 2010.

Irrelevance: it’s what zealots hate and fear most, but also what they most deserve. They deserve to vanish into the mists of time, and for people to forget all about them and their idiotic drama.

And lookie there, that’s what seems to be coming their way.

I’m on the left. I had no idea we’d be attending a banquet that night, so hadn’t brought anything to wear. I borrowed a spare dress from the girl on the right. She was one of my best friends ever. My zealotry destroyed that friendship too, eventually.

NEXT UP: Remember that Christian gal recently who warbled on and on about how nobody could possibly ever find real friends and community anywhere except in Christian churches? She’s gone and done it again. Next time, we look at exactly how even “nice” Christians try to control a culture that’s spun right out of their grasp. See you soon!


Endnotes.

1 I thought I was in love with the guy, or I’d have dumped him already before the day we’re about to zero in on. As it was, I very nearly did anyway. I should have. But knowing what you do about my religious history from just the previous paragraph, you likely can guess why I didn’t. I can just about guarantee that you are going to think Teen Cas was a numpty after this post (if you didn’t already think that), and it would be a fair cop. About all I can say about the situation is that I learned eventually. (Back to the post!)

2 I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), of course, and so my costume was a completely historically-accurate (or at least as much as SCAdians knew back then) 12th-century noblewoman’s outfit–the full kit, head to toe. I stayed strictly within the draconian budgetary limit–$20, if I remember correctly–to make the outfit. The girl who won did a Marie Antoinette gown complete with a wig that, by itself, violated the budget constraints, which I knew because I did props for my high school drama department and we’d recently done a play that used near-identical clothing and wig styles. I was outraged, but nobody cared except my club-mates and teachers. No, I’m not bitter, 30 years later. Not at all. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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