Every year, Waldenbooks held “Banned Book Week.” After the fiasco in McMinn and Williamson counties in Tennessee, I recall these times. We featured several titles and displayed them under a sign that said, “Read These Books While You Can.” It is good marketing as well as good public relations. The company provided answers to potential questions or protests from customers. We never used them.
Banned Book Surprises
The interesting aspect about book bans is the surprises people get. One person exclaims, “But I read that book!” Another might ask, “Why ban Huckleberry Finn?”
The surprises occur because everyone knows that someone has found something they deem objectionable about the book. These objections are more than a matter of literary tastes. They are about subject matter and style of story-telling. So, one customer stands out in my mind. She was surprised to see the Bible among the banned books.
“I would be afraid to ban a Bible.” She said. She was white and probably evangelical. She had not looked too closely. We did not simply put a Bible on the table. It was a copy of The Living Bible. It was not a translation of the Bible. The publishers were clear it was a paraphrase. I did not reply to her assertion. But The Living Bible was banned in many fundamentalist and white evangelical churches. My own home church forbid the public use of it because it “was not an accurate translation of the Bible.” Accurate meant literalist.
What else do people think is objectionable information or style? Perhaps some sexual content or language is inappropriate. Literal translations of the Bible has this stuff. Content is the main issue. Just like the leaders of my home church who had no idea about how to translate the Greek or Hebrew scriptures, most people object to the meaning derived from it. The doctrinal claims regarding the Biblical inerrancy were called into question by a paraphrase.
The question is always why someone objects to the material. Claiming there is no ban but we removed it from reading lists does not answer that question. Does it threaten something the objector holds dear? Would that person do an outright ban if they had the power?
A few decades ago another county school board in Tennessee was faced with an objection from parents over the play The Diary of Anne Frank. Why? Anne Frank tells another character she believes having a religion is important. It does not really matter what religion. Just so long as a person has one. Anne was saying one could have any religion other than Christian fundamentalism. White evangelical church leaders took issue with that.
Banned By Fear
Banning books is due to someone’s fear about the potential impact the material might have. But what about fear of reprisal for disseminating the materials?
Waldenbooks reacted swiftly when a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 against Salman Rushdie for publishing the novel The Satanic Verses. The company pulled the book from the shelves out of fear that a Muslim person would commit violence against the stores. We were told to keep them under the counter for customers who requested them. It was cowardly. And it was bigoted because it assumed Muslims would attack the stores. Customers often decided a book was not available if it was not on the shelves. As far as the appearance of hypocrisy regarding other banned books, we were told it was “for the safety of our staff and customers.” In other words, a book is dangerous for the reader.
The company soon changed the policy. But I understand the lesson now. As Ray Bradbury told us, the communication of the book is worth risking everything.
My parents, to their credit, never told me not to read something. They often objected to ideas I adopted from what I read. But I was not discouraged from reading it. My parents may have shaken their heads. But they never said, “No.”
I see encouraging responses to the news of book bans. Many of us have caused increased sales of Maus and other books. It now remains to be seen how far those who object will go to keep them from being read. My guess is there is nothing more to worry about from them. But it means progressive Christians must do more than read agreeable articles and posts.
We should hold reading groups of materials other people hate. Students should be encouraged to “go the extra mile” to read what they are told to avoid. And when this type of education grows, the influence of it will grow. Changes will begin. Thinking will take place. And creating new ways of being can happen.