Those Who Burn Books Will Eventually Burn People

Those Who Burn Books Will Eventually Burn People February 8, 2022

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for my home state of Tennessee.

First the McMinn County Board of Education banned Maus, a highly-acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust. The stated reasons were that Maus contains profanity (8 words you’re likely to hear on basic cable) and nudity (one naked woman in a very non-sexual situation).

I grew up two counties south of McMinn County. I haven’t lived in the area in quite some time, but trust me when I say it hasn’t changed a whole lot. I have no doubt the school board and the people who made the complaints meant what they said. I also have no doubt that if Maus was a story about brave GIs fighting evil Nazis these same people would describe it as “gritty” and “realistic.”

As others have pointed out, their real problem with Maus is that it’s told from a Jewish perspective. There are no heroes. There are no “good Germans.” There is no happy ending. There is only “this horrible thing happened, and you need to know about it so you can make sure it never happens again.”

Tennessee Memorial at Vickburg


The good citizens of McMinn County – and a lot of other places in this country, many of which are not in the South – don’t want their children exposed to such realities. They don’t want to confront such realities themselves. They want Hays Code approved stories that tell them the world is fair and just, that good always triumphs over evil, and whatever problems there are exist because people who don’t look or sound or pray like them are destroying the proper order of things.

And they believe that’s the primary purpose of government – to maintain the proper order of things, by punishing those who deviate from it.

Telling their children comfortable lies

Some would say the book banners want to feed their children fairy tales. But the original fairy tales – not the modern Disneyfied versions of them – were often harsh and frightening stories. They were told to warn children and adults alike away from dealing with the Fair Folk. Do so skillfully and you may be OK, but slip up in the slightest and you may find yourself taken away from your family to serve the Fair Folk for centuries, or just forced to dance until you die from exhaustion.

The people of McMinn County aren’t stupid. They aren’t uneducated. But they’re so invested in The Way Things Are Supposed To Be that they can’t see another way. Deep down they know the world is unfair and unjust, that it will chew them up and spit them out in a minute. To comfort themselves they tell their children that if they just play along, if they work hard and follow the rules, everything will work out OK.

Maus reminds us that’s a lie. So do dozens of other books similar people are trying to get taken out of schools and libraries around the country.

The good news is that one of the best ways to insure that something gets done is to tell children – especially teenagers – they can’t do it. Maus is sold out around the country. Several comics shops near McMinn County have free loaner copies for anyone who wants to read it but can’t buy it.

But the core issue isn’t Maus or the Holocaust. The core issue is people who are so invested in a certain social order that they can’t see it’s killing vulnerable people, and it’s no friend of themselves or their children.

this was a holy fire – no books, witches, or Druids were burned

A “pastor” burning books

And that brings us to the second piece of bad news out of Tennessee. Last week, Greg Locke, pastor of Global Vision Bible Church east of Nashville held a book burning that included Harry Potter, Twilight, Ouija boards, Tarot cards, and materials relating to Freemasonry (this despite the fact that the vast majority of Freemasons are Christians). He calls all this “witchcraft” and says his event was “deliverance from demons.”

Locke has spread Covid misinformation, refused to allow masks in his church, said that autism is demon possession, and insists Donald Trump won the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. He’s been permanently banned from Twitter for spreading lies. Discerning the truth is not his strong point.

I’ve seen several people say Locke is in it for the money. Maybe he is – he’s certainly trying to build an empire in the independent fundamentalist world.

But I think a simpler explanation is more likely. Locke says these things because he really believes them.

I don’t know Greg Locke. But I know a lot of people like him. They’re cut off from the historic Christian tradition: from the Church Fathers, from the early councils and creeds, and from traditional Christian theology. They’re even cut off from the leaders of the Protestant Reformation like Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. They claim total fidelity to the Bible, but they ignore the fact that all texts in any religion must be interpreted in the context of foundational assumptions about the world and about the texts themselves.

With no bishop, elder, or even a church board to tell them “hey, wait a minute!” Locke and his ilk are free to interpret the Bible in the context of a demonic conspiracy theory that casts themselves as warrior heroes battling against the forces of hell.

A demonic conspiracy theory

Like other conspiracy theories, this one is simple, it reflects a lack of knowledge and analysis, and it provides meaning for those who follow it. That it’s completely untrue is irrelevant.

19th century German poet Heinrich Heine said “where they burn books, they will end in burning people.” He hasn’t been right every time, but he’s been right too many times.

Greg Locke will not burn people because our officially-secular society won’t let him get away with it. I’m sure he would tell you he’d never do that. I’m equally sure that if he could, he would justify it with scripture and light the first torch.

Third-rate preachers have been burning books and records for years. This isn’t the first such burning and it won’t be the last. In an era of mass production, it’s an exercise in futility.

But it’s also a warning. Like those who banned Maus, Locke and his church see society changing in ways they don’t like. And so they try to destroy what they see as upsetting the proper order of things.

Fundamentalism’s last stand, or a resurgence?

For a long time, I thought the war against fundamentalism was essentially over. Church attendance is in steep decline, same sex marriage is the law of the land, and we’re experiencing huge growth in witchcraft and Paganism. All that was left was to clean up the mess and wait for the last of the homophobes, xenophobes, and fundamentalists to die off.

I’m now convinced that was wishful thinking. Or at least, celebrating at the 5-yard-line and fumbling the ball. Fundamentalists and their followers – and those who co-opt them for political purposes – are highly motivated and very well organized. They’ve succeeded in essentially banning abortion in Texas and they’re on track to overturn Roe v. Wade. They’re tying up school administrations with a search for books they don’t like. They’re trying to stop the teaching of critical race theory, even though they don’t know what it is and it’s not being taught in primary and secondary schools. Their attacks on trans people – especially trans kids – are bad and getting worse.

And some of them are burning books.

Complacency is death

For now, we are safe from the Greg Lockes of the world because the law constrains them. But as we are seeing, laws can be changed, and those who think like him are skilled in using that kind of power.

Every election matters. Every office matters. In this era where many states are under single-party rule, voting in primaries matters as much or more than voting in the general election.

We are in what Jason Mankey called “a witch moment” and so I think the possibility of a new Satanic Panic is relatively low. That doesn’t mean some would-be Grand Inquisitors can’t harm others or even ruin lives on a local level. Because they can, and if they can get away with it they will.

Those of us who can be public with our Paganism and witchcraft need to do our best to spread the truth about who we are and what we do. Not by insisting “there’s no devil in the craft” and that we “harm none.” In the words of Peter Grey “in our desire to harm none we have become harmless.” Rather, we must tell the truth about our Gods, our ancestors, our holy days, and the regular practices that support our religion and our lives. And we must demand our right to practice it fully and free from harassment.

I’ll close with this quote from a fictional witch, Fiona Goode from American Horror Story – Coven: “when witches don’t fight, we burn.”

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