Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why I Read Banned Books to Try to be More Christ-Like

WARNING: This is the rant of ONE religious blog member who can’t resist giving her own slant on the need for a Banned Books Week on the blog. Enter at your own risk. I promise this is probably the only religious post I'll do.

As someone known for being book-obsessed, many of my religious friends often come to me regularly to ask what they should read/have their kids read. Most of the time, they’ll include a qualifier, though. They don’t want to read anything that isn’t “clean” and “uplifting” and then rattle off a list of offending titles that do not fit the bill.

Hmmmmm. That list of offending titles often reads an awful lot like the list of books I would’ve just recommended.

 And so the dilemma. What to say? While this isn’t usually what I do say, it’s what I always want to say: “Depends. If you want to be more Christian, I’d start with one of the ones on that list. I have an extra copy of Catcher in the Rye, if you'd like.” Smile.

The reasoning: Now, I’m definitely not saying that every book that isn’t “clean” is worth reading. Personally, I don’t see any value in wasting my time to read porn, bad-writing, and all shades of gray, and the like, but the classics? Works of tremendous literary merit that show the depth of the human experience? Works that in an attempt to show us humanity at its most honest may include things like rape, violence, sex, swearing, etc.? How is that not worth reading???

I think this point was driven home best for me one lazy summer afternoon at Book Passage bookshop. I’d just listened to the brilliant Isabelle Allende and had asked her to sign my copy of The House of the Spirits, a book I teach. She remarked that many schools had banned it and chuckled, and then went on to talk about (or at least this is how I remember it) how interesting she thought it was that so many parents fought so desperately to stop their children from seeing what it would’ve been like to have been born in other, less lucky, more violent circumstances.

I got to thinking. The book is a magical re-telling influenced by the stories of her family. Her cousin once-removed, Salvador Allende, was violently overthrown and she includes all of the fallout that brings as well as other family traumas that her own family may very well have experienced. And yet, her life, the one she may have experienced as an innocent child, was too dirty for the other kids to see. Wouldn’t want them sullied too. Wouldn’t dare to want the clean kids to do something terrible like learn to empathize at a time (teen years) when a brain is literally wired to develop empathy. Nope. Let those unlucky kids suffer alone. Poor suckers. Totally what Jesus embodied.

Or not.

While there are many aspects of the Christ-figure I love like the model for re-birth, strength-in-kindness, etc., the one I love most is that Christ is the perfect model of empathy. In the Bible He suffers everyone’s sins for redemption, and in doing so, it makes Him uniquely qualified to give comfort at man’s lowest moments, having literally experiencing the same pain. And one of the most unbearable aspects of suffering is the loneliness that often accompanies it. Isn’t it?

So I think that I would like to do a little of that, too, but unfortunately, I haven’t experienced everything. There are a lot of dark places my loved ones have spent time in that I can’t even fathom. Or at least not without the help of books. And sure, I don’t need to go there. I can stay peaceful and clean. But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus chose to experience all of the pains this world can heap on man. And I think He wanted me to follow suit, and so he gave us books. Great and powerful sometimes un-clean books.

Books that even talk about rape (just ask David’s daughter Tamar) or violence (Abel might be able to comment on this one), sex (oh David!) and the like. BTW my examples aren’t even past 2 Samuel in one of the greatest banned books ever written.

And it gets even better because talented people keep writing books that honestly portray and grapple with these issues in modern ways that make them applicable to today's special ills. How awesome it that!

So, yeah. I’ll admit it. I'm going to keep reading/recommending banned books from The Bible to Catcher in the Rye to The House of the Spirits to To Kill a Mockingbird, to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to Speak and more and more, and in each uncomfortable moment I’m hoping to develop more of one of Jesus's best traits: to be the kind of person who is prepared for the next time one of students or friends needs to feel just a little less alone.

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