I loved the library. I begged my mom to take me weekly. Then came the day I walked into the library during Banned Books Week. I walked past a huge barrel filled with books, and I wondered if they were selling them. I walked up and saw a huge sign sticking out of it: BANNED BOOKS. The good Christian kid in me said: “Run! Get away from these evil, perverse books!” But a strangely morbid curiosity told me to look – just to see exactly what people had deemed as “banned.” I felt closer to the plight of Eve than ever before.
My peek over the edge led to shock. Book after book that I’d read and loved was in that barrel. From The BFG by Roald Dahl to A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Bridge to Terebithia to How To Eat Fried Worms. I wanted to turn around and shout, “Who put these in here?! Why are these books in this barrel?” But of course, this being the public library, I wasn’t supposed to talk above a whisper.
I left that day with no book in hand because a strange hole had been bored through my heart. Why would someone ever ban those books? Why?
It seems people – especially Christians – can get super threatened by books with questionable themes, profanity, sexual situations, and violence. There is a right to caution.
But should books be censored?
What are we doing when we decide The Lord of Flies is too violent? We decide William Golding’s troupe of British choirboys is too gruesome. Boys of such fine moral fiber would never devolve into that mess of gore and power.
Or we say Holden Caulfield needs to be locked up in a psych ward and his book tossed in after. Aren’t we shying away from J.D. Salinger’s view of the helplessness and angst of teenagers?
The church of the past is famous for censoring people. Galileo was under house arrest for years following some of his crazy ideas. Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for talking with God. And Jesus was nailed to a cross for claiming to be the Messiah.
I worked at a Christian bookstore for years, and I’ll never forget the phone calls I received there. Coworkers often forwarded questions about children’s books to me, and Heather, the assistant manager, handed me the phone often.
“Thank you for calling! How can I help you?”
The lady on the other end sounded older, perhaps in her sixties. “I’m looking for a children’s Bible.”
I walked toward the children’s Bibles and started glancing them over.
And then she continued: “But I want one without all… well… is there a Bible without the violence? I’m just concerned about my eight year old grandson reading some of those stories, but I want him to have a Bible.”
I honestly didn’t know what to say. Even the Precious Moments Bible still had the stories of Samson or Noah’s ark or Jesus. Violence and sex fill the pages of Scripture. Questionable situations like bestiality, homosexuality, and a bunch of other “alities” are all over the place from Genesis to Revelation.
“Well… there isn’t really a Bible like that…” I said.
She hung up.
Here’s my honest, gut-wrenching fear: the moment we start to ban books, what’s coming eventually down the pipeline? The Bible. I wait for the day when society says, “No more. No more Bibles. No more of this Christianity stuff. It’s just too graphic.”
So I swing the other direction: don’t ban anything.
Because if a body meets a body there are stories in the collision. I don’t want to censor the stories of another human living through hell and beyond. I don’t want large black streaks painted over people’s lives.
Are there appropriate times to share certain things? Of course. I’m not going to explain the intricacies of Sodom and Gomorrah to a five year old. They’re not ready for it. But should I stop and say, “Never read this!”? No. I won’t and can’t do that.
Mrs. Keane, a superstar librarian and good friend, still stands as one of my favorite people. I asked her about the secret barrel of banned books. And she told me, “Shaun, some people are threatened by honesty.”
The Banned Books Barrel should probably have this sign: WISDOM REQUIRED HERE. Know that authors have something to share. Words are windows to the soul – they reveal, conceal, and threaten.
Our task is to know the stories of those surrounding us. To know the experiences of a Marjane Satrapi, or the feelings of a Harper Lee, to simply listen before we are quick to respond and slow to hear.