How should a Christian respond to Banned Books Week?

Every year, book lovers and avid readers build up a head of steam about Banned Books Week. The purpose of Banned Books Week is to celebrate the freedom to read, and to highlight the importance of free and open access to information.

Parents who want to protect their children from harmful influences may sometimes challenge books with objectionable content, which causes a conflict between a freedom loving society and Christian values. How should a Christian respond?

Banned or Challenged?

The term “banned” is a little misleading. The American Library Association’s Banned Books List includes any book that is “challenged,” for whatever reason.

Most books included in the Banned Books list each year are challenged because of their inclusion in school libraries or on required reading lists, or because they’ve been placed in the children’s section of a public library.

Some books are challenged because they explore controversial issues related to race, gender, and sex. A few books are challenged because they are marketed as young adult novels, yet contain explicit sex and violence, and sometimes adult novels with graphic content are still placed in the young adult section.

Using the term “banned” to describe any book challenged for any reason clouds the issue. We as a society have decided that some topics are not appropriate for children, so it makes sense that questions will be raised about books with graphic content or adult language being made readily accessible to kids.

In the Intellectual Freedom Manual of the ALA, censorship is defined as “a change in the access status of a material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age-grade-level access limitations.” But is a mere “change in the access status” truly censorship? Or limiting access based on “age-grade-level”?

Whatever the case, the ALA always plays the hero and martyr when parents express concerns, legitimate or otherwise, about how books are marketed and whether or not their children will be discussing them in school.

Parental responsibility

Parents have the authority and responsibility to decide what is appropriate for their child, as well as what is best for the community and society as a whole. I mean, what happened to “it takes a village”? Everybody loves the village until the village expresses a conservative or religious point of view, then it’s “Shut up and let us handle this.”

However, parents also have a responsibility to understand where to draw the line between parenting their own children and infringing on the rights of others.

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. in Texas v. Johnson

The First Amendment protects speech we as Christians find objectionable and blasphemous, but it should also serve to protect the teaching and practice of our biblical beliefs when tenets of our faith contradict popular culture. It’s one of those “we can’t have light without darkness” trade-offs.

In a society that wants to label any disagreement or tactless comment as a ‘microaggression’, where college students are demanding protection with trigger warnings and safe spaces, it is important that we carefully balance our desire to protect our children and society from vulgar, violent, or blasphemous speech, and the need for free speech that also serves to protect the free expression of our Christian faith.

It is worth noting that The Bible is often challenged for its religious content, in addition to scenes of violence and sexuality.

The most useful and effective strategy for parents who want to control what their kids read is to control what their kids read. This is much more complicated than censoring any material that contains sensitive or controversial content. It is our responsibility to prepare them to think through complex and even objectionable ideas, and books can help us do that. Protecting kids from harsh realities depicted in banned books is more likely to leave them vulnerable than truly protect them. We must engage with our kids on these topics from a biblical point of view, teaching them how to think through tough subjects logically, morally, and spiritually.

Should Christians challenge or attempt to ban books? If books with adult content are being placed in the children’s section, or are on required book lists at your child’s school, then by all means, speak up about it. A good rule of thumb is the MPAA movie rating system; if the book were turned into a movie and it would be rated “R,” then it’s a good bet that it should be placed with adult books, and a young person’s access to it should be completely up to the parent.

But please—make sure you have read the book in question, and understand the context of the content believed to be problematic. There are few things that undermine one’s argument more than challenging Huckleberry Finn for depicting racism, or The Diary of Anne Frank because of sexual content and tragic nature.

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There are 4 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Susan, it strikes me that if Judges 4-5 were turned into a movie, it would then be rated R.....do we then keep the book from kids?  I understand, and mostly agree with, the principle that there is a certain point where books ought to be in the "adult" section or, quite frankly, not there at all.  But it seems that we ought to be able to do better than the MPAA--where "Glory" gets the same rating as "Halloween". 

But that said, the MPAA has, as you note, a big lead over the librarian's association.  The concept of reserving shelf space for only books of legitimate, and not prurient, interest seems to escape them altogether.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Try explaining Genesis 38 to little kids.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

The MPAA is a tool the world accepts to measure appropriate content for kids, so it's a handy point of reference.

Yes, there are many passages in the Bible, that if shown in full detail, would be rated R. But are these events described in full details in the Bible? For instance, when Amnon rapes Tamar--is that an explicit sex scene? No, it says he forced her, and that's it. Even the most violent scenes in Scripture can't hold a candle to the average 'teen scream'.

In any case, the point is for parents to make decisions for their kids, and be very careful about deciding to challenge a book--but not in ways that remove access from all children, or society as a whole. 

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