An American novelist I know found himself front-page news in the city where he lives last week because of parental complaints about the language in one of his books.
The work, which has been on a recommended reading list in the city's public school system for some time, belatedly drew the ire of a couple who protested that the frequent swearing and vulgarity of certain characters offends their Christian sensibilities. They do not want their child to run the risk of being exposed to the f-bombs, etc. contained therein. They want the book deleted from the reading list and have pressed hard enough and loudly enough that local school authorities have convened a hearing so all sides can debate the issue.
One paradox is that the author himself is a Baptist Sunday school teacher who used the language as contextual authenticity in the novel's exploration of good and evil. Another is that the book, while not written as juvenile literature, is one of the best I've come across in years for its potential to whet the literary appetites of adolescent readers. It is a romping mystery that pays off in intrigue and redemption. It's also a serious work by a serious, and seriously good, Christian writer.
The most significant paradox of all, though, is that the wrong-headed parental demand for removal of the book is actually a powerful form of validation for the rightful importance of literature. They clearly don't understand what makes literature. But they do understand, and are prepared to act on their conviction, that novels actually matter in shaping the ethics and the morals of their readers. In that regard, they are much more the friend of writers than those whose "support" for literature comprises some laissez-faire variation of "meh—it's just a book; it's not real life."
Just as there is a wrong way to be right, there is a right way to be wrong. These parents have managed the latter. They erroneously believe literature's ethical and moral effect stops at risqué language when, in fact, it extends all the way down to uncovering what is present and absent in the human heart. Still, they are on the side of the angels in their inherent belief that writing and reading are foundational to real life, and to the good life. And they have not, contrary to the accusations from some on the other side of the debate, advocated censorship. They are asking for public accountability in a democratic context. Their request should be accounted and denied, but not faulted.
What can be faulted here is not their literary, but their Christian, limitation. Complaints of this kind, it increasingly seems to me, arise from a misreading of our Christian relationship to the world—and to Christ.
At an event I attended last summer, someone said: "For too much of my life, I experienced Christ as an absence, as a measurement of everything in the world that isn't Christ. I changed this way of encountering Christ only when I realized that Christ is not a priori."
His sentences hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks, because I saw the truth of what he said in my own relationship to Christ, and can intuit the same in many Christians I encounter. I have been reflecting on it since and become increasingly convinced of the negation Christians impose on ourselves when we respond to Christ as a priori: as the premise of a series of programmatically deducible propositions aimed at proving what is not Christ in the world.
The reality is that Christ is not some kind of values scale from zero to infinity. He is Eternity bending into History: present perfect tense precisely because He is unendingly and perfectly present. I am beginning to see that what is forgotten when we persist in the a priori approach is that for a Christian, Christ-absence offers (requires?) a lived recognition of Christ-presence (the empty tomb meant the fulfillment of the Resurrection).
When Christians reduce Christ to a series of banal ethical precepts, when we see only the absence of Christ in a perceived violation of, say, some primness code for literary language, we begin to fail to even look for Christ presence. Mother Teresa, for example, saw the obscene poverty of Calcutta as an opportunity of absence in which to recognize Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor, as a call for full Christian charity, a full living in Christ presence.
Literature has the power to move a life; Christ infinitely more so. Our responsibility is to be fully there to witness all that the movement demands.