On Reading Books you disagree with
If you’re ever bored on a Sunday afternoon, ask your favorite Baptist what they think of Harry Potter (disclaimer: I work at a Baptist seminary and I’ve never read Harry Potter. But clichés are clichés). You’ll get an earful about how magic is evil, how it’s distorting our children’s views, and how Harry Potter ought to be (and often has been) banned from school shelves. Or, go back in history to the 20th century, when Steinbeck, Sinclair, Orwell found themselves actually banned from schools.
Christians are often prone to avoiding secular culture like the plague. This includes purging Disney from your diet, reading only the Bible and Anne of Green Gables, and watching only the Kendrick brothers’ movies. The general idea is to create a Christian substitute for everything, so that Christians can live in a whitewashed, sanitized version of the world. Maybe I exaggerate, but the sentiment is there: you’ve seen it.
So the question of reading books that we know we’ll disagree with has always been a tough one. Many Christians would probably shrink back from reading something that explicitly drags down Christianity. But to even frame the question in this way strikes me as narrow-minded. A novel is much more than just a quiet pat on the back affirming your worldview. In real life and relationships, most of us understand that we need to associate with people we disagree with, lest our opinions and speech bounce around in a dangerous echo chamber. Disagreement sharpens arguments.
A novel is much more than just a quiet pat on the back affirming your worldview.
But this idea doesn’t translate readily into literature. Take books that are often regarded as classics, but ooze a worldview that you know is not your own. George Orwell’s 1984, Auster’s New York Trilogy, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are all carefully written, intentional books, with clear and purposeful messages. All of these books have been written to a high standard, so that they are rightly regarded as classics by most professors and scholars. They’re in the canon that the West generally calls great literature.
That on its own is an argument to read them. Thousands of people have seen something valuable in these books, and the fact that we continue to read them, and assign them in schools to be read, carries some weight. “And yet they’re so hopeless,” one might say. 1984 is full of dystopian horrors, The Heart of Darkness depicts vicious and heartless racism in the Belgian Congo, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a dystopian novel set in the wreckage of a modern civilization. These writers make powerful arguments for the depravity of man, the hopelessness of all things, and the destruction and pain of the world around us.
Should Christians immerse themselves in this kind of darkness?
I argue that we should. These books are not wallowing in the mud for the sake of wallowing. Their authors are communicating a philosophy through the vehicle of the story, and it would behoove us to know and study that philosophy, even if we don’t agree with it. As I wrote last week, “There is much to be learned about humanity from reading Paul Auster.”
Aren’t we all in the business of humanity? As writers, we must understand people if we are to write for them and about them. As Christians, we must understand the people we live alongside so that we can communicate the truth of the gospel effectively. This is why I see value in “non-Christian” writers: they have given of themselves for us to read, and we are passing up a huge chance to understand them if we turn up our nose at “disturbing” writing or “non-Christian” fiction.
Consider Auster’s New York Trilogy a desperate search for hope. Consider Orwell’s 1984 a lamentation over the state of humanity. Consider Conrad’s Heart of Darkness an angry shout into heaven at the hatred of humanity. Does this paint these books in a new light? These are the questions in search of an answer that the world is asking. We do ourselves a great disservice if we do not even know what humanity is looking for. Get in the business of loving people, and a book is a silent whisper from author to reader, telling of dark secrets. How can we say no to that?
Caveat the first: For every person over-concerned about objectionable content, there’s nine more that aren’t concerned at all. Entertainment must be intentional, and I’m not meaning to condone reading books that you know are cheaply written, flavor-of-the-month filler stories that will not stand the test of time.
Post-script the second: There’s more to prod on the idea of how to get value out of a book even if you disagree with it. This falls into the broader concept of what reading carefully to get value actually looks like in practice, which we’ll be looking at in January.