Library books lined up on a shelf.
Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash
It helped that my parents took me to public libraries and didn’t over-supervise my reading, although my choices sometimes mystified them and took me in religious and political directions they often didn’t agree with or, even appreciate. But they knew, as people who valued religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and the priesthood of all believers, that this early intellectual freedom is at the core of our beliefs.
Access to fully stocked libraries and the freedom to self-select books becomes part of an education that allows us to learn how to think. Interfering with that process by attempting to control access or selection is an attack on a fundamental freedom. It is an effort to close a window, fog a mirror, or to hide signposts that could lead seekers to truth or to safety, to hope or to wholeness.
Yet this freedom is under attack. Counting attempts to restrict access to books is notoriously difficult; challenges tend to be done at a local level. But the American Library Association reports 1,269 attempts to ban or restrict access to books nationwide in 2022, targeting 2,571 unique titles – nearly double the attempts recorded in 2021. New state laws are being proposed and enacted (in North Dakota, Florida and elsewhere) to make it easier to ban titles and to punish librarians who do not comply.
Most of the current book bans or challenges seek to eliminate voices and faces that are beloved by God. They are a thinly-disguised bid to create an America that does not tell the truth about who we are and have been as a nation. Censorship campaigns promoted as protecting children and youth are allowing and, even, empowering, an entitled group of people to decide whose history is told and even who is represented in fiction – depending on where you live, how you look, speak, or believe and whether your pronouns align with those assigned to you at birth.
Besides being able to find yourself in content, free choice in reading allows people of all ages to read beyond their own experiences. There is potential to learn about others, develop empathy and a sense of justice. It is no accident that campaigns to censor what the public reads happen most often in times of cultural change – when groups seek to protect power.
The church officials who sought to prevent William Tyndale and his devotees from providing a translation of the Bible to English speakers in the 16th century knew this well. Going back further, to the Council of Ephesus in the second century, books were burned as “superstitious.” Literacy itself can be threatening, too. Formerly enslaved people in the United States were not taught to read; women’s literacy was often not prioritized nor is it in dozens of countries around the world.
What authors will be read? What content is permitted? What is in the canon? These are familiar discussions for Christians. But more paranoid questions have been added in recent years: Will reading the Harry Potter novels cause growth in the practice of witchcraft and wizardry? What about the talking animals in “Charlotte’s Web”? Is it too depressing for our children and youth or anyone, for that matter, to read about Anne Frank or the Holocaust? What if a book contains a swear word? Will we begin to swear?
Obviously, these are facetious questions (for most people). But this kind of thinking has led to current anti-book campaigns that promote the idea that young readers will begin to lean LGBTQ merely because they encounter a fictional character who is gay or trans. Or that someone will become less loyal to the United States by learning about the history of slavery and racism in this country.
It is more likely that we find truth in fiction or history. Reading does not make you gay – or straight. Historians and journalists do not usually invent events, although alternative facts have recently been cited by politicians. It’s said that reporting on 1619 might be upsetting to kids. But to which kids? Whose kids?
Of course, there is risk to knowledge and how and when it is presented. I do believe reading and books have the power to change minds and hearts. But it is not the content itself that is evil. The Bible has at least one witch and talking animal that I can think of, as well as infidelity, lying, stealing, incest, premeditated murder, mass murder, both consensual sex and rape, and violence that is almost incomprehensible. We have not stopped teaching these stories to children or excised them from our Bibles. Rather, we want to protect the right to read the Bible and keep it on the shelves of our libraries, along with other religious books.
Besides, banning books does not keep knowledge from flowing. A challenge to published content is, largely, a symbolic act. The content itself still exists. What happens, though, is that access becomes the issue – as does the ability to scapegoat and vilify and even legislate against those who do not agree or comply with those in power or will do not have access because of their lack of political, social or economic power.
Public and school libraries play a particular role in providing access for us and our communities. And, while there have always been attempts to restrict what goes on the shelves, libraries have been a democratic space for researching history, selecting stories and finding content that helps everyone no matter their status or background.
We are in dire need of these safe spaces and the people who are trying, against the odds, to provide content that represents all of us. The opposite of faith is fear. What are we afraid of? That children will ask us about race, sex, gender? That we will learn together that life is rich, complex, and full of questions?
As we continue to discover our own identities, our country’s history, and make our way into the future with hope, may we all be able to access and read books and allow others to do so as well. And may we continue to embrace religious and intellectual freedom, even with its risks.
That freedom to learn, to think, to believe as each of us travels the path the of moral and spiritual odyssey shapes an emerging vision. It is not a fear-filled or restricted vision, one that bans or censors information or the truths and identities of others. It is a biblical vision.
The vision portrays “a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. … “(Revelation 7:9 NLT).”
There are no standards for abilities or for bodies of a certain color, sexual orientation, gender identity, or language capability. In this vision, we are not afraid of books or of one another.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.