How do we respond to a literary culture that continues to seek the low ground? I am seeing many reviews and discussion of E.L. James’ novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, which amounts to literotica. On one side there are those who believe all such stuff is harmful and should be avoided even more than the measles. Others claim that to capture the culture for Christ we should engage with it. Still others don’t see the point of my question – they either have a view of sex that embraces it in all its forms as healthy expression of human desire (much like the thesis of the novel) or they don’t believe there is any power in written words (one student said to me, “It’s just a book.”).
The following are my thoughts in short, any one of which could easily be lengthened if I had the time.
Banning Books is Banal
In the past, authorities have simply tried to prevent a book from having any affect on children by banning it from libraries or book stores. This has typically shot the work in question to the top of the bestseller charts. Books, as a form of conversation, are going to get around either above or below the ground, as it were. I don’t think simply placing a Christian boycott on a given work will result in the desired outcomes.
Maintaining a Hierarchy
Not all books are equal. Some are better and others are worse. This is true at the level of artistry, or in regard to morality. But books tend to reveal the general level of morality within their culture. The preponderance of smutty books, especially in the Young Adult world, indicates that the Sexual Revolution continues, and that words are a part of the battle. Young people should have appetites in literature that lead them toward that which is better, not worse. If we taught the arts of reading and writing well, much of our concern would be handled by kids who reject the tawdry for the truly noble.
Managing a Fire Hose
One of the direct results of maintaining this hierarchy of better and worse books is to alleviate that blast of verbiage that currently is erupting in our culture. Never has there been more to read than now. And many are finding themselves clueless as to what should be read, so they try to read it all. Pop culture places them in a pressure cooker to know all the latest references and allusions from the trendy literature and movies of the moment, in part because any decent selling book immediately becomes a film. When we teach our students to discern, we help them cull the competing titles down to those that will be of some permanent and eternal help. This is grace imparted.
Books Do Matter
But we cannot forget in all this that books do matter. I often feel that the movie has taken over for the written word, but movies are the direct result of writing. There is no book that is “harmless” and some books do shake the foundations. I don’t think of Fifty Shades… as being one of those, but we have to teach young minds to think through words, not avoid them or try to render them impotent. Words matter, and we must teach the Liberal Arts in part to help us discern what words should matter most. The best of liberal education is so that its students can “smell a rat.”