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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Burning Books

Most people know the Nazis burned books. They most likely don't know which ones. Jewish writers, of course. But you might be surprised to know they burned Bambi because they were afraid it might make the hearts of their jungvolk too tender, Helen Keller because they were busy killing off their physically and mentally challenged and didn't want a role model for such people running loose in the German imagination. They burned All Quiet On The Western Front because it was an anti-war novel written by a German and the fascists wanted Germans ready and eager for war. They burned Hemingway for the same reason - A Farewell to Arms - but also because he supported the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War of the late 30's. Some of Jack London's political works were burned, Thomas Mann was attacked because he supported the writers the Nazis had exiled, Sigrid Unset's books were torched because she criticized the Nazi regime.

The Nazis were masters at mixing nationalism with Christianity and then twisting Christianity into new and exotic shapes. I wonder sometimes if we are not becoming masters of the same thing in North America. Consider how difficult it is to get published by a Christian publishing house unless you are not only Christian but evangelical Christian and not only evangelical Christian but a certain kind of evangelical Christian. Mainstream is formula fiction, the predictable, the superficial, the politically correct. If a writer who is a Christian, even an evangelical, pens something different, however true and well done, it does not get printed because it will not sell enough and it will not sell enough because the mainstream will not purchase complexity, depth or thinking fiction. Mainstream wants a slick ride of the imagination that reinforces all traditional thought patterns, challenges nothing, and is real about very little of the human experience or the Christian spiritual experience, good or bad. It wants the same old. But not the same old God. Just the same old way of talking about a same old way of looking at God. They want safety but not safety in growth towards the real. They want safety in a reinforcement of human tradition. And above all they want to promote it - they want propganda, not exploration, not discovery, not risk. They want a calcified Christ.

And combined with this there is the belief that you must vote a certain way and support a certain political party and be a certain kind of patriot to be an acceptable Christian - this is true of the right and the left. Certain books that support left or right versions of the faith are acceptable in one camp or the other and are similarly rejected in one camp or the other. It makes me wonder which books would be burned if mainstream or off-mainstream Christianity had its way. Would some mainstreamers burn The Message? What about Frederick Buechner's writings, or Flannery O'Connor's, or Walker Percy's, or Wendell Berry's? (I mention authors who admit to a Christian bent in their lives.) We might have some nice bonfires across Canada and the United States. All the moreso if the off-mainstreamers burned books they considered too orthodox or the mainstreamers also started adding to the fires non-Christian writers they didn't approve of.

Of course there is localized burning going on anyway. CDs and DVDs go into the flames along with books pastors and churches have decided are unholy. I am aware that in Acts early Christians burned books. But these were books connected with the black magic of their pasts. Not books of poets or storytellers, not Homer or Virgil or Cicero or Herodotus. Paul himself quoted several writers and poets who were not Christians or monotheists when he was on Mars Hill. Quite often Christians will quote favourably the lines - "in whom we live and move and have our being" - and connect these words to the Christian God, thinking they are quoting scripture. In fact they are quoting Paul quoting a pagan who Paul believed got it right.

Those who embrace secularism like a religion burn their books too, they have their lists of what one can read and what one can't, many in these ranks are high priests and priestesses of what is politically correct. But just because there is fascism across the board in our society that does not mean it should be the province of those who claim they've walked with the son of God. In fact, considering Jesus's way of treating others, especially the marginalized and ostracized, it should be exactly the opposite. Christians shouldn't be starting the fires, thy should be putting them out. And Christians shouldn't be shutting people and their books down, they should be letting them speak and then disagreeing or agreeing as they choose. What they must not be are nothing more than the Departments of Mind Control or Belief Control or the Fascists of the Human Spirit. People come freely to Christ or not at all. You don't like something? Say so. But do not kill the people you disagree with or dishonour their journey or struggle. Tell me, whatever happened to grace among the Christians of North America, I don't care which camp? Whatever happened to the Jesus who touched those others considered unclean? Why has Christianity become more law and less freedom? Less about seeking and more about seeking only what others say you can? Why aren't Christians known as the promoters of the eternal quest instead of as the controllers and stranglers of it? What good is finding God if you never really found him anyway but just went along with what you were told?

Are we trying to create a Christian State, with all its rules and regulations and capital punishments, especially towards the arts, are we trying to establish a Christian Republic or Empire - or are we trying to call forth the kingdom of God? Because they are not the same. Jesus never formed an army or wrote a constitution or declared himself a world ruler. His kingdom was meant to be salt and light and yeast in dough and a seed that became a tree for all the winged creatures, no matter what a person's profession, lawyer, doctor, politician, author. But it was never meant to be Empire. Not in this world. It is one thing to influence. Another to control. Christians were never called to be despots. Never called to bring darkness and ignorance. Never called to rend and tear. They were called to bring light and liberty and the pursuit of truth, confident the true God would be found if a true quest were permitted. We are not the book burners. We are the people of the book. We are the readers and the writers and the thinkers and the wonderers.

"Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821).

"Where they have burned books they will end in burning human beings."