I recently had one of those unsettling experiences that reminded me of the sometimes ambivalent nature of my relationship with many of my fellow evangelicals. I was driving to work and had just tuned into my local Public Radio station. The news story at that moment concerned a controversy in a local school district in which an evangelical woman, who is a member of the school board, was calling for several books to be removed from the high school's senior English literature curriculum. I tuned in just in time to hear a clip from a broadcast that the woman had done on a well-known local Christian radio station. In the clip, the woman refers to one of the books by name, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and refers to it as "pornography." I was stunned. "The Things They Carried" as pornography?
I first became acquainted with "The Things They Carried" back in 1999, when my friend Joe, who was also my co-worker at the time, told me about the book and said I should read it. I got hold of a copy and was quickly hooked, reading the whole book in about two days. The book is a fictionalized account of author Tim O'Brien's experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. I found it to be deeply human, often moving, and something that offered me a glimpse into another person's life and experiences, as well as being incredibly well written and compulsively readable. It also has a fair amount of serious swearing in some parts of it, though my recent skimming through it again did not reveal as much as I thought I might find. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and received rave critical reviews from just about everyone on earth.
And here is this evangelical woman referring to the book as "pornography." As I said, I was stunned, in fact even angered. While I understand that many people do not like to read anything with bad language in it, and that it is a legitimate debate about whether or not high school students should be given such material to read, I find the use of the term pornography as a descriptor in this case to be deeply offensive. To call "The Things They Carried" pornography strikes me as not only an abuse of language, but also as ignorant. If this book can be called pornography, then the word has nearly lost any real meaning to me.
And this brings me to the big issue here, which is the attitude that evangelicals often seem to have towards the arts and literature in general. Many of us seem unable to get past the surface aspects of a work which we find discomforting (like the language) to see that there might be any deeper value to the work. I do understand that some works are so vulgar or gross that any value in them is almost completely eclipsed by the bad elements. Many evangelicals, however, seem to want works that never contain anything in them that anyone might find in the least offensive, or that might make us at all uncomfortable. We want sanitized versions of the world that reflect our predetermined ideas of how things ought to be rather than true portrayals of how the world actually is. As a result, much of the art and literature produced by evangelicals is almost completely lacking in any kind of transcendence or serious artistic merit. It is "nice" and non-offensive, but it is also shallow, insipid, and forgettable.
The Bible itself offers a gritty and realistic picture of the world, and records many acts of violence and depravity that are disturbing and shocking (try Judges 3:16-22 or 19:22-30 for a couple good examples). In the case of "The Things They Carried," the book is about soldiers in Vietnam. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the military (which I have) can tell you that vulgar language is frequently the order of the day. In fact, I found "The Things They Carried" to be rather restrained compared to what I heard almost everyday when I was on active duty. (It is hard not to notice the irony here in that many evangelicals are huge supporters of the military and are more than happy to have their children serve. If we are afraid of a few swear words in a book, do we really want to send our children into an environment where they will hear this kind of language day in day out?)
There is probably a lot more to say about this topic, but in the interest of time and keeping this entry a reasonable length I think I'll stop for now. Maybe I'll revisit this topic again. For now, let me close with two thoughts:
First, we evangelicals need to develop a more sophisticated ability to discern what is good and valuable in works of art and literature, even if we find certain aspects of them offensive. If we insist on using terms like "pornography" as blanket descriptors for anything that has aspects we don't like or find offensive, we should not be surprised when the culture at large thinks us to be ignorant, shallow, and immature. We should also not be surprised when people who have artistic abilities, and who wish to make serious works of art and literature, decide to leave our ranks rather than live within the smothering confines of what we deem allowable.
Second, If evangelicals want to complain about the state of today's literature and art, then we first need to be producing art and literature of our own that has serious merit and that makes a serious contribution to our common cultural life. Otherwise, we will simply be known as people who are always ready to protest, ban, or complain, but who make no valuable cultural contributions of our own. This strikes me as not only unattractive, but also as a failure to live out the cultural mandate and to embody the gospel in ways that are winsome and appealing to the culture we live in.