Becky May suggests the actions of the Utah school district should give us all pause for thought
It was certainly a headline which grabbed my attention and paused my social media streaming: UTAH BANS BIBLE. And it wasn’t just one headline either, mainstream media shared the news that indeed, Utah school district had banned the King James Version of the Bible from all elementary and middle schools. Of course, Utah has its own religious complexities, but this is a development in the ongoing narrative of book-banning which has shocked many.
Pen America, (Pen.org) formed in 1922 to advocate and campaign for the right of freedom of written speech. They have noted an increase in the number of banned books particularly in recent years, and report that from July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles. Several instance of these have hit the international headlines over the last couple of years. Few of these have been based on a faith-based argument. The most common type of book banned (41%) are those which raise LGBTQ+ issues, followed by books which featured a main or secondary character of colour (40%).
Do you want to ban books?
I think, when we’re faced with these statistics, we have to take a look at ourselves. How many of us might want some books which cover or raise certain issues removing from a bookshelf? How many of us may turn a blind eye, or fail to notice when other books are banned? Are we responding differently to the news that the Bible has been banned and is that ok? As I reflected on this, I remembered ‘First they came,’ by Pastor Martin Niemoller, who later repented and sought forgiveness after initially supporting the Nazis, before speaking out against the regime when imprisoned in a concentration camp. Are we only going to speak out when they come for us? This is a challenge we must take seriously; if we want our children to have the freedom to read the Bible then will we accept freedom for them to choose what they read, or only offer them ‘partial freedom?’ or censoring based on our preferences?
Of course, this is Utah, and it wouldn’t happen here, would it? It was, perhaps, a very British censoring of the Bible which played out on mumsnet at the beginning of the year, when one mum went looking for advice about “The Old Testament, but I am looking for a version that is more conscious. Which means a version in which for example Cain and Able don’t kill each other, instead working through their misunderstandings.”
Here’s the thing; Cain did kill Abel, the Bible is not a book of happy bedtime stories, it is full of all aspects of life, sex, violence, drama, family, crime, death, and ultimately the story of how our loving Father sought us out of the broken world we have formed. In Utah, the Bible hasn’t been banned because it is a religious book, it has been banned because those who oppose it argue that such violence is not suitable for children, and anon of Mumsnet agrees. There is a seeking for a Disneyfication of the Bible akin to their ‘remedying’ of the Brothers Grimm’s best work. I would suggest, they’re not alone. Take a browse through any of your children’s storybook Bibles and check what you see. Noah’s ark will no doubt be front at centre as the most published story of the Bible in children’s book form; the tale of the obliteration of most of the human race and animal kingdom reduced to animals lining up in pairs with a pretty rainbow in the sky. More shockingly, take a look at what happens when you get to the Easter narrative; far too many children’s books skip from Palm Sunday to the resurrection and bypass Good Friday altogether.
Of course, there is a need to select material for our children which is age appropriate, but we don’t do this by over-sanitising scripture and if we make the choice to withhold some stories from our very youngest infant, we must be ready to present these to them as they grow up. Ultimately, we need to let our children grow, and grow up in Christ. I was recently invited to visit a class of year 3 pupils in a local school where they wanted to ask me questions about what sort of world Jesus wants. Questions were wide ranging, some far easier to answer than others but the single topic that came up more than any other in this class was the war in Ukraine. For some of these children, their accents hinted at a deeper reason for asking the question.
Our children live in our broken world. They see and experience all of the joys and many of the sorrows. As parents, everything within us wants to protect or shield them from all of this and to a degree that is the right thing to do, but we can’t always do this. As a parent, covid taught me this. Our children heard stories in the news, experienced bereavements in our family and community, sensed when we as parents were sad, or confused or worried even when we did our best to keep them from it. Some children will experience far more difficult situations than this, and far worse than we would ever wish them to. We have a responsibility as parents to protect them as far as we can, but even more so to prepare them when we can, and walk with them through the tough questions of life. If we choose to hold back the Bible from our children, we effectively tell them that God has nothing to say about this current pain you are enduring. We cannot censor the Bible. We have a responsibility to gift it, in it’s entirety, to our children. That may well mean that we share more and more of it with our children as they grow, but we cannot withhold it from them.