Christian Mythbusters

Christian Mythbusters

Christians and Banning Books

February 23, 2022

This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith. 

In last week’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, I talked about the dangers fascism poses to our country right now, including where I live here in Grand Haven, MI. I talked about how Christians are increasingly comfortable with fascist perspectives and ideology, something that should concern all of us, conservative and liberal alike.

This week, I’d like to drill down to one specific point—book banning—and to explore some of the uncomfortable history Christianity has with this common tactic of fascists.

First, we have to acknowledge that Christianity has often sought to suppress literature which it has perceived as contrary to the dominant view at the time. The original book burner himself was 15th century priest Girolamo Savonarola whose “Bonfire of the Vanities” burned art and books that he believed were morally lax or questionable. 

In 1517, the Nine Five Theses from Martin Luther were condemned by Pope Leo X. Later in the sixteenth century, the Holy Inquisition began compiling its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books and authors that Catholics were not allowed to print or read. The system remained in place for the next several hundred years, not abandoned until the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. 

In my own English Christian tradition, the leaders of the Church of England (when it was still part of the Roman Catholic Church) burned thousands of copies of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, eventually burning Tyndale himself as well. 

And, as many of us know, several books that have been banned in history have wound up being regarded as classic works of literature by later generations. Daniel Defoe’s book Robinson Crusoe was on the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum. So was Le Misérables by Victor Hugo. Boston’s district attorney threatened to ban Walt Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass. Christians in the White Citizen’s Council urged the restriction of The Rabbits’ Wedding because they thought this illustrated book promoted the dangerous idea of racial integration. Other examples include Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, James Dickey’s Deliverance, The Diary of Anne Frank, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. 

And it’s not just questions of morals, Christians have also opposed books that might encourage people to understand the Bible and its teachings differently. Darwin’s Origin of the Species was banned from the library of Trinity College Cambridge, where Darwin himself had studied. In 1925, Tennessee banned the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools in any form, a law that remained in place since the late sixties. 

But we also have several modern day examples of conservative Christians urging the banning of books. When I was in college, the battle was against JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series, due to its supposed encouragement of witchcraft and the occult. It struck me even then that it was odd Christians couldn’t distinguish fictional magical powers from occult practices of worship and how many Christians missed the point in the first book that the most powerful thing of all was the self-sacrifice of Harry’s mother in love for her son… a decidedly Christian idea!

So much of the history of Christians censoring, banning, or even burning books is based on two elements: fear and the need to control. Christians have feared depictions of anything that they think might threaten their own conceptions of morality, anything that might send people down the wrong path. They believe that banning books will help them control people, ensure they are not exposed to anything to which their understanding of faith is opposed.

And yet, the early church was remarkably committed to ideals of freedom and openness of dialogue, believing that the Christian faith could not be coerced. They opposed any sort of attempts at control to get people to be Christians or to force people to adopt Christian ways of thinking. They believed that the Christian life has to, in the end, be chosen by each individual or it will be broken from the start..

I was struck by a verse from First John which was in the appointed Scripture readings for Morning Prayer this past Tuesday. In it, St. John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 

I wish Christians would let go of fear and control and instead seek perfection in love. Neither of these are virtues for the Christian faith. Indeed, Christianity actually thrives much more when people live with attitudes of love, respect, and humility, when it doesn’t try to control what people read or how people live but instead when individual Christians choose to display in their own lives the love and sacrifice of Jesus, when Christians strive to be curious instead of judgmental.

Christians need to repent, once and for all, of this tendency in our tradition throughout history to ban or burn that which we deem inappropriate. Instead, let’s trust trained librarians to curate content that is age appropriate and, above all, let’s engage in conversation about difficult works of literature, asking why it is so unsettling to people… and, perhaps most importantly, asking if you are unsettled because the content is inappropriate, or because the content raises issues of sin, selfishness, discrimination, or control that are already present in your own heart. And maybe your heart is what you should focus on a little bit more.

Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.