Sunday, December 21, 2014

7 (Not So Quick) Takes: Life-Changing Literary Works

Or perhaps thought-changing would be a better term. These are books that challenged my thinking or shifted a paradigm. (These are not particularly "quick" takes, and it's no longer Friday. Oh well.)

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

I was nominally pro-life before I read The Giver. That is, I thought abortions were tragic, and I certainly would never have one, but I hadn't delved into the root of the issue. I also hadn't given much thought to other "life" issues. If pressed, I was pro-death penalty in specific, severe cases. I was against torture, but I didn't have a clear, compelling reason other than vague thoughts about human dignity. I had studied ethical models in college, and I knew that I was not utilitarian. However, I could not have told you why. 

Reading The Giver as part of a children's librarianship class changed all of that. This children's book about a society that has eliminated suffering should be required reading for everyone. Through the eyes of a young boy, we walk through what it really means to never suffer. If you haven't read it, please, stop what you're doing and go to the library. Or just buy it; you won't regret it. I won't say more for fear of ruining the story.

For Your Own Good, by Alice Miller

Growing up evangelical, corporal punishment was considered as essential to the Gospel as Jesus Christ. WORLD magazine, our favorite news source, published numerous stories about parents who were jailed for "correcting" their children, usually in Canada or Western Europe. I remember one story about Canadian Christians who considered themselves martyrs for the Gospel because the law forbade spanking with implements and leaving visible marks. All these years I've remembered a quote from one of the parents, that they "need to use a stick or belt; a hand isn't hard enough." When people talked about the problems of contemporary society, they never failed to mention that "you can't paddle kids in school anymore." (This isn't even true in many states, certainly not where I'm from. In Tennessee, schools don't even need parental permission or knowledge). Even after I changed my views on Calvinism, I still operated under this mindset. 

Reading For Your Own Good upended everything I thought I knew on the subject. In horrible detail, Miller shows how the "spare the rod," mindset led seamlessly to Nazism. The basic argument is that German parents taught their charges to mindlessly obey authority, always. The authority was always right, and weakness was always abhorrent. I'm normally suspicious of any Nazi analogies, but in this case it fits. For those of us who grew up in poisonous religious environments, it was interesting to see how secular wisdom fit so seamlessly with the fundamentalist mindset that small children and infants are little devils that must be beaten into submission. Of all the disturbing images in this book, the one that stuck the most was that one late 19th century German book suggested having the "the talk" in a morgue so as to instill the most potent sense of shame about the human body. What it instilled instead was comfort with seeing piles of dead bodies. When you dehumanize someone, the results are bound to bring hell on earth.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass 

I recently discussed the racism in my background. One aspect I didn't mention was that many Southerners, even to this day, don't really believe that slavery was so bad. In a vague, hypothetical sense they believe that it was contrary to human rights, but if you discuss it sooner or later someone will say "but their lives were much better under slavery than they were after they were freed" or "most slave owners worked in the fields alongside their slaves." The Gone With the Wind version of history reigns quietly supreme in white, Southern households. I was even taught that the "first KKK" was not so bad, because they were trying to reign in the criminal black elements that were unleashed during Reconstruction. The most insidious notion of all was that history had been "revised" - that prior to about the 1980s, historians understood that slavery in the U.S. not not nearly so horrid as, say, Roman Empire slavery. (In many ways, it was much worse, actually. Among other things, Roman slaves captured in war might one day be free, while race-based American slavery ensured a permanent second-class status even to "freemen.") I also heard that "the winners write history," implying that those damn Yankees made everything about the antebellum South sound horrid.

Frederick Douglass' autobiography was the perfect antidote. It was written during slavery, so you can't discount it was "revisionism." It was written by someone who was actually a slave, giving yet another layer of authenticity. And it shows, indisputably, that the system of slavery itself was a nightmare. 

Of the many realizations I had while reading this classic, two hold fast in my memory. The first was his telling of his childhood, such as it was. I had heard the stories of parents torn from children, but I didn't realize what it was like to be born into slavery and never have a family. Douglass never knew his father, though he heard many rumors about their master. He and his mother did not have a relationship of any depth. He had siblings, but they did not really know each other. His mother was more of a wet-nurse than a family member. I didn't truly realize how much people were treated like farm animals until I read this account. The second thing that stuck out was Douglass' memory of a slave owner who converted to Christianity. I'd assumed that Christian slave owners were kinder to their slaves, but Douglass blew the lid off that assumption. In fact, in his experience religious conversions were a terrible calamity for slaves. Rather than change their behavior, owners now had an iron-clad religious excuse for owning slaves, and even for savagely beating them.

Justice, by George MacDonald

The reason I titled this "literary works" and not books is because Justice is an unspoken sermon. However, I couldn't leave it out of this list. Without this sermon, my spiritual life would look profoundly different. 

During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I struggled to have this thing called "faith." I had slowly realized that the God of Calvinism was a monster, but to my dismay, the non-Calvinist, evangelical model did not solve the problem. There was still this underlying issue of penal substitutionary atonement. This model teaches that all people are born sinners. God cannot look at sin and must punish all sins, but because He loves us He punished His Son instead. The entire reason Jesus came to Earth was that He could live a perfect life and then die the most horrific death. Our sins were placed on His account, and His righteousness was placed on ours.

As I struggled, one of my major problems with this doctrine was that it offered nothing on earth. Everything good about salvation happened after death: there was no healing for the sickness of sins while still living. This seemed fundamentally wrong and, dare I say it, unjust. MacDonald's sermon articulated all the problems that I had noticed, and the relief was indescribable. For one thing, I'd been told that my questions were irreverent, the equivalent of back-talking God, and that every Christian in history had believed in penal atonement, so it was get with it or get out. Later, I would learn that this was historically false, but in that moment I needed some thread to hang onto. This sermon was that thread. 

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, by Geoffrey Canada

In this fascinating memoir, Canada shows how violence escalated in the South Bronx through the 60s-90s. I grew up in a poor neighborhood - though it was not as dangerous as his - but the "gun" stage was all I knew. Canada's book traces the problem of violence and gangs and shows how the influx of guns into inner cities created catastrophe. I grew up in the South, where guns are part of the religion, and I've always heard "guns don't kill people" and similar slogans. Canada's book blew this out of the water. If you want to better understand urban crime, gang culture, the interplay of drugs and weapons, and what can be done to improve ghetto neighborhoods, this is the place to start. It should be required reading for anyone who works in public education, as it explains that students are highly unlikely to care about math and English when their very lives are at stake. This book challenged my thinking on multiple areas, but especially that of gun control.

Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller

This book was a tremendous success in the late 90s/early 2000s among evangelicals and post-evangelicals. I didn't read it until college because it had an air of the forbidden about it, even though the author maintains a fairly traditional Christian faith throughout the memoir. It was "forbidden" because it dared to say what so many of us were thinking: that evangelical culture had failed those of us who grew up inside of it. Blue Like Jazz was like a love poem to everyone burned: those who didn't fit into a youth group culture that favored the cool and popular; those whose politics were left of George W. Bush; those who lived in the wrong neighborhoods and didn't get the material blessings promised by health and wealth preachers; those who wanted to be Christians without shutting out the world. This was the book that made me think I could actually be a Christian without being miserable.

And... I don't have a seventh book! Those are the ones that stick out to me the most, and there are no other books that I can automatically think of as "life changing," i.e., that changed the paradigm of my thinking on particular issues. There are many wonderful books out there that I would likewise recommend, but they strengthened or added to a thought pattern that I already had. 

What books changed your thinking? Were there any poems/sermons/short stories that made you question something you'd always believed?

*Don't forget to check out the other blogs at This Ain't The Lyceum!

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