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Books, Morals, and Stupid People.

by Dear Jon
February 24, 2009

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Dear Jon,

Do you think books have a duty to have morals and good influences?

Curious Reader

Dear Curious,


The duty that binds the author will depend on the author's faith and conscience. That is why the founders of the United States at both the federal and state levels wisely ratified the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees a free press, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and the free practice of religious faith.

If Dear Jon were to advocate restrictions on the expression of those with whom he disagreed, the same would come back to haunt me. 

But let us move this discussion from the abstract and philosophical, to where it really matters, which is the topic: Freedom and Stupid People.

Case Study #1: A Public Junior High School insists that all its pupils must read a book featuring foul-mouthed delinquents experimenting with drugs and debauchery--the novel being chosen by educators for its explicit and evocative prose. Concerned parents are pilloried as being narrow-minded and bigoted. Discussion Question: Who are the Stupid People?

a. The author of the book
b. The students in public school
c. The parents.
d. The eighth-grade teacher and her librarian ally who have gone to the newspapers to label the complaints as part of a "disturbing trend of resurgent fascism."

Case Study #2: An aspiring author has had his opus, a fiction novel, rejected by a dozen publishers, even though all six people in the Writer's Circle at his church insist that his fiction is special and that it should be published. Discussion Question: Who Are the Stupid People?

a. The editors who have to swim through piles of drivel and must screen whole novels on the basis of the first page, from which it becomes obvious that the vast majority of unrepresented amateurs have done no research into the  publisher's market or guidelines.

b. The reading public, whose appetites govern the business decisions of for-profit publishers?

c. The unpublished author with his Christian novel--working title "Justin Blankenchip Swan," his born-againer's response to the New Age sensation of the 1970's "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull"-- who is CONVINCED that publishers OWE him a break and that anything less is the injustice of a fallen, sinful world?

Case Study #3:

A series of novels popular among 5th through 8th graders is turned into a movie franchise, with each offering given a PG-13 Rating for the simple reason that sometimes when prose is turned into pictures, the images are disturbing. For example, High King Peter is described in battle in one of the Narnia books, as cutting off an enemy's head. This is a captivating image for the child's imagination. Other authors, such as Shel Silverstein, understood that they could write poems and stories for children which feature everything from snake attacks to outright cannibalism, because children are naturally morbid and are entertained by outlandish, nonsensical and completely unrealistic violence.  Put on film, with anything approaching a realistic portrayal, Silverstein's "I'm being Eaten By a Boa Constrictor" would HAVE to merit at LEAST a PG-13 rating. Film shows to the child that an impossible combination of words could actually depict a real event, so that it is pictures, much more than words, that cause nightmares.

Having said all of that, parents complain to the studio for the way the movie is made, and threaten boycotts. Who are the stupid people?

a. The authors, like C.S. Lewis or Shel Silverstein or J.R.R. Tolkein or J.K. Rowling or Frank Peretti, for describing fantastic and utterly impossible violence for the entertainment of readers ages 10 and up?

b. The movie makers, for successfully (now thanks to CGI) turning those words into pictures so that those who grew up reading some phenomenal literature can see it come to breathtaking life?

c. Parents, who take their 6 year-olds to see movies rated PG-13 and then COMPLAIN about the graphic scenes?

Exception will be taken by many for Dear Jon's First Amendment stance. Some will side with the public school teachers in a totalitarian system of compulsory education who require children to read toxic drivel and then blame concerned parents for being fascists, and wonder why I have a problem with that.  Others will side with parents who take 6 year-olds to movies they have no business watching and wonder why I don't side with them in their indignation.

Those who want to pick arguments with me will press on issues such as pornography and snuff to try to paint me into a corner. The question is not about still or moving images of actual people, the question is about books, the printed word, which is the provision and protection of the First Amendment. That is the question I answered.

Final point.

Read the Bible. It contains: Nudity, murder, war, assassination, adultery, rape, gang-rape and murder (Judges 19), genocide, demonic possession, exorcisms, at least one ghost story (1 Samuel 28), polygamy, incest (both coerced and consensual), women dying in child-birth, graphic depictions of the activities of newborn twins while parting the womb, several episodes of lying, beheadings, executions, epic battles against dragons, at least two occasions of mass infanticide (Exodus 13 and Matthew 2) and at least four overlapping descriptions of the death-by-torture of an innocent and wrongly accused public debater.

No one has HONESTLY put the Bible story to film. The first one to really make the effort is Mel Gibson, who dramatized a small part of the Bible story. And guess what? He was roundly criticized in some born-again circles. The movie he made, "The Passion of the Christ," is excellent, by the way. I have only seen it once and do not care to again. It is that real.

Is this what we call morals and good influences? If not the Bible, then what? I am one of those many  millions who believe that these authors of the Bible were inspired by none other than that God whom their writings describe. Neither they, nor any other authors who write in "good faith"--whether that be Luke of the gospel or Stephen King or even Dear Jon-- can be held responsible for what happens when stupid people lay hold of their words and fight over them or complain about them.


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