It seems that there’s been a centuries-long argument on whether we, as Christians especially, should read books (or watch movies, as it may be) that have content that contradicts our beliefs or worldviews. A lot of people would see a book or film that doesn’t align with their worldview and would rebel against it, even attempt to ban it from public viewing. I actually found a list of banned books, on which were books such as Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Scarlet Letter. The reasons these books were banned were, for the most part, that they either contradicted a person’s worldview or that they had content that a particular group of people deemed offensive.
Let’s take The Scarlet Letter for an example. It was banned, back in the 1800s (I forgot to write down the exact dates, boo.) First, it was banned because the people thought that Hawthorne was “too kind” to Hester Prynne, and secondly, because they thought it was obscene or pornographic. If you’ve read that book, you would find those allegations absurd and preposterous—however certain Christians found his book to be offensive, merely due to the fact that he was discussing adultery in the book. There were no “pornographic” scenes, no “obscenities,” it’s actually quite a fascinating story that Hawthorne wrote.
This is just one example of the extent to which people will go to silence opinions that don’t align with their own. John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, also wrote an essay entitled “In Defense of Books,” in which he says
“Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. ‘Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great loss; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.
We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labors of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man, preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre; whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life”
Milton’s argument is simple: a book is very important, and to ban it or destroy it is almost a sin against God, because it, in a certain sense, breaks God’s commands of “thou shalt not murder.” He argues that to destroy a book is a kind of homicide, a slaying “an immortality rather than a life.” I think, firstly, that Milton has a lovely way of using words, and secondly, he has a very interesting point. My creative writing professor has told us in class that to write is to be vulnerable, to put a bit of yourself out there in your writing. So to destroy a book is to destroy the part of the author that they poured into their own writing.
So now that I’m off my whole “stop banning or destroying books” rant, let me go on to my answer to the question. Should we read books or watch movies that have something contradicting our worldview in it?
The other day, I saw the news that the new Beauty and the Beast movie was going to have a gay character in it. I had some mixed feelings about this. Should I go see this movie now that it has a gay character in it? So I brought that up to my best friend, and our conversation went approximately this way:
Should we watch movies that have this sort of content in them, or should we avoid them? Well, haven’t we watched movies that have violence or sexual content? Do we still shop at Target? (the answer is yes to both. Yes, we even shop at Target. I know, we’re so horrible for giving money to a store that disagrees with our beliefs.) We were both super excited for this Beauty in the Beast movie, and then the news came out that there was going to be a gay character in the movie—and our first thought was protest. Or mine was. I thought “How could they put a gay character in this movie? How could they just push their sinful agenda down our throats this way?” But then we said, “if we have watched a movie with graphic violence, or sexual content, or some inappropriate language, then how can we argue that this is so horrible that we won’t even go see it?” See, I am of the opinion that, for the most part, art imitates life, not the other way around. Therefore, this piece of art is a representation of the culture that surrounds us daily. We view it as them trying to shove their agenda down our faces, and sure, you could argue that that’s maybe in part happening, however, they’re more likely trying to represent the world around them, and their own worldview.
And if they are merely trying to represent their own worldview, then what should keep us from watching this movie? In fact, I think that maybe that would be more of a reason for me to go see the movie. The more I understand of their worldview, the more I can help them. Of course, I would say to watch with discretion, and if this gay character ends up basically taking over the movie, then perhaps I wouldn’t go to see that, however, it appears that this will play a very small role in the movie, therefore I see no reason why my best friend and I can’t go watch this movie.
I think my argument is this: if something contradicts our worldview, we need to watch or read with discretion and understanding, not necessarily accepting the other opinion or beliefs, but understanding that this is what they believe, and this is what I’m will be encountering in everyday life. If the worldview is prevalent in culture, then I would argue that it is imperative to expose yourself to worldviews, beliefs, opinions that are different from your own, simply so that you can understand others beliefs and ideas. This is vital for our ability to understand others so that we can better defend our own worldview. How would we be able to defend ourselves if we don’t even know where the others are coming from?
I would love to hear additional thoughts on this topic. It’s one that I, as an English major, have found to be very interesting, and I would love to hear what others think about the idea of reading books or watching movies that don’t align with your own worldview and censoring books that you disagree with.
Oh, also, this is a link to (at least part of) Milton’s essay entitled “In Defense of Books.” This probably argues the point against book banning better than I ever could. Mainly because it’s Milton, but still.