Tim Parks, son of an evangelical pastor, recently wrote a thought-provoking piece for the New York Review of Books exploring his history of reading. He remembers reading children's stories and the Bible, in an isolated yet comforting environment, always under the watchful eye of his parents. But when Parks sought to explore and read books that offered a "broader view of life" he clashed with his parents. Nietzsche, Beckett, and Gide were off-limits.
"Away from the Bible and children's books, reading was not always good, and when it wasn't good it was bad," he writes. "Very bad."
Parks's piece isn't essentially about the nature of "book banning" in Christian homes. He's primarily exploring his own reactions to literature, and explaining the way he reads through the lens of his past. But his description of parental permission and alarm should serve as a caution to Christians.
Banning the Right Kind of Wrong Book
Parents should certainly be willing to ban smarmy, salacious, stupid material. As Mark Hemingway recently wrote in an article for The Federalist titled "In Defense of Book Banning," parents and authority figures (such as teachers) should act as "responsible gatekeepers," putting careful thought into "what constitutes an appropriate cultural climate for children in an era of information overload."
Hemingway is talking specifically about prurient sexual books—vulgar stuff that borders on the pornographic. Yes, it exists on young adult bookshelves. And yes, as a parent, it might be good to "ban" such nonsense. Not only is it unchristian—it's truly quite senseless. Young adults should be smart enough to desire better books, books that inspire intellectual depth and foster wisdom.
How do we introduce young people to good and bad ideas with the appropriate balance of independence and support? How do we help them discover, for themselves, what is true and false? It's important they embark on this path of discovery, for if children don't seek truth on their own, they will forever be a shadow, mindlessly following footsteps without resolve.
Around age 14, I brought a swath of existentialist questions to my father. Rather than acting out in alarm, he began discussing philosophy with me. He introduced me to Christian apologetic literature—but we also discussed non-Christian ancient philosophers, such as Confucius, Buddha, Plato, and others. These rich discussions helped prepare me for college and a job in journalism, where I confront persistent sneering at and criticism of Christianity.
Fostering Growth Together
The sterile, cozy environment of Parks's childhood did not help him embrace or combat foreign ideas. Instead, at least in his mind, this environment shackled his ability to think and explore. Even now, whenever memories of his "family bookshelf" affect his reading, he feels fear rather than guidance or love.
Rather than banning non-Christian books, certain parents might even seek them out, looking for gems of thought-provoking and stimulating philosophy. In order to truly bolster a young person's mind, parent and child can read and seek together. Parents can serve as partners in a truth-seeking mission, not as prison sentinels "keeping watch" over a potentially dangerous inmate. As Christians, we should encourage and foster the growth of young minds—not stifle them. It is the strong mind, practiced in the field of intellectual battle, that can best defend and embrace Christian principles. An insulated brain becomes flabby and vulnerable.
Additionally, it's important for parents and mentors to note that there are core and non-core truths at stake, and we must be willing to accept those differentiations. Children may accept Christianity but reject their parents' political beliefs, for example. These principles are not equal, and a parent must be willing to "agree to disagree" on non-core issues. There are larger, more essential truths worth fighting over.
But if a young person ventures upon the work of an atheist author and finds his or her curiosity piqued, I think it dangerous to ban such a book. Better to read and grapple together than to shun and ignore opposing views. This is what family is for: To provide us with "seconds" in our duels, people who will walk the gauntlet of truth-seeking with us, who will inquire and delineate and debate at our sides. The best parent is willing to hold our hand steady as we shoot for the mark, to run with us as we race toward the goal of becoming mature followers of Christ.