Banned Books Change Lives.

[Warning: Offensive language ahead.]

This week (the week of Sept. 30th, 2012) is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. As someone who loves books and who has been greatly challenged and stretched by some of these “banned books”, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you why it’s important to keep “banned books” in our libraries, and especially in our schools.

As you may know, I am a licensed secondary English teacher. As a part of my student teaching, I had the privilege of teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to 9th graders at a small rural-ish (almost entirely white & Latino/a) school in Minnesota. But before I continue my story, let me share a little background on the controversy surrounding this novel:

  • In the last ten years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the #21 most challenged book.
  • Although its major race-related theme is the injustice and wrongness of racism, it is often challenged for being a racist book or for “promot[ing] white supremacy.”
  • One of the most frequent reasons cited for its banning is the use of the word “nigger”.

Now, back to my classroom. Knowing a few of my mischievous 9th graders as I did, I decided to be proactive about the use of the “n-word” in our classroom. I spent five minutes at the start of the first reading day explaining to my students that, although the author used that word frequently to accurately depict the setting of her writing, it was not acceptable for them to use that word, and they should count this as their fair warning that anyone choosing to say that word in class would be sent directly to the office.

Of course, the first “culprit”, to my embarrassment, was a student whose English proficiency was not up to grade level and who, I’m pretty sure, accidentally let it slip only because he had read it so many times in the novel. (But, follow-through-er as I was, I sent him to the office as promised, poor kid. I make me wince sometimes.) That night, I went home and designed an entire lesson specifically to educate my students about the historical significance of the “n-word”, because it was clear to me that the vast majority of them had no idea what they were (not) saying.

The next day, we went through my lesson and I did my level best to help my students understand that the “n-word” was so awful because of the hateful, dehumanizing racism it embodied. I searched for and found a photo that I thought exemplified the demeaning stereotype whites created to oppress blacks, and we discussed it:

A slide from our discussion.

Before, the class had been its usual jovial self; as soon I showed this image, it was silent. You could feel the shock in the room, and when I finally coaxed responses to the discussion questions they were muted and brief.

After I was sure the meaning of the word had been made clear, we talked about the history of various words used to describe African-Americans (including which terms are generally acceptable today) and then ended by taking a few minutes for the students to jot what they had learned on a notecard. Most responses were simple — “I learned never to say that word” — but a few students shared more deeply:

I learned that the “n word” is more meaningful than I thought. I knew you shouldn’t use it but I didn’t know it was that important.

I found out that colored is not a good word to call a black/African-American person.

I learned today that black people were introduced as monkeys and were set up as them just because their skin was a color that some people didn’t like. I hate how whites think they can make fun of a different skin color!

I thought it was very sad when we learned about the bank of a man and saw the resemblance between it and the one of a monkey. I will never call anyone that word because of how disrespectful it is.

I learned that black people are not bad, and have never been bad. White people just made them out to be bad, and made them seem like they were [bad] to everyone. They are the same as us, just different colored skin, but that means nothing. They are still the same as us, and we are still the same as them.

My feelings were changed about how people treat other people that people were really awful to people that were different races and they still do. I got chills when I heard the things that people did and said and even showed the African American people as. It was upsetting to me and really hit a spot in my heart that had never really been touched before. Thank you. : )

I share these not to toot my own horn — clearly I was not a model teacher! — but to show the incredible need to educate our young people about past sins in order to help them understand their present world.

If To Kill a Mockingbird (or other books that contain “the n-word”) were banned, this conversation never would have happened. If we had never brought the “n-word” into our classroom, all those students would still not understand why their hackles raise when they hear it, or why it is taboo to say it. If I or the school or the parents had tried to sweep it under the rug, my students would have remained ignorant, and the only way to make any good out of our messy, hurtful, embarrassing history is to stop it from repeating itself. So I ask you this: If we sanitize our schools of all the ugly past, how will we ever learn from it?

Humanity is cruel and kind, evil and good, racist and just, murderous and life-giving. We learn how to act by seeing both what to do and what not to do. Removing the “bad parts” from our children’s education doesn’t make them better people, just more likely to fall into the same traps as their predecessors.

So this week, check out a “banned book”! You don’t have to like it — you don’t have to think it’s appropriate for any age (most things are not) — but please, before you reject it as a “filthy, trashy novel”, think about what we it might teach us and how it might help us to avoid repeating history.

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“The Lord watches over the WAY of the righteous…”

Psalm 1

Blessed is he who walks after the lord
But the way of the wicked will perish

I find that I read this Psalm eschatologically / moralistically: the way of wickedness – wicked acts – are lost and perish because they do not align with God’s victorious plan. I don’t really read it like “the righteous will go to heaven and the wicked to hell”, because Jesus repeatedly debunks that notion. And although the intro and body talk about God blessing the person, the conclusion says

“The Lord watches over the WAY of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.”

The way of the righteous – righteous acts, a righteous way of being – indeed align with God’s victorious plan, and thus prosper. If my way is to do bad things, but the universe ends up good, my way perished. If my way is to do good things, and the universe ends up good, my way prospered. I cooperated and participated in God’s plan, instead of failing against it.

I read it this way, because the view/teaching that “good things will happen to good people and bad to bad” doesn’t hold water from any angle — Job and even other psalms show that often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer in this life. But I might be wrong. The author may have actually meant it this way at the time. The psalmist may have really felt that good will happen to good people. It would be in strong alignment with, say, most of Proverbs.

But even if the author DID mean it that way, which seems somewhat probable to me, I reinterpret it for myself from a “wider perspective of scripture, philosophy, and observations about life” to mean “good acts prosper and bad acts fail in a universe that ends up victoriously good”. My move to reinterpret, however, may be a knee jerk, based in the desire to have each passage be based on an underlying “absolute-truth-revelation nugget” posessed by the author and expressed into his subjective context. Why am I unwilling to let David be wrong for a chapter? Wasn’t Job wrong from time to time? I think I (and others) end up doing some funny things to passages when we read them with assumptions (or at very least, the wrong assumptions) about what the nature of the truth they contain must be.

What do you think David meant by this?
What do you “do with” this passage?

Scenes from Exodus Four: Part Two

In Exodus chapter four, God is preparing Moses for the eventual outcome of Pharaoh’s hard-hearted resistance to God’s commands: the death of the firstborn. I’ve always struggled with that particular plague, since it seems like an awful lot of death on account of one man’s stubbornness, but this time around I noticed a passage that changed my understanding:

“Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” (4:22-23, emphasis added)

Somehow I never noticed this line before, but it illuminates the Exodus story in a whole new way for me.

Israel is God’s chosen people, his heir, his family, his children. And Egypt (represented in and personified by Pharaoh) has been killing God’s heirs, working them to the bone during 400 years of slavery and sometimes even targeting them outright. In fact, the mass murder of Hebrew sons is what set the scene for Moses’ whole life story, and those “deaths of the firstborn” draw a clear parallel with this plague. Because Egypt has been killing God’s “sons”, in return, Pharaoh and all Egypt will lose their sons.

It’s still a lot of death — the “eye for an eye” mentality prevalent in the Old Testament is much heavier on justice than my little grace-saturated brain likes — but when I stop and think of how many Israelite men and boys (and women and girls) were killed over the space of four hundred years, and the intense suffering the Israelites endured, and the sorrow and despair into which I imagine the Israelites sank, it makes a little more sense that the Egyptians would be made to have some empathy and understanding for what they put God’s people through.

What parts of the Bible do you struggle with?

Scenes from Exodus Four: Part One

So Moses is pretty self-deprecating. I mean, I get that he’s literally looking God in the face (in the branches?) here in Exodus 4, but he sure comes up with a lot of reasons for why he’d make a lousy spokesman. He’s too slow, he wouldn’t know what to say, he’s not worthy, and so on. Eventually, after several lame excuses including “I’m a bad public speaker”, God finally lets Moses have it, Job-style:

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and teach you what to say.” (4:11-12)

Sounds pretty final, doesn’t it? I’m sure it’d knock my socks off. God gives Moses a little smack-down to remind him of God’s sovereignty and ends the matter with “now go” — but he also throws in a little reassurance at the end, promising to help Moses and teach him what to say. How nice! Let’s see how Moses responds:

But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” (4:13)

WHAAAT??? Props for manners, but didn’t God say “now go”? Isn’t this over with? Did you really just get called on running out of excuses and then point-blank REFUSE God’s command with a petulant “I just don’t wanna”? I’ve never seen anyone be so brash on behalf of their own incompetence!

Moses’ statement here reveals what’s really behind his excuses: defiance. It’s not about being a bad public speaker — he simply doesn’t want to follow God’s commands. He just wants to sit around with his isolated little desert tribe and take care of sheep. Much simpler that way.

It’s funny how we humans can even use humility to defy God.

Of course, we’re all aware of the prideful side of defiance; Satan is an oft-cited reminder of the dangers of self-elevation. But there can be a sort of defiance in excessive self-deprecation as well. When we refuse to acknowledge the gifts God has given us — when we bury our “talents” in the ground — that is defiance. When we insist that we can never do it and deny God’s ability to help us overcome the challenges he’s given us — that is defiance. And as we see with Moses, defiance looks just as prideful, stupid, and shocking when it grows out of self-deprecation as when it grows from self-inflation.

But before we rag on Moses too much, let’s remember that we’re not exactly lily-white angels here.

It’s never easy to admit, but we, too, defy God, and like Moses we try to hide our defiance behind excuses. “They’d never want me on the worship team — I’m just not good enough.” “I can’t bring that up at a board meeting — I’d only mess it up anyway.” “God can’t really be calling me to do that — I must be hearing things.” We gasp at Moses’ impertinence to suppose that he can say “no” to God — and then we do the exact same thing.

Yes, we should make sure that what we hear is really God’s call, but once we’re reasonably certain the call is from God, it is our job to follow, not avoid.

Do we really think that God doesn’t know about our failings as well as our talents? Do we really think that God doesn’t already know how busy our schedules are, or how much we hate public speaking? Do we really expect God to say, “Oh! Well, I thought you would be just the right person to love this neighbor — but now that I know you couldn’t possibly drop anything from your busy, busy schedule — what was I thinking?”

Seriously, folks.

We are not called to be perfect at the cost of never taking risks. We are not called to tell God what we can and cannot do. We are not called to sit on our arses and tend our little sheep in comfort and isolation.

We are called to be faithful. To God.

That’s not always easy. The experience of most people today is that God’s communications with us are vastly more ambiguous and subtle than burning bushes that say “now go”. But it would be foolish to assume that ambiguity equals no communication at all. God’s call and voice can come through observation of the world (Rom 1:20), through quiet whispers (1 Kings 19:11-13), or even through “just knowing” that something is the right thing to do. These may seem like fuzzy and unclear half-calls to us, and following them could possibly even be a mistake if we’re wrong. But even in the midst of that uncertainty, sometimes we must lay aside our fears, our self-deprecation and our hidden pride and simply “now go”.

What does “Your Will Be Done” even mean?

A friend and colleague of mine has got cancer, and I’m aching with her.

And I get cranky and sad and don’t know what to pray.

“Your will be done…” feels like I’m not asking for anything: Do what you are already going to do, God. Whatever you already wanted to do.

That part’s about submission, it’s trust, it’s saying “I accept your way”… but it’s not really asking for anything…

Unless I think about it like the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  In the Lord’s prayer, “Your will be done” is a GIANT request: a request for Heaven on Earth. The prayer recognizes that Earth does not follow God’s will like Heaven does; instead of being filled with perfection and bliss, it’s full of pain and death and cancer. And so the prayer asks for the Earth to be more like heaven – more like what God really wills.

I think this goes back to something I’ve thought about and wrestled with, but never articulated or divided: two types of God’s will:

1. Whole, Sovereign Will: A Master Plan That’s Gonna Get Ugly:

Romans 8:20-21

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

In essence, God looked at the span of all time and compared two possible universes: one where sin is allowed and planned for, and one where it is totally blocked, and saw that the messy, painful one was (somehow) better and more glorious in the end. Like how God can intend good through awful events like Joseph’s betrayal (Gen 50:20) — the awful events are a part of the plan that’s better in the end than the avoidance of the awfulness entirely.

God’s “sovereign will” will always get its way, and is never trumped. So praying “your will be done” in this sense is accepting what will happen, and not really requesting anything in particular.

2. Perfect, Prescriptive Will: The Way God Knows Things Ought To Be:

James 1:20

…our anger does not produce the righteous life that God desires.

II Peter 3:9

The Lord is … not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

This is the part of God’s will that desires all good all the time for all people. It doesn’t want Joseph’s brothers to betray him, because that’s not living “the righteous life God desires”.

This part of God’s will doesn’t fully get its way here on Earth. We’re not all righteous like God desires. Some of us may perish, though God doesn’t desire it. The Christian hope is that this part of God’s will gets its way for eternity. But also we can pray and ask for it to get its way now — “your will be done on earth as in heaven.” — for heaven on earth.

 

So yeah, I don’t really know how these two “layers” of God’s will interact.  But thinking about the two “layers” helps me understand how praying “Your Will Be Done” for someone who’s hurting isn’t just a cop-out phrase I can say when I’m afraid to ask for anything real from God. This phrase is not only submissive, but it’s also pleading. So here’s what I prayed. (This post is adapted from what I wrote on my friend’s CaringBridge guestbook)

God, your will be done in Kali’s life.

Both your sovereign will for glory even through the brokenness of the world,

and your loving will for Heaven on Earth in Kali’s body, health, and life.

Words from My Freshman English Teacher

This weekend Daniel and I have been working hard to condense and organize our possessions, which were packed rather haphazardly before our move (no idea who did that…). In the midst of the sorting today, I encountered my old high school English portfolios and flipped through a few pages. Then I started looking for a very specific page.

My teacher for Honors English 1 terrified me. She was a short, stout, intensely crotchety woman with a shrieky voice, and if your writing stunk she let you know it! She single-handedly terrified the lot of us into learning to write. By the end of my first year, I had earned an A- in her class and I am STILL proud of that accomplishment! But the most memorable thing about Mrs. Novissar for me is her own writing. I’ve never forgotten what she wrote on my first-year final portfolio, and today I got to read it verbatim from the familiar, powerful loops of blue ink on my title page:

Dear Rebekah —

I have to say that this portfolio shows off all your strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, the strengths far outweigh the weakness, but it seems that the very factors that make you a superb essayist in the creative vein work against you in the analytical papers. It’s that damn lightness of touch which, alluring though it may be in one kind of paper, can signal the death rattle in another. That lightness of touch keeps you from digging down into the bloody muck of human passion so that, instead, you skim the surface blissfully unaware of the darker depths!

Is that not flipping AMAZING??? Ten years later, and I can still recite portions of that from memory. And I do, frequently, when telling with pride how she whupped my lily-white writer’s behind into shape!

I finally learned how to dig deep, Mrs. Novissar — but don’t worry, I still have that damn light touch, too. =)

Do you have a particular comment or critique that has stuck with you for a long time? Or do you remember a specific teacher who helped you along the way? Tell me your story in the comments!

Creative Writing: Portrait of a Grandpa

Thick, squarish glasses perched on a hawkish nose; five white hairs, bravely alone atop his head; age-thinned plaid shirts partnered by the gray cardigan that went with everything; the easy-flashing smile, revealing antique fillings — and wrinkled face never far from that hearty, oh-so-desirable laugh.

In fact, when I think of Grandpa, the first thing that comes to mind is his mischievous laugh, leaping out of him but still reserving that little hint of a prank well-concealed — or one about to be born.

The second thing that comes to mind when I think about Grandpa is how much he loved (and still loves) Grandma. I cannot remember when I first heard the story of how they met — Minnesota German and Pennsylvania Slovak, brought together by a World War and some scheming Lutheran church ladies — but now I have heard it told so many times that it seems I have always known.

When I think of how blessed I am, he says, that a beautiful lady from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, would come all the way across the country just for me–. He still tears up every time he tells their story, worn smooth and warm and familiar by countless repetitions, familiar like the fthppp of the playing cards as he shuffles them to deal another hand of Cribbage.

He cries a little more, now she is gone. Talks a little more of death and heaven, as if those are now his reality, which, in a way, they are.

Someday soon, he says, I won’t be around anymore–, and this repeated phrase, more than anything, betrays the creeping of his heart towards eternity.

The thick, work-weathered hands still shuffle the cards, but now the fthppp is accompanied by a wince.

Can you shuffle those for me once? My arthritis is giving me trouble.

I take the cards, begin to shuffle as he taught me. Split, shuffle, bridge. I smile, crack a joke about my impending victory, and am rewarded by that laugh, that infectious laugh. I wonder if that laugh is what brought my grandmother to Minnesota.

Ding, ding, ding. The grandfather clock begins to strike the hour. I straighten out the cards, and deal.