Remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn in school? They’re esteemed works of classic literature, but students in a Minnesota school district will no longer be required to read them, according to a recent article on Fox News. The reason? Both include the “n-word.”
It’s a decision I can understand, but it’s not one I agree with. (I’m in no way defending the word, or arguing for using it, so hear me out.)
I’m an avid reader personally, devouring hundreds of books each year from a wide variety of authors. I’ve read many of the classics, including these two, and I firmly believe I am better (as a human and not just a reader and learner) because of it. Yes, both books (and many others on our schools’ required reading lists) contain controversial content, but I believe that’s what makes them especially valuable in the context of a comprehensive education.
Let’s put classic literature aside for a minute and take a look at the Bible in light of this debate.
I’ve been reading through the Old Testament at a fast pace lately as I’ve set out to read through the entire Bible in 90 days. It’s early February and I’m already in the Psalms, to give you an idea of how quickly it’s going. I’ve covered a lot of ground, and much of it hasn’t been pretty.
A few examples:
King David lusted after a woman who had a husband, and instead of leaving well alone, he sent for her, slept with her, impregnated her, and then had the husband killed to try to cover it all up. King after king after king did evil in the sight of the Lord, worshipping idols and murdering men, women, and children in their desire for power and glory. Jacob betrayed Esau and deceived his dying father just to secure the family birthright, and Cain murdered his own brother out of jealousy. Hosea was told by the Lord to marry a prostitute and have children with her, even though the woman continued to sleep with other men and rebel against him. Laban duped his future son-in-law Jacob, making him work for double the time just to earn the right wife. Abram slept with a woman who was not his wife in desperate attempts to continue his family line. God’s own people blatantly ignored his commands and worshipped other false gods despite the fact that he set them free from slavery and was faithful to them.
The Bible keeps it real.
Nothing about the Old Testament was polished over or presented with a filter to make it seem nicer, safer, or easier to digest. But it was all real life. Sex, murder, racism, infidelity, war, scandal... It’s a real story. It’s our story, our history, telling of generation after generation of broken people falling prey to sin and making a big disaster of things.
The Bible isn’t a sanitized story. It doesn’t shy away from telling the truth of who we are as a human race, even when it’s painful, shameful, ugly, and controversial.
But aren’t we better for reading it? Aren’t we better for immersing ourselves in these stories, messy as they might be? Don’t we read them and find ourselves in the pages, realizing our own tendencies to sin, harm others, and fall short of all that God has intended for us?
I think the works of classic literature in question do much of the same thing-- they give us opportunities to engage with the realness of humanity and grapple with what it means for us today.
These stories (Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and so many others) aren’t sanitized either.
They aren’t putting a polish on the pain of our past. They don’t shy away from telling things how they were, even when it’s painful, shameful, ugly, and controversial. They don’t even shy away from derogatory language (such as the “n-word” in question).
“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,” Mark Twain writes in Huckleberry Finn. He’s right, we know that full well.
But I think we are better for reading these stories, too.
I will never repeat the curse words these stories include, nor will I endorse the hate behind them. (The exact opposite, really.) I am not suggesting in any way that we repeat the racism, prejudice, and discrimination of past generations. I am, however, strongly advocating for the inclusion of these stories in the education of our rising generations, as a powerful and helpful tool in both understanding our history as humans and working toward a better future together.
If we don’t reflect on where we’ve been, how we will prepare for where we are going?
If we don’t acknowledge the hurt, address the sins of the past, remember the divides between people groups, and humble ourselves to see our own privilege and perspectives for what they are, how can we ever expect to repent and find new freedom?
That’s the theme I see all throughout Scripture, and the thread I see throughout these works (and others) of classic literature-- redemption. Repentance. Renewal. A turning away from the sin, the brokenness, the hatred, the evil. A turning toward justice, forgiveness, unity, wholeness, love.
We see David become a king after God’s own heart. We see Hosea and Gomer model repentance for God’s people and find blessing in restored relationship. We see Abraham become the father of many generations and a patriarch for the faith. Jacob meets Esau again many years later, and the two embrace and weep and give each other gifts. In every story, we see redemption, renewal, and new life burst forth from the brokenness and pain of the past.
Like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird so wisely says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Let’s climb inside of these stories. Let’s see the realness of what brokenness looks like, and let’s learn to empathize and understand. Let’s see things from different points of view. Let’s be taught by these stories, and made better because of them.
“Cry about the simple hell people give other people- without even thinking,” Harper Lee writes in To Kill a Mockingbird. “Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people too.”
Just like reading the Old Testament reminds us, there are painful chapters of our story, of our history, but they are never the end of the story. The “n-word” reminds us of painful discrimination and oppression toward an entire people group, but that, too, is not the end of the story. While it might seem easier to ban these stories and ignore these painful, hurtful, horrible reminders of our broken and sinful nature, I believe we will be better for climbing inside of them and considering things from every point of view.
Photo credit: Unsplash
Publication date: February 9, 2018
Rachel Dawson is the design editor for Crosswalk.com.