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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Objecting to Objectionable Elements

I don’t recall how it came to be in my little library, but I have a copy of the little pamphlet Objectionable Elements: The Biblical Approach published by Bob Jones University Press. It is a brief guide for Christian educators and administrators[i] to handling “objectionable elements” in the classrooms of Christian schools. It’s an amusing little booklet, but not very helpful.

The booklet begins with an explanation that censorship isn’t just an issue for “religious conservatives” but that “[s]ecularist educators” do it as well (Horton 1), that is, all educators are purposefully selective in what they choose to use in their classes. They will select material that furthers their educational goals and not use material that is counter to their purposes. “Censorship, therefore, whether in Christian or secular schools, is inescapable” (1).

But already we’ve gone slightly off target. This isn’t censorship. This is not the suppression or deletion of material considered offensive, immoral, harmful or objectionable. This kind of careful and deliberate selection of material is not the banning or burning of “bad books.” This is selection, not censorship. (Asheim)

But we’ll let that bit of semantics slide.

The author then lists a number of common categories of “censorable,” objectionable elements: 1) Profanity, 2) Scatological realism, 3) Erotic realism, 4) Sexual perversion, 5) Lurid violence, 6) Occultism, and 7) Erroneous religious or philosophical assumptions. (3) The conscientious Christian educator[ii] will have to deal in some way with this kind of material in the classroom.

According to the pamphlet there are four ways to handle this material: the Permissive, the Exclusive, the Pragmatic and the Biblical.

The Permissive approach is characterized by the author as that of “intellectuals” and is weak and subjective. It “arrogantly elevates human wisdom above divine” (5) in allowing objectionable elements. The author gets a wee bit catty in calling out the magazine Christianity Today and Intervarsity Press as examples of this approach. (4)

On the other end of the spectrum is the Exclusive approach, which would exclude any and all objectionable elements. “This is the view held by conscientious pastors, Christian educators, and laymen concerned for the moral preservation of their children…” (5). But, while the sympathies and spiritual affinities of Bob Jones University might be with these good folks (5) this approach goes too far. If followed, it would eliminate Shakespeare, Melville, Twain, Frost...even John Bunyan and the Bible itself.  To the author’s credit, he does admit that examples of each of these “objectionable elements” can be found “in certain ways and to certain degrees in the Bible” (6) [iii] and we routinely and without a second thought give copies of the Bible to children and encourage them to read the scriptures-scriptures filled with lurid violence, scatological references, and explicit sexuality.

Trying to find some middle ground between the extremes of the Permissive and the Exclusive is the Pragmatic approach, in which “[e]ach person must decide for himself[iv] how much evil is too much to be tolerable in a literary work or in material used in teaching.” This might seem like a pretty good way to go – but the author describes this as “theologically the weakest” of all the approaches in that it “implies that it is impossible to order our lives according to the will of a holy God” (10).  I’m not sure why it implies such a thing. I’m not convinced that it does, but we’ll come back to that.
Fortunately, and to our great relief, the author tells us that there is another approach, a Biblical approach that will help us to deal with objectionable elements without being too permissive or too exclusive or having to use our own best judgement.

The Biblical approach, according to the author, will determine what to use and what to exclude based on three criteria:

1) The criterion of gratuitousness – does the representation of evil serve a purpose in the work or is it evil for evil’s sake?  2) The criterion of explicitness – is the representation of evil present in “an acceptable degree”? And 3) The criterion of moral tone – is the evil presented sufficiently condemned? (12 - 13)

These criteria are presented as objective evaluative standards which can be used by any God-fearing-bible-believing Christian. “The basis of a truly Biblical position concerning censorable elements is the following distinction. If a work of literature or other element of curriculum treats evil in the same way that it is treated in the Scriptures, we regard it as not only acceptable but also desirable reading, listening, or viewing for someone of sufficient maturity as to benefit from comparable portions of the Scriptures” (12). “For instance, whereas a conscientious Christian teacher might assign a Willa Cather novel[v] to a Christian high-school class, he[vi] would not assign John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath” (18).

But this is subterfuge. For all its appearance as an objective and standardized and Biblical approach, it really is no different from the Pragmatic approach described earlier. It comes down to interpretation and evaluation. And I certainly would assign The Grapes of Wrath, both for its excellence as work of literature and for its powerful expression of Christian values.

It comes down to interpretation and evaluation. Unless one wants to go all the way to the Exclusive approach where all objectionable elements are refused, (in which case we’re tossing out the Bible), then we all have to be Pragmatists in our approach. (The Permissive approach as described by the author is really just this as well. He just doesn’t like it.) We all of us have to ask, how much are we comfortable with? Does it align with our understanding of Scripture? If not can it still illuminate Christian truth? Am I competent enough to teach this material? And, is my audience mature enough to handle the material?

If we’re going to object to all objectionable material, if we’re going to avoid material in books or films that might be in any way controversial, we might as well just shut down, because we’ve already shut down our brains.

Asheim, Lester. "Not Censorship but Selection." Editorial. Wilson Library Bulletin Sept. 1953: 63-67. American Library Association, Nov. 2005. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.

Horton, Ronald A. Objectionable Elements: The Biblical Approach. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1990. Print.

[i] I should say, “male” Christian educators and administrators: the pronouns are exclusively masculine. “The Christian teacher, led by the same Spirit that inspired God’s Holy Word, will scrutinize prayerfully his methods and materials to ensure that they likewise are free of that which hinders and diverts from his purpose: the conforming of his students to the image of God in Christ. He will censor for the sake of his students and, in the case of materials he uses, ascertain whether the necessary censorship has been done by the authors or may otherwise be done by himself” (Horton 2 -3).Emphasis added.
[ii] Ehem.. the conscientious MALE Christian educator…
[iii] If they didn’t my whole series of Biblical Limericks wouldn’t be possible.
[iv] Ehem…himself
[v] Would Bob Jones University really be comfortable assigning the work Willa Cather, a woman who went about dressed as a man and called herself “William” and who may have been a lesbian?  
[vi] Ehem…he

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