Teaching “Dirty Books”

About a year ago, Cedarville University, a Baptist school in Ohio, enacted a new curriculum standard based on Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” As reported then in Christianity Today, “Cedarville has spelled out new guidelines officially barring any materials that ‘may be considered “adult” in nature, that represent immorality, or that may be a stumbling block to students.’” The article notes that the policy primarily restricts works that include “swear words, graphic violence, sexual nudity, and other erotic content.” This would mean that a professor would only be allowed to show portions of an R-rated movie like Schindler’s List that did not violate this policy and that students would only be able to perform plays in which they would not swear (Shellnutt).

While admirable in its attempt to keep students focused on “whatever is pure,” this position may run the risk of missing out on opportunities to teach “whatever is true.”

One of my high school administrators once told me, “The best place to read a dirty book is in a Christian school.” As I understood him, he was suggesting that the best place for young Christians to encounter materials with some potentially vulgar or morally ambiguous content is under the guidance of Christian adults who can equip them to approach such content thoughtfully and through the lens of Scripture. He was not suggesting that I should teach a book with no redeemable qualities filled with liberal use of the f-word and gratuitous sexual scenarios (say, Fifty Shades of Grey); instead, he was suggesting that I should not shy away from teaching a book that thoughtfully explores themes relevant to my students, even if that book contains some colorful language that is true to the situation or if it briefly mentions a taboo topic such as masturbation (a book like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian comes to mind).

So, which is it? Should Christian schools err on the side of teaching “whatever is pure” or “whatever is true”?

In Philippians 4:8, Paul does not give a definitive list of words that are impure, nor does he give us a clear definition of what is true. When he wrote to the church in Philippi, Paul could not have imagined how Christians living 2,000 years later would be using his words to make decisions about which young adult literature titles to teach in Christian high schools. Yet here we are.

As you read some of the “dirty” books reviewed in this issue and consider using them in your classrooms, I encourage you to wrestle with the difficult decisions that doing so entails. I encourage teachers to thoughtfully consider the position they place administrators in when they petition the teaching of a controversial text. I encourage administrators to consider that some texts are worth fighting for, even when they contain questionable content. And I encourage all involved in the decision-making process to see in Paul’s words not an either/or situation but a both/and situation. He does not tell us to focus either on what is true or on what is pure; rather, he tells us to focus on both “whatever is true” and “whatever is pure.”

Situations will arise when, because of the age or maturity of our students, we must choose to err more on the side of what is pure. Likewise, there will be situations when, for the same reasons, we must err on the side of what is true. However, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that the same standard should be automatically applied across the board. In doing so, we risk creating a false reality for our students that will not match what they encounter outside the school walls. If we decide that we cannot engage with the complexities of that reality through the books and subjects that we study in our Christian schools, we may miss out on valuable teaching opportunities, or, worse, we may teach our students that our God cannot handle that reality.

Works Cited

Shellnutt, Kate, “Whatever Is Pure: Cedarville Requires Professors to Apply Philippians 4:8,” April, 26, 2017, Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/april/cedarville-university-apply-philippians-4-8-curriculum.html.

Mark Brink teaches English at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, MI.