I was walking around downtown this morning in a pleasant little neighbourhood near some stately old churches. It was gloriously warm—a desperately welcome respite after our sub-arctic February. People were out and about. Spring was in the air and it was delightful.
I noticed a little box near the street in front of one of the houses. It was a Little Free Library—you know, take a book, leave a book. It was pleasingly decorated and looked, from my still semi-distant vantage point, to have a decent little collection of books to choose from. I got closer and I noticed a piece of tape with a message hastily scrawled on it taped across the front glass: NO RELIGIOUS BOOKS. All caps. Obviously.
I winced a little, primed as I am to notice any and all unsavoury references to the word “religion” and derivatives thereof. I thought of the top row of my bookshelf back in my study, filled with works by Tolstoy, Twain, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Bunyan, Potok, Huxley, Orwell, Achebe… Just to name a few. Each touches on some of the deepest questions and longings of the human condition. Some would certainly deal with overtly “religious” themes. Each, I hope, would be a welcome addition to any library. But what counts as a “religious book” these days? Or any days?
My wincing then proceeded along different lines. I knew, surely, the “religious books” they were referring to. They didn’t want, you know, the bad ones. The greedy tracts and crude proselytizing materials and tawdry Christian fiction and, shall we say, “speculative” eschatology and God knows what else. There is obviously no shortage of truly abysmal works that are religious in nature. The same is true for non-religious writing too, obviously, but I suppose it wouldn’t be very useful to say, “No terrible books.” The Free Little Library might sit rather forlornly empty if that were the directive. Or crammed full. Who can say?
No religious books. What an enormous and influential category of writing to refuse entry to a Free Little Library. What a massive swath of human experience and longing and wisdom to rule out. What heights of literary brilliance and poetry to consign to the outer darkness. What a stubborn and ineradicable feature of the human predicament to leave on the outside looking in.
I returned home from lunch to find an article waiting in my inbox. It addressed the crisis levels of loneliness, addiction, and mental illness that are almost literally crushing the Western world. It discussed the ways in which the neoliberal order is making life nearly unbearable for upcoming generations, training them to see all of life as little more than an enormous competition (one that most of us are not winning), driving us ever further and ever more destructively into our miserable selves. It was well and truly depressing reading.
I thought about a recent workshop I had attended that had to do with how dying churches might be revitalized in our cultural context. I remember the presenter saying that the sociological data indicates that there are two things that people in the post-Christian secular West are desperate for: meaning and connection. We are dying for some kind of meta-purpose that might guide and invigorate our lives. We are dying to connect with other human beings. And in the absence of these things, we are self-medicating ourselves into oblivion.
It’s a sad state of affairs. Truly. It makes me sad to see the pain, rootlessness, and overwhelming isolation that defines so many lives out there.
I thought again about the Free Little Library.
I pondered the fact that a book or two about the overthrow of the neo-liberal order would be welcome additions but a “religious book” would not. Both, it seems to me, might have something useful to say in and to this strange, often inhuman cultural moment that inhabit.