No Religious Books!

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Eh, I don’t take this as censorship as much as asking people to leave quality books for others to read, not pass on cheap religious books that dilute the quality of the box, thinking that they are going to convert someone. I can easily see a “take a book, leave a book” box becoming quickly overrun with religious books, like Ryan says — bad religious books — that even the religious people who left them there don’t want to read, who are taking the books that are left there not because they even want to read them, but because they feel they are doing service to God to pick up one of the “secular” books and replace it with Left Behind.
    That said, if there were a way to get people to leave deep, thoughtful, insightful religious works like Ryan was talking about, I doubt it would be such an issue. Maybe Ryan this is a great opportunity to open some dialogue with whomever owns the book box 😉

    1. I didn’t take it as censorship either, Heather. Mostly I was just musing on it as a symbol of our cultural moment. And yes, dialogue with the owner of the box would probably be a good thing (I later found out that a friend of mine knows the owner, so who knows?).

  2. Agree with you Heather. And appreciated this post Ryan, though I probably disagree with your comments about the “neoliberal order”. I think old fashioned christianity, for all its strengths and truths, wouldn’t and doesn’t satisfy or mean much to many people today, and many things had to change. Postmodern neoliberalism doesn’t get it any more right either, but it does get some things right. I believe God often uses the world to sharpen up, and wake up, his people, and this is one such time.

    1. Thanks, Eric. To be fair, the comments about the neoliberal order were mostly the views of the author of the article I linked to. I think he’s on to something, certainly, but I’m not sure the social malaise we’re seeing can entirely be pinned on political and economic systems.

      I wouldn’t say I’m looking for a return to “old fashioned Christianity,” necessarily—clearly it doesn’t resonate with large swaths of the postmodern west and there are sometimes good and understandable reasons for this. The church should not be a static entity. But the religious impulse and hunger for transcendence doesn’t die, it just gets rerouted elsewhere (often in very destructive ways).

  3. Yes, we shouldn’t be a static entity. I have a vague recollection of the idea of thesis + antithesis -> synthesis. The old church faced with postmodern culture needs a new synthesis.

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