Whenever Banned Book Week comes around I feel a bit of a jolt as my past revisits me and reminds me just where I come from and how far I’ve travelled. You see, I once favored banning books. I thought that controlling the ideas people were exposed to – and the thoughts and feelings those might evoke — was not just prudent but necessary in order to keep the world on track…especially by keeping our children safe from what I perceived as dangerous. And back around 1982, I even joined the ranks of the frightened, ignorant and narrow-minded by actually burning some books. I got better.
This is how it happened.
In 1980, I fell into a phenomenon called Dungeons and Dragons. I was already up to my neck in fantasy and science fiction, feeding myself a steady supply of televisions, movies and books. When D&D showed up, it was a match made in Heaven. But, growing up in a trailer where there were pictures of Jesus and crosses placed strategically on the walls to keep the demons out of our home and hearts, that match became less Heavenly and more Hell-spawned the deeper I progressed into the game. It was a time when evangelical and fundamentalist Christians were uptight about backmasking in rock music and Satanism was everywhere. People were cashing in on the scare and building their own careers in the Christian subculture with so-called ministries based on their experiences with the occult. Dungeons and Dragons was a ripe target and even the mainstream media jumped onto the bandwagon as parents blamed the game for what went wrong with their children.
At issue was the notion that within the game, young people could role-play characters with evil alignments while using magic and worshiping strange gods as they went about looting dungeons and bashing orcs. It didn’t matter that the game – unlike many games before it – offered some significant skill-building that transferred into daily life. Already comfortably saturated in the Land of Make Believe, I had no difficulty grasping that this was simply a game, that the magic wasn’t real and that the role-playing was simply role-playing. For me, the issue went further than that because I knew deep down on the inside, if I were rigorously honest, I loved D&D more than any of the trappings of my faith and, in my adolescent mind, loved it more than God. So, somewhere in the midst of Bill Gothard’s Basic Youth Conflicts and Billy Graham’s Tacoma Dome crusade, I built a neat pile in the yard out of several hundred dollars of books along with all of my notes, maps, characters, campaigns) and dowsed them with gasoline. The fire burned a long time and I watched it go, weeping tears of holy zeal.
My mother was so proud. No, really. She was.
A few years later, I sold off my rather large collection of science fiction and fantasy books, gave up writing stories and started preaching at the young age of seventeen. My first sermon was entitled “Put on the Full Armor of God” taken from a passage in Ephesians, “that ye may stand against the wiles of the devil.” Again, I got better. Eventually.
I spent over a decade preaching within a fundamentalist, evangelical framework and throughout the course of that time, I believed (and taught others to believe) a lot things I now find abhorrent and dangerous. To include trying to control the thoughts and ideas of others through censoring and controlling what they were exposed to. Thirty years later, now parenting small children of my own, I think a lot about that young man I used to be and what possessed him to ever burn a book. And I think a lot about the long, winding path that took me out of that mindset and into the freethinking, secular, reason-based worldview I have today.
I had, in hindsight, a rather fragile worldview – a system of beliefs I’d largely been taught to accept by the authority of my parents and the culture I grew up in. It was fragile in that it had to be shielded from other thoughts and ideas in order to stand on its own. And those kinds of worldviews – especially ones fraught with magical thinking — are designed to protect themselves by controlling and rejecting outside influences and ideas that might be contrary to the “party” line. Caught up in those beliefs, the people who are banning, burning and censoring usually can’t see beyond the good they intend with their actions and beliefs. And I know that when I was in the thick of it – or when I was later boycotting Disney or shows like Will and Grace – I really did intend good. Because I really did believe the ideas I was resisting were harmful to our species, especially our children. I was blind to the reality of the situation – that I was actually afraid and ignorant, closed off to anything that might challenge my sense of the universe.
So what happened?
Over time, those ideas – and the groups of people who represented them – became less scary as I was exposed to more and more to them. A lot of that exposure happened in college. I was pastoring a church while finishing my Bachelor’s degree, studying history in preparation for a Masters of Divinity from Northwest Baptist Seminary. Very patient professors and teachers taught around my rather narrow beliefs and, in some instances, befriended me and put a face onto the ideas that were so frightening. I started finding holes in my own worldview while at the same time finding the patches and swaths of another one. I never made it to seminary. Once the door was cracked, more information leaked in. Gradually, I left my old worldview altogether and fell in love with playing the game of “what if” with ideas…it’s a large part of why I love writing. I especially enjoy using fiction as a sandbox for exploring new ideas and old ones.
So in a way, I’ve proven my old point and the point of others who want to burn, ban or censor books. My exposure to those ideas that I wanted to control did eventually lead to me changing my mind about what I believed…and those changes went deep down into the bedrock of who I am. I’m grateful every day for that change.
One of the highlights of my writing career happened just a few years ago when I was approached by the fine folks at Dungeons and Dragons. They’d heard that I was influenced as a storyteller by playing the game and wondered if I would like to write them a short story? Naturally, I said yes. It was a nice way to close an old loop.
And I’ve never burned another book. I found a repentance far deeper than any I knew in my former beliefs. And joy in the freedom to explore ideas beyond my own.
KEN SCHOLES is the author of the acclaimed series The Psalms of Isaak, which comprises LAMENTATION, CANTICLE, ANTIPHON, and now REQUIEM. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Jen West Scholes, and their three-year-old twin daughters. Visit him on the web at www.kenscholes.com.