Ellen G. White (EGW) did not like fiction. Her aversion to the genre is why she counselled “total abstinence [the] only safety” (Ministry of Healing, p 446). For much of the church’s history, EGW’s statements about fiction have been the official guide to what church members should and should not read. In the following quotation, she compares fiction to warfare and employs military imagery in her call to root it out:
If the intellectual and moral tastes have been perverted by ever-wrought and exciting tales of fiction so that there is a disinclination to apply the mind, there is a battle to be fought to overcome the habit. A love for fictitious reading should be overcome at once. Rigid rules should be enforced to hold the mind in the proper channel (Counsels to Teachers, Parents and Students, p 136).
Elsewhere she draws the net tighter about permissible fiction and concludes there is none:
Even fiction which contains no suggestion of impurity, and which may be intended to teach excellent principles, is harmful. It encourages the habit of hasty and superficial reading, merely for the story. Thus it tends to destroy the power of connected and vigorous thought, it unfits the soul to contemplate the great problems of duty and destiny (Ministry of Healing, p 445).
In this view, there is no such thing as good fiction. Fiction in all its forms is a snare which ultimately debases the appetite and prevents it from appreciating the better good, which is the Bible. In her many statements on fiction, I have yet to find one where she casts it in a positive light. This could partly be generational; the word (fiction), as understood and used in EGW’s world, was mainly associated with the “imagination,” which was in turn linked to such words as “feigning,” “pretense,” and “deceit” — all with negative connotations. Fictitious stories, especially novels, romances, and dramas, invariably carried the conceptual burden of “made up.”
This may explain why she endorses John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, not as an imaginative work, which it is, but as allegory. In this, which might be viewed as a slight of hand, EGW is in good company. The story is told — probably apocryphal — that during the process of scriptural canonization, the bishops were deadlocked and ready to jettison Song of Solomon on the grounds of excessive eroticism. Just in the nick of time the book’s proponents advanced the idea that it was not the love story many assumed. Instead, it is an allegory — of God’s love for humans.
John Waller and Robert Dunn, two Adventist academics who have perhaps done the most work in this area, argue that there is a qualitative difference between the fiction of EGW’s time and serious contemporary fiction. But it is doubtful this argument would have swayed Mrs. White. After all, since she disapproved of Shakespeare, it is unlikely that Camus, Steinbeck, or Toni Morrison would make a good impression.
The unbending principle for EGW could be that she saw the Bible as superior to all other literature. Consequently, it made little sense to expose formative minds to what was clearly inferior. But is the idea that the Bible surpasses all other imaginative literature — and therefore children should not be exposed to fiction — tenable? On the flip side, should we expose children to all stories in the Bible simply because they are in the Bible, and therefore are “profitable” for all, regardless of age?
My answer to both questions is no!
And in objecting, I contend that there is much more to the quality of what we read than whether it originates in the Bible or has a basis in fact. A story is not exemplary because the details recount an actual happening. Sometimes “true” stories tell appealing “lies” because they oversimplify. The converse is also true. Some stories, when told with prudent modifications (lies if you wish), deliver truth. The trick is to be careful not to confuse fact with truth.
One of the most impactful courses I took in graduate school was literature criticism, taught by the late John O. Waller. It was in this class that I learned the difference between a factual account that is “untruthful” and an altered factual narrative that tells the “truth.” Dr. Waller explained the difference by telling a hypothetical story.
A young boy returned from the grocery store with a new toy. After a quick interrogation by his mother, the boy confessed to stealing it. Alarmed, the mother reprimanded her son and took him back to the store to apologize and return the pilfered toy. He did, promising the shop owner he would never shoplift again. The store owner, impressed by the boy’s candor, accepted his apology and extended forgiveness. The owner then walked the boy to the bakery section and cut him a big slice of cake, for free.
In this story, all the events happened as narrated and therefore could be deemed a “true story.” But for Dr. Waller, this “true” story nevertheless was the embodiment of a “lie.” The flaw was that the writer, by including the end of this true narrative, informed us that the appreciative grocer gave the shoplifter a free slice of cake. And, by giving him cake, the owner risked creating the impression that, when we return a stolen item, we get rewarded. For Dr. Waller, a better and truer ending to this story would have the writer modifying the factual ending to have the shop owner assign the repentant boy a cleaning job as restitution.
With Dr. Waller’s example in mind, let’s turn our attention to the Bible and examine whether all Bible stories are good for young minds. Are there stories in the Bible we should protect our children from, just as we are admonished to shield them from fictitious literature? At least until their minds mature enough to understand and appreciate the need to suspend disbelief where appropriate?
I think there are such stories in the Bible. The following are three examples I would not read to or encourage children to read.
First is the world-wide flood story recounted in Genesis 6 through 9. The narrative tells of the Creator God’s frustration with his human creation because he “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intent of the thought of his heart was only evil continuously” (Gen 6:5, NKJV). This continual evil was apparently not limited to humans alone. It seems that all of God’s creation was in on it. Therefore, with great sadness, God resolved to put an end to his living creation. He decided to “destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen 6:6, NKJV). It is unclear whether God intended to start completely over before “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” and became the vehicle of God’s re-beginning. Regardless, God carried out his planned near-obliteration, using the flood as his weapon. The resulting carnage and death is so stupendous, and on a scale so immense, that it is difficult even for adults to comprehend.
The reason I wouldn’t want this story read by children is not just the sheer size of the slaughter, though that is a consideration. Death, on this magnitude, even when occasioned by blind natural forces, can numb and cause adults to stoop and lower their shoulders. When children are exposed to such devastation, something can snap and give way. However, the primary reason is I fear they could become desensitized to death, or worse, normalize it, because God did it. Of course, there is also the inevitable uncomfortable follow-up questions that only children can ask — "why did so many have to die?"
Why indeed, when one of the first things “righteous Noah” and his family did on touching dry ground again was plant a vineyard, get drunk, and resume the previous debauchery — as though they had not witnessed a deluge. What did the flood accomplish if wickedness never missed a beat?
A second story is God’s purported command to the Israelites, through his spokesperson Samuel, to exterminate an entire group of people. This account is in 1 Samuel 15. The Amalekites were doomed because they dared resist the invading army (they would later learn were God’s people) on its march to the Promised Land. The chilling command was “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3; ESV).
Maybe there is good reason that God chose to exact such merciless reprisal on children and infants. But, if a child read this and inquired why children their age deserved to be killed for their parents’ sins, I think any answers justifying such genocide would ring hollow and risk twisting right and wrong. Therefore, I’d rather that they don’t read this story until they come of age and can individually wrestle with God.
The last example is the story of the gang rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 (compare with Genesis 19). What can we say about this story that is redeeming? Even adults find it hard. I reflexively hurry along whenever I reread it. But, to appreciate the magnitude of the wrong done to this woman, we must engage our imagination. Then follows a nauseating sense of violation. So if adults wince with exposure to this story, what justification should we give for subjecting our young to it?
“Because it is in the Bible,” will not do.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
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