When I was in Rio last month I found myself in the back of a cab on my way to the conference at which I was to speak. Unfortunately, when we arrived I discovered that the cabbie didn’t accept credit cards and I had no Brazilian money. To complicate matters further, the poor fellow spoke no English and I spoke no Portuguese. With a growing sense of exasperation, the cabbie said something to me which I could not grasp. So he slowed down and repeated the sentence. Unable to speak Portuguese, I just replied dumbly, “I don’t understand.” So he slowed down some more, upped the volume and repeated the sentence yet again. But it was a moot point since I STILL didn’t speak Portuguese.
I can sympathize with the cabbie based on a recent abortive conversation I had with some Christian fundamentalists at the Christianpost.com. (Those who have read my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think will be aware that I offer careful warnings about using the term “fundamentalist” as a way to marginalize others. But that doesn’t change the fact that some people are, by historical, sociological, and ecclesiological definition, fundamentalists.) The worst part of the exchange however was the fact that my interlocutors didn’t even realize they were unable to speak the relevant language(s).
The exchange began when a blogger at the Christianpost.com named Olabode Ososami posted an article in which he defended the typical ultra-right wing charge that Harry Potter is bad because it will draw kids into the occult. Usually I ignore such semi-literate nonsense (by semi-literate I mean functional literacy hampered by the inability to interpret particular genres; by nonsense I mean poppycock). But this particular article was like a grain of sand in my clam shell. So I thought I’d turn it into a pearl. I put the signal on, pulled over to the side of the road, turned around and began speaking Fantasyse in a futile attempt to explicate the nature of literary genre and the meaning and function of fictional narrative texts.
Was the dialogue fated to fail? Perhaps. When people don’t even recognize that there is a language they are failing to speak how can the conversation possibly succeed? I repeated my points. Nothing. I slowed down and said them again. No luck. Ososami and his readers looked blankly back and kept talking about witchcraft. How sad.
Liberal arts education is the very means by which we become literate in different forms of communication and literature. Sadly, we live in a day when many people are casting doubt on the value of a liberal arts education. Case in point: two years ago the university that used to be a sister institution to my seminary disappeared and was replaced by a small for-profit technical college. I don’t doubt the value of learning how to be a travel agent or computer tech. But 6 month courses that seek to create functionaries in the social order as quickly as possible are no substitute for an education in the grand tradition.
Now back to the main story. One of Ososami’s readers, an anonymous individual who identifies him/herself as “mayneidea”, rushed to Ososami’s defense. May’s comments provided a great example of how futile conversation can be with those who lack the categories of a basic liberal arts education. May begins on a rhetorically loaded point: “Seems to me, RD, having read a couple of your blogs, that you like to prance around within the scriptures….” Why “prance”? The only things I know that prance are thoroughbreds and drag queens. Anyway, May continues, “finding the areas of controversy (like witchcraft) then finding what I can best described as “loopholes” in these areas.” That is a great example of how futile conversation is with a semi-literate. It doesn’t matter how much I slow down and repeat my explanations spoken in Fantasyese. According to May I am just looking for loopholes so I can ignore what the Bible really says about witchcraft.
This type of abortive conversation reminds me of the pastor who once asked me “Did the Bible happen or not?” How is one supposed to respond to such a bizarre, poorly-formed question? Believe me, I tried. But even as I began to explain why his question was so poorly-formed, I could see his eyes glazing over as if to say “Just answer the danged question Mr. Professor!”
Anyway, May continues, “Then you seem to instruct Christians that we too can enjoy these loopholes: we cannot actually partake in in witchcraft but we can enjoy reading good fiction about witchcraft as the scriptures don’t “prohibit” the reading of it.” A statement like this makes me empathize with the curator of a museum who must field the complaint of a Baptist minister’s wife that Michelangelo’s David is obscene. How do you begin to respond to somebody who thinks that a great Renaissance sculpture is pornographic? About the same way you respond to somebody who thinks Harry Potter is satanic: with great difficulty.
Let me skip to May’s final two points. To begin with, May says “IF we follow your logic that reading fictional literature about witchcraft is fine (especially for the kids) then “reading” pornography would also be fine…after all scripture says not to participate in sexual immorality, doesn’t mean we can’t “read” about it.”
Now I am actually going to pause for a moment and court futility by considering this argument. According to May, pornography and fantasy literature are moral equivalents. Let me begin by tightening up the analogy. Since pornography is image-based, May should actually have invoked erotica as a comparison since it too is text-based. I have no problem agreeing with a proscription of erotica:
(1) It is inherently wrong to read erotica for pleasure.
I accept that (1) is true because erotica of its nature exists to foment lust and lust is a sin. May wants us to believe something similar about fantasy lit:
(2) It is inherently wrong to read fantasy literature for pleasure.
But what does fantasy literature exist to foment that is contrary to biblical ethics in a way analogous to the lust promoted by erotica? Presumably the answer is something like “fascination in the occult”. But that’s just false. Aslan, Frodo, and Harry Potter don’t exist to foment fascination in the occult or in any other sinful behaviors. This whole embarrassing parallel with pornography (or erotica) simply evinces yet again May’s semi-literacy as one utterly unable to understand the nature and function of fantasy literature.
At the close of his/her comment, May attacks J.K. Rowling. This attack is a response to my point that Rowling is a committed Christian who has distinguished herself throughout her career by outstanding works of Christian service and charity: “Finally, I don’t give a rat’s behind about someone’s “apparent” standing in their church nor their charitable donations as these things say less about a person’s heart than writing kid’s books about witchcraft does.”
It is at that point that this semi-literate fundamentalism shows its really ugly side. Repeatedly Jesus talked about those who are truly his sheep as being identified by their aid for the weak, marginalized and down-trodden. Rowling has repeatedly demonstrated this kind of fruit. But May doesn’t give a “rat’s behind” to all that. And what would May have said had he/she been present when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan? “I don’t give a rat’s behind about that Samaritan’s good works, for they say less about a person’s heart than the fact that they’re a Samaritan.”
So the whole conversation was fated from the start. If people don’t even realize they cannot speak the relevant language of a liberal arts education then it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat yourself. They still won’t understand. Tragically, it is a vicious cycle for the fewer languages a person speaks the smaller their world gets, the more subtle nuances are lost, and the more impoverished their experience of reality becomes until their semi-literate perspective at last squeezes the last bit of magic out of the world.