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Deuteronomy 21.18-21

Matthew 5.27-30

Banning Bibles & Books

Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  The Diary of Anne Frank.  Catcher in the Rye.  Brave New World.  Charlotte’s Web.  Animal Farm.  The Color Purple.  Lord of the Flies.  Fahrenheit 451.   The American Heritage Dictionary.  How many of you have read either some, or even most of these books?  Congratulations!  These are works that have appeared simultaneously on two notable lists:  they are on most high school English syllabi around the country and they are on the list of books that have been banned or pulled from school and public libraries around the country.  Really?  Charlotte’s Web?  The dictionary?  Do people not have anything better to do with their lives?   Whatever the case, we may now add to this illustrious list of classical literature that some folks would rather you not read these maroon books in the pew racks directly in front of you, the Holy Bible.

Utah’s Davis School District, just north of Salt Lake City, has not only restricted the use of the Bible at certain grade levels, it is also considering similar restrictions on The Book of Mormon.   Friends, you know something has gone off the rails when Utahns want to restrict The Book of Mormon.  Before we go any further, it is important to understand that the requests to remove both the Bible and The Book of Mormon from school libraries came as an act of protest against similar bans of other library books, among them some of the titles we just mentioned.  But one irony led to a greater irony as the district took up the tongue-in-cheek complaint and agreed.  In a sarcasm-laden letter written to the school district, the plaintiff wrote, “I thank the Utah Legislature and Utah Parents United for making this bad faith process so much easier and way more efficient… Now we can all ban books and you don’t even need to read them or be accurate about it.”  It is an irony wrapped in sarcasm inside a satire, and the Davis School District swallowed it whole.

Now I’ll grant you, there are certain parts of the Bible that truly are distasteful, offensive and objectionable.  In fact, I went through and made a list of biblical passages that we would find in questionable taste and easily found a dozen instances that are genuinely cringe-worthy and would make you wish you had never read them.  Just a few weeks ago I told you about the lectionary reading I would rather have avoided, a passage from Peter’s first letter that urged slaves to obey their masters and wives similarly to obey their husbands.  They are sentiments that appear more than once in the Bible, though for many of us even once is too often.  But this is mild compared to some of what we find elsewhere in the Bible.  As the plaintiff in the Utah case wrote, there are biblical passages that describe incest, polygamy and polyamory, serial marriages, rape, infanticide, and cannibalism.  Here are just a few examples, and for the gentle spirits in the room, I will summarize rather than quote:  I Timothy tells women to keep silent in church.  Given that all our Deacons who read on Sunday mornings are currently female, this would have a significantly limiting impact on the United Church of Chester were we to take it to heart.  In Genesis, two daughters conspire to seduce their father and have children by him – and they succeed.  In II Kings, a brother rapes his sister.  In Leviticus, the handicapped and people with disabilities are barred from worship.  Also in Leviticus, disobedience to God is analogous to parents cannibalizing their children.  And in this morning’s two Bible readings we heard about the death penalty for disobedient children ,and amputation of any and all bodily parts that might cause you to offend.  So while we’re taking Bibles off the shelves of school libraries, perhaps we should remove them from the pews as well.    I think we can take the point without having to go any deeper into the Bible’s darker places.  Yes, there are some unsavory and downright unacceptable stories and references in the Bible.  And as I said a few weeks ago, while the temptation is strong on the part of the preacher to attempt to explain, justify or rationalize them all away in a manner that mitigates the congregation’s sense of revulsion, in some cases it’s just not possible.  I cannot shoehorn the mores and experiences of people millennia ago into twenty-first century sensibilities, and I know better than to try.  Besides, to pull a Bible out of circulation because of a handful of anachronistic stories and attitudes is like giving up chocolate chip cookies because six years ago you found a raisin in one.

When I mentioned this morning’s topic in passing last Sunday, one of you asked me after church  if I was going to be preaching from the Song of Solomon, which is an explicit and erotic love poem, a dialogue between a bride and her bridegroom about their heartfelt physical longing for each other.  My reply was, I’ve learned my lesson.  Many years ago I thought it would be a terrific idea to present the Song of Solomon as it was intended to be experienced.  There is a part for the bride, a part for the bridegroom, and a part for a kind of Greek chorus, which provides a running commentary alongside the betrothed couple’s dialogue.  So I wrote out all the parts, gave the Greek chorus to the choir and asked a female Deacon who was a good friend of mine to read the part of the bride; I was going to read the part of the groom.  Well, that Friday afternoon the Deacon’s husband, also a good friend of mine, came into my office and basically told me, there is no way his wife is going to stand in church as speak those salacious scriptural sentences to me or anyone else.  Which meant I had a day and a half to write a new sermon about the Song of Solomon.  The postscript to the story is, years later, I did do the reading with one of my associates, and it really gave the congregation a good idea of how the poem worked and what it meant.  But you know what they say, once bitten, twice shy.

The point is that the Bible speaks in the language of a long-ago culture, and sometimes – not always, but sometimes – it makes us wince.  And as much as the Song of Solomon is an important piece of the Old Testament – it is basically an allegory for the deep and abiding love that God has for all God’s children – I have to say that the Bible can easily survive without all those other uncomfortable bits I just described.

However.  However.  What wisdom is there to keep the Bible, or for that matter, The Book of Mormon, out of the hands of those who desire to read it?  Let me ask:  how many of you read some of those banned or restricted books while still in Junior High or High School?  How many of you were scarred for life as a result of having read them?  I will confess, when I read Lord of the Flies as a sophomore, I was powerfully struck by the behavior of the children on the island.  But the evidence of humaity’s descent into inhumanity was all too abundant, not just in English class, but in our history books as well, not to mention in our daily newspapers.  My Lai, anyone?  So what comes after removing literature from the shelves?  Do we limit access to the daily paper?  Do we censor our history books so that the lives of Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges suddenly disappear?  Or the massacre and forced relocation of entire Native American nations?  I wish you could have seen our young people’s eyes open at the story of the Lakota Sioux on the Cheyenne River Reservation when Lynette and I took them there on our 2018 mission trip.  When they heard how the Lakota were forcibly relocated and restricted to the most arid and least fallow area of their formerly sprawling and fertile territory, and heard these stories from the direct descendants of the victims, they were appalled and came to understand their own history in new ways.  Do we try to hide these unpleasant truths of our national heritage from our young people as well?  Unfortunately, as you are well aware, there are already certain states that are successfully scrubbing this uncomfortable history from their curricula.

It is also worth noting during this Pride month, that at least some of the complaints about books and other publications come from parents who are uncomfortable with LGBTQ literature and histories of people of color.  Jonathan Friedman, a director at PEN America, writes, “In many places, it’s very clear that it is an effort to erase LGBTQ stories, and effort to curb conversations about American history and racism, or, in other cases, to deny young people information about their [own] bodies.”  In many school districts, one parent’s complaint can remove a book from circulation, thereby denying an entire student body access to a book one single person doesn’t like.  But let’s admit it:  if an elementary school student is traumatized because Heather has two mommies, it is far more likely she learned that at home rather than at school.

Me?  I’m not too crazy about the Old Testament book of Leviticus with all its arcane and misogynist rules and regulations.  The books of Joshua and Judges offer a blueprint for ethnic cleansing.  Martin Luther wanted to rid the Bible of the book of Esther because it never mentions God and oh, by the way, features a Jewish heroine as the savior of the Hebrew people.  Shall I pass out scissors next Sunday so we can cut out the books of the Bible we don’t like, or do we remove Bibles from our Sunday School classrooms so our young people don’t learn how to smite their enemies?  I think the obvious reply is this:  if we remove Bibles from our Sunday School classrooms and our school libraries and anywhere else young people have access, how will our young people learn how to love their enemies?  And their neighbors?  And themselves?  Restricting anyone’s access to the Bible is to rob them, as one filmmaker put it, of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

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United Church of Chester, 29 West Main Street, Chester, CT 06412. (860) 526-2697


From the North: Take CT Route 9 South to Exit 8 (old exit 6) (CT 148). Turn left; we are 1 mile on the right.


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