Students often complain that some of the novels I give as options for reading are “inappropriate.” There certainly is such a thing as inappropriateness, and I avoid it whenever possible; when such a title pops up, I remove it from my lists and/or allow students to change what they’re reading.
But most of what my students label as inappropriate really isn’t, not by any useful definition. Most objections aren’t to excessively explicit depictions of sex, violence, and profanity, which would be understandable, but merely to the inclusion of such things at all. Along with those items, another major target of criticism is how negative and “depressing” most classic books are.
It’s sad that so many people react to classic stories with revulsion because they have so little experience with great, meaningful literature. As I’ll show shortly, this ironic hesitancy to engage darker literature stems from an ignorance of the Bible, rather than a devotion to it.
As most objectors are Latter-day Saints, like me, I could respond that the most devout saints have never shied away from grittier depictions of reality, as long as they are ultimately artful and useful. Plenty of people and schools have banned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for its coarse language, violence, and cynicism, yet President Thomas S. Monson obviously loves it and has quoted from it frequently, for example. As a vocal book lover, he must understand that artificially pristine stories are neither powerful nor useful. As in Huck Finn, the most meaningful victories come after periods of darkness.
But there’s an even more substantial body of work than that which students are clearly ignorant of: the scriptures. Perhaps no work in history is as thematically vast, sympathetic, realistic, and all-encompassing of human experience as the Bible. And, as such, it is also one of the most violent and negative books in the world.
A good thing about the Thomas Jefferson Education model is its understanding of how books can be negative but still useful: “Bent stories portray evil as good, and good as evil. Broken stories portray evil as evil and good as good, but evil wins. Whole stories are where good is good and good wins. And finally, healing stories can be either whole or broken stories where the reader is profoundly moved, changed, and/or significantly improved by his reading experience.” (emphasis added) Most classic literature, including the Bible, falls under the “broken” category.
I’ve often had to explain to students the concept of a cautionary tale: a tragic story that is meant to teach a lesson. The scriptures are, overwhelmingly, cautionary tales in the sense that they’re negative examples of what happens when we rebel against God. (Most secular literature takes place in a profoundly fallen world, and thus follows suit.)
Most of the Old Testament is either a narrative of the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah, or poetry and prophecies that were written in their context, and usually as a protest against them. Consider this chart that shows the kings of the Old Testament period, and count how many the text describes as good, versus how many are called evil. And remember all those Old Testament prophets who told everybody that they were doing just dandy, and to keep up all the good work? Oh, wait, no…that didn’t happen. (Try looking up the word “jeremiad.”)
The New Testament isn’t much cheerier. Certainly the gospels of Jesus Christ present an ultimately triumphant story, but the amount of negativity—pain, anger, persecution, condemnation, conflict, torture, etc.—in the text is heartbreaking. If anything, the gospels are the most negative part of the Bible, as they give us the Western world’s most perfectly developed tragic motif in the Christ figure—an innocently suffering martyr.
After the gospels, the apostles largely chastise early Christians for a variety of offenses, patiently trying to re-teach them the very basics of Christian dogma.
Just about the only truly positive parts of the Bible are sections where authors are praising God and foretelling blessings in the future. Luckily for sensitive readers, such uplifting literature forms a pretty significant chunk of the Bible’s word count.
And for my fellow LDS readers, the Book of Mormon, despite our people’s penchant for perkiness, is no more optimistic. To paraphrase a Hugh Nibley quote I can’t find right now, for an individual willing to repent, the Book of Mormon offers hope and peace; for society at large, it’s just doom and gloom, cover to cover. The cynical tone of the Book of Mormon, pertaining to human nature and society, is pervasive.
But, after all this scriptural meandering, the point of this post is this: rejecting literature because its content is negative or disturbing is immature, not only mentally, but spiritually. The negativity and violence one must confront to be a serious disciple far exceeds the frankness and frequency of anything the secular classics have to offer.
I remember reading a criticism of the Book of Mormon which wondered why so much more space is spent describing the wicked periods of history than the righteous ones. Classics, both spiritual and secular, speak best to humanity’s spirit when they honestly confront both the beauty and the darkness of existence, not to wallow in that darkness, but to transcend it. You can’t conquer something whose existence you deny.
There can be no true victories without suffering and sacrifice along the way, and there can be no true worthy stories that don’t admit that. We seem to be wired to learn the most from a mixture of positive and negative examples, but we especially respond to the painfully realistic ones.
That’s why so many scriptural stories, and timeless literary masterpieces, are negative.