In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for a list of resources to help you find books that others think are clean, “Part 2: Know Where to Fish” to learn what types of books will be least likely to contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, “Part 3: Sort through the Catch” to find tips for evaluating the books you find, and “Part 4: Enjoy the Harvest!” for ideas on how to read widely and wholesomely without going broke.
There have been many stories in the news lately about parents who want books they consider offensive removed from their children’s schools. Some of these books contain explicit material. Others promote practices and ideologies that conflict with the parents’ core values. Some parents want to ban books from classroom shelves and school libraries, and others are calling for the removal of books from curriculum. Others simply want more care taken by school staff to ensure their young children aren’t given books that are meant to be read by older teens and adults. Still others want their children to be given alternate assignments when the rest of the class will be reading something they find objectionable—a right that’s being lost in some school districts.
Teachers and librarians are pushing back against what they see as censorship and attacks against their professional judgment, and many parents are supporting them. A librarian might say, “All young people, no matter what their beliefs and life experience, should be able to find books that speak to them in the library. If we remove all challenged books, there won’t be any books left for anyone to read. Just because a book is there doesn’t mean a youth has to read it.” A teacher might say, “We need newer books that better reflect the attitudes, life experiences, and culture of modern young people. They need to hear diverse voices—especially when they’re disturbing; that’s what provokes thought. The context of a book is more important than any one scene.” Both might say, “The parents issuing challenges often haven’t even read the books they’re protesting. We’ve read many books and have been educated to identify those that are well-written and meaningful.”
I lay out a few of the concerns on both sides in an effort to show that this issue is more complex than the news stories usually report. A curriculum challenge that makes sense at a middle school in one community may not apply to the same book at a high school library in a different region of the country. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every community, but I do believe there are a few principles that should guide these decisions.
Throughout all of my study and thought on this issue, I keep coming back to something I said in the first post of this series: “In the end, you’re the only one who can decide what to put into your mind, just as you’re the only one who can decide what to put into your mouth.” While this statement is almost always true for adults, it isn’t always true for children or even teens. In a school classroom, children and teens can be forced to consume adult material they aren’t ready for or that offends their sensibilities. In the larger school environment, inexperienced fishers can be innocently exposed to material they and their parents think is indecent.
In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for a list of resources to help you find books that others think are clean, “Part 2: Know Where to Fish” to learn what types of books will be least likely to contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, and “Part 3: Sort through the Catch” to find tips for evaluating the books you find. In this post, I’ll tell you how to read widely and wholesomely without going broke.
If you live in the United States, it’ll be easy for you to get free and low-priced books of all different types. The more of those you can find, the more money you’ll have left to spend on the books you’ll be required to pay full price to read. I don’t know how this process works in other countries, but my guess is that there are similarities.
Your harvest will be larger and, at the same time, less expensive if you follow these two practices:
In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for a list of resources to help you find books that others think are clean and “Part 2: Know Where to Fish” to learn what types of books will be least likely to contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes.
Now that you’ve dropped your net into the water and pulled out an abundance of book titles, it’s important to sort through the catch and evaluate each book for specific content. This step takes time, but in the end, it’s time well spent. How often have you begun reading a book and been frustrated three-quarters of the way through it when something pops up that doesn’t meet your standards? That still happens to me sometimes, but it happens less often when I make an effort to do a preliminary evaluation of every book I read. In the long run, I save time and money.
There are several components to this evaluation, and I do them in whatever order seems natural, depending on whether I’m looking into downloading an ebook or standing in a bookstore or library with a book in my hands.
In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for the introductory post.
As a young married woman in the early 1980s, I was frustrated with the books I was reading. The ones with depth contained profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, and the ones that didn’t were so lacking in substance that I always came away from them feeling as if I had wasted my time. I remember saying to my husband in exasperation, “There is nothing to read!” He laughed at me and replied, “How can you say that? You haven’t read anything yet!”
He was right. I had not yet learned to “fish.” Not only that, but I had refused to search for wholesome fiction in the very place that would provide one of the best harvests.
I was about twelve years old when I learned that big books written for adults usually contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes. In those days, there weren’t nearly as many books written for teens as there are now, and kids in my junior high school who liked to read devoured adult books and loaned them to their friends.
I understood that there was adult content I shouldn’t read, watch, or listen to, but it was all relative. While I avoided the bigger offenders, I was surrounded by profanity and sex talk every day at school. It was in the PG movies I went to see with my friends, and it was rampant on broadcast TV too, even if it wasn’t always as obvious. Even a lot of the music I listened to on the radio had innuendo.
It was all just a part of my world, and when I encountered unwholesome content in a book, I often read on and didn’t think much about it. I was, in many ways, both innocent and desensitized. The detoxification process took years, and I still struggle at times to keep my media choices at the level of cleanliness I want them to be.
You may be asking, “Why bother? Does it really matter?”
To answer that question, it’s important to understand what Christian fiction is. Depending on who you ask, you may get one of these answers:
Fiction with a lot of talk about God
Fiction with very little, if any, sexual content, graphic violence, and foul language
Fiction that promotes traditional values and practices such as chastity, integrity, and repentance
Fiction written by practicing Christians for practicing Christians about practicing Christians
Fiction that explores religious themes in a way that testifies of Jesus Christ and glorifies Him
Fiction that preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ
Stories that would fall apart if the religious element were removed
Fiction that contains universal Christian themes and content that will appeal to Christians from a wide variety of denominations
A broad genre that contains works from all Christian denominations
A narrow genre that only contains books published by specific companies and imprints marketing to a conservative Protestant audience or by independent authors that meet the standards of these companies and imprints
Every single one of these descriptions is accurate. Not every work of Christian fiction, however, can be defined by every single description on this list.
Like many readers these days, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while doing other tasks. A good source for free audiobooks in the public domain is LibriVox. You can download or stream audiobooks from the web site, or you can install an app on your phone or tablet to do the same thing. Here is the basic description of LibriVox from its web site:
I don’t expect to comment often on speeches, but I feel compelled to write about this one since it so eloquently addresses the culture of heaven and gives ideas for how we can bring that more into our lives, a critical topic if we are serious about becoming a Zion people. This speech was given by a leader of my church to students attending the Church-owned Brigham Young University. He introduces his topic with these words:
The nearer we get to God, the more easily our spirits are touched by refined and beautiful things. If we could part the veil and observe our heavenly home, we would be impressed with the cultivated minds and hearts of those who so happily live there. I imagine that our heavenly parents are exquisitely refined. In this great gospel of emulation, one of the purposes of our earthly probation is to become like them in every conceivable way so that we may be comfortable in the presence of heavenly parentage and, in the language of Enos, see their faces “with pleasure.” . . .
Today I would like to peek behind the veil that temporarily separates us from our heavenly home and paint a word picture of the virtuous, lovely, and refined circumstances that exist there. I will speak of the language, literature, music, and art of heaven, as well as the immaculate appearance of heavenly beings, for I believe that in heaven we will find each of these in pure and perfected form.
He goes on to encourage the students to pursue the best literature, music, and art the world has to offer.
I’ll have to say, if I had heard this speech when I was in college, I would have received it with mixed feelings. On one hand, I had been taught a bit of art history in high school and had enjoyed looking at the slides of classic art. On the other hand, my high school art teacher liked to listen to classical violin music, which sounded like screeching to me. I took a humanities class my first semester in college and failed the opera unit. I hated the highly trained voices so much that I had trouble concentrating on the music. Instead of focusing on the melodies, I memorized the peculiarities of the voices. Imagine my dismay when the professor played instrumental versions for the test! Despite my distaste for opera at that time, I heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for the first time in that class and loved it, which gave me the motivation to seek out more classical music.
Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes, by Sheri Dew (Latter-day Saint doctrine)
“In Women and the Priesthood, Sheri Dew discusses the varying responsibilities of men and women in the context of key doctrine of the Church, including the eternal truths that women are vital to the success of the Lord’s Church, that God expects women to receive revelation, and that both men and women have access to God’s highest spiritual blessings.”
Sometimes a book comes along that gives me much more than a glimpse of Zion but an all-out vision of it. This is one of those books. The thing this book does best is detail the tremendous spiritual gifts available to women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsright now and how—as powerful as we are now both individually and as a group—we will become even more powerful and able to accomplish the great work God has for us to do as we rise up and access the priesthood power already available to us. I’m sure that the reason this book resonates with me so much is that I share Sister Dew’s vision. I have long understood the principles she teaches in this book and have taught them to both women and men in the Church. The reason I feel so passionately that we should keep our reading wholesome and media habits clean is because such practices will better enable anyone to access the power of God. In the chapter entitled “God Expects Women to Receive Revelation,” Sister Dew talks about this reality:
I’ve just uploaded updates for two important files on my web site. The first, “Wholesome Literature—A Realistic Choice,” is a rewrite of the essay previously entitled “Wholesome Literature—the Intelligent Choice” for a general religious audience. The original essay began as a literary spotlight to a group of women in my church almost twenty years ago. Of all my literary essays, it was the one with the most potential for revision to a more general audience. After several attempts over the past decade to make that revision, I finally produced something that satisfies me!
The second document I updated was “My Favorite Clean Fiction.” I now provide a link for each author who has books in the public domain to his or her list of free ebooks on Project Gutenberg‘s web site. I also simplified my list and added descriptions for almost all of the titles.
As I collected descriptions, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them weren’t written to draw a popular audience, particularly those describing the classics. That seems a shame to me, because so many of the classics really are great stories. If the descriptions were written to capitalize more on the story and less on the meaning, the books might find a wider audience. For example, here’s a boring description of The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.