Writing of the The Poisonwood Bible controversy, Dr. John Michael Thomas states assumptions about the teaching of literature that I would like to address as a professional and as a Christian. In this era of cultural flux, we are in danger if we believe that a diversity of belief is incompatible with the teaching of objective truth. In my three decades of teaching in Port Washington I have worked beside English teachers who were Baptists, Jews, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and agnostics. What they had in common was the training and discernment to teach literature as a search for truth - not as scripture.
Dr. Thomas, the Supreme Court has banned scripture and devotional exercises from the public, pluralistic classrooms, but it has not banned books. You will find The Bible as literature in many public school classrooms in this country, even right here in Port Washington. True, this book will be one of many, and it will be taught in a context of literary terms such as plot, theme, mythology, symbolism, etc. Whatever objective truth is to be found in the words of this book will become the intellectual property of those who read it. The same might be said of The Poisonwood Bible, The Scarlett Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye - the list is very long, sir, but behind every title lurks the same demon.
In a graduate course many years ago at St. John's University, I was confronted by my professor. "How can you teach literature in a public school?" he demanded. "You cannot teach Hawthorne, Dickinson, or Faulkner without mentioning God or the values of religion." My reply was pretty simple, "What makes you think I don't mention these things?" Really, the whole point of literary study is to sift through the value systems of the authors. Were not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John authors in this sense of the word? Why would a William Faulkner spend whole days polishing a handful of words at a time as if salvation depended on it? Probably for the same reason that a Barbara Kingsolver works so hard at showing the damage that even a well-meaning Christian missionary can do when he veers from the course of objective truth. Is she anti-Christian? That is for her readers, not for Port's board or teachers to decide. Our professional and human obligation is to give maturing minds the opportunity to read for understanding. Banning precludes understanding.
Just as The Bible has nothing to fear from scrutiny of its words, so The Poisonwood Bible has nothing to fear from being in the classroom. More to the point, students have nothing to fear in their search for objective truth employing whatever book is put before them for study. The key is that these books are studied - not preached.
The book most detrimental to a student is the one that he or she could not read. As one who feels no conflict between the teaching of literature and his personal belief in Christ as The Word, I propose that we have no need to ban the books that contain the words we need to discern objective truth.