Discussing
Duke students, trigger warnings and cultural engagement

Branson Parler

Branson Parler
September 4, 2015

A debate at Duke over the graphic novel Fun Home should have Christians reconsidering their own cultural engagement.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
September 4, 2015

As you might imagine, Branson, this is particularly convicting for someone like me, whose default posture is one of extreme cultural engagement. I don't disagree with your underlying position: that crucial to Christian discernment is an understanding that art has power, and that this power is not always "in line" with our faith. So my follow-up questions to this piece would be: what does that discernment look like? If art is not "in line" with our faith, does that mean we should not engage it at all (a la the Duke students)? Or does that mean particular wisdom should be brought to that engagement? And are these, ultimately, personal questions? (In other words, art doesn't always "work" the same way on all people, let alone all Christians.)

Tracy
September 4, 2015

These Christians, insisting on their rights -- are giving all of us a bad name.

I don't like Hemingway's sexism -- should I refuse to read him in a class on 20th Century American Literature?

If you can't handle reading ideas different from your own, you should attend a very, very small sectarian school.

JB
September 5, 2015

I think there's a difference between the Duke students' objection to read Fun Home, and refusing to engage with, say, Mark Twain or Hemingway. From what I understand (I don't know), there are sexually explicit images in Fun Home. Many may not be able to engage with such imagery without lust. So, if viewing pornography is an assignment in a future class, and some students object to watching it, are they being overly sensitive and closed-minded?

Yet, there is a line. I appreciated Haidt's article, with a valid warning about failing to teach students to think critical about views with which they disagree.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
September 5, 2015

In Reply to JB (comment #27457)
----------------------------------------
Assuming that’s the case in the Duke situation, JB - that it is the sexual imagery being objected to, out of a personal concern that viewing it would incite lust - I guess I wonder then if it is on the student(s) to choose not to attend a school where such content is part of the common discourse. (The critically lauded Fun Home is a serious memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family, and while it has explicit imagery, it cannot be reasonably described as pornography.) So in this case would it be wiser for the students not to engage Duke culture, or is Duke - a supposed arena for free thinking - putting unnecessary pressure on its students to ascribe to certain ideas but listing Fun Home on a freshman reading list?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
September 5, 2015

A genuine question occurred to me while thinking about this: what would have happened if Duke had included a critically acclaimed testimonial memoir from an evangelical Christian on that reading list? Would some students have objected to it as proselytizing? Would it have been accepted as a way to understand a perspective from a minority group? I'd like to think so - I've seen genuine interest in learning about the evangelical mind from some secular corners in recent years - but I'm not so sure.

Keith
September 8, 2015

I remember reading "How to Read a Book" the Summer before my Freshman year and having my egotistical and self-satisfied mind blown. I was so sure the book would be elementary and go over stuff I already knew, I loved Shakespeare and knew who Kierkegaard was (generally) and felt the book (based on the title) had little to offer me, surprise, I was wrong.

What makes me most sad about this is that this Duke student seems to have received a similar cultural education to myself. He has been encouraged to view art solely as it relates to his "holiness". A person's moral relationship to art is what is emphasized within many Evangelical circles, they do not see art as an interpretation of experience or of the world, and as one side of a conversation that many times is inviting a reply, they see it only in moralistic terms.

I think, regardless of the particulars of this case, if you look at it solely by analyzing the conversations that have arisen from and around it, I think we can agree this represents a missed opportunity.

I would trade a million think pieces about the Trigger-Warning culture of our Undergraduate campuses for one good, honest engagement with a person who decided to interpret their experiences in an artistic way and turned out a celebrated cultural product. WWJCA (What Would Jesus Converse About)?

Branson Parler
September 9, 2015

In Reply to Josh Larsen (comment #27453)
----------------------------------------
Josh, good questions. I wrestle with these as well. I do think that Christians can and should engage art that is not necessarily in line with their faith, with a few qualifications. I think that there are some areas--graphic sexual images and violence, being a couple--that can rule a work out all together, assuming that these are analyzed through the norms of art itself. A work of art that is, overall, a good work of art may contain some elements that would rule out engagement all together. This is one reason why the early church spoke strongly against participating in or even attending the Roman theater. On the other hand, a work can have troubling elements but still be an overall good work of art. This is where, for example, I struggle with the example of Fun Home (which I have not read so can only go on what educated persons tell me). If it does indeed portray a graphic sexual encounter, I have a hard time imagining most Christians in most times and places affirming our engagement with it. That's not to say that the "majority rules," but it does make me think about the collective wisdom of the church throughout time and space.

I think there is some level of individuality in engaging art, as everyone brings their own baggage (good or bad) to bear on different works. But I also think it works differently on some because they are not using the norms of art itself to analyze art but using some other criteria. This is where some Christians can indeed end up moralizing and morally judging a piece without actually engaging it as art. As I teach Christian college students, I have to emphasize that point--to judge something as art--repeatedly. Nevertheless, I also find myself asking, at a certain point: is there any line which, if crossed, would mean that Christians should not engage a piece?

Branson Parler
September 9, 2015

In Reply to Tracy (comment #27456)
----------------------------------------
Tracy, I wouldn't say these Duke students are "insisting on their rights." They are simply not reading a book that's on a suggested reading list. What struck me as I thought about this was that the Duke students are taking a much less coercive path than those more liberal students discussed by the various articles I referenced. The Duke students aren't telling anyone else to change what they're doing; they are simply changing their own actions. On the other hand, the students referenced by Haidt and others are engaged in "vindictive protectiveness" that demands their professors and others change their words, assignments, etc., to accommodate their demands.

The idea that it's only these conservative Christian students who "can't handle reading ideas different from their own" (a broad generalization that wasn't their point anyway) is pretty clearly falsified by the other pieces I referenced. In fact, it demonstrates that there may be times when a large public university may be far more sectarian than small Christian colleges.

Keith
September 9, 2015

In Reply to Branson Parler (comment #27464)
----------------------------------------
I think you mis-represent the idea of "engagement" as being binary, either you protect yourself from the influence of the art (one reason why I think you still have not engaged a piece of art that is at the heart of an article you wrote) or you expose yourself to the sinful taint of the art itself; but what if there was another option? What if, the "redeeming" value of the art came through your engagement with it? What if, as Paul evidenced, you could walk into another culture, examine their art and values and then offer another interpretation of it altogether (i.e. the altar to the unknown god)?

Fun Home, however you feel about the book, is one person's representation of their life and experience. The content (one can assume) is consistent to a person's journey through adolescence. Please, PLEASE tell me an honest story of adolescence that cannot address sexuality? Whether you are religious or not. In fact, some of the most horrific stories are ones I heard or saw within a religious setting (Bible camp, Christian School, etc.) One question I ask in situations like this is what are we afraid of and what are we trying to protect? Avoiding sexual content does not make it disappear, and not being willing to address someone's honest account of their own sexual development does not negate their experience, and it closes you off to the realities that are happening around you. We can choose not to read or watch whatever we want, but I think it's a shame that we aren't more sorry to lose out on the conversations we could be having with the culture at large and with ourselves. I think a better course is to read Fun Home and then read Blankets. Play The Binding of Isaac and then watch No Country for Old Men and read all of Flannery O'Connor. Challenge yourself in the face of the culture around you. Weigh people's experiences against your own and challenge yourself, or, in a much larger book, focus on a few pages that (perhaps) confront your (wrong) relationship to sex and cast the book aside, give interviews, write articles and avoid having the real conversation the art is seeking.

Doug Vande Griend
September 11, 2015

Ironically perhaps, I'm somewhat with Tracy on this one, even if for different reasons. I'm not sure why Christians would attend Duke when there are so many quality colleges that seek to teach and enlighten from a Christian worldview perspective.

Frankly, my last concern for Christians at a school like Duke is not that they are invited to read a book like this but that they are attending a college that does not seek to teach and enlighten them from a Christian worldview perspective.

Add your comment to join the discussion!