Culture At Large

Theological trigger warnings

Stephen Woodworth

Rape, incest, genocide, adultery and murder are just a handful of topics addressed in Scripture that might cause us to wonder if the Bible itself should contain “trigger warnings” for its readers.  

According to a recent New York Times article, students from a number of colleges have called for written warnings about literary works that may contain themes of racism, violence or sexuality. The concern is that such content will revive painful memories, especially for those who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Faculty members have protested, according to the article, suggesting that the call for trigger warnings points to “a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”

As a college professor I affirm my colleagues who suggest that our responsibility is to foster critical thinking, challenge presuppositions and develop our students’ ability to evaluate and synthesize ideas. Shielding them from potential distress appears to undercut the very role we are aspiring to play. But as a Christian, this trend concerns me even more because it represents the way I fear many people desire a similar warning when they discuss Scripture. As society has become progressively pluralistic around us, our response, at times, has been to retreat, to become theologically closed. We can be fearful of being challenged on issues and ideas that we hold with insecurity.

We can be fearful of being challenged on issues and ideas that we hold with insecurity.

This reality plays itself out in a myriad of ways, but most telling is the growing number of theological issues that now demand their own sort of trigger warning attached to them. Human sexuality, the existence of hell or the exclusiveness of Christ are just a handful of conversation topics you are only allowed to discuss with a small group of likeminded friends in a private space.

On a more practical level, consider how frequently the pulpits in many churches are consistently silent on many of the most glaring atrocities in Scripture. We can talk about King David’s adultery with Bathsheba, but not his polygamous relationship with several wives. We can extol Abraham for his faith, but quietly ignore his impregnation of a household slave. We preach the Promised Land, but never the Canaanite genocide that created it.

I am concerned about what we potentially lose as a “people of the Book” when we attempt to create a censored and anesthetized approach to Scripture. Could it be that that by creating mental and emotional trigger warnings in our spiritual lives we might actually hinder, rather than aid, the process of maturation we all desire? For when we fear engagement with ideas that make us flinch or open a wound, we also often forfeit a deeper understanding of the Gospel that may emerge from the ashes.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Theology, News & Politics, Education