Special project: Where have all the churches gone?
Introduction • Where have all the churches gone?: Christian Chronicle…
Two buildings remain important landmarks in my earliest childhood memories: a small stucco Church of Christ on the edge of Fort Morgan, Colo., and a small stately Carnegie library in the middle of downtown.
On Sundays, in church basement classrooms, I learned about the parables, apostles and Paul’s missionary journeys. And upstairs in the auditorium, I was baptized one cold Wednesday night in 1964.
On Saturdays, in the library basement, an immersion of a different sort shaped my life and future. There I learned about history and wonder, biographies and fairy tales, magical places long ago or far away.
I will not equate libraries with churches. But when I assess the critical importance of structures in societies, libraries and schools rank right after churches and well above everything else. Like churches, they shape the soul and enlighten the mind. Both inspired and enabled my life as a Christian educator and writer.
“When I assess the critical importance of structures in societies, libraries and schools rank right after churches and well above everything else. Like churches, they shape the soul and enlighten the mind.”
Writing last year about the decline in churches was at times discouraging. Sometimes it made me sad, sometimes angry. At our worst, Christians can be blind to our own biases and weaknesses, dragging the church down with us to wallow in legalism and ignorance. At our best, when we lean on the everlasting arms instead of our own agendas, we can serve and shine light in a dark world.
As I’ve read about Christians attacking libraries and librarians across the U.S., I’ve experienced those same emotions: sadness, anger and, frankly, embarrassment that Christians, of all people, are often leading the charge, calling for books to be banned, librarians to be fired.
If Christians can ban books they fear today, others can ban Bibles tomorrow. The Bible, after all, is full of greatness and debauchery. The history of the children of Israel spares no heroes from glaring light. The Spirit inspired it all and left it to us to learn and discern.
Fear is a terrible thing. It can stop us from learning and seeking. It can close a mind. Maybe that’s why over and over, Jesus said, “Be not afraid.”
“Fear is a terrible thing. It can stop us from learning and seeking. It can close a mind. Maybe that’s why over and over, Jesus said, ‘Be not afraid.’”
One of my heroes — John C. Stevens, president of Abilene Christian University from 1969 to 1981 — loved libraries. In retirement he returned to teaching and books. Well into his 80s, when Parkinson’s had robbed him of the bounce in his walk, he navigated the two blocks to the library on his motorized scooter.
Stevens famously told critics who wanted to ban books or ideas, “There are no subjects on this earth, or in outer space, or in the metaphysical realm, which we cannot study on the campus of a Christian institution of higher learning.” He believed learning was more powerful than fear.
As a Christian parent, that idea shaped me. I made 100 mistakes, but one thing I did right was tell my kids I would always pay for their books and magazines, and they gladly took me up on it.
I paid attention to what they read. I didn’t censor their selections, though I insisted on serious conversations about a few. I just wanted them to read and think and be exposed to great books and some nonsense, to learn about role models and scoundrels so they’d know the difference.
I never insisted on telling other people’s children what they could read. And I never allowed others to dictate those choices to my kids.
The strategy seems to have worked. I raised two delightful adults, flawed like their mother, but good readers and thinkers who now read to their children and buy them books. That makes me happy. Open books lead to open minds.
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].
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