Two Ways News
Two Ways News
The new & improved Twits
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The new & improved Twits

What are we to make of the impulse to sanitize literature?

Dear friends

My wife Ali asked me what this week’s edition was going to be about, and I said, ‘Bowdlerising’. And like most of you, I suspect, she responded, ‘Sorry, what? How do you spell that?’

‘Bowdlerise’ is a word that’s fallen out of usage and fashion because the practice of it has (until recently) been laughed off the stage of culture. To ‘bowdlerise’ a text is to snip out offensive language, characters or episodes from it. It was named after a 19th century doctor whom we’ll talk about below, and it seems like it’s making a comeback. 

In these strange, upside times, it’s not Victorian moralists who are demanding that books be sanitized, but secular-progressive moralists. Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Ian Fleming’s James Bond—they have all recently felt the pain of the bowdleriser’s scalpel. 

What are we to make of this? More importantly, what does the return of bowdlerising tell us about the nature of modern morality, and how to preach the gospel to a culture that seems deeply prone to being offended?

We hope you enjoy this week’s edition of Two Ways News. 

Your brother

Tony


TP: Let’s start with Bowdler himself. Who was he? 

PJ: Dr Bowdler lived at the end of the 18th and in the early 19th century. He was a doctor who didn't like practicing medicine, and devoted himself to cleaning up classic literature. So he went through Shakespeare, for example, and removed all the objectionable people and content so that it would be acceptable for family values. He went through the Old Testament and removed some chapters there too. And his concept was, you just don't refer to these things because they would offend people, would upset people, would not be able to be read to children, etc. And though he is pre-Victorian, in a sense, because he died before Victoria became queen, he became the epitome of Victorian stupidity; the desire for public morality at the extreme and silly end. And so, in the 20th century, to say something was bowdlerised was to say that it had been destroyed or wrecked. And the whole concept of being able to sanitize literature was laughed at because it was Victorian, aka Christian.

TP: But now interestingly, it's the secular humanists or the more radical secular humanists who are finding themselves in the same kind of stupidity, in a sense, of trying to think that by by removing the words ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’, or other sorts of words from literature, that somehow you can remove the concepts of fatness or ugliness from the world, and that somehow you can scold people into more moral viewpoint. 

PJ: Yes, and it's not going to work. And it's probably not the right thing to do anyway.

TP: The first issue we'll talk about is moralism, because, in a sense, it's a modern moralism that tries to find its way towards public virtue through criticizing certain vices or trying to ban certain things. But moralism doesn’t work. Why doesn't it work?

PJ: Well, for a start, who in our secular pluralist culture is going to decide what’s right and wrong? Judging by recent trends, presumably if it is a modern attitude, it's good, but if it's from a previous generation, it's bad, which is hardly a coherent basis for morality. 

But even if we could decide what was moral and we sought to impose that morality by censorship and bowdlerising, it won’t change the human heart. You can repress or suppress the kinds of public exhibitions, but you haven't actually solved the problem at all, because in the privacy of people's own homes, they're saying the very things that they're not allowed to say out publicly, and they're thinking the very thoughts that you said they're not allowed to be thinking. So it never actually works. 

Moralism is always negative; it's always about what ‘you shall not’. It's not about what ‘you shall’ because it's very hard to be able to dictate or establish that a person shall love thy neighbor as themselves. 

Moralism is good at pointing out wrongdoing and issuing punishments. But it's no good at mercy and forgiveness and pardon. So certain people are said to be immoral and beyond redemption. So Mr Dahl expressed racist thoughts; he was anti-semitic. So should we not read his children's books because he was anti-semitic? Now, don't get me wrong. I, as a Christian, can't be anti-semitic; my God, the Lord Jesus Christ, was and is Jewish. But am I not going to refuse to read a funny story because the man who told it was anti-semitic.

TP: Moralism never really comes to terms with just how deep and pervasive the problem of sin is in the human heart, and therefore nor with the possibility for atonement or redemption. 

PJ: There’s also the problem of generalization. A good generalization is generally true, but the trouble with generalizations is they can be turned into stereotypes. So instead of saying, “on the whole, people are x”, you say “you are a person, therefore you must be x”. So you then punish, remove, or discriminate against whatever it might be on the basis of a generalization. 

But to remove generalizations from public discourse means that you don't actually see what the world is like. For example you'd have to face the reality that the vast majority of men are taller than women. That doesn't mean this particular man is taller than that particular woman. It's just a matter of facing the facts or realities of life when generalizations are made from observations about life. If you don't particularly fit that generalization, you can feel offended. If it was put forward as a stereotype, maybe you should. But if it's just put forward as a generalization, you should be able to say that “doesn't apply to me”. No big deal. 

I know of a divorce situation where a young girl heard the statistics of the damage that is done by divorce–how the children of divorce suffer educationally and from job deprivation. They have increased drug abuse, unstable marriages, and so it goes on. You look at the statistics of divorce and you see it's bad for children in almost every facet of life that you care to mention. And when the speaker had finished this, this young woman turned to her father and said, “Well, that puts my life down the toilet, doesn't it?” She was right. In the sense that there was no grace in the speaker. There was no generosity; there was no saying, “But it's not true of every particular individual in the divorce situation. It's generally true but you could be one of the minority for whom it is not.” She felt that she was just being rubbished completely. However, if you've got to put in every qualification for every generalization, our communication of information is very seriously handicapped.

TP: This is also true of fiction. A novel is not a set of generalizations. It's a particular story about a particular person. In Roald Dahl’s book The Twits, it’s about a particularly rotten and disgusting couple, and all that they do. And as the story unfolds, you enjoy the story—in this case, you enjoy the humor of the evermore outlandish ways that the husband and wife play mean tricks on each other, and so on. But if it's a well told piece of fiction, it connects in some way to the reality of the world as you experience it and enriches your understanding, and you recognize in the story something that is true or that can be true or might sometimes be true. But that's the nature of fiction. It's not a blanket condemnation of all people with beards or a blanket condemnation of all overweight people.

PJ: Yes, it’s also about history. In a previous generation, they might use a certain word that I now regard as offensive. There's no point removing it. How will I know that it was once acceptable but is now offensive if it's never there? How will I know that society has changed if every reference to its historical usage is removed? How will I know that what was said in the 19th century and the way it was said was shockingly different and (to our minds) unpleasant. You can snip it out. But to snip it out of history is to distort reality.

TP: It's also to remove the possibility of the past speaking to the present. Because one of the great things about reading old books, is that they say things differently—sometimes it’s strangely expressed, sometimes it's odd, and sometimes it's offensive. But often it's just different. And you think, “Wow, why did they say it like that? I haven't heard that expression, or even that metaphor for describing that aspect of life, because it hasn't been used for a hundred years.” But it says something about the reality it's talking about that I might not have ever known had I not read it.

PJ: Now, when it comes to listening, as Jesus kept on saying, “Let he who has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Word of God says.” It's important that we do take it to heart. But it's important that we also evaluate it for what it is–the statement of the truth or the misstatement because it's not true. But to move immediately to the postmodern world where I only take offense, I only listen to it from the point of view of myself, or do we accept the modern world where I can say things and it's not going to affect or offend anybody, seems to miss out both ways. 

The Christian world has the view that we can speak the truth in love because we know of the true forgiveness of sins, through the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so I need to listen about sin, so that I will repent. But I can listen about sin, because I know I can be forgiven, whatever it may be. I guess if you don't know there is such a thing as forgiveness, it's pretty hard to listen to how sinful you are. And so it's better to shoot the messenger than listen to the message. But it's really important that we, as listeners, hear the truth of our own sinfulness and not shoot the messenger.

TP: It relates a little bit to what we said a couple of weeks ago about listening with a trembling and contrite heart to the Scripture and to anybody for that matter, to come to people's communication with a willingness to hear and repent. But what about when we're the ones who are speaking? How can we speak in a way that's not moralistic like this?

PJ: Well, take the worst of all issues to preach on: hell. I'm sure that we should not speak about hell without tears. Because as we speak on hell, we should be concerned for the lost. God does not desire the death of a sinner, but that they repent and live. So I mustn't preach on hell and enjoy that it exists, but rather preach on it in great sorrow that the hearer may be saved. And so when I preach on hell, I'm always preaching with tears. 

But I also have tears for the Lord Jesus Christ's death, for his death because of my sinfulness that will lead me to hell. For the Lord Jesus Christ had to endure the cross for me. And so my tears when preaching on hell are not only for the lost, but also for the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And then that gives me a third set of tears when preaching on hell, that is, tears for the joy of knowing the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that all is not lost. In fact, forgiveness is available, and forgiveness is available to me. And so as preachers, yes, our sensitivity is heightened. When we come to the subjects of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, when we come to an appalling subject like hell, we mustn't preach it indifferently, rather we must preach it passionately.

TP: And likewise when we talk about moral issues in which we want to critique society, or the trends of wickedness or to call on people to repent from wickedness. It's not done in a spirit of anger or denunciation or a spirit of triumph. 

PJ: Nor of superiority, either. Indeed, there but for the grace of God, go I. there is no sin that anybody has ever done, that I am incapable of doing, given the opportunity. You have got to understand your own sinfulness and the endless capacity that we have for doing the wrong thing. Unless I understand that myself, I can’t preach the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ with tears.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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