When I traveled with Teen Mania (an evangelical youth missions organization) in the late 90s, there were some really popular books that it seemed like everyone was reading. Believe me, one of them was NOT Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, which was originally released in 1997. If any of us had heard of Harry Potter by that point, it was only in the context of, “This is bad. This supports witchcraft.” No, the books we read were almost exclusively nonfiction, and they supported a very specific worldview. After discovering these books, many of which were available for purchase at Teen Mania events, we took them home to our friends and insisted that they read them, too.

The books that were popular included:

  • Intercessory Prayer by Dutch Sheets. It taught us about prayer. If I remember right, it felt a lot like a manual about how to tell God what to do. (I’m sure the author and others would not agree with that, but that’s how it felt to a 16-year-old.)

  • The Final Quest by Rick Joyner. Bad writing, creepy story that, at the time, made us all want to have visions like the author said gave him this book, which envisioned Christians as soldiers in an epic battle between good and evil. It was supposed to tell us what the “end times” were going to be about.

  • The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord by TD Jakes. Someone tell me why I’m supposed to learn what it means to be a woman from a man? Because that’s what this book was. I think we mostly read it for the “scandalous” parts about sex.

  • Passion & Purity by Elisabeth Elliot. I always pretended to have read more of this book than I really had. Should I track down my copy and read the section on men’s and women’s intended roles in relationships? That makes me a little nervous, but maybe I will. For research.

  • I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. I didn’t have to read this one because I never had to kiss dating goodbye. Teen Mania’s president Ron Luce had convinced me by the time I was 11 that dating was a terrible, terrible thing, so I swore it off altogether. However, the book itself was hugely influential among my peer group at Teen Mania and in my youth group.

  • All of Ron Luce’s books. That was just a given. We read his devotionals, his cultural analyses, even his books on parenting. Ron Luce was our guide and leader. What he said was rule, and one of the things he said was to follow the rules.

There is one thing all of these books have in common: they support the evangelical fundamentalist worldview without any deviation. A fundamentalist reader may be challenged by these books, but not to re-evaluate their point of view, only to solidify it and grow stronger in it.

Everyone back at Teen Mania seemed to support reading, based on the way we passed these books around, but there were rules to our reading, just like there were rules to our listening and watching. No secular music and no R-rated movies were easy rules to follow, but how do you make rules about books? The rule was this: be skeptical of anything that doesn’t come pre-approved from the leadership.

I was sixteen on my last Teen Mania trip. I was still a true believer in the Teen Mania cause at the time, but I did sneak a few secular songs onto the cassettes I copied from CDs to take with me. Mostly Les Miserables soundtrack songs. I also took a book with me in addition to the Bible, and it wasn’t a pre-approved book.

It was Horatio Hornblower and the Hotspur.
That’s right. A novel published in 1962 about the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
We’re talking something really scandalous right here, aren’t we?

I took that novel because I had loved the Hornblower miniseries on A&E and was working my way through the book series by CS Forester.

How many times did people question my decision to bring that book along? Countless. The questions ranged from sheer surprise that I would bring a novel on a missions trip to concerns that I was reading something “secular.” It’s not that anyone said that the Hornblower book was BAD. There was just a general sense of skepticism about it.

No one knew what it was. No one knew if it fit the worldview. No one could determine if it was appropriate or not. Because it was unknown, it was suspect.

I spoke this weekend at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing with a group of writers who are reflecting on their journeys out of fundamentalist faith traditions. A variety of experiences were represented, but as we told our stories, a trend began to emerge. Statements like this showed up in several of the stories:

  • “Then I went to college and became an English major, and I started reading all of these perspectives that were so different from what I’d been raised with…”
  • “Then I picked up a book called…”
  • “Then I started reading things that weren’t approved…”
  • “The more I learned about how to read literature, the more my perspective on how to read the Bible changed.”

How many people have started questioning their fundamentalist roots because of books?

I think back to Jeanette Winterson’s stunning talk at AWP last year, in which she talked about the fact that reading is what saved her from her abusive, religious mother. Her book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, was one that helped open my eyes to a wider world, one in which women might fall in love with other women.

Reading Oscar Wilde was also really important for my development as a non-fundamentalist. Being an English major was probably the best choice I could have made as far as moving away from fundamentalism goes. It’s hard to continue viewing the world through a lens of strict behavioral rules and authoritarian spiritual leadership when you’re reading amazing literature and poetry that makes you question everything you’ve ever believed.

Sometimes I ridicule the fear fundamentalists have about the dangers of reading. I laugh at banned books lists because they seem so ridiculous. I roll my eyes when I hear someone say, “That [insert piece of art/literature/music here] isn’t glorifying to God,” because what on earth does that even mean?

I shouldn’t ridicule or laugh or roll my eyes. Instead, I should recognize the completely legitimate fear that fundamentalists have of literature and art. They should fear it, because exposure to it changes people. If a person lets go of the prescribed, approved reading list and really goes looking for literature, she can’t stay stuck in fundamentalism anymore. She just can’t.

So here’s to reading. Let’s go find another book.