Reading Books, Regulating Religion

Looking beyond the moment of writing or the moment of reading allows us to think about the places where we introduce or censor religious ideas, and the continuing debates regarding the promotion and restriction of certain narrative symbols and elements.

What power does a book have if it’s not scripture? Why does what we read matter for our religious lives? The short answer is that books, like other media, shape our ideas about the way the world works. The longer answer, however, involves questions about what narrative is and what it does. One perspective comes from Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, a formidable work of philosophy and commentary that contains discussions of self and other, time as a point and time as plot, and the distinction between historical and fictive narratives. Ricoeur offers a model of narrative that looks beyond the moment of writing or the moment of reading. Instead, narrative functions on three levels that he calls mimesis1, mimesis2, and mimesis3. The three levels also work well as a way to think about the places where we introduce, encourage, and/or censor religious ideas and a way to think about censorship in general, children’s board books, and popular fictional characters.

To begin with, mimesis1 is made up of the elements that we use when we tell or read a story. A narrative needs to use symbols that we recognize, motives that we acknowledge, ideas about what constitutes people, reality, and reasonable actions, and other narratives (rudimentary or developed) that already lie within our experiences. Without some structuring of the world around us, without access to some basic terms, symbols, ideas, and the narratives that hold them, we cannot even begin the next two levels of having a plot (mimesis2) or reading a story (mimesis3).

If we think about this in relation to religious ideas and print culture, this level seems to be the realm of basic literacy: the board book. Here is the place where we might be introduced to the basic symbols of our religions, usually by parents and caregivers, teachers, or early media – and right alongside other cultural symbols and ideas. DK Press’ My First Passover Board Book is in the same series as My First Things That Go Board Book; the Baby’s First Bible series shares shelf space with Big Board First 100 Hundred Machines. Basic religious symbols and ideas tend to be reinforced by media that draws on the cultural Christianity of the United States; a Christian child can get the vocabulary of their tradition from A Charlie Brown Christmas as well as “Sunday school.” For minority traditions or new religious movements in the United States, establishing mimesis1 may require children’s books such as I Can Say Bismillah Anywhere!, or more general compilations, such as The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice.

Mimesis2, meanwhile, is more easily mapped onto a concern for creating morally sound or religiously acceptable stories. To construct a narrative is to create a moral and ethical whole that will eventually make its moral demands on the reader in mimesis3. A story does more than list the symbols, ideas, and motives of a world; it unites them into a coherent plot in which they make sense as a whole. Roughly speaking, mimesis2 is the place where the creation and availability of narratives is regulated. Regulating mimesis1 means regulating religious vocabulary, exposing readers to some concepts and symbols and hiding or restricting access to others. Regulating mimesis2 is about making entire narratives available: the whole story, not just the building blocks. Hindu parents who offer the Amar Chitra Katha Mahabharata comics to their kids and Great Books curriculum guides that stress the morally moving nature of the Western canon are operating at this level.

The third mimetic function, what Ricoeur calls “reconfiguration,” is the one most fascinating to me and most elusive to pin down sociologically. Mimesis3 is a movement from the fictive perspective and the world “in front of the text” into the lived experience of the reader. It isn’t the same as reader-response theory, where a reader constructs the meaning of a text herself. Nor is it inevitable or universal; a reader may simply be unmoved by a text. But, in cases where it happens, it can involve a deep reconfiguration of the reader’s outlook, derived from her experiences in the narrative. It anchors the hypotheticals of a narrative, its flights of fancy or empathy, in the real world that is mortal and subject to change.

To regulate mimesis3 is to regulate acts of reading, rather than vocabulary or available narratives. This can involve reinforcing ideas about which books are life-changing, which books are “just for fun,” and which books are trash. Sometimes this is overt social pressure to read or not read, such as the hope that reading Rapture fiction will lead to conversion or the charge that young adult books are “childish.” Sometimes it is subtler, such as characterizations of some genres as feminine or not serious (and, therefore, unrelated to real world issues).

When it comes to regulating fiction, it often seems as if J. K. Rowling’s wizard hero has recently come to stand in for the work of fiction in general. Although the Harry Potter series is now several years old (ended in 2007 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), it remains a great example and is clearly still timely. Consider two news items from earlier this autumn: the prevalence of Potter in a Facebook meme about books that “stayed with you,” in which Rowling’s wizard outranked the Bible by nearly three to one, and a study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology about increasing empathy for stigmatized groups among elementary and high school students, either through identifying with Harry or rejecting his foe Voldemort.

While the findings from the Facebook meme could reflect an underlying category problem (i.e., users asked to name “any book” may not instinctively think of the Bible as part of that category), they do indicate that some kind of reconfiguration has taken place for those readers. The mimetic circle is completed, and the Potter stories are now the background vocabulary for their next reading choices. Likewise, the students who indicated more empathy seem to be anchoring their reading experiences of identifying with more-tolerant Harry or dissociating themselves from bigoted Voldemort in real-life discussions of stigmatized groups.

What this model of narrative reveals is the mismatch between mimetic levels when it comes to promoting or restricting religion and religious ideas. Protests that seek to ban novels are often concerned with limiting the vocabulary of the world. The risk that these types of books present is that readers will be exposed to the existence of unsavory or irreligious things. The response from defenders of banned books, meanwhile, tends to emphasize the level of narrative as more valuable: any danger from mentioning witchcraft in Harry Potter is outweighed by the moral lessons taught by the novels, in which evil is punished and good rewarded. The censors (most often conservative Christians) want to restrict access to the vocabulary of sex or witchcraft or Islam, while the anti-censors (from many religions) champion the virtues of the configured narratives as wholes.

It is as if books are supposed to operate like an on/off switch: if you have access to a helpful/hurtful narrative or vocabulary, it changes you. Yet Ricoeur’s insistence on a third level of narrative, mimesis3, suggests that regulating ways of reading might be far more important than regulating access. The subtle pressure on the act of reading itself rarely appears as protests or counter-protests. And yet, that is where the changes seem to be taking place: in the development of empathy, the rejection of bigotry, or simply absorbing a story so deeply that it stays with you. Can far more can be done, then, through the promotion of religious ideas at every level instead of restricting them at any level?

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