10 August 2012

On literature and temptation.

Getting behind on my blogging here. I had posted something on More Christ about reading the entire New Testament in two weeks… and then I realized, “Aw nuts, I just committed myself to reading the entire New Testament in two weeks.” I mean, if I’m gonna preach it, I need to do it.

So I’m doing it. One week down: Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, Galatians through 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and 1 Peter through 3 John down with it. Mark, Luke, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, Jude, and Revelation to go. I’m not going in order, obviously.

Not that I’m against reading a lot of bible in a short period of time. I read the entire bible every January. It’s just… it’s August, and a leisurely pace is kinda nice sometimes.

In contrast, last week I also started reading The Stand, Steven King’s novel about the End Times. Okay, not really, but it’s way better written, and more biblical, than those stupid, stupid Left Behind novels.

Of course, whenever I say this, some folks think I’m being blasphemous, ’cause King is known as a horror writer who sometimes uses the F-word. And takes Jesus’s name in vain. And sometimes writes about magic. And sex and violence. And I shouldn’t read him because it’s compromise, and I’m opening myself up to evil influences, and blah blah blah. You know, the usual clichés of people who don’t understand how temptation works.

Briefly, I’ll remind you.

Say you read a book where the main character, for fun, likes to jab himself in the eyes with knitting needles. You might identify with the protagonist in many ways—you might think, “Hey, he’s exactly like me!”—but that jabbing-the-eye thing, that’s just nuts. You don’t want to do that. Right? I’m assuming you’re a typical sane human being of course. Maybe you are that susceptible to suggestion. And if so, why don’t you sign on to PayPal and send $1,000 to kwleslie@gmail.com? Thanks.

…Okay, they’re gone. I can understand those folks being anxious about what I read. If you have zero resistance to temptation, it stands to reason. There are probably big stretches of the bible they ought never read, lest they burn their kids to death on an altar before they read the happy ending. I, on the other hand, am stubborn.

You already know I don’t drink, never have, not gonna start, and not tempted to start. If someone puts a glass of whiskey in front of me, I’ll ignore it. I won’t go insane with desire. I won’t start sweating uncontrollably, or get the shakes, or even think about the glass. Bluntly, it may as well be a piss jar.

If I read about a heavy drinker, I’m not gonna think, “Wow, he looks like he’s having a fine old time, being as drunk as he is. Maybe I should reconsider my teetotaling, and head over to the nearest pub and liquor myself up.” Just as you wouldn’t go looking for the knitting gear after reading about my first hypothetical protagonist. No point. (Ha-ha.)

I’m not gonna read about sex and want sex, read about violence and want to do violence, read profanity and want to swear, read about magic and want to cast a spell. I would have to want to do those things to begin with. In actual temptation, the book would poke at an existing desire. Now, I might be looking for temptation, looking for evil to get into, but I don’t do that. Others do. But I don’t seek new vices in my fiction, and when there’s no existing desire, there’s nothing to poke. Even my tendency to swear: The only time I ever want to swear is when I’m angry, and when I’m not, a book won’t ever trigger it. Unless the book makes me angry, like when John Eldredge teaches it’s okay to ignore Jesus when he’s not manly enough for him. Then there might be swearing—but not because there’s swearing in the book.

I’ve had many a concerned parent warn me against the supposed evils of the Harry Potter novels. I’ve read only the first couple chapters of Philosopher’s Stone, then got distracted and didn’t finish. I decided to put them off till I saw all the movies, and only last week saw Deathly Hallows Part 2. So maybe I’ll tackle Philosopher’s Stone again. But back to the parents: They’re worried lest kids decide, after reading the books, “Gee, witchcraft sounds fun,” and try it. Okay: I can see that happening if, and only if, the kids are functionally retarded. Fictional magic isn’t real. And kids actually do know better. No one who sees Bugs Bunny turn a vampire into a bat by saying, “Walla Walla, Washington” is gonna think, “Hey, maybe I can do that.” No one who reads C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew is gonna think to experiment with magic. They know better. At most, they’ll pretend magic, like the books do. They’ll dress in costumes and play at it, just like adults who learn Klingon and dress in Star Trek uniforms—all of whom know Star Trek isn’t real, but love the show and want to make-believe too.

Now. If you’ve not raised your kids Christian, if you’ve left a spiritual vacuum in their lives, if they know there really are such things as Wiccans and magick, and if after reading about the fictional kind they decide to dabble in the real stuff—well, that’s hardly the book’s fault. Don’t blame J.K. Rowling when the kids experiment with alternative religions because you didn’t bother to raise them in your own.

You might be susceptible to temptation from fiction. You might watch a movie and decide, “I want to do that,” and play it out in real life. (And probably find out there’s a reason it’s fictional—such things don’t work in real life.) I don’t watch movies and TV, or read books, so I can find examples to mimic. I only do that with the gospels, with Jesus. Fiction is entertainment, and I treat it as something to observe, not participate in. I don’t want friends like the people in my favorite television shows. Some of those people are horrible human beings, and I far prefer watching their travails from afar than up close.

I’m not susceptible now to the stuff I read, but I wasn’t always. When I was 8 my parents let me read Jaws—the Peter Benchley novel which the Stephen Spielberg movie is based upon. (Just for fun, here’s the bunny version of the movie.)

The movie had just come out, and we were at some yard sale or flea market or something, and I found a copy of the book. It was one of those movie tie-in books with the movie poster on the cover. I showed it to Mom. “Look, Jaws,” I said. “Can I get it?” I guess the price was cheap enough. She bought it, so I read it.

Despite all the scary bits, the movie was rated PG. I suppose it’s why Mom didn’t think anything of letting me read the book. Well, the book, if we’re to describe it with movie ratings, is a hard R. I’m not talking about the descriptions of the shark eating people. There’s a whole lot of adult language—profanities, sex talk, and so forth. There’s a subplot where oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus’s character in the movie) commits adultery with Chief Brody’s wife, and before they head off to panky the hanky, they plot their dalliance in very graphic detail. The old fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw’s character) of course swore like a sailor, and I learned lots of interesting profanities from him.

“You know Jaws?” I told my friends on the school playground later that week. “I just read the book. They cussed a lot in it.”

I invented this game for the playground, which my friends helped refine. We called it “Shark.” It bears no resemblance whatsoever to “Shark in the Water.” There was a play structure at Baywood Elementary in Castro Valley which had a pair of tandem slides—if it weren’t for the rail in the middle, it’d be a wide slide. We pretended the structure was the deck of the Orca. After the shark took a bite out of the boat, Quint slid down it into the hungry shark’s waiting mouth, screaming all the way. (If you consider that a spoiler, you clearly don’t know my spoiler policy.) So we reenacted this: One of us would be Quint, and go down the slide, yet scramble futilely to not go down the slide, begging the rest of us to help him… and, as in the book, swearing his eight-year-old head off. “Shark! I’m getting eaten by a motherf---ing shark! Help me! The f---er’s eating me! Oh, f---!”

Lots of cussing. Mostly the F-word. I knew a few other profanities, thanks to a combination of Dad and Jaws, but for kids, nothing’s as much fun as the F-word.

After one Quint was eaten, another kid would become Quint and get eaten. And another. And another. There were anywhere from two to five of us, sliding-yet-not-sliding down the slide and swearing till we were breathless and hoarse. After we were “eaten,” we’d miraculously reappear on the “deck,” whole… only to take our turn again at being Quint, and getting eaten. None of us bothered to actually kill the shark, as in the movie; or effectively rescue one another. The most we ever did was swear at the shark: “Stop eating him, you f---er!” We just spent the entire recess getting eaten, one by one, loudly and profanely.

Oh, and every once in a while, some other kid would want to use the slide. Originally we told them, “We’re using this slide. Go on the other one.” But they threatened to get the yard duty involved, so we found it was easier to just let ’em, then go right back to playing “Shark.”

You’d think a kid screaming, “Help me! I’m getting eaten by a motherf---ing shark!” at the top of his lungs would get a little attention from the yard duties, and maybe a stern reprimand for swearing like a teenager. But no. As I recall, the only concern the yard duties showed was when some of us, pretending to be “eaten,” would slowly climb underneath the lip of the slide. She was concerned lest someone slide onto his head. Otherwise the swearing didn’t seem to be an issue.

Shall we blame Jaws for my misbehavior? I actually won’t. The book didn’t make me swear my head off. I already had a mouth on me. If I was one of those kids who never, ever swore, who even believed “Shut up” was a bad word, I might still have invented “Shark.” It just would’ve been a clean version, with more “Help me, I’m a goner!” and just as much shouting, but no F-words. The problem is neither the book nor my inattentive parents. It’s the little sinner who thinks it’s fun to shout naughty words on the playground. It’s me.

I couldn’t resist the temptation. I can now. I can read the F-word without caring to repeat it. I only struggle with swearing when I’m angry—and even then I can usually swap it for a non-profane euphemism. But never else am I tempted to swear.

If Stephen King chooses to use the F-word, that’s his right. If he writes a character who chooses to use it, that’s entirely realistic of him—I know lots of people whose every other word is a profanity, and King’s characters are mild in comparison. I don’t feel tempted to mimic either King’s characters or my profane acquaintances. I don’t feel my occasional lack of self-control is going to get any better or worse by not reading King’s books. It’s going to get better by my practicing self-control, not by my avoiding naughty words.

Now, that’s me. For you, it might be best if you stay away from such things, because to you, exposure means endorsement. It might be best if your kids stay away from such things for the very same reason. But for myself, I know better. I don’t play “Shark” anymore.

And if you know better, you might like The Stand. I might review it once I’m done. Give me time, ’cause I’m only 46 chapters in. (It has 78, plus a few epilogues.) We’ll see.