Having grown up in an evangelical Christian family that sent me to religious schools, I know first-hand what being denied access to books, and the knowledge within them, looks and feels like. More importantly, I know what it smells like too — because I was forced to participate in a book burning when I was just 10 years old.
I was living in the small Texas coastal town of Port Lavaca at the time, and our tiny church was hosting an outdoor, old-school tent revival series to which my parents dragged me every single night for a week. This wasn’t an unusual experience for me, having been raised around evangelicals who swore that they could speak the language of angels, but little did I know that one of the traveling preachers was about to upend what seemed like my whole childhood.
Sitting under that big, white tent, I did what I had become quite practiced at: zoning out to pass the time. Thankfully, I had smuggled a Discman in to this particular service. So I cranked up my favorite CD at the time — an album by the Latino-Christian rapper T-Bone. His music sounds like Cypress Hill-esque gangsta rap, but his lyrics mostly center on committing graphic acts of violence against The Devil. Being a media-starved adolescent desperate to rebel, I was all about that.
I was made to pay dearly for that small rebellion. On the penultimate night of the revival series, the traveling preacher told the crowd that they could purge The Devil from their lives by bringing all their “worldly” materials — like secular music, copies of PG-13 and R-rated movies, and especially books that aren’t the Bible — to be burned the following night. Everyone was encouraged to participate, and my parents were not of the mind to let me be the exception.
Of course, as the more rebellious of two kids, my things were the first to be subjected to my parents’ scrutiny. I was adamant that there was nothing in my possession that needed to burn, but they were not going to budge. I cried and pleaded while they loudly insisted that I participate in the search to uproot Satan from my soul.
That’s when my mother saw my Discman, with the T-Bone CD inside. She grabbed the CD case off my desk and began rifling through the lyrics, her mouth ajar. “Breaking demons’ necks?” she asked incredulously. “Machine-gunning the devil?”
“Stephen, this is not acceptable for Christians,” was her verdict. I heard that verdict a lot that night.
The last night of the revival, I wasn’t allowed to bring my Discman. Instead, my parents forced me to carry a shopping bag full of what felt like the sum of my meager exposure to the outside world, wrapped and ready to be flung into the fire.
The bag contained an art book that had several paintings of nude models, my CD, three X-Men action figures that my mom thought looked like demons, a VHS copy of the G.I. Joe movie (because Cobra = snakes = The Devil), and my favorite things to read at the time — a stack of comic books and video game magazines that, sadly, had already been censored by my mother, who took a pair of scissors to every page she found objectionable.
The choir sang as the preacher lit a fire inside a metal barrel off to the side of the big, white tent, already stinking with the smell of sweat and gasoline. I watched the licks of flame growing higher as each person walked past and dropped items in. The preached goaded his flock to burn more: “Evolutionists! Secularists! Abortionists! Home-o-sessuals! All of those who would stand against God, let ye pass through the fires of hell and be cleansed by the blood of the lamb!”
At my parents’ prompting, I got in line and waited in silence, tears steaming down my face. Finally in front of the barrel, I threw my possessions in, staring longingly as my limited worldly knowledge went up in smoke.
I never got over it.
Those flames were in the back of my mind several years later when, as a 13-year-old preparing to graduate from a Christian middle school and move on to a public high school, the school’s administrator called a student assembly. The man who took the stage that day claimed he would help us fight The Devil when we go to the evil secular public school the next year. He then proceeded to explain that the Second Law of Thermodynamics — which states that all energy tends to dissipate over time and objects tend toward a state of disorder unless acted upon by an outside force — somehow disproves evolution.
To this day, that logical fallacy is a centerpiece argument for intelligent design advocates, who honestly believe that the laws of nature undermine the overwhelming body of evidence underpinning evolution. Even “Conservapedia” agrees: “The Second Law of Thermodynamics disproves the atheistic Theory of Evolution and Theory of Relativity,” they claim.
The obvious problem with that argument is that it neglects a very important outside force that’s been acting upon the Earth for billions of years: the Sun. In other words, the sum total of my scientific education before the 9th grade was a lecture intended to convince me that the Sun does not exist. Sadly, many of my classmates believed this to be true.
It was years before I finally found myself with enough privacy and independence to acquire that knowledge and so much more, but I will never forget being forced to destroy even pop culture ephemera in the name of religious purification. I didn’t understand what scared my church members then, and I still don’t fully understand it now, but the experience helped me recognize that censorship and the willful denial of knowledge is less about saving your soul than saving your mind from anything that might make you question authority.