Sep 23 2013 9:00am

Reflections of a Repentant Book Burner

Book Burning

Whenever Banned Book Week comes around, I feel a bit of a jolt as my past revisits me and reminds me just where I come from and how far I’ve travelled. You see, I once favored banning books. I thought that controlling the ideas people were exposed to—and the thoughts and feelings those might evoke—was not just prudent but necessary in order to keep the world on track…especially by keeping our children safe from what I perceived as dangerous. And back around 1982, I even joined the ranks of the frightened, ignorant and narrow-minded by actually burning some books. I got better.

This is how it happened.

In 1980, I fell into a phenomenon called Dungeons and Dragons. I was already up to my neck in fantasy and science fiction, feeding myself a steady supply of televisions, movies and books. When D&D showed up, it was a match made in Heaven. But, growing up in a trailer where there were pictures of Jesus and crosses placed strategically on the walls to keep the demons out of our home and hearts, that match became less Heavenly and more Hell-spawned the deeper I progressed into the game. It was a time when evangelical and fundamentalist Christians were uptight about backmasking in rock music and Satanism was everywhere. People were cashing in on the scare and building their own careers in the Christian subculture with so-called ministries based on their experiences with the occult. Dungeons and Dragons was a ripe target and even the mainstream media jumped onto the bandwagon as parents blamed the game for what went wrong with their children.

At issue was the notion that within the game, young people could role-play characters with evil alignments while using magic and worshiping strange gods as they went about looting dungeons and bashing orcs. It didn’t matter that the game—unlike many games before it—offered some significant skill-building that transferred into daily life. Already comfortably saturated in the Land of Make Believe, I had no difficulty grasping that this was simply a game, that the magic wasn’t real and that the role-playing was simply role-playing. For me, the issue went further than that because I knew deep down on the inside, if I were rigorously honest, I loved D&D more than any of the trappings of my faith and, in my adolescent mind, loved it more than God. So, somewhere in the midst of Bill Gothard’s Basic Youth Conflicts and Billy Graham’s Tacoma Dome crusade, I built a neat pile in the yard out of several hundred dollars of books along with all of my notes, maps, characters, campaigns) and dowsed them with gasoline. The fire burned a long time and I watched it go, weeping tears of holy zeal.

My mother was so proud. No, really. She was.

A few years later, I sold off my rather large collection of science fiction and fantasy books, gave up writing stories and started preaching at the young age of seventeen. My first sermon was entitled “Put on the Full Armor of God” taken from a passage in Ephesians, “that ye may stand against the wiles of the devil.” Again, I got better. Eventually.

I spent over a decade preaching within a fundamentalist, evangelical framework and throughout the course of that time, I believed (and taught others to believe) a lot things I now find abhorrent and dangerous. They include trying to control the thoughts and ideas of others through censoring and controlling what they were exposed to. Thirty years later, now parenting small children of my own, I think a lot about that young man I used to be and what possessed him to ever burn a book. And I think a lot about the long, winding path that took me out of that mindset and into the freethinking, secular, reason-based worldview I have today.

I had, in hindsight, a rather fragile worldview—a system of beliefs I’d largely been taught to accept by the authority of my parents and the culture I grew up in. It was fragile in that it had to be shielded from other thoughts and ideas in order to stand on its own. And those kinds of worldviews—especially ones fraught with magical thinking —are designed to protect themselves by controlling and rejecting outside influences and ideas that might be contrary to the “party” line. Caught up in those beliefs, the people who are banning, burning and censoring usually can’t see beyond the good they intend with their actions and beliefs. And I know that when I was in the thick of it—or when I was later boycotting Disney or shows like Will and Grace—I really did intend good. Because I really did believe the ideas I was resisting were harmful to our species, especially our children. I was blind to the reality of the situation—that I was actually afraid and ignorant, closed off to anything that might challenge my sense of the universe.

So what happened?

Over time, those ideas—and the groups of people who represented them—became less scary as I was exposed to more and more to them. A lot of that exposure happened in college. I was pastoring a church while finishing my Bachelor’s degree, studying history in preparation for a Masters of Divinity from Northwest Baptist Seminary. Very patient professors and teachers taught around my rather narrow beliefs and, in some instances, befriended me and put a face onto the ideas that were so frightening. I started finding holes in my own worldview while at the same time finding the patches and swaths of another one. I never made it to seminary. Once the door was cracked, more information leaked in. Gradually, I left my old worldview altogether and fell in love with playing the game of “what if” with ideas…it’s a large part of why I love writing. I especially enjoy using fiction as a sandbox for exploring new ideas and old ones.

So in a way, I’ve proven my old point and the point of others who want to burn, ban or censor books. My exposure to those ideas that I wanted to control did eventually lead to me changing my mind about what I believed…and those changes went deep down into the bedrock of who I am. I’m grateful every day for that change.

One of the highlights of my writing career happened just a few years ago when I was approached by the fine folks at Dungeons and Dragons. They’d heard that I was influenced as a storyteller by playing the game and wondered if I would like to write them a short story? Naturally, I said yes. It was a nice way to close an old loop.

And I’ve never burned another book. I found a repentance far deeper than any I knew in my former beliefs. And joy in the freedom to explore ideas beyond my own.


This post originally appeared on the Write All The Words blog on September 17th

Banned Books Week 2013 is being celebrated from Sept. 22 to the 28; further information on Banned and Frequently Challenged Books is available from the American Library Association.

Ken Scholes is the author of the acclaimed series The Psalms of Isaak, which comprises Lamentation, Canticle, Antiphon, and now Requiem. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Jen West Scholes, and their three-year-old twin daughters. Visit him on the web at

Deana Whitney
1. Braid_Tug
Thank you.

The people who go around burning books and wanting to ban anything they deem harmful to “the children” always tend to set me up in flames. I’m of the belief – you don’t like it, don’t let your kids read it – leave my kids alone.

But it is nice to read about someone who had the “ban it for everyone” belief, who can put it in a logical manner. Glad you “got better.”

There are people who love D&D and reading the types of books Tor publishes, that also have strong religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive. Yet it seems in our media, the two are presented in such a way that the average person thinks religion and love of fantasy “must” be enemies.

(At first I had wrote just Christianity, but it really is more than just Christians. Other religious have the same issues between beliefs, practitioners, and public perception.)
Sky Thibedeau
2. SkylarkThibedeau
All well and good unless you've gone from one set of narrowly defined beliefs to another. From the banning of Scifi and Fantasy novels because they are demonic to banning them because the Author's public or private beliefs or their stories are Politically Incorrect.

Political Correctness is just a tool for those who claim there is no right or wrong to have a right and wrong.
Sean Tabor
3. wingracer

Very true but I don't think Ken is doing that.

Also there is a difference between banning and boycotting a book. I have no problem with people boycotting Orson Scott Card's work (even though I am not doing so) but would be vehomently against any attempt to ban him.
J Town
4. J Town
All worldviews are flawed. Adjusting one's worldview is a constant part of life. That doesn't mean necessarily that the old worldview is wholly false and should be totally abandoned or that the new worldview is wholly true and should be enthusiastically embraced. It requires more work than that.

This whole post puts me in mind of my favorite quote from Spaceballs.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness Princess Vespa, daughter of King Roland going right past the altar, heading down the ramp and out the door"

The reason I think of that quote is becuase it is the default quote I use when someone whips from one extreme to the other, at some point coming close to an actual valid course of action, but spurning it in favor of the more drastic, dramatic choice.

I usually get odd looks when I quote it.
J Town
5. ASG
I agree with the general mindset of the other comments: glad you got out of one bad extreme, but I hope you don't jump to another. Though your later censorship was bad I personally don't have a problem with the literal burning of books that you did, since it did not appear to be done out of censorship or a hate of knowledge but rather a desire to dedicate yourself to your religious faith.

As you know, one of the key tenets of the Christian faith is to make God the most important thing in your life. Getting rid of something you see as distracting you from your faith is different from getting rid of it because you feel it is demonic or evil. For someone with different interests it might have meant watching less football or eating out less often. Personally, I don't think that it is morally wrong to dedicate your life to a religious faith at the expense of your other interests. In fact, I think it is an admirable action, provided that the religion and/or the way you practice it is also admirable.
J Town
6. jrh402s
My experience was very similar to Ken's except the "fundamentalism" I got into during my late teens was anti-Christian. I grew up in a trusting and open household. We were (and are) Christian, but I was led to believe that neither a drink nor a game were necessarily sins. Certainly I was taught the erroneous nature of a slippery slope argument. D&D could not make me evil without my consent. Moreover, I was taught to respect those people that did give up cards or D&D or drinking or dancing or short skirts or whatever in the name of Christ. Sacrifice is always worthy of respect – especially if you have pretty legs. Though there was always an underlying message that extremism was to be avoided in the same way that I should avoid too much drink. I am hesitant to say boycotting D&D was extreme - though I will readily agree that it is something extremists were doing. Is it extreme to eat Kosher or to avoid all meat for spiritual reasons? Extremists do those things too. I just don't think media consumption is somehow more extreme.
Conversely, in college I fell into a very political, very anti-everything crowd that had no stomach for even the most ‘benign’ religions let alone Christianity. Christians were inherently racist, homophobic and evil. Religion was the cause of all wars, hatred and strife. Anyone that disagreed was anti-intellectualism and possibly brain damaged. You had to hate God and George W. Bush with equal fervor. This is the group that led me to boycott and protest religious and political beliefs. This is the group that led me to take extreme positions on trivial matters.
For a time I wanted to be a part of that crowd, but eventually I came back to the philosophy and religion of my family. Why? Because I wanted to stand for something and not against everything. In that way, I think Ken and I had very similar experiences. There are people whose entire religious experience is against everything and never for anything and that includes Jesus.
I guess we could spend some time arguing about whether there are more extremist Christians or Atheists. An earlier comment wrote that all religious have their extremists. As someone that once hated within the auspices of the “non-religious” dogma, I can only agree.
J Town
7. lach7
I think the distinction between banning and boycotting can be a very thin one indeed given the power of the internet to start "flame wars" nowadays.

In response to the article: I'm glad to see some of the comments have pointed out that the article seems to imply an either/or position: either one is a narrow-minded, religious fundamentalist OR one is a free-thinking, secular rationalist. I don't think this was the author's intent; he was merely being biographical and anecdotal.

In addition, though there seems to be a fairly widespread openness to allowing books to NOT be banned, what do readers think of books that might incite hate speech or ethnocentrism? Are these books also to be made available to all? Is there no limit to what we allow from the "free press"? Just curious, because I think it's easy to see this issue only in relation to books that we already approve of.
Sean Tabor
8. wingracer

For me, I would not want to see such books banned. Just because I might find and choose to read such a book does not mean I'm going to agree with it. However, I will have gained some potentially valuable insight into how someone else thinks. You can't stop evil by simply refusing to acknowledge its existence.
Derek Broughton
9. auspex
@8 otoh, I've read Mein Kampf (from a high school library, no less), and certainly don't believe that everybody, or even anybody, needs to read it to understand what caused the evil of World War II. I have a copy of the The Turner Diaries, but may never get around to reading it. I intend never to read another book by OS Card.

But it should always be possible to read such books.
Milton Pope
10. MiltonPope
There are a couple of problems with burning books, both of which were worse in previous centuries: 1) If you change your mind, the book is still gone; 2) Many book-burnings became popular movements, and people were pressured to join in -- which is censorship.
Brian R
11. Mayhem
The problem with the idea of restricting knowledge ... and at heart burning books is fundamentally about keeping certain kinds of knowledge away ... is that knowledge isn't something that can be easily contained. Once you learn something ... you can't really unlearn it. You can forget it, but it can still creep back out of your subconscious at an awkward moment. Knowledge can be seen as one of the original self-replicating viruses, with no cure.

So on the one hand, we have lots of knowledge we want to preserve, whether it be literature, or scientific research, or simply the minutia of conversations. On the other hand, we have knowledge that modern society would prefer not to preserve - child pornography, hate speech and propaganda, the recipes for various nerve agents, and in many cases the more unsavoury elements of our own past. Yet the problem is to accept the existence of one, you must reluctantly accept the existence of the other, because there is really no practical way to restrain it, especially in an increasingly interconnected world. See the idea of video piracy crusaders vs amorphous perpetually shifting anti-establishment hosts as a modern example.

The other issue is that there is often pieces of useful knowledge contained within that which is deemed unsuitable, especially when re-examined long after the fact. I certainly don't find much redeeming in the idea of child pornography for example, but I'm sure a psychologist researching certain mental conditions could, the same way that Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is such required viewing for media students and anyone fancying a political career. Development of the mustard gases during WWI (and especially treatment of the casualties) lead to the first chemotherapy drugs following WWII. And I highly recommend anyone with a scientific mindset read a few of the more entertaining texts on the development of industrial chemistry following the wars as one heck of a reason to invest in proper laboratory procedures. The words Superfund Site might mean more to most Americans.

In short, no, I don't support burning books. I did support somewhat limiting access to many of the more advanced texts in certain fields to those that have the underlying knowledge to take advantage of them, but have since changed my mind as cross-discipline exploration can be of great benefit, and frankly it is hard enough to find anything as it is.

To quote Yes Minister on destruction of knowledge :
Bernard: Shall I file it?
Hacker: Shall you file it? Shred it!
Bernard: Shred it?
Hacker: No one must ever be able to find it again!
Bernard: In that case, Minister, I think it's best I file it.
J Town
12. KenScholes
Thanks for the comments everyone. Yes, this is absolutely just me telling my story...a small part of it. And yes, I swung from one pole to the other -- over the course of about 30 years -- so there was no "whipping" about from one extreme to another. I moved at an evolutionary and painful crawl up from fundamentalism, into a more ecumenical expression of faith, into a more universalist position and eventually reached a place where I no longer believed in any of the gods that humans have proclaimed over the course of our time on the rock. Frankly, I was already 99% there as a monotheist, because I already didn't believe in Thor, Odin, Zeus, Kali, etc. I studied, I struggled, I grieved, I prayed and I thought my way through it over a good chunk of time, slowly making what I consider, in my present worldview, forward progress. It would take a multi-volume set of books for me to share all of that journey so I hope you'll forgive the conciseness of my reflections above and receive them in the spirit offered.
J Town
13. EvanM
I definitely don't agree with the other Christians (I am a Christian) who condemn books that have magic and other fantastical things in them. I was all but straight up told by someone a couple of weeks ago that I would become schizophrenic if I even had an interest in Harry Potter. -_- I am thankful that I have not been held back from such things by my parents (my dad is a pastor at our church). If I was, I wouldn't own more than half my books!
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
14. Lisamarie
Thank you for sharing your story. I'm Catholic and played D&D in college and have been reading fantasy/sci fi for most of my life. There are a lot of things I don't necessarily agree with but I'm a big fan of everybody being able to have their say :)

Edited to clarify - I meant, regarding life in general, there are a lot of things I don't agree with - not you or this post specifically.
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
Ken, Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like a painful journey, but it sounds like you have reached a point where you are content with your beliefs and at peace with yourself, which is a good place to be.
Alan Brown
16. AlanBrown
Ken, Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like a painful journey, but it sounds like you have reached a point where you are content with your beliefs and at peace with yourself, which is a good place to be.
J Town
17. Nury Vittachi
I'm part of a group of people who teach creative writing in China. We've been quite successful, with several of us getting contracts with good publishers.
About half the members of my class come from Hong Kong, and have a spiritual background (Christian, Buddhist, Daoist) and the other half (from mainland China) have been raised as strict atheists.
Members of the first group, who have been raised to be constantly aware of their inner lives, and the tension between morality and desire, and whose thought processes feature the magical thinking associated with religious upbringings, write great stories, whether they are still practicing their religion or not.
Members of the second group, raised as atheists, generally don't. They have no experience of magical thinking. They focus on physical, material things, and struggle to touch their inner lives. There's little depth and no moral tension in their stories.
I have been doing this for many years, and the results are remarkably consistent, year after year.
Raise your child an atheist if you want, but be aware of this.
J Town
18. Lezlie
This is such a courageous essay. Thank you for sharing your journey.
J Town
19. shajara
Many years ago my husband's first wife, a Christian fundamentalist, persuaded him to burn a whole carload of rock records. He still turns green when he contemplates how much those would be worth today....
William Seneshen
20. Infideluxe
An amazing essay and discussion! I applaud the group of you. I signed up with TOR simply to find a way of saying that you were all awesome. In particular, I want to thank SkylarkThibedeau for the statement, "Political Correctness is just a tool for those who claim there is no right or wrong to have a right and wrong."
Percy Sowner
21. percysowner
@17 Wow! Good to know. I mean I should have expected it. Joss Whedon is well noted for his poor dialog and depressingly realistic TV shows without any moral consideration. J Michael Straczynski was totally incapable of creating a new world in science fiction, or creating new and interesting species and Londo Mollari and G'Kar were SUCH cardboard characters with absolutely NO depth or moral underpinnings. And don't even get me started on Phillip Pullman. He was just lucky to be born in a world where souls manifest outside the body. I mean, that man couldn't come up with a fantasy scenario if one came up and bit him on the ankle.

Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas M Disch, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicke, Robert Heinlein, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K LeGuin, Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut, H.G. Wells are all science fiction writers who are atheists. Now I realize that I read a lot and these are obscure and unremarkable authors who you might find lacking in imagination, character development and moral sensibility. But I do think that they deserve some mention, although I'm sure they don't meet YOUR high standards.
Doreen Sheridan
23. dvaleris
Thank you for this excellent essay. I'm sorry it's getting misconstrued through what seems to be sheer defensiveness, but I appreciate it as it is: an honest examination of your past as a book burner and an honest expression of who you are now. It's always better to go from being someone who blindly rejects outside ideas to a person who can evaluate outside ideas before deciding whether or not they're for you. I appreciate your respect for differences: it's a marker of courage and an indication that you can think for yourself. I hardly think it's the destructive, self or otherwise, behavior that some commenters seem to be accusing you of (and I say that as a person of faith.) Thanks again for this brave, kind essay.
J Town
24. Jannisar
I never burned a book, but i tore one in half once. It was in my beloved sci fi genre. the characters and their dialogue were so horrible i vowed that no one would ever be afflicted with that book from me, via library donation, or even making 50 cents from it by selling to used book store.

one gentleman that i occasionally conversed with was rightfully horrified and infuriated that i had destroyed any written knowledge, but my anger was equal and we agreed to disagree. besides, i had put the money out for that particular copy and it was mine to do with. sorry. i still think back 20 years about that book with relief at my choice.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
25. Lisamarie
@21 - LOL, it took me about a full paragraph in for me to realize you were being sarcastic. I was scratching my head a bit.

I'm Catholic, but to be honest, I raise my kids Catholic because I believe it's the truth. If i didn't believe in God, I'd raise them as an athiest, regardless of hwo it might affect their imaginations. I certainly would never raise my children to be religious just so they could have a certain way of viewing the world, especially if I didn't believe there was a reason to view the world that way. Similar to how I get a bit irritated with people who raise their kids with a religion strictly for the morality. While I of course appreciate the morality I get from my faith, it's not the only way to be a moral person on earth.

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