Culture At Large

Duke students, trigger warnings and cultural engagement

Branson Parler

At the start of this new school year, one story making headlines concerns the incoming Duke freshmen who have refused to read the graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, which was on a recommended (though not required) reading list for incoming students. Citing the book’s depiction of sexuality, student Brian Grasso has said that reading it would “compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs.”

Critics of this claim, including Christian ones, object that this staunch refusal goes against the educational imperative to engage differing points of view. The story has also been linked to a larger conversation about the role of “trigger warnings” on college campuses. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, Edward Schlosser and Laura Kipnis have recently argued that today’s students - especially more liberal ones - are hypersensitive, as their calls for protective warnings and their refusal to engage opposing viewpoints seem to drown out a lively sense of open debate.  

As a Christian and as a college professor, these stories provoke related questions for me. How are the Duke students who refuse to read Fun Home similar to or different from those who want trigger warnings on everything from Mark Twain to the use of the word “violate”? And might those who refuse to engage Fun Home have anything to teach those of us Christians who generally err on the side of cultural engagement?  

As someone who has been strongly influenced by Calvin Seerveld and Hans Rookmaaker, I’m all for engaging art - whether paintings, plays, movies or literature - on its own terms. But there’s also a danger. If Jamie Smith is right, we never engage works of art merely as an intellectual exercise. Our reception of any work happens on an aesthetic register. And works that are very powerful on an aesthetic level can often put forth a vision of life and reality that is at odds with our faith. The upshot is that the higher quality a work of art is, the more dangerous it can be in terms of capturing our hearts and minds.

Being wary of having our thoughts and lives made captive to something other than Christ is a good thing.

This caution seems to be different from those who focus on trigger warnings, at least according to Lukianoff and Haidt. For them, this focus often stems from emotional reasoning that elevates an individual’s subjective offense regarding a topic into a public and objective violation. To be fair, many Christians also fall into the trap of simply saying “I’m offended by that,” as though that is the final verdict about whether something is worth engaging.

But the Christian who abstains from engaging in some works of art shouldn’t do so because the art is offensive. Rather, they should do so because art is effective. That is, art is supposed to draw us in, to move us, to make us think and act differently. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s how art is supposed to work. But we must acknowledge that it can do so in a way that is either in line with our faith or against it. So when Christians abstain from engaging a cultural artifact, it should be because we have a robust theological anthropology that recognizes body and soul, life and art, are intimately entwined. Like the Corinthian men who thought they could divorce the mind and soul from their body’s sexual activity with prostitutes, Christian intellectuals and educators can sometimes get so caught up in our intellectual analysis of art that we forget that that is not the main mode in which we can or even should engage art.

So whatever one thinks of the Duke students, they are a reminder that one truly does have to be well-grounded, well-trained and wise to stand firm in the faith. Being wary of having our thoughts and lives made captive to something other than Christ is a good thing. Whenever you engage the culture, the culture engages you. It’s too simplistic to think that we simply engage and transform our culture - it’s far more likely that our culture will engage and transform us.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Social Trends, Education, North America