An Accidental Burning

Thanks to the fan who uploaded this to Amazon (I just bought a copy!)They don’t advocate burning books.  That isn’t what Christ Community Church of Alamogordo, NM is about.  And yet, suddenly, they were having a book burning.  People were showing up with all kinds of things, from records and Oujia boards to novels.

And that’s how The Lord of the Rings became not only a banned book – it became a burned book.

When we Book View Café writers discussed writing about Banned Books Week, various writers said:  “I want to write about (fill in the blank).”  I went over to the list at the American Library Association (ALA), and as I scanned the books listed, wanting to choose something other than one that immediately came to mind (like To Kill a Mockingbird) I stumbled across The Lord of the Rings.

Someone had banned The Lord of the Rings (LotR) — the book that led me to fantasy, and to my heart’s career?

Well, yes.  It has been banned from both schools and public libraries in the decades since its release.  It has been banned mostly for being “irreligious” and for depictions of smoking.  Recently in discussions I have heard people claim that it’s a racist book.  But the statement on the ALA site said:  “Burned in Alamagordo [sic], NM (2001) outside Christ Community Church along with other Tolkien novels as satanic.”

How did it end up being a burned book?

You may have missed the burning; I know I did.  It happened December 31, 2001.  Americans were a bit involved elsewhere.  If you look online, you’ll find that BBC News, The New York Times (NYT), and The Alamogordo Daily News (ADN) all mentioned the bonfire.  It’s hard to find first-source mentions anymore, unless you delve into the Worldcat system.  The ADN doesn’t have the article online, although other articles refer indirectly to it.  Nor does the NYT seem to have it in the main database.  Wikipedia mentions the bonfire in passing on its Alamogordo page.  Writer R. Wolf Baldassarro has a blog devoted to banned books, and he put some effort into finding articles about LotR.

“A local group claimed the books were satanic and promoting witchcraft, and consequently, set about burning a large cache of the books outside the Christ Community Church. [sic]

Those of you who know your history of J.R.R. Tolkien, and of these books, are probably thinking “what?”  Because Tolkien was a devout Catholic, a convert, along with his mother and brother, at a time where their choice cut them off from his mother’s family and made their lives much harder than necessary.  Tolkien did not set out to make LotR a spiritual or religious book, but once into it, he clearly saw the parallels between his work and Christianity.  I do remember reading about how Tolkien wanted to create a mythos for England.  The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings were love letters to language (because as a philologist he needed someone to speak the languages he created) and to England, whose myths he saw as fragmented.

Tolkien had a hand in his friend C.S Lewis’s embrace of Christianity.  Christianity is all over LotR, a seed to its tale, though the book can be read without an understanding of Tolkien’s religion.

One thing I didn’t find.  I didn’t find what was going on in the minds of the people who held the bonfire.

I did find articles written after that time.  In the decade following the burning, many evangelical ministers studied the phenomena of fantasy.  They looked to see what about fantasy was dangerous to their spiritual goal, and what might be useful in their quest to find new ways to explain Christianity to curious seekers.  In fact, there are many evangelical Christians who perceive a difference between works that advocate the occult, and works that use magic as a metaphor for something else.   In 2002, one pair of journalists who were also evangelicals wrote about The Lord of the Rings: “All of the works (the multi-volume book series and the two movies) display a clear conflict between good and evil, with good ultimately triumphing, and focus on the powers of love, loyalty, goodness, and truth in opposition to selfishness, greed, and exploitation.”

Some Christian communities have reached the point where they use the movies made from specific fantasy novels to illustrate the power of friendship, loyalty, and love, and to show how many heroes and heroines of these works exhibit Christ-like behavior.  The Hero’s Journey is shown in many ways.

Following this thread, I was suddenly seized with questions.  A decade later, what did the folk at Christ Community Church think about their Holy Bonfire, and the books they burned?  I wanted to ask:  Now, over a decade after your sermon, how do you feel about the bonfire?  Do you still see all fantasy as dangerous?  Or do you now think that some fantasy worlds have internal moral compasses, and may lead readers to Christianity?  Have you read some of the books that other evangelical ministers are using as teaching aids to lead younger members firmly into their faith?  The same minister was still listed as the pastor of this church.  Would he share his thoughts?  Would he share a copy of the sermon he preached that inspired the bonfire?

So I wrote a letter to Christ Community Church (CCC.)  A member of the staff answered.

To begin with, their Holy Bonfire at CCC was an old tradition – old in the sense that many churches in many religions have ceremonies at year’s end, where they write down “sins” and other things they wish to get rid of in their life.  The congregation would gather, pray and worship, and then burn the slips of paper.  It was a simple, symbolic ceremony, of interest only to members of CCC.  They didn’t normally burn books.  They symbolically burned anything they felt was interfering with their desire and striving to have “a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

That 2001 holiday season, “Pastor Jack Brock was asked by a member in the church if she should buy Harry Potter for her grandchildren for Christmas.  Pastor did some research and found many great articles from much larger and more notable pastors, such as Chuck Smith (Founding Pastor of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa), who wrote about the dangers of Harry Potter and the blatant witchcraft found in the books and the angle the author was coming from in writing the book.

“So Pastor Jack preached a sermon about the dangers of witchcraft found in Harry Potter.” [sic]

In that sermon, Pastor Jack mentioned that if parents had purchased the Harry Potter books and wanted to bring them along to the annual bonfire, they could do so.

Like a forest fire, the event began to build.  Word got out, people planned to demonstrate, newspapers got wind of it, a professional photographer showed up, and –

“At NO point did the church or pastor Jack endorse burning “Books” in general.  It was the witchcraft being taught to children that we were and ARE against.  in any fashion. 

“This is not our focus to bring light to ungodly things, but rather our focus is simply Jesus and the salvation we can have through him!

“If other books or things were brought that year, it was not at our advice and is not our stance.

“Lord of the Rings and other literary works were reported as being burned.  But we have not knowledge of that, and more importantly don’t agree with that.” [sic]

Had anyone else ever asked church members what had happened there?  How their private Holy Bonfire had turned into a circus?

“Well you have to understand that it was a whirlwind of craziness.  it brought out extreme people on both ends of the argument that year.  From radical protesters burning Bibles and leaving them on our porch, to perhaps people bringing and burning things that CCC never encouraged (i’m not sure what exactly was burned).

“I think the media frenzy was the biggest encouraging factor to more books being burned.  Every year up to that point it was only primarily hand written notes… perhaps pornography or other obvious “ungodly” things…

“Were we asked about our perspective?  Yes!  But all from the angle of BOOK BURNING.  

“our stance was against witchcraft being taught to children.  Nothing ridiculous about a Bible believing congregation believing that.  

“The news story is the fire.  I believe 2 or 3 Harry Potter books were burned.” [sic]

Not “a large cache of books,” after all.

Burning a book is like burning a flag — it says something unique, that cannot be expressed any other way.   Once you light the match, a firestorm can erupt, reducing everything in its path to ash.

Christ Community Church doesn’t have its year-end Holy Bonfire anymore.  CCC isn’t “against free speech or on this legalistic campaign to tell people what to watch or read.”  The staff at CCC says it is not interested in burning books.  It’s not even about “religion.”  It’s about “having and helping others have a relationship with God.”

So.  The Lord of the Rings was burned…by mistake?  Burned in an excess of enthusiasm?  For me, this is another illustration of why burning books is never, ever a good idea.  As a book lover and an author, perhaps I am biased.  Burning a book is attempting to burn an idea, and ideas need to be aired in public.  Ideas need to be discussed, and then accepted or rejected on their own merits.  I have never understood why people believe that burning a book does anything other than make people curious about the book.  Are there books I’d be tempted to burn?

Yes, there are one or two.

But are they the same books you’d burn?

When we start burning books…who decides what books to burn?  Who decides when we stop burning?

Though I can sympathize with people who feel that rejecting a book is for their own spiritual or moral safety, I don’t understand people who wish to ban books to keep others from reading them.  The ministers at Christ Community Church, Alamogordo don’t want to burn your books.  But their senior pastor took advice from other pastors he respected, and saw the Harry Potter books as a threat to the children of his church, teaching them witchcraft.  And so he shared his concern with his congregation.

A dear friend of mine who is a Catholic priest told his parishioners that they didn’t need to fear the Harry Potter books.  Children tell him all the time that the books are make-believe, and great fun.  My friend feels that the children take away from the books lessons from a great-hearted boy willing to give everything to save his friends.

It’s an American thing.  We burn books and we fight to the death for you to say whatever you want in a book.  CCC thinks they were right to burn a couple of copies of Harry Potter, highlighting the threat witchcraft might present.  On the other hand, the staff at CCC thinks that The Lord of the Rings and the works of C. S. Lewis are great.  CCC uses these works in teaching, and for the pleasure of reading the books and watching the movies.  Magic as metaphor, especially works that contain imagery with obvious Christian parallels, have value and a place in their world.

I think there are other stories to discover here, from the people who attended the bonfire, and those who picketed the bonfire.  Personally, I’d like to see other photos taken at the event.  But I started this journey as a small side trip to talk about a favorite banned book, so we’ll leave this tale for now.

Still — here’s one final, curious note.  As I searched in vain on The Alamogordo Daily News web site for an article about that book burning, I discovered an article from 2008 saying that the photos of the “Holy Bonfire” taken by photographer Gerald Moore were going to be sold to raise money…for the library fund.





An Accidental Burning — 9 Comments

  1. I wonder if someone finally told them that the custom of “writing down things you want to get rid of and casting them into the fire” is a pagan tradition.

    I have never burned a book, but there have been several that I’ve tossed into the recycling bin rather than taking to the used bookstore, because I was so unhappy with something in them that I couldn’t in good conscience pass them on to anyone else. However, that’s a decision I can only make about books that I personally own.

    • Actually, I showed him the article, just for information — not to make any changes. He knows where it came from, I think. Christianity co-opted many things from earlier religions, including purification fires and Christmas trees.

      But everyone has their own map of reality. His takes Christianity and sees it as The Last Myth, the god who died, rose and does not die again. The members of this church no longer want any other myths. I’d say they need other myths, too — we all do — but they don’t see it.

      Once I watched my mother rip a book in half and toss it into a trash masher. I looked at her and said: “I take it you don’t recommend it?” She was exasperated — an old classmate had written the book, and she saw it as worthless, full of sex and foul language, with no redeeming qualities. She told me that I could read it if I wanted, but in her opinion it was “a waste of time.”

      Bingo. Too many good books to read. I wasn’t going to bother with one my mother thought was a waste of time! ;^) But it was a popular book, made into a movie. Different maps, different needs.

  2. I’m impressed with the even tone and attitude you used when approaching this article, and how evenhanded you are in its execution. It would still be really easy for me to pounce on the holy bonfire and the decision that it was okay to toss in books, but I’m a bit of a firebrand.

    Thanks for this informative piece.

    • I originally might have been the firebrand. It all it seemed so silly, but then as I poked around the corners, I thought: Has no one asked why they chose this expression? Do they still feel this way? So I went for what I think of as pure journalism.

      You can tell where I side, but I did not want to make them look like nuts. They are people whose religion teaches them that witchcraft is real, and that they should fear it. No good witches in fiction for them.

      I don’t think Rowling was advocating witchcraft, but this story was about LotR. So I didn’t follow that thread. It might make a fascinating discussion.

  3. Interesting, Gerald — thanks for the link. As I said, there are many more stories from this event waiting to be told. Everything I found sifting for several days addressed the church’s actions as this opinion piece did — no one wanted to ask CCC why they chose to do what they did. Everyone wanted to talk about book burning (which to many of us was the entire point.)

    In the time I had to devote to the piece, I wanted to find out whether the church had had a change of heart — if they had found anything redeeming in Lord of the Rings. The answer to the question was not simple, but it was enlightening.

    I’m sure someone shared Mark Twain’s famous quote about being banned with Ms. Rowling!

  4. WHAT?? LotR is an awesome series! Up there with Star Wars and Indiana Jones! I think burning of ANY book should be banned. It’s just plain overreactive and bad for our planet. If you don’t like the book, stay away from it! People these days just want to impose their views on everyone else. Books shouldn’t be banned for having a different point of view. Stupid people.