Lemonade and Lit, Week 4: Debate on Sexuality in Booked

Literature & Lemonade

Other Lemonade and Lit posts:  Introduction, Week One: Booked, Week Two: Booked Discussion, Week Three: Beauty, Week Four: Sexuality in Booked, Week Five: Beauty Discussion, Week Six: The Last Thing I Remember,  Week Seven: Klavan Discussion.

Lemonade and Lit:

An Adult-Teen Read Along, Week 4


This week was supposed to be an off weekend for Lemonade and Lit.  But when I got an email last Monday from one of our young readers, Jaquelle, she raised some very good questions about our first book, Booked by Karen Swallow Prior.  The book contained enough sexual references that she felt it unwise to finish reading on her own.  And she was disappointed that Redeemedreader had not done a better job of letting her know what to expect.

We did, of course, put a warning on the Booked introduction post.  But I’m willing to admit my own mistake in not making it prominent enough.  That’s a problem that unfortunately crops up from time to time when you’re trying something new, like our read along.  But point taken.  Next time, we’ll try to do a better job of highlighting books that might have more difficult material that parents will want to check out first.   (I’m going right now to put the caution in bold for readers who find the post later.)

For now, though, we thought it would be a good opportunity to invite Jaquelle to lay out some of her concerns.  It’s worth noting that Jaquelle is 15 and a homeschool student from Nova Scotia, Canada.  I’ve also asked our 18-year-old intern, Abby, to give her own take on why the Booked selection was helpful for her.  Between the two of them, I think they make some very insightful comments, and I hope you’ll weigh in on whether you thought the book was appropriate for your teens.  We really do care what you think, and we want to be responsive to your needs in terms of the books we offer for read alongs.


Criticism by Jaquelle

I started Booked by Karen Swallow Prior for the Lemonade and Lit Read Along but was unwilling to continue.  Let me start by saying what I liked about Booked, namely, Ms. Prior’s obvious love of literature, her knowledge about this subject, and the glimpses of seeing Christ and redemption throughout literature.  That being said, I had two problems with the book.

The first problem I had was laid out in Chapter One and its implications permeated the rest of the book.  Chapter One’s title summarizes my disagreement: Read Promiscuously.  Ms. Prior started by clarifying her definition of “promiscuous reading” as, what John Milton encouraged, “indiscriminate, disorderly reading,” or reading both bad and good to discern what is good.  Ms. Prior quoted 1 Thessalonians 5:21 as an example.  “Test all things and … hold fast to that which is good.”  The reference to this verse is problematic because when you look at the context of 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul is actually talking about testing prophecies or words claimed to be from God.  Books do not fall into this category.  In other letters, Paul does encourage discerning between good and evil, which I wholeheartedly believe can be applied to reading, but I cannot affirm that Paul, or more importantly God, would want me to read lies to know the truth.  I agree that you must discern between bad and good literature, but I disagree that you need to fill your mind with evil to know the truth.  (Philippians 4:8)

The second problem I had was the sexual themes running throughout this book.  I understand that this is Ms. Prior’s personal testimony of how through literature God led her to Himself.  However, I did not see how all the sexuality was necessary.  Nothing was overtly graphic, but brief sexual episodes filled the book.  Ms. Prior recounted the night she lost her virginity, discussed rape, was shown homoerotic pictures, and was kissed by a girl, just to name a few.  There were also references to sex and rape in literature (primarily chapters five and seven on Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Gulliver’s Travels).

Perhaps an older teen or adult who has read more promiscuously would not have been affected by Booked in the same way that I was.  But as a redeemed reader, I personally was unable to glorify God through the reading of this book and was thus unwilling to finish it.


Criticism by Abby

Booked was a breath of fresh air for me.  Karen Swallow Prior’s reflections on identity, love, and romance gave me a new and broader perspective, and I immediately wanted to discuss her opinions with my friends.  In fact, it was the mistakes she made, including the sexual ones, and the horrors she encountered, including the porn and the rape, that made this book particularly poignant.

What Prior discussed is a part of reality, a part of the truth of mankind.  Sin and its consequences are very real, and to brush over this is to turn a blind eye to truth.  Christians need to read about sin and about its horrific consequences.  Even the Word of God reveals this.  The entire Bible has examples of sin, including sexual sin, and its real effects.  When Prior decided to be upfront about her own sin and the pain it caused, she revealed clearly how much humans need the grace of God.

People can tell me over and over again that having sex before marriage is wrong, but this statement alone will have a hard time standing up against the barrage of culture telling me that if I would just sleep with a guy then I would be happy.  What does stand up, though, is a knowledge of why God created sex for marriage, and part of this knowledge comes by understanding the consequences and gravity of abusing his creation.  By sharing honestly about her experiences, Prior reveals the consequences of sin in a way I can understand and learn from.

This principles also applies to literature.  The best books are honest books, not because the authors believe in a biblical worldview, but because they talk frankly about the consequences of false philosophies.  They speak with clarity on the subject of lies.  Whether I read books full of modern philosophy, like Camus’ The Stranger, or even the latest young adult thriller like The Hunger Games, I see the lies of this world in action.  They only lead to broken lives and false hope.  By understanding this, I can guard my own heart from these falsehoods and I can better interact with people that believe them.  This is the value of reading frank discussions of sin.  It’s the value of reading “promiscuously.”

Disclaimer: Of course, this argument should never be used to justify reading filth like written porn.  Some books are designed to cause their readers to sin, and these should always be avoided.  Christians should rely constantly on the Holy Spirit to guide them in their reading choices.

If you found this discussion interesting, do check out our podcast on 50 Shades of Gray, as well as our YA Perspective on The Hunger Games.

Many thanks to both Jaquelle and Abby for being willing to take part in this debate!  They have given our readers a lot to think about, and I do pray that the Lord would bring them and us more wisdom and grace through this exercise.

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  1. Karen Swallow Prior on July 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Jaquelle, I’m very sorry that BOOKED had material you found objectionable. I admire the way you seek to apply scriptural understanding to your reading. I would like to clarify that Milton’s argument (and mine with it) is not that we must read lies in order to discern truth, but that because there is only one book that is infallibly true we must read widely in order to discern truth from lies in all else that we read apart from that book. In other words, no other book contains perfect truth, so we will be reading less than truth in anything that is not the Bible. Therefore, we must develop our ability to discern if we plan to read anything that is not the Bible. I think the examples of Daniel, Solomon, and Paul indicate that we are called to do so. Obviously, you agree or you wouldn’t have given BOOKED a try. Thanks for doing so.

  2. Janie Cheaney on July 6, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks, all of you, for contributing to this discussion! I do think we have to be careful about what we read–perhaps in different ways at different ages. But as we grow in the Lord, the Spirit will help us with that discernment. We have to learn to recognize when we’re reading for true insight and when it’s for mere titillation. Still . . . reading about other people’s experiences, even sexual experiences, can helps us understand views, backgrounds, personal histories, and philosophies that are very different from our own. That’s the great thing about good literature–expanding empathy. We’re limited to our little individual worlds, but humans experience the same basic emotions and fall for the same deceptions–reading about a fictional character or an honest memoirist can broaden our understanding of “the human condition” and help us to be more sympathetic. And maybe more effective in our witness.

  3. Cathy on July 7, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    I haven’t read Booked, but I am glad to see that Christians here can share their views in respectful ways and hopefully learn from one another as we all seek to glorify God! Thanks for hosting an interesting discussion, RR!

    I understand Milton’s comment to be in the context of an argument against government censorship and I do think that affects the discussion here. Having a wide variety of literature available is clearly good, as is a ecclectic or omnivorous appetite for books, reading many kinds of books. It’s been a looong time since I read Aeropagitica, but it doesn’t seem to me that Milton was advocating “filling our minds with evil to know the truth”. He was encouraging believers to interact with the worldly philosophies of his day with the boldness of the gospel, not to revel in written immorality. We are not to be afraid or to islolate ourselves culturally. In the world, but not of it – such a hard balance to find sometimes!

    Clearly that argument does not propose that every book is appropriate for every reader at every time.

    “Good and bad literature” (in Jaquelle’s comments) are broad terms. A book can be excellent literarily, well crafted, beautiful and powerful, but communicate untruth. Is it good or bad? Much “Christian” literature is poorly written at best and often equally as poor at communicating the gospel with grace and depth. Is it good or bad? What is helpful reading for one believer may be unhelpful for another without making the book itself “good” or “bad” morally or spiritually.

    That said, I think Booked may not be a good choice for me to read right now. I find that everyday life brings me plenty of unavoidable exposure to “horrors” (in Abby’s comments) and the ravages of sin. As a wife and a mom with young children, some of the things which are on the front burner for Abby are not even on my radar. However, her comments about how a story, a true life story, helps the Scriptural truth to resonate in her soul bring similar experiences in my own life to mind. God has taught me much that way. And still does!

    Praise God for the power of story! May we use it for our mutual good and the glory of God.

  4. emily on July 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Jaquelle said she had trouble posting her reply, so I offered to post for her. Here is what she wanted to add:

    Mrs. Prior, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my criticism of BOOKED! I appreciate you clarifying your (and John Milton’s) argument and I absolutely agree with you that we need discernment in all of our reading. I think where we would disagree is not that we need to read widely; it’s how widely we need to read. The boundaries of what is appropriate will be different for everyone. Thank you again for your time and response.

  5. Jessalyn on July 8, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    How wonderful that Jaquelle felt confident enough and could articulate her views well enough to challenge this book selection! This is a perfect example of a redeemed reader who is being sensitive to the Spirit’s leading and direction. No doubt that this website has encouraged children, teens, and adults alike to take seriously the call to take captive our thoughts and passions (in this case our reading material!).

    Thank you for sharing Jaquelle’s concerns and for Abby’s response. I think it is wonderful that we can encourage one another to love the Lord more dearly and practice discernment in what we read. Thank you for hosting this discussion!

  6. Adam Shields on July 9, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    As a 40 year old guy, I was not that struck by the sexuality in Booked. But I am a 40 year old guy that has read broadly and I am fairly comfortable publicly discussing sexuality in appropriate contexts (leading pre-marital and early marriage classes for example).

    I think that what Karen is reacting against is as important as what she is saying when she is talking about reading promiscuously. I have a number of friends that have always read every book before allowing their children to read it. That does not seem like a bad idea as an ideal. But in reality it is very limiting. What happens when those kids are 13 and have the summer off. When they read at nearly adult speeds and have whole days to read, do you tell them they can’t read until you as a working adult have time to read their book? Is that what being a parent is about? Because I know a number of parents that believe that is exactly their role.

    I think it is far better to teach children to do exactly what Jaquelle demonstrated. The ability for the child themselves to evaluate what they are reading and determine if it is acceptable. (This is a skill that many adults do not have in reading, watching movies or other media activities.)

    Also I think it is important to realize that because of our own propensities toward sin that some activities that are morally acceptable in one context are not necessarily acceptable to all. Alcoholics should not drink anything (but alcohol itself is not sinful when used appropriately.) Porn is sinful, but it may be acceptable in certain situations for Christians to minister to those that are involved in the porn industry. But it would be inappropriate to suggest that someone that has had an addiction to porn be involved in direct ministry to porn workers.

    The reality is that sin is personal. And to forget that an universalize inappropriately is itself a sin that we are all capable of committing.

  7. emily on July 10, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Thanks everybody for your excellent comments. I love that we have the 40-year-old-guy perspective too!

  8. Sharon on July 11, 2013 at 9:16 am

    I appreciate this discussion. I am a homeschool mom. In the early years I deliberately chose books that reinforced the virtues I wanted the kids to emulate. I also chose books based on the beauty of the language and the illustrations. I wanted to cultivate in the kids an appetite for what is good, noble, and lovely. And I succeeded, thus far. The kids shine (I’m going to refrain from obnoxious parental bragging). My thirteen year old girl has found her soul in Anne of Green Gables. Our steady diet of children’s classics has given her a sense of the kind of person she wants to be. She steers clear from reading what she would deem “inappropriate.” She has been free to read whatever she wants to for a while now, but she censors herself.
    On the other hand my seven year old boy has found his soul (vicariously) in the likes of Tom Sawyer or Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows. 😀 But I digress. Back to my Jr. High(er).
    This year I’ve decided to take a different track. I’m throwing in reading that at one time I would have shunned. The discussion on this blog, along with things I’ve read in The Eternal Argument by Robin Finely have been instrumental in influencing my direction. Also, my dd is college bound and I do not want her to be slapped in the face with the realization that “We ain’t in Kansas anymore.” She has always been confident to discuss anything with me and I’m looking forward to the dialogue that is sure to follow her reading.
    Having said that, I do not regret the path I’ve taken with the kids in the early years. Especially when I look back at the mess my uncensored reading habits created in my life during my formative years. I look at the confident, contemplative, well adjusted people the kids are becoming and I can’t help but see a connection between what they have been reading and who they becoming.

    P.S. I want to add that the chronological study of history along with autobiographies of people like Frederick Douglas, Corrie Ten Boom, etc. have kept the kids from being naive about the evil in the world. (I just wanted to add this lest anyone get the idea that the kids are completely sheltered!)

    • emily on July 11, 2013 at 10:55 am

      Thanks, Sharon. So glad you found the discussion useful. I really enjoyed hearing how purposeful you’ve been in choosing your kids’ reading selections.

  9. Betsy on July 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    I’m a bit late to the discussion (we were on the road for a couple of weeks right about the time this first posted). But I wanted to say kudos to both Abby and Jaquelle for being insightful and articulate–especially at your respective ages. I hope my own children grown up to be that mature at your ages, ladies. Thanks for your comments and feedback!

  10. Audrey on July 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    As a christian I often wonder about the role books and movies play in the development of my children. Being the mother of three girls and one boy, just in that order, I realized that the approach I have with each is different due to age, gender, and personality. I believe that honesty is the best approach is all situations, meaning- telling the good and evil. I want them to understand that the “Bad Wolf” does exist so the won’t be blind sided when they enter the real world.

  11. Amie on July 19, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    One of the things I love about the internet is that you can join in later on prior thoughts and take time to think about them!!! Although I have not read Booked, I was reminded of an excellent books on what we read and why we read, specifically written for Christians by a Christian. I am sure Redeemed Reader has referred to Lit by Tony Reinke that is an overt guide on why and how to read widely. The author has taken time to enumerate his own habits as a reader and how and why he chooses what he reads. My rising 8th grader just read it with me prior to her English I class in which she will cover Jane Eyre, TKAM and Romeo and Juliet among other works in general literature. It IS hard to know how to guide burgeoning readers as they grow in their understanding, but it seems foolish to bury one’s head in the sand over themes that are present in Scripture itself and on every other web page be it news or commercial. I know I can’t cover or protect my children from every sentence or read ahead enough, but we are trying to teach them how to think and see the world around them as ALL ordered and directed by God!!

    Thanks to Redeemed Reader for helping this parent be more prepared to direct my children as they read!

  12. emily on July 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Great points, Amie. So happy you joined our conversation. Tony Reinke’s Lit is definitely a good one to read with your teens to help them see the value of reading a variety of books.

  13. Marijo Taverne on July 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    I did think Milton’s argument was opposed to government censorship.

    I do think reading choices are necessarily personal, and that what might be appropriate for one might not be appropriate for another. I think one’s level of spiritual growth and one’s personality will play into figuring out what’s appropriate and what’s not. My own children are very different from one another. I have one who seems quite insensitive to any portrayal of anything frightening, but I have two who are extremely sensitive, whose sleep will be sorely interrupted, if they see anything even remotely frightening.

    I also think back to the very wrong ideas of romantic love I formed when I was addicted to romance novels. But perhaps the problem then was that I was not reading promiscuously, but quite narrowly.

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