The memoir Fun Home, by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, made news this summer when a Duke University student chose not to read the book as part of the freshman reading program. He shared his decision with classmates in a closed Facebook group, citing passages of the graphic novel that included illustrated sex scenes. By the time national media picked up on the news, the controversy mushroomed into a debate over Christian censorship.
Despite the exaggerated headlines, the Duke freshman at the center of the story doesn’t take issue with narratives from LGBT authors or ideas that oppose his worldview. As he explained in a nuanced and reasoned Washington Post essay, his decision not to read Fun Home comes out of a distinction between words and images.
When I was a college freshman, my psychology professor showed a documentary about sex. His matter-of-fact warning that the film was “explicit” didn’t prepare me for what appeared on the screen. Within a few minutes, I made my way to the back and left the room. Thirty years later, I still remember the images. So I sympathize with the Duke student.
After praising his essay and sharing it with my own students, I found myself in the midst of a bigger discussion about Fun Home, cultural engagement, literature, pornography, and Christian responsibility. Works that explore issues of sex and sexuality need not be entirely off-limits to Christian readers; in certain cases, we stand to gain valuable insights about the consequences of sexual and relational brokenness from them. At the same time, we must not allow our exposure to sexual sin (whether through art or in real life) to turn into participation in it. As Christians, where do we draw the lines? And how do we honor Christ and one another—rather than shaming one another—as our conscience prompts us to either engage with or refrain from such challenging material?
I read the book. And I ultimately agree with the Duke student: Fun Home contains one page of drawings that are sexually explicit, and for that reason, I can’t endorse it. Bechdel’s valuable insights, for me, were marred by gratuitous sexual images during a short passage in an otherwise beautiful story. Still, I’m not surprised that Alan Jacobs reported having “some of the best discussions of the semester” when he taught the book as part of Baylor University’s Great Texts program. Fun Home surprisingly affirms the Christian understanding of the family, the formation of identity, and the devastating consequences of sexual sin.
Karen Swallow Prior