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 Postessay, 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.

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Bechdel’s memoir—also a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical—situates her struggle over her identity and sexuality within her father’s struggles with the same. Her life has been shaped by her father’s narcissism, secret sex life with teenage boys, rejection of Bechdel, and eventual abandonment of his family by (apparent) suicide.

When not consumed with the hidden half of his double life, her father obsessively renovates and decorates the family’s old mansion, where the children are merely props. From time to time, when Bechdel’s mother emerges from the shadows of the story, she is too distracted by her involvement in academics and theater to offer much more than a box of sanitary napkins at the necessary time. Bechdel’s father’s suicide, although the final event chronologically, is the story’s centrifugal force, told from the beginning and returned to throughout. His absence—both literal and figurative—is the defining event of the lonely girl’s life.

Bechdel makes no attempt to normalize or excuse the sexual dysfunction throughout. Indeed, not only her father but all the adults around are awash in sexual sin. Even as seemingly banal a thing as a pinup calendar damages the formation of the fragile young girl’s personal and sexual identity. (Given this plot point, it seems ironic for Bechdel to include graphic images in her own book, even if for a different purpose.) Overall, Bechdel’s presentation of this environment of broken sexuality and gender roles is astonishingly honest, reeking of truth to the human experience and the order of reality as God has designed it. Looking back upon the time in her childhood when she began to cultivate her boyishness, she confesses:

I measured my father against the grimy deer hunters at the gas station uptown, with their yellow workboots and shorn-sheep haircuts. And where he fell short, I stepped in ….I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him.

Near the end of the book, as her eyes have become open to her father’s perverse secret life, she writes, longingly, “What is a father? Even the dictionary conveys vagueness and distance.” Eventually, she begins to dress in her father’s clothes. “It’s tempting to say,” Bechdel writes, that her memoir “is, in fact, my father’s story.” That Bechdel comes so close to understanding that all of our stories, are, in fact, found only within the Story of our Father, is evidence of our common grace.

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It’s a macabre—and fitting—twist that the “fun” in the book’s title is short for “funeral”: the author’s father ran the family funeral home, dubbed their “fun home” in which the father’s death is the looming presence. Coincidentally, the day I began reading Fun Home was the same day I saw a cadaver for the first time, while taking a tour of my university’s medical school. As an English professor, books, even controversial ones, seldom shock me. But seeing a cadaver did. It was nothing like I imagined or had seen in movies or on TV. As I gazed with dread at the naked, gray, and gruesome carcass that once had been a human being, I was overcome with awe and gratitude for those called to handle the dead in order to guide the living into better health.

Perhaps the task of critics of film, art, literature, and culture is not so different. Evaluating art and literature might seem unnecessary to human existence, but by making us in his image, God made us sub-creators, and our fall into sin has been reflected in the conflict at the heart of every human story since. Art and literature are thus as necessary to our fallen human condition as are the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker—as well as the doctor and the mortician.

Also necessary, then, are conversations around what constitutes good art, and when and how its power is wielded for harm rather than good. To study the great art of the world is to encounter humanity in its greatest glories and its greatest shames. God shows himself through general revelation (Rom. 1:20), and this includes art and literature. As I describe in my book, Booked, literature is how I found my way back to him.

As the Christian sexual ethic falls out of favor in our culture, Christians can expect more of our neighbors to depart from the biblical design for sex. Thus, these conversations around Fun Home, perhaps even more than the book itself, can yield fruitful questions about the role and limits of art and literature within the grand Story of God’s plan for humankind—and opportunities to model in our own lives God’s purpose and design.

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