So far, 2022 has been the year of book bans. School districts have banned books on sensitive topics and lawmakers have pushed forward legislation that gives parents the right to sue schools if their child is exposed to "obscene" content in the classroom. The state of Florida has passed new legislation, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which attempts to prevent educators from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students in kindergarten through the third grade. The state of Texas is defining gender-affirming care as “child abuse.” There is a common thread in these attacks: Conservatives are using censorship and the “family regulation system” to prevent marginalized people from controlling the narrative of their own stories.
For example, Tennesee's McMinn County School Board banned Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir Maus, labeling some of the content as “inappropriate.” Authors Gwen C. Katz and A.R. Vishny wrote about the banning of Maus as an example of “pajamafication.” Pajamafication is a term used to describe the softening of literature used to “introduce students to difficult historical topics” such as the Holocaust.
In a viral thread, Twitter user Taber Bain (@cakesandcourage) pointed out that the power of Maus is that “it’s told from the perspective of a Jew, and it’s told Jewishly,” making it uncomfortable for white Christian audiences because it does not have an arc of justice or redemption. The way that Maus delivers its narrative protests Christian hegemonic narratives of redemption and forgiveness.
Storytelling can be a way of reclaiming power as stories help us establish reality and make meaning of our lives. Stories can prevent us from repeating human atrocities, but only if we allow those stories to be told without softening or “pajamafying” them. For stories to function as resistance, those telling their stories must determine not only what stories are told, but how they are told.
The way we tell our stories not only impacts the way we understand history but also the way we understand identity. Gender expression is deeply shaped by the stories we tell. Our dominant narratives around gender expression communicate that gender exists on a binary. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is not only an attack on LGBTQ children but also an attempt to exert control over people, including children, who are challenging gendered ways of storytelling and meaning-making. The insistence on associating queerness with adulthood and the discomfort of believing that children can know that they are trans is an attempt to impose a heterosexual narrative onto younger generations.
Decolonial theologian Maria Lúgones challenges these narratives around heterosexuality in her article “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.” She argues the insistence that gender expression conform to a neat binary is a product of white European colonizers. Colonizers imposed this narrative upon Indigenous people whose gender expressions did not fit neatly into hierarchical structures.
This has real costs: Lúgones observes that the gender binary and the category of “woman” developed in a certain way as a result of the Americas being colonized. Ultimately, to be identified as a “woman” under colonization required that the person be a white, colonizing woman — Indigenous women disappeared from the dominant narrative imposed by colonization. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality deals with this problem as well: If your identity doesn’t fit into the categories established by the dominant culture, your experiences get lost when efforts to combat oppression only address one category at a time. Identities that challenge dominant ways of thinking and living can disappear into the interstices of the stories that get told.
Through reclaiming missing stories and telling our own stories in terms that undermine dominant narratives, we affirm our humanity and agency, our ability to resist and interpret our lives as meaningful. We must theologically interrogate the way we tell stories and the temptation to censor marginalized people’s perspectives and histories in favor of a dominant narrative. This is because stories cut to the heart of how humans, created in the image of God, make meaning out of what happens to us.
There is perhaps not a more poignant example of this storytelling-as-resistance than the book of Job.
In biblical scholar Edward L. Greenstein’s Job: A New Translation, he observes how Job’s friends try to impose a narrative on him that explains away his suffering as a just response from God. According to them, Job’s punishment is either due to Job’s sinfulness or that of his children (8:4, 11:6). Job’s friends also posit that his suffering is a challenge that will be easily overcome because God always acts justly to the righteous (4:7-9; 5:18-27). But Job insists on telling his own story, which starkly contradicts the narrative his friends are forcing on him. What makes this story intriguing is that not only does Job dare to argue with his friends but he demands an audience with God (23:3-5).
Job demands an answer from God, and insists on telling his story — both to God and humanity — without censorship or softening. Job’s demand is an epistemological act of resistance as much as an ethical one. Said differently, Job’s claim is not only that he is innocent but that he has the right to be heard.
Greenstein emphasizes this, writing that “the theme of the book is … truth in God-talk.” He says, “Job gets his insights from experience.” In Greenstein’s translation and interpretation, God’s response to Job — emphasizing God’s freedom and power to act — is amoral, and Job’s final response to God is not acquiescence to God’s claims of power but insistence on sticking to his own story — for which God commends him for his honesty (42:1-7). As journalist Abraham Riesman puts it in a recent essay on Greenstein’s translation, at the end of Job, “God is not praising Job’s ability to suffer and repent. He’s praising him for speaking the truth about how awful life is.” Ultimately, Job is only vindicated in and by telling his own story.
When reading Job, we are tempted to reduce the ancient text to a story that fits within a comfortable framework: We want to “pajamafy” Job’s narrative. In the same way it is a mistake to ban, censor, or soften the stories of marginalized people now, it is also a mistake to do this with the narrative of Job.
In modern society, as well as in the story of Job, justice for the oppressed requires an affirmation of the stories they tell about their own communities. Radical honesty demands a multiplicity of stories, giving people the power to narrate their own experiences. When we seek to soften, control, or tell those stories on our own terms, we take on the role of Job’s friends, imposing a narrative that prioritizes our own understanding and privilege. For the powerful, relinquishing the act of control over the stories of others is an act of reparation. For the marginalized, claiming their stories is an act of liberation.