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Book Burning

Book Burning

Did you know that for hundreds of years a Bible in the English language was illegal in England? Throughout the mediaeval period in Europe it was illegal to translate the Bible into any local language. Bibles were written in Latin, which only priests and academics understood. The struggle to translate the Bible into national languages lasted centuries. To our shame England was one of the last nations to allow a Bible in the national language. The story is horrific. Priests were tortured and burned at the stake for the terrible crime of translating the Bible into English. The mediaeval Church hung on to the power of a Latin Bible as long as possible. Clerics realised that if people could read the Bible for themselves, they would see that Church beliefs and practices were not the same as the teachings of Jesus, and they burned people as well as books.

You probably knew this already, but it’s happening all over again. Cancel culture is just another kind of book burning. Books are removed from library shelves, speakers are de-platformed because their views are unacceptable for small vociferous lobby groups. Heretics used to be burned at the stake. Now they are burned in social media. Just a small step further to prohibit religions including ours from sharing their beliefs.

Giving and receiving information is a precious gift. For centuries the main source of news was word of mouth from neighbours. Travellers might bring knowledge from foreign parts that could be as recent as three or four months old—or might be just traveller’s tales! Accurate, timely information was priceless, and it still is. But the answer isn’t to burn the books we decide are wrong.

Dictators hate information they don’t control. A prime target for a coup or invasion is control of information sources: TV, radio, newsprint, internet. Before the electronic age, books and pamphlets were the primary source of information and book burning was a common control of subversive ideas. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had its share of it. As late as the 19th century our books were burned and printing presses destroyed because people disagreed with our doctrine and opposed our teachings.

We think of such things in disbelief as the action of mindless mobs acting from irrational hatred. Yet the cancel culture has been on the march for several years. Whipping up fear and opposition, especially through social media, small groups wield enormous power to deny freedom of expression.

The other day I had a difficult question. I asked Mr. Google, who referred me to Wikipedia, where I found the answer. Miraculous! It took just a few minutes. When I was a schoolboy, my main source of information was an ancient Encyclopaedia Britannica in the school library. Later I discovered that the Town Library kept the latest editions of the main encyclopaedias and I frequently went there for information. When I got married we bought an Encyclopaedia Britannica of our own which served us well for years. But now knowledge is just the tap of a keyboard away.

Towards the end, my hero-worship of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was tarnished somewhat. I discovered by comparing editions that articles changed—not just in newly discovered information but re-writing of old information. This is justified when research reveals inaccuracies, however I studied the development of a topic in which I was an expert: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In my school library’s ancient edition, it was excellent, but subsequent editions were not so correct, even on factual issues like organisational structure. One edition featured an article which seemed to be written by an antagonist—certainly someone who had a very imperfect knowledge of the Church. It was aggravating, but the answer was not, of course, to burn the Encyclopaedia.

Nevertheless, if a bastion of knowledge like the Encyclopaedia Britannica can be wrong, where do we turn? Many gullibly interpret the world through social media trends and the first answer Google throws up. Not a good idea. If something sounds strange or feels false, it probably is. Patient research from other sources called for. A scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants comes to mind.

“And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)

It seems there’s no royal road to learning, even in the digital age. Hard work and diligent effort is still needed, even online. The vast knowledge of the instant internet is beguiling. We’ve come a long way since the Latin Bible, but it’s still wrong to burn the books we don’t like or cancel voices we disagree with. It is, however, easier and safer to join the debate and influence the conversation for good.


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