This weekend, as a way of rewarding myself for schlepping two weeks’ of trash and recylables to the dump, I visited the swap shop, where stuff that’s not quite garbage can be had for free. I found a much-needed chair (we go through chairs like Kleenex at our house - -and yes, I do mean that some of us wipe our noses on chairs), a couple of wine glasses, and a jackpot: two complete sets of Phillip Pulman audio books. Score!
Philip Pullman is the guy who said,“The Lord of the Rings’ is essentially trivial. . . If I was [arguing] at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with.” And so my bibliophagous kids harbor a deep, glowering resentment of Philip Pullman. They had a wonderful time pulling the tape out of the cassettes, whacking the plastic into shards with a ball peen hammer, saying, “Ball peen hammer, heh heh heh,” and, as a grand finale, shooting the display carton with Daddy’s BB gun.
I realize that this barbaric display puts us in with a rather ratty crowd, especially since I’ve never actually read Philip Pullman. But he’s not shy about stating that his intention was to turn readers away from a belief in God and organized religion in general. Of the Church, he says, “I hope the wretched organisation will vanish entirely.”
Now, I don’t believe, on general principle, on smashing everything I don’t agree with. I can imagine learning a lot from Mein Kampf or a Jack Chick tract. And I see how good can be derived from all sorts of suspect and unsavory sources; and I don’t believe that the Church will crumble under even an army of Philip Pullmans.
I do expose my kids, when they’re ready, to ideas that are contrary to what we believe. On the other hand, one essential way to make them ready is to instill a deep, visceral, emotional loyalty to the ideas which are true (such as: there is a God, the Church is not evil or repressive, and Tolkein could kick Philip Pullman’s bony atheist hinder without even putting his pipe down).
Also, I got these books at the dump. They’re mine. Not everything I do is representative of a general principle, and yet I still sleep at night. Consistent? Who cares? We got rid of some trash, and now the world is less trashy. I don’t think I had an obligation to get rid of these books, or even that I did something virtuous; but I also don’t believe we did anything wrong by treating them like things that have no reason to exist. Just taking out the trash.
Books we don’t like are one thing—you could argue for or against keeping them around. Sometimes it’s more straightforward, though. For instance, if someone gives my daughters trashy clothes (not just tacky clothes, but the ones which imply that they’ll be making some money down at the wharf tonight), I throw them away, because nobody’s daughters should be wearing clothes like that. These clothes have no reason to exist, so I throw them away.
These matters are pretty easy, because it has to do with how I decide to deal with my own possessions. But how about this? Imagine you’re working in the stock room of a convenience store, and you unpack a small shipment of extremely explicit pornographic key chains. Without even thinking, you take the box and dump them in the trash. Nobody needs this stuff. There is no possible way that it could do good, and if you leave it be, it will certainly do someone serious harm. It’s trash, no one should have it, and the world is now a little less trashy.
But! You say. That was someone’s private property! You have no right to throw out something like that, even if you are perfectly right in objecting to it. A clear violation of the seventh commandment.
I know, but what about if what you found was a bomb? Assuming that you had the capability to do it safely, wouldn’t you be obligated to get rid of this thing? Of course you would—because nobody needs it, there is no possible way that it could do good, and if you leave it be, it will certainly do someone serious harm.
Nobody says that a bomb is personal property, and nobody in his right mind would convict a bomb squad of, for instance, theft or destruction of private property. No one would expect you to go to confession for “stealing” a bomb.
So, what is the general principle here? How do you decide what is harmless trash, trash that might do some good, trash that is not your problem, and trash that has no right to exist? Tell!