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Church hosts conversation on Maus after book's removal from schools

Maus
This illustration photo taken in Los Angeles, California on January 27, 2022, shows a person holding the graphic novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. |

An Episcopal congregation in Tennessee hosted a community conversation about the recent decision of a local school board to remove the graphic novel Maus from its school curriculum in addition to discussing the lessons that the book and the Holocaust can teach Christians.

At a Jan. 10 meeting, the Athens-based McMinn County School Board voted unanimously to remove Maus from its middle school curriculum due to concerns over graphic adult content in the book, specifically “eight curse words” and a picture of a naked woman committing suicide by cutting herself with a razor blade.

The school board elaborated on the motivation behind its decision to remove the graphic novel centered on the Holocaust from the eighth-grade language arts curriculum in a Jan. 27 statement. 

“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves,” the school board said. “The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and nudity. Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.”

The book's removal garnered national outrage, leading many to buy the book as a form of protest and putting the graphic novel on the best-seller charts.

In the wake of this backlash, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Athens held an online conversation last week with nearly 100 local participants about the narrative of the popular Art Spiegelman book. 

The stated purpose of the discussion was to engage in a discussion about “Maus, Holocaust education, visual storytelling, and how Christians might engage this text with attention to our own history, theology, and spiritual call.”

Participants included Dr. Jack Seitz of Tennessee Wesleyan University, graphic novelist Nate Powell and the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School. 

The Rev. Claire Brown, the rector of St. Paul’s, told Episcopal News Service that she considered the community conversation to have been “warm and curious and generous” in its tone.

“We really wanted to protect the space to be focused in on our local county,” Brown said, adding that she wanted those involved to know “that they had a safe space to share and learn together.”

Throughout the event, speakers and community members made the case that Maus was a valuable tool to help students learn about the Holocaust and elaborated on the positive impact the graphic novel had on their lives.

Winner provided suggestions on how Christians should take what they learn from Maus and apply it to their lives as Christians.

“What does Christianity have to say about our capacity for mass murder?”  she asked. “One of the most fundamental damages produced by sin is a desire to dominate one another.” 

“Since one human being can’t in fact ever manage to fully dominate another human being, what human beings sometimes do in the face of frustrated desire for domination is kill,” she said. “We see this in Scripture, as early as the story of Cain and Abel.”

“Christian reflection on Maus might open up into reflection on the account that Christianity gives of human beings, from what kind of creatures human beings are and of what it is to be a human being," Winner continued.

She encouraged Christians to reflect on “the role of the Church and Christianity in the Holocaust,” maintaining that Christians held anti-Jewish attitudes and committed crimes against Jews in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust. 

The Christian Post reached out to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for comment. The Rev. Claire Brown of St. Paul’s replied that she was not available to comment.

Kyle Smith of The National Review wrote a recent column in which he was critical of the coverage the Maus removal story got, especially how many outlets called it a “ban.”

“The book was not banned,” wrote Smith. “Students in McMinn Country are free to buy and read the book. It remains available in local public libraries.”

“If not being on a curriculum means it is ‘banned,’ then so is every other book not on any school’s curriculum," he added. 

Smith also alleged hypocrisy on behalf of media members who criticized McMinn County Schools, as a left-leaning school board in Washington state that removed To Kill a Mockingbird due to concerns about racial sensitivity received little attention or criticism for their actions.

“Needless to say, almost nobody — not CNN, not the Washington Post, not the New York Times — reported the Washington school board’s actions as a ‘ban,’” he added.

Instead, Smith reported, CNN media reporter Brian Stelter contended that “Fox recently hyped a Washington state school district’s action against To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Neither Stelter nor anyone else at the CNN site can be found explaining what that action was, much less explaining why it is less notable than the Tennessee school board’s move against Maus, which has inspired at least five major stories on CNN.com and has been mentioned prominently in several others," Smith alleged. 

The removal of Maus from the middle school curriculum in McMinn County comes as parents across the U.S. have expressed outrage about the material their children are exposed to in school.

Stacy Langton, a parent in Fairfax County, Virginia, attended a school board meeting in her county to express outrage about the presence of two books, Gender Queer and Lawn Boy, in the school district’s libraries.

“Both books describe different acts,” she explained. “One book describes a fourth-grade boy performing oral sex on an adult male. The other book has detailed illustrations of a man having sex with a boy.” 

Langton likened the books to pornography and contended that the school district was promoting pornography and pedophilia by allowing the books to remain in the school district libraries. The books were removed from the school district libraries for a time but were reinstated following a review. 

In addition to Langton, the mayor of Hudson, Ohio called on the school board in his city to resign for allowing a book containing sexually explicit writing prompts to be included in a college-level English class offered at the district’s high school.

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