Yes, Those Duke Freshmen Should Read Fun Home

A while back, USAToday published an article about a group of Christian freshmen at Duke University refusing to read Fun Home, the graphic memoir written by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and Bechdel Test creator, Alison Bechdel. Fun Home chronicles Bechel’s turbulent relationship with her father, and is filled with lucid reflections on her own sexuality.

Freshman Brian Grasso, posting In Duke’s Class of 2019 Facebook page, claimed reading the book would “compromise [his] personal Christian moral beliefs,” primarily due to Bechdel’s “graphic visual depictions of sexuality.” When Duke’s Common Experience Selection committee chose to assign the novel, Grasso claimed, they must not have had conservative students like him in mind.

Understandably, some students expressed disappointment with the Grasso’s stance, as Bechdel’s work addresses such critically important issues as sexuality, identity, and family. Where can students discuss this type of subject matter openly if not in colleges and universities?

Even from a Christian’s point of view, Fun Home seems like a strange hill to die on. After all, if Grasso and company think Fun Home is bad, they’re in for one hell of a surprise when they open their Bibles.

Genesis 19, Judges 19, Song of Solomon, 1 Samuel: all of these contain depictions of sexual acts far more offensive to the average evangelical’s sexual sensibilities than Fun Home. Father offering up virgin daughters for gang rape by murderous mob? That’s OK, just no pictures, please!

Laura Turner concludes her treatment of this story with an important lesson for Christians embedded in institutions of higher education:

…as with all things, context matters, and Fun Home depicts sex in a way that makes perfect sense within its context. Reading things we disagree with is part of becoming an adult, and certainly part of becoming a college student. If even the Bible addresses sex in explicit, disturbing, and confusing ways, then Christians ought to be able to read this graphic memoir, even if they object to parts of it, and learn something more.

I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. As a Christian who studied sociology (a largely secular discipline) at UC Berkeley (a largely secular university), I regularly encountered beliefs and assumptions that ran counter to my accepted worldview. This experience was not without its challenges, and for a while I struggled to reconcile these dueling identities. Was I a Christian, or was I a sociologist? The two seemed mutually exclusive.

However, over time, something wonderful happened. God started to meld these two parts of me into a cohesive whole. I now see my “sociological imagination” — a quality developed in the proverbial pit of atheistic social science — as an integral part of my faith. It’s now a core component of who I am and how I relate to the world.

I’m convinced reading Marx, Bourdieu, and Foucault made me a better Christian. I’m also convinced our God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, is big enough to affect growth in the lives of these Duke freshmen through the work of Alison Bechdel. However, experiencing this growth will require the students to suspend knee-jerk aesthetic and moralistic judgments in favor of earnest, empathic understanding.

Reading people like Bechdel in this way — with an eye for what they can teach us instead of what we can teach them — has an added benefit for Christians. It demystifies our religious or moral outsiders, allowing us to understand the world, including ourselves, from their point of view. This is a crucial component of loving these outsiders well, as Jesus commanded (Mark 12:31).

The reality is Fun Home has a lot to teach us. Alex Abad-Santos and Libby Nelson offered some reflections on the book’s artistic merits over at Vox (emphasis mine):

Bechdel is showing a human side to this relationship. It’s not nudity for the sake of being nude — it’s an intimate moment. The sex isn’t the destination of this memory; it’s just one part of Bechdel’s bigger story. Taking these panels and making them the thrust of Fun Home is like taking three notes of a song and making a judgment on an opera. It’s not a fair way to look at the book… This art is a retelling of Bechdel’s life, and it requires her to be a storyteller, a visual artist, and, in some ways, a journalist or record-keeper. Fun Home is the epitome of Bechdel’s genius.

Fun Home has the potential to make these Duke students better humans and, I would argue, better Christ-followers. For this reason alone I say: sit down and read the damn book!