This spring, T.J. Martinson received a job offer to teach English at Olivet Nazarene University, a religious school outside Chicago where he, his parents, and his grandparents all attended. No doubt he was excited about the opportunity as a newly minted Ph.D.
But last month, before even stepping foot in a classroom, Martinson was told he was fired. All because of a novel he published in March called The Reign of the Kingfisher. (A novel, mind you. Not a memoir or a work of non-fiction or anything else that suggests his own beliefs.)
The Chicago Tribune‘s Jennifer Day explains:
… Martinson said he was notified on June 28 that ONU was rescinding its job offer, citing complaints that his novel contained profanity and other elements that conflict with the school’s religious doctrine. Although the university will pay him for the yearlong contract, he said, he would not be allowed to teach.
Martinson said he was told that “a constituent” had raised concerns that portions of his novel demonstrated a lack of Christian morals, citing swearing in the book as well as its portrayal of a lesbian character and prostitution. “One of the more puzzling critiques,” Martinson wrote in a Facebook post about the matter, “concerned a character, who, when presented with the option, decides to hope instead of pray.” Martinson said these concerns were relayed by Carol Summers, ONU vice president for academic affairs…
ONU’s University Life Handbook states the university “fully supports the principles and standards set forth by the Church (of the Nazarene) concerning media productions which produce, promote or feature the violent, the sensual, the pornographic, the profane or the occult, and thus undermine God’s standard of holiness of heart and life. These types of productions should be avoided.”
Summers, by the way, had not read the novel.
Martinson made it clear on Facebook that he held no grudges, but he didn’t agree with the decision.
Regarding the profanity in the book? “I had difficulty envisioning a homicide detective looking at a crime scene and saying ‘goshdarnit.'”
The sex worker? “Someone please inform the various writers of the Bible, or at least take out all references to Rahab and Mary Magdalene.”
The lesbian character? “Fictional though she may be, she’s based in the reality of a population whose strength and integrity in the face of continued oppression and prejudice amazes and inspires me to be a better person and to be an ally in any way I can be.” (He added that his allyship was known to administrators when they hired him.)
Hoping instead of praying? “… [T]his particular character is an avowed atheist… To have her pray seemed… out of character.”
While the school has a right to set its own behavioral standards and codes, to suggest that the beliefs and actions of fictional characters all have the endorsement of the author is to completely misunderstand how literature works. As Martinson explained, “The goal of fiction is not to reveal yourself to a reader, but rather reveal to the reader the world they live in in a way they may have never encountered, or thought of, before.”
To suggest that there’s something wrong with even writing about these characters, whose thoughts and deeds don’t reflect the self-described morals of a Christianity university, means the school would rather keep students and staff in a fantasy world from which they can never escape. At some point, the students will come into contact with outsiders. The ability to understand and empathize with them is crucial, even to conservative Christians. (How else can you convert them?)
The real world is R-rated. So is the Bible. And the rape and genocide in Scripture are far more graphic and disturbing than anything in Martinson’s novel.
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