In the days since a brutal attack on Salman Rushdie, the world has seen an outpouring of solidarity. The phrase “We are all Salman Rushdie” appeared on Twitter profiles and in countless articles, acknowledging that threats to one person’s freedom of expression are a threat to all.
In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik anticipated efforts “to somehow equalize or level the acts of Rushdie and his tormentors and would-be executioners.” That approach is despicable, he wrote, “because the right to be insulting about other people’s religions…is a fundamental right, part of the inheritance of the human spirit. Without that right of open discourse, intellectual life devolves into mere cruelty and power seeking.”
In The Atlantic, Graeme Wood eviscerated “those who muddle the distinction between offense and violence, and between a disagreement over ideas and a disagreement over whether your head should remain attached to your body.” He continued, “Now that Rushdie’s head has been partially detached, and on American soil, I hope these distinctions will need no further elaboration.”
These articles, like countless others, anticipated mealy-mouthed responses condemning the attacks while suggesting the novelist maybe had it coming. But instead of that debate, the attack has renewed extant culture wars related to moral boundaries and who draws them.
School boards across the country are a particularly combustible battleground. Phrases like “cultural genocide,” “erasure,” “heteronormativity,” and “CRT” are hurled like grenades at board members responsible for adjudicating objections to curricula and library shelves.
Is Huckleberry Finn a racist apologia? Is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings anti-white? Should schools allow Ibram X. Kendi in their libraries? Or Harper Lee? Or Dr. Seuss? Or Ann Coulter? Or Toni Morrison?
Some of these debates might be worth having, but far more often, they illustrate a belief that if we win, we’ll remake the world in our image and keep it that way forever. Losing, though, is just as delicious, confirming our animating grievance and readying us for the next fight.
As a result, all sides in a political debate will make competing claims of victimhood—in this case, who can claim solidarity with Salman Rushdie. “We” (the righteous oppressed) are Rushdie, and “they” (our opposition) are the Ayatollahs.
But thinking of Rushdie that way gets the stakes precisely backward. It’s not that we should stand with Rushdie because he’s innocent and must be defended from injustice. Rather, we should stand with Rushdie because his ideas are dangerous and confront otherwise-settled minds with ambiguity and complexity.
Rushdie believes that stories should provoke, and the best of them always have. In an essay titled “Wonder Tales,” he revisits what inspired him as a child—stories that have captivated readers across continents and centuries. In particular, he examines The Arabian Nights (also called 1,001 Arabian Nights), a 1200-year-old story that stirred its own controversy in Egypt when a new translation was published in 2010.
The story centers on a king and his brother, who kill their unfaithful wives and start a murderous ritual: Every day they marry a virgin, take her to bed, and execute her in the morning.
One of the women, Scheherazade, actually volunteers to be given to the king, and as he drifts off to sleep, she tells him a bedtime story with a cliffhanger. The king is anxious to hear what comes next, so he keeps her alive for one more night. The pattern repeats for 1,001 nights in all. On that final evening, Scheherazade pleads for her life. The king then confesses his love for her and ends his own reign of terror, along with his brother’s.
One can’t overstate the power differential between the tyrannical ruler and his would-be victim, Scheherazade. But she understands something about the world that he never could: Even the most brutal heart can be transformed by the wit and beauty of a good story. As James K. A. Smith once put it, “When our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked.”
The king never stood a chance.
Scheherazade, Rushdie writes, is “telling stories to save her life, setting fiction against death, a Statue of Liberty built not of metal but of words.” She “trusted her imagination to stand against brutality and overcome it not by force but, amazingly, by civilizing it.”
Her character embodies the subversive power of the artist, who responds to injustice and violence with what Makoto Fujimura calls “generative creativity.” She releases something new and beautiful into the world, and it disarms the king.
Similarly, we impoverish our moral imaginations if we think of the Rushdie affair as merely a symbol in the culture war. Those battles are merely about what we defend and attack. Rushdie started healthy trouble because of what he made, and his creative act should remind us of the power of speech, storytelling, and beauty to confront injustice and reveal the world as God intended it.
Christians in particular need this reminder now as much as ever. Faced with a secular onslaught, the church’s witness—simple, repetitive, telling the same story week after week—seems profoundly outmatched. We’re tempted to believe that the right censorship, the right political hero, or the right branding will spark revival and remake our world. But short of Christ’s return, these utopian aspirations will always lead to nowhere.
Instead, we ought to have the greatest confidence in the power of mere speech, even during the absurd and confused times we live in. Even more, we ought to have confidence in the power of story to awaken our humanity, invoke empathy, and reveal our deepest desires.
As a church, we’re bound together through a biblical narrative, and when we read the Gospels or the Book of Acts, we see stories within the story—parables told by Jesus and testimonies by the apostles. It’s almost as if the Author of our sacred texts knew if our imaginations were hooked, we’d be hooked.
J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote to his son Christopher that “man the storyteller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”
Scheherazade’s whispers to a vengeful king reveal the power of narratives to transform the moral imagination. Rushdie has embodied that same courage—by being a storyteller who faced death and didn’t flinch.
Together, they merely hint at a larger drama that can change (and save) the world, and their fortitude reminds us that whatever darkness might confront us, it’s no match for a great story.
Evil doesn’t have a chance.
Mike Cosper is Christianity Today’s director of podcasts.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.