This week, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Duke University Student Brian Grasso, who created a firestorm over his refusal to read the Duke University summer reading selection, Fun Home. Brian talks about how other Millennials can stand up for their faith on issues within our culture.
INTRODUCTION: Thank you for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Duke University Student Brian Grasso. Brian is a first year student at Duke University, who took a very public stand in opposition to a controversial book chosen for Duke’s summer reading assignment, and as a result, Brian found himself in somewhat of a firestorm.
JOHN RUSTIN: NC Family Communications Director Traci Griggs caught up with Brian between classes recently to find out what motivated him to take this stand and what he’s thinking about that decision now that’s he’s had an opportunity to reflect back upon it. Traci, give us a quick synopsis of what happened here.
TRACI GRIGGS: As you know, many universities issue a summer reading book for their students to read and be ready to discuss when they come back to school in the fall. It’s not unusual for these books to be controversial and generate discussion within the community. This was certainly the case at Duke University this year. The book selection was entitled, Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. I haven’t read it but it’s written by a syndicated cartoonist and is said to be based on her home growing up. However, the book reportedly contains sexually-explicit drawings that some Duke freshman judged to be pornographic. Brian Grasso was one that objected to the book and decided not to read it because, he said it violated his Christian principles. Not only that, he made the courageous decision to go public with that stand. He posted on Duke’s Class of 2019 Facebook page that he was not going to read the book, “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality.” This prompted quite a number of posts on the Facebook page and the student newspaper immediately picked up the story and ran an article on it. Brian was then asked to do a guest editorial for the Washington Post. So, we thought it would interesting to talk to Brian and find out what motivated him to speak up on this issue when so many other young people just went along with the assignment.
JOHN RUSTIN: We can all understand that it’s a tough thing to do. You’re coming in as a freshman at a nationally-recognized, exclusive, private university and, for most students, it would be incredibly tough to take such a public stand for their faith right off the bat. Unfortunately, not everyone was very nice in their response to Brian, as I recall.
TRACI GRIGGS: That’s right. Some people questioned openly if Brian even belonged at Duke because of his stance. He was called narrow-minded, uptight. He was told to “grow up.” But when you talk to him, he is very gracious about even the comments that were critical of him. He considers all of this discussion surrounding the book to be an important exercise in free speech and the first steps toward having more civilized conversation in our society as a whole.
Interestingly, he talks about how the people who disagreed with him, did so in a very public manner. Those however, who agreed with him, often sent him private messages to communicate their support!
JOHN RUSTIN: And unfortunately, Traci, this is probably not an isolated incident that we see here. But it really ties in well with an article that we will be publishing in the upcoming issue of our magazine, Family North Carolina. This article, which written by John Stonestreet, with The Colson Center and Erik Smith, with Summit Ministries, talks about what motivates Millennials, who are young adults aged 18-34, and how older adults can reach out this age group. Based on research and social science, we have reason to be concerned about the direction that many in this age group are going, particularly those who consider themselves to be Christians. So it’s really encouraging to see individuals, like Brian, standing up for their faith.
So, Traci, let’s hear your interview with Brian. I’m interested in seeing what he thinks about his own generation, especially in light of his recent experiences he had at Duke University.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks John. We had a long conversation, but I pulled some excerpts from that discussion. We begin with what happened when he first posted his intentions to not read the book on the Class of 2019 Facebook page.
BRIAN GRASSO: After I first posted it on the Facebook page there were probably 50 or 60 comments just on that post, and the Duke Chronicle contacted me almost immediately asking me to do an article about it. There really was a mix of positive and negative reactions. But generally those who had negative reactions posted publically on the Facebook page and those who had positive reactions messaged me privately and thanked me for my post and said they had similar beliefs. I thought that was a really interesting kind of dynamic that people weren’t willing to speak up what they thought and what they believed on the Facebook page in front of everyone.
I was criticized and still being criticized by many for being closed-minded, bigoted, and had people message me saying things like, “You’ve grown up in a religious bubble and college is about expanding your horizons and how can you consider yourself a Duke student if you’re so closed-minded,” things like that. But again, also very positive things.
There were no academic consequences. And really after I wrote the op-ed for the Washington Post, the atmosphere kind of changed in my favor because a lot of people kind of I think, even people who disagreed with me strongly really kind of acknowledged my rights to kind of believe what I believe after they read that. And that’s a really good thing about Duke, is that it’s a very open-minded campus in general, and really they do promote civil discussion and healthy exchange of ideas.
TRACI GRIGGS: If you had to do it over again, would you handle it the same way?
BRIAN GRASSO: I think I absolutely would. There’s certain times and certain interviews and articles where I think my language could be more precise, even in my op-ed for the Washington Post I think I could have articulated some things better, but as far as standing up for what I believe in and being willing to live publically consistent with what I believe in, then absolutely, I wouldn’t take anything back. And I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had on this campus, because a lot of Christians on campus, Mormons on campus, and conservative Muslims on campus and there’s really this I think kind of growing stigma against conservatives, people who are religious in general. And I think that the conversation needed to be had that you know ideas about the value of sexual purity need to be respected as much as other ideas. And as respected I mean, there should be freedom of speech on this campus, so LGBT clubs should have the right to speak up about their cause as much as conservative organizations. I truly believe that. I had lunch the other day with a friend of mine who I assume he is a Muslim and he talked with me a lot—he’s a sophomore now—about how Duke is just very pro-sex in general, and the culture is just against conservative religious ideals.
TRACI GRIGGS: So why do you suppose you had the courage to speak up in this way when others did not? What was it about your philosophy, faith, upbringing, whatever, that influenced you to be able to speak up in this way?
BRIAN GRASSO: Two main things: Both are deeply connected to my faith: my faith in God and my Christian faith. The primary source of courage I guess you could say is really my belief in God’s presence and His promises. And I truly believe that coming to this campus, even if I do speak up, that I won’t be alone. And so that’s kind of the fear that hinders a lot of people from articulating their thoughts and beliefs in a public place, especially at Duke, where you can receive a lot of intellectual criticism but I do truly believe on a spiritual, personal, intimate level that I won’t be alone on this campus.
I would say the second one is really my community at my hometown. I had a really strong Christian community. I have a very strong, supportive family and that support that I receive from those communities was really what gave me the comfort and the courage to say this is what I believe. It’s not irrational. It’s not dumb. And at the end of the day, if some people don’t like me, then I will still have that community. I will still have the support of my close friends and my close Christian community and my close family.
TRACI GRIGGS: Why do you think it’s important for young people to engage the culture around them and be willing to speak up when they don’t agree?
BRIAN GRASSO: As far as specifically Christians speaking out, our culture is changing rapidly, faster than any other time it seems like in American history. And it’s changing radically, especially with regards to sex and sexuality and dismantling of conservative values and ideals. And for Christians who really believe what they believe about God and about what honors him, there’s a necessity, a moral necessity in speaking out. And speaking out in faith and what God promises, and speaking out encouraged that you’re not going to be alone and that God does provide strength.
TRACI GRIGGS: What do you think is holding many young people back from truly engaging the culture around them in an impactful way?
BRIAN GRASSO: It’s that fear of isolation and that incredible pressure to conform and it has never been more real at any place that I have been to than Duke. It’s such a competitive environment and people, they want to do more than fit in, they want to thrive, they want to win, which is you know that has a healthy place, but I guess for people at Duke specifically are these kind of people. It’s that desire to do well and to fit in, but I think people who don’t have those strong communities to support them. It’s really hindering young people from speaking up. So, if you break the family structure then people I think will be less likely to speak out about their beliefs because they don’t have that support and that community that is unconditional.
TRACI GRIGGS: What kind of encouragement would you have for them to be able to start building that so they can have an impact?
BRIAN GRASSO: I would say, first of all, be intentional about seeking it out. Don’t give in to despair and hopelessness and thinking that there’s not people like you because there are people like you, there are all kinds of people in the world, and really when you’re intentional in seeking out community and persistent in seeking out community, you’ll find community. And that’s really what I found. And if the person’s a Christian, then pray for it, and trust God’s faithfulness to provide community and support. In addition to that, if you’re a Christian, then just rest in God’s promise of His presence and remember that you’re not alone, even if there’s no human being standing beside you, the Creator of the Universe is with you, and so rest in that and let yourself gather strength from that truth.
JOHN RUSTIN: What a great testimony and what a great example Brian is for other young adults to speak Truth into our culture. As I mentioned, we talk about Millennials in an upcoming article in our magazine, Family North Carolina. We know Millennials are expected to pass Baby Boomers in 2015 to become the largest age group in the United States. What else did we learn about Millennials in this article?
TRACI GRIGGS: There are a lot of really interesting statistics in the article, but more than that, they give us some real practical information on how to reach out to Millennials.
That’s a real interesting, new way of looking at Christianity and certainly a way that could have effects on the way they look at a lot of our social issues that we’re so concerned about here at NC Family.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s very true because these statistics aren’t just numbers. They represent the real lives of our youth, our young adults—our future. And so, it is something we are all very interested in and it’s important that we learn, and take seriously, how we can best relate to them. And Traci, thanks so much for this great interview with Brian. We applaud him for the stand he has taken. We encourage other young adults to take opportunities to represent their faith, to stand for their faith, because they can—as Brian has—be a great example to others around them.
And we definitely want to encourage our listeners to keep an eye out for our coming edition of Family North Carolina magazine, which will be hitting their mailboxes around the end of October. If you are currently not on our mailing list to receive our magazine, please sign up to receive our magazine (and email alerts) on our website at NCFamily.org.
And with that, Traci, I want to thank you so much for your time and for the interview you did with Brian. We applaud him and encourage other folks to take a stand!
– END –