Rumination No. 35: Hotel Literature

For as long as I’ve been staying in hotels, I’ve been fascinated by the ubiquitous Holy Bible from The Gideons in bedside tables and cabinets. Open a drawer and you’re likely to find one sitting there, waiting to be opened.

This came to mind again as I am currently away for work and staying in a hotel. Whilst I’ve always noticed them, this time I thought about it a bit more deeply. Why are they there?

With a simple search, I found the website for the The Gideons International in Australia. On their About Us page, they explain who they are:

The Gideons International in Australia often reaches people who have no contact with churches and who otherwise might not have been reached for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, they outline what they do:

We place the Word in the busy traffic lanes of life such as in hotels and motels, hospitals, prisons and correctional centres, medical waiting rooms and domestic violence shelters. For our members, it is exciting, enriching and encouraging to do this work.

As an atheist in the year 2019, I can’t help but be disappointed by this way of thinking. For all of the seemingly good intention that is expressed here in trying to help people, there is an arrogance in their actions.

In the first quoted section, I take issue with this phrase: ‘…and who otherwise might not have been reached by the Lord Jesus Christ’. What if people don’t want to be reached by Jesus? It may come as a surprise to some Christians but hotels are often used by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and people of numerous other belief systems. Whilst it is naturally anyone’s own choice as to whether they open and read the Bible that is placed in a drawer, there is a kind of pushiness in its placement.

Second, in placing these books in areas of relative social isolation, such as hospitals, prisons, hotels and waiting rooms, The Gideons must be aware that they are manipulating people when they are removed from that which is comfortable and familiar.

Christians, or indeed people of just about any faith, are quick to point out that their respective texts hold ‘all the answers’. They don’t. When people are in the ‘busy traffic lanes of life’, they don’t need to be fed answers about what is supposedly right or wrong according to one particular belief system. We see the same thing from frequent online users of social media—whether there is an argument about politics, religion, media or technology, people often believe that they have all the answers about what is right and wrong and will battle fiercely to assert their correctness.

What if, instead, we taught people to think and ask questions? What if, in these ‘busy traffic lanes of life’, we slowed down not to read one narrow view of the world, but consider numerous possibilities?

There are realms of human society beyond religion that offer these possibilities: consider philosophy, ethics and science. Imagine the surprise if hotel patrons were to open a bedside table drawer and see a text by Richard Dawkins, Naomi Klein, Stephen Hawking or Friedrich Nietzsche. Imagine if someone were to pick up a book that encouraged them to question their own belief system and accepted norms, such as God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens or Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton.

Many would look at The Gideons’ work and say that is it is enriching and generous. Like the work of many churches, I would argue that it is in fact calculated and patronising. Rather than approaching the lonely and vulnerable and claiming to have all the answers for them, why not help them to learn how to think for themselves? Critical thinking empowers people to understand their place in the world, accept difference and learn how to work with others.

Let’s leave this biblical anachronism behind.