Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should Fiction Be Safe? Conclusion

So today I learn that in a recent sermon Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hills Church called Avatar “satanic”. Well, actually, he called it “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve seen.”

I don’t know what Pastor Driscoll’s point was in his sermon, and I’m not bringing this up to discuss whether or not he was wise to voice his opinion in such a strident way. Rather, I want to return to the discussion about safe fiction.

First, one more news item related to the “safe fiction” topic. It seems Barnes & Noble has added reviews from Common Sense Media Web site, and this has upset some writers: “The way the book reviews seemed to suddenly appear on BN.com and the fact that they seemed to emphasize negative subjects like sex, violence, drinking, and drugs over subject matter, raised a red flag for some readers” (excerpt from “Common Sense Raises Issues at B&N” by Judith Rosen — Publishers Weekly, 2/23/2010).

I think these two articles illustrate in real-life settings the problem with seeking after “safe fiction.” For one thing stories are layered. On the surface are the behaviors we can readily see such as sex and violence and bad language—things the Common Sense reviews would flag.

Below that, however, lie attitudes characters might espouse. As one commenter noted over at Novel Journey in a discussion about Avatar, a movie like Twilight shows all kinds of unhealthy attitudes toward love. Yet it’s gotten a pass from many Christian parents because the characters don’t have sex.

But there’s another layer—that of the worldview espoused through the story. As Brian Godawa says in his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books), we need to look behind the art to the worldview.

Given all the ways in which a movie or book can go astray, can we ever really confidently say a story is “safe”? Here’s a part of Godawa’s conclusion:

The fact is, there is nothing perfect in this life. We live in a fallen world. Everything and everyone is tainted by sin, even those with whom we agree. Even Christian media are not exempt from imperfection. No Christian sermon, book or movie is completely unstained by our fallen-ness.

In other words, there really is no such thing as “safe fiction.” And by declaring a work of art “safe,” we are basically telling the audience they can turn off their discernment radar. No need to think about this book or movie or TV show because Someone Important has pre-approved it as safe.

From where I sit, picking up any book or viewing any movie with my brain in neutral because what I’m about to consume is “safe” puts me at the greatest risk of undo influence.

An author maybe withheld all the cuss words in a story, and there’s no sex or violence, but is there greed? Snobbery? Bullying? If so, then those books aren’t safe. Teens who long to fit in can get all the wrong messages about what it takes to be a part of the In Crowd from such a “safe” piece of fiction.

We Christians need to be thinking about the stories we consume. We need to compare the values and worldviews with those of the Bible. And we need to teach the next generation to go and do likewise.

9 Comments

  1. A lot of “safe” fiction is also, unfortunately, insipid. And overall, I don’t think it’s “safe” to feed ourselves a mostly sentimental, simplistic view of the world — one that neither braces nor builds our inner resources. My two cents :).

    I actually popped over here to say that I’ve reviewed “Raven’s Ladder,” and I thought you might be interested: http://www.rachelstarrthomson.com/2010/02/ravens-ladder-a-review/

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  2. Great post.
    As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I’m always struggling with how to incorporate Christian themes in my writing. Do the characters have to be goodie too shoes? Boring! How can you have redemption without flaws? Can a story be “Christian” where there is no redemption, where the character fails to see the error of his ways? I say yes, the cautionary tale. The Bible is full of them. I’m not saying Common Sense is completely without merit, I don’t really know much about the group, but we writers have to give credit to readers, especially adult readers, as to being able to discern what is good and bad behaviour and what lessons to take away from what they read. On a related note, I’ll be reviewing Burn on my magazine New Myths in a couple of weeks. In it we follow a woman who makes one bad choice after another, ultimately resulting in the death of over 130 people. It turns out we are following her “bad” half. Is it a Christian story? Yes. We don’t find out until the final pages, but it definitely is.
    Scott

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  3. Thanks for this honest insight Becky. I agree…we all need to tune our radars to Biblical Standards. It’s not such an easy task when so much of our society is entertainment oriented…see every movie, read every book, watch every show.

    When you start weeding things out, prepare to receive negative “flack” from those who don’t understand..and believe me they won’t. I’ve gone many rounds with my extended family over this, and now my children are mature enough to understand the “why” behind our choices, and they are beginning to make good choices of their own. For us, we strived to teach personal choices and not judgemental rants. One works, the other divides.

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  4. Rachel, thanks for the link to your review. I hope you have more to say when CSFF tours the book.

    I hadn’t really thought of safe fiction as simplistic before, but if that’s true, then it illustrates my point. Even the works that get the stamp of approval for being “clean” may have a worldview that is not true, making them as dangerous—or more so—to spiritual growth as any other piece of fiction we ingest without discernment.

    All of what we experience, I believe, needs to be see through the lens of God’s authoritative Word.

    Becky

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  5. Scott, thanks for your input. You’re asking the hard questions, I think. And I agree with your conclusions, though personally I like the stories that end happily. I don’t see cautionary tales ending that way most of the time. It’s like the book of Judges. Some horrific stories there to show what it looked like when everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Not happy reading. Not inspirational or up lifing, but necessary.

    Let me know when that issue of New Myths comes out.

    Becky

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  6. Kim, it’s not easy for parents, certainly. I was raised as a cultural anorexic, but when I got to college I quickly switched to a glutton. Until one day, I felt sick. A movie I’d seen had no redeeming value and it advocated all kinds of things I stood against. I couldn’t figure out why I should waste my time like that again. I made the decision then to consider what I should or should not see.

    Reading took a little longer to get to, but eventually I realized I needed to take a critical look at what I was ingesting. TV was probably the last and hardest because it introduces a worldview that is contradictory to Scripture in such small increments, it’s hard to detect at times.

    Anyway, Kim, I appreciate your interaction with this post.

    Becky

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  7. No worries, Becky, I will have plenty more to say :).

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  8. Good thought provoker! Unfortunately, most believers (and non-believers) – that is, most people, are sheep! They do not think. If a film is impacting society in a big way, we need to see it in a big way. I don’t mean that we run out and watch every film produced or follow the trends of the world without thought, but Christians are far too prudish!

    Okay, Avatar promotes an animistic worldview. Did it sway me to being an animist? No! It DID help me to see what Cameron believes and what he is trying to sway the world toward. It is those without any mooring who will wash out to sea and end up in a place they cannot locate on the map.

    Speaking of reading books – We all need to read UNchristian by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group. Kinnaman points out that we Christians have an image problem in the world. The reality is, the world sees us for what we are far more clearly than we see ourselves. Let that sink in a bit. They see things about us that do not jive with Jesus.

    We have a certain way of digesting Scripture, of organizing our lives, that is ONEROUS and NOXIOUS to the world — far from being a “sweet aroma”. If we want to know what this is, we need to LISTEN to what the world says and quit being such prudes. Read Kinnaman’s book. Listen to what the world says about life (ie: watch films, such as Avatar). No, it will NOT incrementally kill you! You are only lead away if you WANT to be lead away. Relax!

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  9. […] “I don’t know what Pastor Driscoll’s point was in his sermon, and I’m not bringing this up to discuss whether or not he was wise to voice his opinion in such a strident way. Rather, I want to return to the discussion about safe fiction.” Read More […]

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