Discernment And Culture

In a week or so Disney is set to release the movie Beauty And The Beast. Recently the news broke that one of the characters is gay and that a scene occurs in the movie that makes this fact clear. Talk has begun among some Christians that it’s time to “give up on Disney.”

In response, I wrote a post today at Speculative Faith that said, in essence, we need to realize that sinful acts take place in most, if not all, secular entertainment. We need to stop putting one sin on the top as if it’s the unpardonable sin, we need to open our eyes and see the sin in all the stories we read or watch, and we need to think about how those stories agree or disagree with what the Bible says.

On one hand people can take what I wrote about Beauty And The Beast and think I am being charitable toward a movie made by a secular company for a secular audience with a decidedly secular agenda as part of the story. In contrast, I raised more questions about The Shack, a movie written from a book by a professing Christian about a man who finds relationship with God, despite the great tragedy in his life.

So what’s with that? Are my expectations higher for a movie about God?

Maybe. But my cry is and has been for us to read and view stories with discernment. Discernment is even one of the topics under which I file my posts. In one older article I defined discernment and took great pains to explain what I believe about it and its importance.

I can summarize all that more succinctly here: discernment is the ability to spot truth and error. As a Christian I believe the only way to spot truth and error is by holding up God’s word, which is Truth, and using it as the standard.

So when discussing the two movies in question, I have to know first if the Bible says anything about the issues that the movies raise. In regard to Beauty And The Beast, the central issue is the nature of love. Does the Bible deal with the nature of love? It does in deed: parental love, God’s love, love between friends, love for an enemy, love for a spouse, love for a neighbor. Yes, the Bible speaks to the nature of love, so it certainly would provide a standard by which Beauty And The Beast can be compared.

And what if the movie agrees with the Bible’s standard for the most part but has errors in one minor relationship? This is where discernment comes in. My contention is that Beauty And The Beast deserves the same treatment as other books or stories or movies: we Christians recognize what is sinful, call it sin, expose it as behavior that is not desirable or godly, and weigh that fact along with the rest of the story. In some cases and for some people, the sin revealed outweighs any benefit. For others, it may not.

I’ll give a for instance. When I was in college I had to read Emile Zola’s Germinal for a history class. It was not a pretty story, but I learned more about how someone who is hopeless thinks and feels and looks at life than I could have ever learned apart from going through such an experience myself. For me, I could identify the sin and grieve over it for those poor lost people—fictional characters who nevertheless represented real people. Would I recommend that book to everyone? No. It’s sort of like staring at a head on collision on the freeway. Some of us look away because the images will stay with us in an unhealthy way. (I saw enough of those crashes in Driver’s Ed to last my lifetime).

But back to the two movies in question. The second, The Shack, deals with the relationship of man with God. That’s the whole story really. In the midst of pain and suffering, where is God and does He matter?

Clearly the Bible has a LOT to say about a relationship with God. We have examples (Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Daniel, and more). We have prayers and answers to prayer. We have prophets reporting what God says, what His judgments are, and why. We have Jesus, God in the flesh, the image of the invisible God, the one who told His disciples they knew the Father because they knew the Son.

So, yes, we can hold the Bible up as the standard by which we can measure a story about a relationship with God.

Again, discernment is in order. First, we need some working knowledge of the Bible if it is to be our standard. Just because something touches us on the emotional level does not make it true! I was so happy for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she fell in love with . . . the John she’s spent a week with! It was a true Prince Charming story because he rescued her out of prostitution. After he used her as a prostitute for a week! I mean, really? Is that true love? But it was heart warming and had such a happy ending. Didn’t that make it all an example of what true love looks like? NO!

So one of the important things, maybe one of the hardest things, in discernment is to recognize that an emotional response does not validate the truth or the error depicted in the story. What validates truth is the solid rock of God’s word. So how does The Shack measure up to the truth about God revealed in Scripture. And I don’t mean the peripheral things—the metaphorical representation of the trinity, for instance. I’m thinking more about what the movie says about Jesus Christ and His payment of the debt each of us owes because of our sin.

I haven’t seen the movie yet (and may or may not see it), but the book seemed to be more about God’s acceptance rather than about reconciliation with Him because of what Jesus did at the cross. That’s the key I’d look for. Does the story tell the truth about the means to our relationship with God. Is Jesus central to the story of grace?

Can the movie get most of it right but miss on a few points and still be worthwhile? Again, that’s an issue for each person to decide. What I hope is that when either movie misses, Christians will speak up and point out the ways the movie achieves something true and the ways in which it falls into error.

If we close our minds and go with our heart, we’ll potentially fall for all kinds of deception. Better if we watch with eyes wide open and our minds filled with the truth of Scripture.

Published in: on March 6, 2017 at 6:15 pm  Comments (15)  
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Fiction Isn’t Lying . . . Until It Is

booksSome Christians, apparently, don’t think it’s OK to read fiction because fiction is all about made up characters, places, and events. In other words, it’s all lies.

I had never heard that point of view until I got on the Internet, and then mostly other writers said they’d been confronted by others who chastised them for their lies. I did read a post once by someone who took that extreme position, but it was new to me.

For one thing, appealing to the definition of lie explodes that view, the key being the intention of deception. No one who writes fiction pretends their story is factual. No one who reads fiction is unaware that the story is pretend. So no one is deceiving or being deceived. So fiction isn’t lying.

In addition, authors of fiction use the pretend to make statements about reality. In all my literature classes throughout college, we analyzed stories to determine, among other things, what the author was saying, what he wanted readers to take away or to believe about humankind or the world or God. Thomas Hardy, for example, wrote stories to show that humankind is pushed and pulled by fate. On the other hand, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which showed that a person can change his ways and isn’t locked into beliefs by chance circumstances.

Those two views which are in opposition to one another can hardly both be true. One might be truthful or they both might be false, but they both can’t be true.

It’s still probably incorrect to say that one which is not truthful is therefore a lie. I’m certain Thomas Hardy believed he was truthfully showing readers the way the world worked, but he was wrong. In his made up stories Hardy revealed his own belief system, one that replaced God with the ‘unconscious will of the Universe’ (see Wikipedia).

My question is this: ought not a Christian writer who knows the truth, reflect truth in any story he or she writes? I want to be clear: I do not think any story can tell ALL truth. For one thing, we don’t have all truth. The Bible, though complete, doesn’t show us all there is to know about God. It is our view of the world through that dark mirror I Corinthians 13 mentions. Second, ALL truth would not fit into one story, even one the size of The Grapes of Wrath or Gone With The Wind.

So what “truth” is a novelist supposed to show in his or her story?

That’s the beauty of writing. An author can open the door for readers regarding all kinds of important truths.

I’m thinking of one novel, for instance, a fantasy, in which the God of that world was worshiped by both factions in an owner/slave society. Both believe this God figure provides for them. Which brings up all kinds of interesting questions: does God provide for the wicked as well as for the victimized? Are those enslaved believing in this God in vain? Is the ruling class worshiping in hypocrisy? Is there anything similar going on in our world?

I could go on to discuss ways in which a novelist can show truth by developing their theme, but the point I want to make is this: a Christian writer, while not burdened to show all truth (an impossibility, but an attempt at such would clearly necessitate the entire plan of salvation), should show truth.

Of course it’s possible to leave out any direct reference to God and still show truth. J. R. R. Tolkien did that. He had Christ figures, but not a direct reference to God or to Jesus.

What Tolkien did not do was mislead people about those Christ figures. He did not have Gandalf decide to take the One Ring for himself. He did not have Aragon desert the forces of Gondor. The one who would sacrifice himself for the fellowship did not turn evil. The returning king did not forsake those who trusted him.

Thus, what an author chooses to show about truth is really up to him, but he must do so faithfully. He would be lying to portray God or a God figure in his world to be selfish or greedy or blood-thirsty or immoral or weak. Any of those would be a lie. A Christian who knows God must portray some truth about Him if He or a representative figure shows up in the story.

Non-Christians who turn God into an it with an unconscious will or who make Him out to be evil, as I understand Phillip Pullman did in his fantasy series, aren’t lying about God in the same way a Christian who knows the truth would be. Rather, they have rejected God and are trying to make sense of the world without Him. They are more to be pitied, though readers must beware so they see the ways their views deviate from the truth.

In short, the Christian is really the only one who can lie in fiction. We know the truth. If we purposely misrepresent God, how can that be thought of as anything but a lie?

The Bible, Reality, And Theology

Abraham_with_IsaacAs many of you know, Roma Downey (star of the TV show Touched by an Angel) and Mark Burnett (successful producer of a number of TV game shows including Survivor, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? The Voice, and Shark Tank), spearheaded the production of the TV mini-series The Bible which began airing on the History Channel last Sunday. Apparently it’s a ratings success and most likely a financial one too, but how does it stack up in the areas that really matter?

What, in fact, would be the areas that really matter? For viewers, undoubtedly the important elements would be the quality of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. In other words, is it good on an entertainment level? But for those of us who believe the Bible to be true, not a collection of myths, there’s another level that matters–the truthfulness of the production, the adherence to Scriptural intent, if you will.

But should that matter?

My friend and writing colleague Mike Duran recently took to task a reviewer for slipping into the role of “Theology Police.” I don’t know if it’s possible to agree with someone in the midst of disagreeing with them, but that’s kind of where I find myself. Toward the end of his post on the subject, Mike said

In their attempt to be “discerning,” many Christian fiction reviewers are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. (emphasis in the original)

Understand, I haven’t read the book in question or the review. But in principle, I agree with what Mike is saying there. No one should be so consumed with minutia that they miss the big picture. What I find myself disagreeing with, however, is what appears to be Mike’s guiding principle in looking at reviews:

Being “discerning” about theology is different than being “discerning” about art. (emphasis in the original)


Is bad theology ever OK, even for a fiction writer, even for a speculative fiction writer?

I don’t understand that–not that Mike is advocating such. Rather, it seems he’s expressing his belief that theology shouldn’t be held up as a guide by which someone judges fiction. Back in November in a guest post at Spec Faith discussing this very issue, Mike said

So am I suggesting NO theology in our novels? I’m not sure it’s possible for an author’s worldview or theology to not seep into a story. But “seeping” into a story and showcasing it therein are huge differences. Am I winking at BAD theology? Absolutely not. My question is: Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place? (emphasis in the original)

So MY question is this: is it ever right for a Christian to knowingly portray bad theology? Hence, since I know God to be loving, should I write a speculative story showing the One True God as less than loving? Or Satan as less than rebellious? Or man as less than sinful by nature?

Those particular issues might seem to be a little easier to answer than some of the “minor issues” that crop up. Can a Christian work portray “magic” as good? Or can The Bible skip Abraham’s name change from Abram or God making a covenant with him?

One reviewer of the first episode of The Bible had this to say:

I know there’s such a thing as creative and artistic license, that’s fine. But the entire reason a theological advisory board was brought on was to ensure that Biblical details were accurate. And they’re not. I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m saying this reveals that the theologians involved either knew the details and did not tell them (or production changed them, in which case why bother with advisors) or they didn’t think them important enough to include in the stories.

So how important is accurate theology? Or should artistic license overrule adherence to theological particulars?

I feel very strongly about Truth, which is why I bristle when people seem so willing to throw it aside, even when they clamor for “realism” in fiction. We need to accurately portray people in our fiction, the argument goes, and those people cuss and swear. So our fiction out to be allowed to reflect these people accurately.

But what about God? Apparently it’s not such a big deal if we get things about Him right.

But what does “right” mean?

Are the makers of The Bible mini-series trying to transcribe the actual Bible onto screen? Absolutely not. When interviewed on Focus on the Family shortly before the first episode of their project aired, Mark Burnett said he considered the TV series to be a ten hour commercial for the real thing.

So my thinking is this: a work of fiction needs to be judged by what it’s attempting to do. If it’s a commercial, then it shouldn’t be judged as a documentary.

C. S. Lewis was not attempting to portray Christ in allegory. Consequently his first Narnia tale shouldn’t be criticized because Aslan died on a stone table and not a cross or because he came to life the next day and never spent an hour in a tomb.

The theology issue, then, should be judged according to intent. No work of fiction will ever portray all the truths of the Bible, even The Bible–that much should be clear from the start. But this fictionalized story does carry a burden, as should all fiction Christians write, to tell the Truth about God as it works to fulfill its intent.

Agree or disagree?

Discernment 101 Revisited

About the time you think it’s safe to return to the water, it isn’t. So, too, with reading and going to movies and watching TV. Well, pretty much everything related to culture. Western society has largely spurned its Christian underpinnings, requiring those of us who still cling to the Solid Rock to think carefully about what our minds dwell on lest we also get washed away at sea.

Mormonism is one example of this need. Are they a cult or are they Christian? Another is the murky theology of those who are “progressives” or who identify as “emergent.”

A year and a half ago we had the over-hyped discourse Love Wins by Rob Bell with its ideas that there is no hell and all will eventually make their way into God’s presence in the after life.

Before that we had Paul Young’s controversial, rambling theological discourse disguised as fiction, The Shack, which, among other things, cast aspersions on the Bible and suggested universalism.

Now we’re at the threshold of another similar “story,” complete with media hype. Mr. Young has just released Cross Roads and has begun a book tour, complete with book signings, an appearance on The Today Show, and an interview with People magazine.

Have I read this book or know its theological content? I don’t.

I’m also not aware that Mr. Young has re-examined or changed any of his erroneous beliefs peppered throughout The Shack. Consequently, when we see a book on the horizon that may contain ideas contrary to Scripture (most books) and yet purports to be Christian, we as Bible believing followers of Jesus Christ need to keep in mind some basic principles of discernment.

  • The Bible is the ultimate authority of what is True. We need to examine the things we read and hear and see to determine if they are so or if they come from someone’s fabrication of God and His way.
  • Because someone is friendly and encouraging or is a good speaker or is entertaining or . . . ad infinitum, does not increase the likelihood that they are telling the truth.
  • That someone claims Christ is no guarantee their story will reflect Christ truthfully.
  • Christians are admonished to test the spirits to see if these things are so.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

  • False teaching abounds which should make Christians more alert, not more reclusive.
  • Legalism is not the same thing as discernment.

What are your thoughts about discernment? What else should be included in a list of basic principles to keep in mind if we are to be discerning about our culture?

You might also want to read the first “Discernment 101” post written three years ago.

Reading Discernment 101

In the past I’ve frequently talked about the need for discernment in our reading, but sometimes I think that term may mean one thing to one person and something far different to someone else.

I think most people agree as far as the actual definition: to discern means “to perceive or to distinguish between.” Of course, discernment implies a standard or some way of making a distinction.

This sweater is bluer than that one, or, That book is full of lies.

In the first instance, two objects are being compared to each other. In the second, the lies referred to exist in contradiction to an understood standard of Truth.

So what does this comparing and contrasting mean for a Christian in application to what he reads?

I believe Christians should use the Bible as the gauge by which we measure truth and error, good and evil, right and wrong, real and counterfeit. A book that twists or deviates from what the Bible lays out before us is in error because the Bible is Truth.

So far, I think most people who use the Bible as their standard and who have thought about discernment at all would agree, but there’s a next step and it is here where I think some of us might part company. If we identify a book as containing that which is in error, what do we do?

I tend to think a lot of believers might say, Stay away from that book and any like it. For some people that advice may be right, but I don’t think that should be the blanket answer. It certainly isn’t what I’m advocating when I say we should read with discernment.

Instead, I think we should read (or watch or listen to) what is in our culture, and then point the finger at that which departs for God’s revealed truth and say, That is not true.

Understand, there are limitations to this use of discernment. Sometimes a determination needs to be made as a matter of self-protection or family-protection. When I was in college, I saw a bunch of raunchy movies that led me to the decision to put some limits on what I viewed. My choice, for me, requiring discernment, meant that I stopped going to a certain kind of movie.

But there are lots of other movies I’ve seen that I would see again, even though I will also cry loud and long to whoever will listen that it contains untruth.

As I see it, lies are immediately disarmed once they are identified as lies. Lies can only hurt if they slip by as if they are true and people end up believing them. Consequently, to stay away from all fiction or from fiction that is clearly from a secular point of view, means I can’t stand up and say, Do you see the lies here?

If Christians don’t do that, then who will?

This article originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in July, 2009.

Published in: on June 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm  Comments Off on Reading Discernment 101  
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Reflecting Or Influencing Culture

Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.

So said Meghan Cox Gurdon in her Wall Street Journal article, “Darkness Too Visible.”

Is she right?

Many authors when they discuss fiction appeal to the need for freedom to tell the truth about the world. But whose truth?

Not every teenage girl has anorexia or has been sexually assaulted. Not every guy cuts himself or runs away from home.

But some do.

Are their stories, then, the truthful ones to which all others must be compared? Or are the stories of greedy rich kids or fish-out-of-water newbies just as valid? How about the story of a happy little orphan girl or a Bible-quoting gang member?

I think most people would say that whatever is true to the human experience, across the gamut, should be considered as valid story material.

But when, I wonder, does reflecting culture — telling the stories of those we see in the world — turn into influencing culture?

I’ve said loudly, long, and often that stories, like all other forms of writing, communicate. Certainly entertainment is a big piece of the novel cake, but stories are about something and in the end say something about that event or lifestyle or world.

Could it be that in writing about the fringe behaviors of society, authors normalize those behaviors? Could it be that enough stories about cutting or sexual assault anesthetize our sensibilities so we no longer look with horror on these horrific behaviors? even though the stories do not hold these behaviors up as something to be emulated?

From Ms. Gurdon’s article:

The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.

We live in a copy-cat society. Two boys walk into their high school and start killing other students, and a spate of school shootings follows. And so with any number of other bad behaviors.

One could argue that kids will see all these things on the news or YouTube or hear about them in the songs they listen to, so books aren’t actually doing anything more than personalizing the pain, putting a face on the victims and those suffering.

In fact, author Veronica Roth (Divergent) makes this comment in her blog article “This WSJ Thing“:

You want to say, I want to protect my children from this kind of content? Then I say, I am happy for your kids, that they have a parent who is that worried about them. But when you say, these books are garbage and they’re damaging the minds of children? I say, the world is damaging the minds of children. Be more shocked by the world than by the books. [emphasis in the original]

Honestly, I suspect that how we view the role of entertainment in culture — as that which reflects or as that which influences — has a great deal to do with what we think should or should not go into that entertainment.

You thoughts?

Is Reading Romance Idolatrous?

What a question—is reading romance idolatrous? Some bloggers have suggested that some of the “quieter” Christian fiction (read Amish) can be idolatrous, so why not romance? Why not Christian romance?

Some things we do are clearly forbidden in Scripture. Lust, for example, and greed. So a novel that elicits those sinful desires as its raison d’être should be avoided, right?

Which, I think, is why a number of readers turn to Christian romance. Those stories exist for a greater reason, not just to evoke sensual thoughts and desires.

But I think we might be missing something important: things that end up being idolatrous aren’t necessarily bad.

The Israelites made an idol, for example, of a bronze serpent—the one God told Moses to create and to lift up on a standard in order that those in the camp dying from snake bites could look at it and be healed; the same one the gospel of John references as a metaphor for Jesus being lifted up in crucifixion so that all who believe in Him might be saved.

Clearly there was nothing sinful about that serpent statue—until the people started worshiping it. In the end, that good object designed for a good purpose became a means of disobedience and needed to be destroyed.

[Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.
– 2 Kings 18:4 (emphasis mine)

But let’s face it, none of us have seen our friends burning incense to a romance novel, at least not in the last decade or so. 😉

Yet we also recognize that making an idol of something entails more than outward worship. There’s that inner attitude that says, this thing or this person is more important than any other person or any other thing.

The danger comes in not recognizing our own attitude shift. When does reading romance—or playing golf, watching ESPN, gardening, shopping, school extra curriculars (you know what I’m talking about—scheduling your child’s piano lesson sandwiched between soccer practice and ballet), even serving on the deacon board—become idolatrous instead of something good and wholesome and fun?

I don’t know that any of us can decide that for others. It’s hard enough to recognize an attitude of idolatry in ourselves. But here’s the thing. I think we need to know that the enjoyments of our lives have the potential to become idols. We need to hold them with open hands, willing to give them up if God asks us to. We need to maintain our focus on things above, not on things on the earth—our enjoyments must not change that focus.

Is reading romance idolatrous? Maybe. It never hurts to do an attitude check and see if something I love is crowding out my love for the One who gave me the capacity to enjoy it.

Discernment Addendum

In his sermon yesterday, my pastor, Dale Burke, pointed out an interesting fact from the scripture passage we were studying, Luke 12:13-34. One disgruntled, and apparently greedy, person demanded that Jesus arbitrate a dispute. As part of Jesus’s answer to the guy, He told a parable in which the central character dialogued with himself.

The man was a rich landowner and experienced a further blessing: his harvest produced a bumper crop. As a result, “he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do …’ ”

Later, he talked to his soul: ” ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come …’ ”

My pastor’s first point was that the rich man was talking to the wrong person about his situation—himself instead of God.

Lo and behold, when I began reading the book of Ecclesiastes this morning, I found the same thing. Chapter two starts out, “I said to myself …”

So how often, I wonder, am I talking to myself instead of talking to God? I think this is especially important in our postmodern culture that advocates “looking within” for the answers to just about everything.

Seems to me, God wants our eyes on Him instead.

The Psalmist asked God to search him and try him and see if there was any wicked way in him. He didn’t say he would examine himself to see if there was any wicked way.

Left to myself, looking within is fraught with deception and wishful thinking.

Why would I want to look within when I can look to God who is omnipotent, all knowing, wise, and good? How silly for me to rely on the fallible, selfish, narrow-minded, incomplete counsel I give myself. 🙄

The key to discernment, then, is to ask God to reveal His perspective rather than trying to ferret out truth from my own partial and imperfect attitudes, beliefs, and ideas.

And of course, God has already revealed His perspective in His Word, so I need to pray for His Spirit to open the eyes of my heart to understand and apply what He has revealed.

With God’s perspective in mind and by asking for His counsel and wisdom, I can approach the task of analyzing what I read and see, trusting that He will supply the discernment I need.

Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm  Comments (3)  
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