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Biblical Discernment: Heeding Fables

Stories can be valid vehicles to convey truth, but they are not a systematic theology book. Experience and life can be messy.
| Jun 3, 2014 | 12 comments | Series:

The Bible“Fiction is a lie” forms the basis of an often used argument against Christians writing or reading fiction, even to convey Biblical truths. I spoke to that issue on my own blog back in 2008: The Lies of Fantasy Fiction.

The referenced article in that post linked fantasy with lying, thus the numerous Biblical verses against lying were prohibiting us from enjoying a good fiction story, and/or writing them.

I pointed out that to lie is done with the intent to deceive. It is telling an untruth as if it is true. When one picks up a book labeled, “Fiction,” they know up front it is not a true story. There is no pretending it really happened. So it is not lying, nor does the Bible prohibit fiction based upon that line of reasoning. It is, in essence, a real lie to teach that the Bible equates the two.

Another site takes a similar tactic, but uses the following verse, suggested that I tackle in last week’s article, to make a case that the Bible is against using fiction:

Neither give heed to fables . . . (1 Tim 1:4a)

The underlying word used to translate “fables” is the Greek word from which we derive our English cognate, “myth.” On the surface, this would seem to be a prohibition against fiction, but let’s take a deeper look.

Context

The full verse in context is as follows:

As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. (1 Tim 1:3-4)

Timothy was overseeing the newly formed church in Ephesus when Paul wrote this. As in most places they visited, there was a contingent of Jews who tried to steer new Gentile Christians to adopt a traditional Jewish application of the Gospel, involving stories designed to teach truths and genealogies to promote Jewish purity and authenticity. It was easy for new Christians, not able to discern such things yet, to be drawn into these false teachings instead of being strengthened in the Faith that Paul gave them.

Two key points indicate that Paul was not condemning all fiction, but a specific type of fiction.

One, as Paul states, his point here was to “teach no other doctrine.” The prohibition is against fables that teach false doctrines of the faith, not all fiction. Obvious since then Paul would be condemning Jesus’ use of parables.

Two, the fables spoken of were related to the doctrine of the Jews who wanted the Gentile Christians to fully follow the Law as Jews do. The evidence for this is clear.

  • Paul links fables with the study of genealogies, an obvious reference to Jewish preoccupation with historical lineage.
  • In the following verses, Paul speaks about using the “Law lawfully.” An issue of contention in the Jewish Christian teachings.
  • Paul, in warning Titus of the same thing in Titus 1:14, specifically calls them “Jewish fables.”

To then derive the principle that this prohibits us to read or write any fiction is not supported by the context of the verses.

But what does this context tell us about using discernment in our fiction reading?

Application

Principle 1: Discernment is based in faith.

Paul’s main problem with the fables and genealogies was that it confused rather than edify the faithful by sowing discordant teachings. Paul would rather Timothy focus his energies on teaching the Gospel.

But how do we know the difference in our fiction? Paul’s answer is through faith. This is not some abstract belief in your mind faith. It is faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Such a faith spends time with Him in prayer, worship, and study of the Scriptures.

Faith in Christ is to marinate ourselves in Him so well, our spirit will sense something is not right, even if we have trouble putting our finger on it. Paul emphasizes this fact in the verses following 3 and 4. To use the Law lawfully, Paul instructs us not to use the Law as a means to save ourselves, but to know Christ by a deep relationship through love, purity, a clear conscience, and faith.

Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned. (1 Tim 1:5)

Having been steeped in these qualities, and knowing Christ intimately through faith in Him, we gain the ability to know when something in fiction is amiss. He gives us a discerning spirit.

Principle 2: Avoid false doctrine.

The reason Paul told Timothy not to heed those fables is because by going counter to the Gospel he taught, it would confuse and cast doubt rather than edify and strengthen people in Christ. A book that teaches false doctrine is to be avoided for this reason.

But note, I said a book that teaches false doctrine is to be avoided, not merely a book that has characters who believe false doctrine, or characters who sin. Rather, if the book as a whole is promoting a belief contrary to the Gospel, we are instructed to not give heed to it. One of the main reasons I’ve not bothered to read Pullman’s books.

Also, we need to keep in mind the following. Stories can be valid vehicles to convey truth, but they are not a systematic theology book. Experience and life can be messy.

One should not derive their theology from stories, no matter the truth conveyed. If they open our minds to see Biblical truth in a fresh and vibrant way, great. But we shouldn’t expect a story to be 100% in line with all Biblical truth. Our theology should grow from Scripture and the Holy Spirit guiding us into all truth, not based on a novel.

Additionally, authors are not infallible. Because a story isn’t fully in line with every “i” and “t” of one’s theology doesn’t necessitate burning the author at the stake. If the story does teach some important truths when taken as a whole, one should make allowances for the fallibility of finite human brains.

By keeping those in mind and strengthening our faith in Christ, we can discern when a fiction story is not edifying to our walk with the Lord.

What boundaries do you use to filter the fiction your read?

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Leah Burchfiel
Member

It feels weird to read this here, because I’d assume that anyone who visits this site would be open to fiction and not need apologetics for it. And while I’ve met people who just don’t get the function of fiction, they don’t go so far as to pretend to be morally superior because of it. That sounds like a special kind of jerkwad.

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

Good job.  I went to the “other site” you mention and it becomes quite clear the author there is of the non-creative temperament.  Much of this anti-fantasy etc. “fiction is a lie” nonsense is driven by just that.  People with non-creative temperaments sometimes (not always) dislike creativity.  A personal dislike becomes a “biblical” mandate therefore.  “I don’t like fantasy etc., it does not appeal to me, therefore it should appeal to no one.”  Personally I could say the same about the American male’s obsession with sports.  I do not care for it, but that does not make it sin before God if someone else does.  We need to understand this mentality drives a lot of anti-speculative fiction antipathy, this personal dislike — which is individual and personal, and not a God-ordained mandate.  Jotham’s FABLE (caps for emphasis and a bit of yelling) in Judges is just that, a fable, a made-up story to illustrate the truth of what was going on, and it’s in the Word of God!  Apparently the Lord doesn’t share the sentiment expressed by some.  “Myths” that support and teach biblical truth are not forbidden, only those which lie about the things of God and just spawn more questions than providing answers in line with scripture, as you so rightly point out.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

While I concur as to the main gist of your and Copple’s arguments, I don’t think using Jotham’s fable is a good piece of evidence for the cause. Consider: there are plenty of times men and women sin in the Bible (the Levite and his Concubine from Judges, to name one particularly racy scene), so simply saying something occurs in the Bible is not a litmus test for whether we ourselves should emulate that behavior. The parables of Jesus are a much better example, as are the metaphors of Paul in the epistles.

I completely agree with your analogy to sports; in fact, it’s a comparison I made once upon a time on this site (I believe back in ’11, to date myself). I usually watch the Super Bowl with my family, even though I have no interest in the game itself, simply to share in their joy and spend time with them. They likewise have gone to see theatre on my behalf. I also have defended the romance genre around the Internet, not because I have a personal interest in it, but because others have the same right to enjoy their genre as I do to enjoy mine. Short of actual sinning, we have the freedom in Christ to be the unique individuals we were created to be.

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

I chose Jotham’s fable for its fantastical elements, which the parables do not possess, though I agree that the parables are excellent examples of Jesus “making up” a story to make His point.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

I will read just about anything shy of erotica and horror, although I would read a horror story if it were done well. I see covers on redbox of horror DVDs and wish I could skip seeing them. I don’t want images like that in my head, mainly because (especially the stuff where a human body in a pose that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible) I feel like the evil side of the supernatural is bent on degrading man. I don’t want those images in my head.

I’ve encountered a lot of anti-god pieces in ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories, which is a here. It’s a collection of fantasy stories, to oversimplify. Really, I almost slow down and pay attention when those people start “preaching,” just so I can critique, and also so I will have an idea what their message is should that come up. Should I talk with another Christian who read it and is troubled by it. Maybe I can help them, I figure. Maybe they can help me.

In that vein, I tried to read The Davinci Code and made it to chapter eight before I was so bored I put the book down.

Sex scenes, I skip down the page until they’re over. That may be in part because I’m single. Like why start the car (of lust) if you don’t have your liscence to drive it anywhere yet? I and our society are already so saturated with the stuff.

Not sure why I don’t have a violence filter that runs the same way, but I don’t. I didn’t need to see “Kill Bill” when I heard it takes violence to a whole new level. But I would watch it if a group of friends wanted to.

 

Leah Burchfiel
Member

From what I’ve read of Dan Brown, he’s just too “hehehe, phallic symbol” and pseudo-intellectual for my taste.

And then I had to find out just what the heck “New Wave Fabulist” is. Sounds like a (cross-)genre fiction take on magical realism, which is weird but only as scary as any postmodernism is. Which here may run the gamut from meh to tinfoil-hattery.

They don’t have Paraspheres on Kindle, and I’m wondering if my curiosity is worth a buck + shipping and having another thing collecting dust on my shelf.

Tangent: It has Ursula K LeGuin in it, and I’ve been meaning to read that Earthsea stuff of hers and see what ’60s feminist-flavored Bronze Age fantasy looks like. That sounds good for a couple blargs, and then I can compare-contrast LeGuin with whatshername that wrote The Dragonriders of Pern.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

Haven’t you a library where they could order Paraspheres? Save you the buck plus shipping.

 

I really enjoyed Earthsea, but the book or so after that wasn’t as good. Which, I know, that’s saying nothing. But yeah, check out Earthsea.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Tangential to the topic at hand: the only Earthsea novel I enjoyed was the second one, mainly because it was about someone completely divorced from the (IMHO) boring hero that takes up the first and third book. But please do journey to Pern, Anne McCaffery writes great stories with both male and female characters of strength and power.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

I will read just about anything shy of erotica and horror, although I would read a horror story if it were done well. I see covers on redbox of horror DVDs and wish I could skip seeing them. I don’t want images like that in my head, mainly because (especially the stuff where a human body in a pose that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible) I feel like the evil side of the supernatural is bent on degrading man. I don’t want those images in my head.

I’ve encountered a lot of anti-god pieces in ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories, which is a here. It’s a collection of fantasy stories, to oversimplify. Really, I almost slow down and pay attention when those people start “preaching,” just so I can critique, and also so I will have an idea what their message is should that come up. Should I talk with another Christian who read it and is troubled by it. Maybe I can help them, I figure. Maybe they can help me.

In that vein, I tried to read The Davinci Code and made it to chapter eight before I was so bored I put the book down.

Sex scenes I skip down the page until they’re over. That may be in part because I’m single. Like why start the car (of lust) if you don’t have your license to drive it anywhere yet? I and our society are already so saturated with the stuff.

Not sure why I don’t have a violence filter that runs the same way, but I don’t. I didn’t need to see “Kill Bill” when I heard it takes violence to a whole new level. But I would watch it if a group of friends wanted to.

 

merechristian
Member
merechristian

I agree with the author mostly, but differ somewhat. My philosophy for literature and art is as follows.

1. Does it cause me to sin, or am I joining in sin by partaking in the art?

2. Does it lead me or tempt me to sin later on?

3. Does it cause me to take up bad theology.

If the answer to the above is No, it is okay. If it is yes, then I have to decide based on if there is anything good in the art to make up for it.

If the piece of art has good points, then I rule it as good and edifying. In other words, I would look at something like Soul Eater and call it morally fine. I would look at something like Rurouni Kenshin, and call it beyond fine but edifying. Both are ones I have read and enjoyed, because art needn’t have a mission or purpose. If it does it makes me want to read it more, but it is fine if it does not.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

We can find something whose message we must reject as Christians, yet admire the choices made in the way it is put across, and learn from that, methinkin.

Julie D
Guest

I also think there’s a difference between going into literature which we know is from a pagan perspective–Buddhist, atheist, etc–and literature from Christian authors which may have…oh, there’s no simple way of saying this, so I’ll use an example instead. I read the first two His Dark Materials novels, knowing that the author is an atheist and has called his work the anti-Narnia, and was alert for heretical ideas.  It was more of a ‘see-how-others think’ experiment.  Sometimes even knowing that what material might be in a work prepares us to counter it.