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To Read or Not To Read: How Should Christians View Religious and Secular Fiction?

When it comes to fiction, the question shouldn’t be “What do we read?” but “How do we read it?”
| Apr 25, 2017 | 2 comments |

The problem has plagued Christian readers for decades. Should we read Christian or secular fiction? Or both?

The debate has lasted a long time, and I doubt it will disappear before they remake Lord of the Rings (you know it’s going to happen eventually).

I think we’re missing the point entirely. The question shouldn’t be “What do we read?” but “How do we read it?”

Much Ado About Nothing?

To be clear, I’m not advocating reckless reading habits, where we toss caution casually aside and launch into any tale we please because freedom and choice. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite.

It strikes me as interesting that in conversations about fiction, two camps generally emerge. The first flees in mild terror to the waiting arms of all-things-Christian (whether overt or subtle) while the second lauds ABA offerings. The issue is much more complex than that, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Why does this dichotomy exist? More importantly, should it?

I think not, for two reasons.

  1. It treats the issue with too broad of a brushstroke, categorizing books based on label and other subjective criteria. There’s too much room for stereotyping and not appreciating the nuances inherent to fiction.
  2. It puts readers between a rock and a hard place, implying they need to choose one or the other, and nary the twain shall they meet.

At the end of the day, categories are helpful, even necessary—otherwise chaos would reign. But saying “Thou shalt” to one and “Thou shalt not” to another is too simplistic.

What’s the answer, then?

Discernment.

The Vital Role of Discernment

As Christians, I think we have a tendency to drop the ball in this area. It’s right and well that we protect young readers from content too mature for their age, and remain wary ourselves about the stories we consume.

Yet are we too prone to this mindset? So set on protection that we undermine the ability to analyze a story on its merit and not on the accompanying label? By reducing our choices to the safe and the dangerous, we miss out on the opportunity to hone the sword of discernment.

N.D. Wilson shares a thought-provoking opinion:

The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.

That doesn’t only apply to kids. We young adults and adults and everyone in between need to appreciate the value of discernment. It is the tool by which we can mine the gems of truth from the soil of the stories we read. It’s also the tool by which we spot the counterfeits.

A reader doesn’t—and shouldn’t—need to entirely agree with an author’s perspective to enjoy that person’s book. Heck, if we did that, we wouldn’t read anything outside our own stories.

I read secular fantasy tomes to enjoy a good tale, not as the basis for building my theology or values. Some parts contain shards reflecting the truth, while others don’t. Knowing the difference is where discernment enters the picture.

And how can we sharpen that blade to identify truth from falsehood, solid worldviews from questionable ones, if we hide it in a closet to gather dust because that’s safer?

How we interact with stories, how we engage with them, is just as important as what they contain.

Of course, there are lines which we shouldn’t cross (without getting into the complicated discussion of how and why everyone draws them in a different place). But I think we shouldn’t let fear dictate.

The more we grind our discernment into a keen edge on the whetstone of stories of all varieties, the more we don’t need to fear. We can better the better detect what’s worthwhile, while not letting the rest drown us.

For example, we can plumb the depths of Harry Potter, letting the upright and honorable stick while seeing the shadows for what they are and passing on.

Ultimately, discernment equips us to enjoy both Christian and secular stories.

How do you think we should approach what we read?

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2 Comments on "To Read or Not To Read: How Should Christians View Religious and Secular Fiction?"

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HG Ferguson
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Zachary, you’ve raised a lot of questions some would rather not be asked, and pointed us in the right direction. I would say in addition that we — myself included most of all — need to be very sure that we don’t let the content of what we choose to read (or watch) mold or influence our thinking if that thinking is not the way God thinks as revealed in His Word. Not everything we read unfortunately stays where it belongs, sometimes it creeps in where it shouldn’t. Since you raised the issue of Harry Potter, I applaud your example. There are many things to admire in this extended story, such as Harry’s refusal to embrace darkness, Voldemort splintering his soul to cheat death but ultimately losing that very soul, and the immortal Snape reveal. We can enjoy this, learn from it, and should. Problem is however, Harry’s world also contains some truly unbiblical ideas, chief among them being magic is some kind of neutral power we can tap into and bind to our will by speaking certain words and pointing little wooden sticks. I am afraid this notion of “magic” being somewhat good or at best neutral and/or ambiguous has crept into the thinking of some Christians, which is definitely not what God says about the subject in terms anything BUT neutral or ambiguous. I bring this up not to re-establish my reputation as a blunt hater of the boy with glasses (here goes that judgmental Ferguson guy again), but to show how due to this work’s success, popularity and appeal to our baser natures to want to be “powerful,” we can be deceived if we let out guard down. Or take for example Star Wars. There is also much to be enjoyed about this story (I loved ROGUE ONE) but we dare not, must not and cannot allow its Taoist worldview in SF dress to influence how we think about God. God is light, and in Him there is not one single speck of darkness at all (Greek, I Jn 1;5). YHWH has no “dark side.” Enjoying the Jedi saga is one thing, but the expression “May the Force be with you, His Name is Jesus” [I saw this on a bumper sticker once] is as blasphemous as it gets. We just need to be careful not to believe every spirit, but to test them (I Jn 4:1). Discernment — the kind of discernment you encourage us to practice — is precisely what we need, especially today. Thank you for reminding us of this truth. Jesus Dominus Est.

notleia
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As far as Harry Potter goes, I find it hard to worry about something that has no real-world application, like the concept of neutral magic (or the idea of magic at all). If he who controls the spice controls the universe, what if there is no spice? (Dune reference, for the uninitiated.)