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How Do We Love A Fiction Legalist? Part 2

Two weeks ago, reader Bethany asked, quite fairly, how come I used the word “legalist” to describe Christians who oppose either a certain fantasy series, like Harry Potter, or all fiction. That made me grateful I started this series saying […]
| Dec 2, 2010 | No comments | Series:

Are we free from legalism so long as we don't look like this guy?

Two weeks ago, reader Bethany asked, quite fairly, how come I used the word “legalist” to describe Christians who oppose either a certain fantasy series, like Harry Potter, or all fiction.

That made me grateful I started this series saying I hoped it would be more a conversation than simply exposition of my thoughts on fiction-legalism. Yet before using such a term, it still would have been better to offer a definition. After all, legalism has many different meanings.

Some people believe any standard, supposedly based on Scripture and applied to all claiming to be Christians, is “legalism.” That notion rejects many Biblical truths; it’s not my definition here.

Rather, legalism includes two main forms: the work-to-get-saved variety (which is common to all religions, even beliefs labeled “Christianity”) and the once-you’re-saved-you-must-follow-more-rules-to-be-more-spiritual variety. All Biblical Christians will reject the first kind of legalism — but we are all vulnerable to the second. That is the kind of legalism these columns address.

Or are we all vulnerable? Some Christians limit their definition of legalism only to the first kind: well, I don’t believe I have to work to get my salvation, they reason, so I’m not a legalist. But silently they may lapse into the second kind: I’m more spiritual than the Christian who does X.

For example, consider this reply to a homeschooling-oriented website’s warning about fiction:

Dear keepers of the faith,

Thanks so much for your article on C. S. Lewis and the article on fiction. We have always felt this way which is rare! Most people think we are legalistic; but we are not. […]

That denies what author Michael Horton calls the “default setting” in human nature: we all, to some extent, lapse back into trying to earn God’s favor, or take His gifts and dismiss the Giver.

[O]ur default setting is that we reject the gospel. That’s where we must start from. Even as Christians, we face this problem. We are always wrestling with our tendency to self-reliance. Even the Apostle Paul faced this issue (2 Cor 1:9). Our default setting is that we are naturally moralistic therapeutic deists. We are Pelagians at heart. We don’t get rid of that tendency when we first become Christians; that is the spiritual sewage that has to be flushed out of us every day until we die.

So for any Christian to think, much less stand up and claim, “I’m not a legalist and I’m utterly free from that sin,” is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.

That applies regardless of how a Christian behaves on the outside. Like sin itself, which comes not from external sources but the sin-shrapnel in one’s own heart (Mark 7, Romans 6), legalism can infest us regardless of how we appear. A beer-drinking, R-rated-movie-watching Christian can be as much a legalist as any denim-skirt-wearing homeschooler. And a Harry Potter reader can be just as much a legalist as a Christian who, even for wrong reasons, decides to avoid the books, even if he or she loves great stories and would probably enjoy them.

Anti-legalism legalism?

So it would be horrible if — along with making justifiable pleas for anti-fiction or -fantasy Christians to consider if their reasons for rejection are truly Biblical — any Christ-loving fiction reader or writer began behaving more like a legalist than any of them.

That might even be worse, because it doesn’t look like legalism.

It may have been just this year that I realized the bizarre paradox that one could legalistically oppose legalism. And it wasn’t until this column by Pastor Tullian Tchividjian that I heard this very concept articulated the most succinctly:

It’s simple: we can become self-righteous against those who are self-righteous.

Many younger evangelicals today are reacting to their parents’ conservative, buttoned-down, rule-keeping flavor of “older brother religion” with a type of liberal, untucked, rule-breaking flavor of “younger brother irreligion” which screams, “That’s right, I know I don’t have it all together and you think you do; I know I’m not good and you think you are. That makes me better than you.” See the irony?

In other words, they’re proud that they’re not self-righteous!

From Spurgeon.org's 'Emergent Motivational Posters'

Conclusion: if I — reacting to the “Keepers of the Faith” website maker, or the Potter critic who sadly hadn’t shaken off un-Biblical approaches to sin and discernment, or anyone else — got sick of “older brother religion” and threw Harry Potter or other fiction in someone’s face, as if I have this anti-legalism thing down and all who disagree are legalists, what have I become?

Yes: a legalist myself, and worse, because it doesn’t look like legalism; it looks like “freedom.”

But it would be an imposter of real freedom, not Biblical, and void of love for my brothers and sisters in Christ, whether they’re “weaker” (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10) on this issue or not.

Love in action

Thus, all those questions and Biblical truths I suggested last week about Potter or fantasy — they’re best asked in love. And that will optimally be in the context of a caring relationship with someone founded in the truth and grace of the Gospel at its center. I’m still learning this the hard way, often, which itself proves again that anyone can soar right over Biblical truth — such as that Christians must love one another in Christ — in order to overemphasize other truths.

Along with love is true humility: God does not change, but He works differently with His people. Neither fantasy readers nor fantasy critics can claim to be free of legalism or other sins.

Yet so far the question remains: how can Christians who do see how God has helped us grow through amazing fantasy that honors Him (or at least some of His truths, as Harry Potter does) help others see that — and without judging them un-Biblically or adopting similar legalism sins?

I think I’ve found a central “way,” which fits perfectly in the whole idea of translating truth into stories in the first place. That concluding column should come next week.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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[…] Next week: Biblical verse-hurling and arguments alone may not convince even a more-grace-minded fiction legalist. So in what other ways might we love them in Christ? […]


“Most people think we are legalistic; but we are not.”
To be fair, I don’t think what they meant was a claim to be entirely free from a universal sin, but that this particular decision of theirs was not for legalistic reasons. And (as far as anyone can understand their own motives) this may be true.

Another very different kind of legalism I have come across in regard to fantasy: A book which claimed that Christian parents ought to read fantasy to their children, because of the spiritual benefits. Now, I agree it is a good thing. But it is not necessary (especially if the children hate fantasy!)

Bethany J.
Bethany J.

Wow, what a great article! Thanks for responding to my question. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

This reminds me of the best definition of legalism I have ever read, which I found online once (I haven’t read the book it’s from): “Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not growing in grace as quickly as my friends. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not because of what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).” — Tony Reinke


[…] Part 2: Remember that we all lapse into legalism — even while we are trying to avoid being legalistic! Enjoying fantasy or fiction, while condemning someone who simply doesn’t as legalistic, could be more of the same problem. […]