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Reading Is Worship 11: Glory Spectrum Of Stories

If God’s multihued glories shine in all of reality, how do we find such glories in stories and be moved to worship Him?
| Nov 8, 2012 | No comments | Series:

Did the results of Tuesday’s U.S. elections give glory to God?

Based on our answer to real-life issues like that, what about non-Christians’ stories that include non-Christian notions — do those glorify God?

As discussed last week, that depends on whether God gets glory over or through something.

That’s a simplified argument. Does God get “perfect” glory in His Church? Surely not. His former enemies, we His adopted children, have many flaws — flaws His Spirit is repairing from within. Does God get “perfect” glory from His world? Many of the Psalms extol how creation sings His praises. Yet we also learn those praises are mixed with groans (Romans 8), because creation still longs to be resurrected as we do.

We may only say for certain that God gains “100 percent” glory through the righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Yet from that His perfect glory ripples into creation and begins to reflect. People whom He redeems in turn work to redeem — not because we can make things perfect but because we honor His already/not-yet glorious perfections.

In order: 1) His creation, marred; 2) His perfect redemption of people whom He declares righteous yet also works to change; 3) His redemption of creation and our “subcreations.”

All throughout His glory shines, not as a single hue “turned up” or down, but a spectrum.

This leads to stories. If God’s multihued glories shine in all of reality — whether getting glory over or through an action — how do we find such glories in stories? How might this point us more toward the truth that reading stories can be an act of worshiping Him?

Glory over stories

Many people make stories based on sinful motives. How do we know? One test: if they’re human, they have a sinful nature and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). All they do will also fall short, including their storytelling. Yet still God will get glory over their stories.

Lengthy discussion after this series’ part 9 focused on Phillip Pullman’s intentionally-atheist His Dark Materials books, and the Disney film The Lion King. I’ve not read Pullman’s work, and I’ve only seen The Lion King once. But a better example may be a more-popular franchise that recently lightsaber-sliced its way to the headlines.

But will this glorify God (and honor fans) better?

Does Star Wars glorify God? If we asked George Lucas, he would surely say no. He wanted to make movies and embed them with oddball pagan beliefs (even before “midichlorians”).

If we asked Christ, He might quote Scripture. What man means for evil, God means for good.

But back to the spectrum of part 9, the “rainbow” of God’s glory. What “color” is Star Wars? It depends on who is looking. Lucas may have tried to dim his films’ colors to gray shades (especially the prequels), and unredeemed people will likely not see anything beyond, much less respond accordingly. Yet for those who behold God’s white-hot glory, containing the prism of His created-colors, they can see His Story reflecting in that story:

  • The vivid greens and lush blues of a world originally created beautiful and good.
  • Then a dark gray explosion and billowing blacks of that good world gone wrong.
  • A tingling flash of gold as a hero rises, called to join a cause far greater than himself.
  • Clashes of gold against gray and black, as the hero on his journey fights against evil.
  • Pooling, dark crimson as the hero faces terrible loss and seeming permanent defeat.
  • And finally, crimson and gold and greens and blues overcome darkness as terrible loss suddenly turns to wondrous final victory — what Tolkien called eucatastrophe.

Any story, defined as a written or visible construct that follows this, reflects Scripture.

And contrary to some implications I’ve seen, even among speculative story fans, we should not credit man for this accidental echo of truth. Instead we credit the first Speaker for His common grace that can be heard by those so attuned by His Spirit, whose ears are open.

Glory through stories

Here’s a perennial question that’s surely buried in the minds of Christians who love stories: if non-Christians’ stories can echo God’s truth by “accident” and glorify Him, why should “Christian speculative fiction” do anything different? Shouldn’t we seek stories (or try to write stories) that only focus on story first and wait for the truths to repeat “accidentally”?

I can’t help thinking of the inherent fatalism in that well-meant perspective.

One might as well fail to share one’s faith because whether or not people come to know Christ, God will be glorified. Or fail to care for the poor, assuming God will care for them.

Only Christians have a chance to glorify God through enjoying stories, or creating their own.

Exploring requires conscious, God-exalting effort.

As redeemed saints, ours is the optimal position. We know the Author better, thanks not to us but Him, and we know the Story better, the Story that all other good stories ultimately reflect. So why not desire to glorify/worship God more “directly” in our reading?

That is why we need Christian stories, not only accidentally worshipful but intentionally worshipful. And not merely to shout louder truth but to show brighter and dazzling colors.

This is also why we read worshipfully: because we are not fatalists. Because God glorifies Himself in splendorous ways through freely chosen, intentional, robust, joy-aware reading. Because just as with political elections, He sets alternatives before us and in effect asks, Which one? Either way, He is glorified — but we should prefer glory through, not over.

Glory by contrast

What about stories that have little light and are almost dark with the author’s rebellion?

First, it occurs to me that all too often are Christians willing to indulge in those stories because they find something “redemptive.” Sure, the movie had 95 minutes of sex scenes and one intense 15-minute rape sequence, but wow, those seconds of sunshine through the forest of trees really made me think of God’s love for diverse mankind. I understand needing to put up with some things — but why seem to prefer those stories over those with better ratios?

At the same time, we as readers provide our own light. Even if a story is one long moment-before-eucatastrophe, with the final victory never arriving, we ourselves know the victory. We ourselves in reading, even “enjoying” in a sense such a story, see it contrasted with light.

Surely this is why God includes such dark descriptions in Scripture. Judges 19 is not lovely, but it’s truthful, showing why Israel needs spiritual leadership. Its darkness is set against the backdrop of God later permitting Israel to have a king. That darkness shows this turn of the story in more-vivid gold. Yet later that color also dims, fades to a background, set over the hideous darkness of anarchy but before the infinitely brighter light of the final King.

God’s light is a diamond, made even brighter in all its intrinsic colors against black velvet.

Yet we’d be fools to stare only at darkness, or to publish a Gritty Parts Only® Bible version. (Equally foolish, I must add, would be fatalistic withdrawal from Gospel-powered politics!)

Which colors of God’s glory do you see in stories — over, through, or by contrast?

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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Rebecca LuElla Miller

Stephen, I continue to disagree with your basic premise, but at least I think I now understand why. In your opening you said, 

Did the results of Tuesday’s U.S. elections give glory to God?

Based on our answer to real-life issues like that, what about non-Christians’ stories that include non-Christian notions — do those glorify God?

As discussed last week, that depends on whether God gets glory over or through something. (boldface emphasis mine)

I can happily say, no the elections did not give God glory (on multiple levels), but at the same time that God will get glory because of them. I don’t see “give” and “get” as synonyms, but you seem to use them interchangeably.

My contention throughout has been that some stories are false and actually intend to mislead people; they are tools Satan uses to deceive and devour. But because God is the ultimate victor, all Satan’s efforts are vain and as God puts His triumph on display, He receives glory. The stories that Satan uses, however, do not give Him that glory. He gets glory in His triumph over them. It’s not because of them; it’s because of God’s victory over them.

From The Harry Potter Bible Study by Jared Moore:

All forms of media either reveal God’s glory by agreeing with God’s Word or hide God’s glory by telling lies . . . The authors, characters, directors, etc. are always arguing a point, perspective or truth-claim, and their arguments either agree or disagree with God’s Word . . . In God’s world, all truth is God’s truth and all lies are the devil’s lies . . .

This is my perspective, too.

When Jesus told the Pharisees that they were of their father the devil, He was not saying they were glorifying Him by telling lies about Him. That God is stronger than Satan, able to turn what was meant for evil into what accomplished His purposes, does bring Him glory. NOT the lies.

By the way, the verse you said Christ might quote doesn’t say what you suggest. It’s not generalized in the same way you worded it.

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  (Gen. 50:20)

It was specific to Joseph and his brothers–an evil act they did that God redeemed to benefit many. I also think it’s unwise to put words in Jesus’s mouth since, in fact, Scripture does not record that He quoted that verse.



Paul Lee

This discussion is confusing to me.  I do not know whether or not the difference between something “giving” God glory and God “getting” glory through/over something is important.  I’m not a theologian, and that just confuses me.
Is it okay if I summarize what I think each of the two of you are saying?  I’m not trying to build straw-men of your arguments, and I’m definitely not trying to discredit or mock you.  I’m just trying to understand.
E. Stephen Burnett:  Because God is the Creator and because He brings about His own glory by His sovereignty, all the materials of Story belong to Him.  While it is true that some human stories were deliberately made to slander God — such as His Dark Materials (and Star Wars ??) — God’s glory will still be evident in any story that has any value as a story.  Whether or not we should enjoy even slanderous stories for the glimpses of God that are inevitably present in them is a matter of personal discretion.
Rebecca  LuElla Miller:  On the contrary, everything that is not God’s truth is the Devil’s lies.  Therefore, every story that was not explicitly made to reflect God’s glorious truth is blaspheme or slander.  Because only Christians can tell the truth about God, every story by a non-Christian is automatically slanderous, although some non-Christians are more intentionally slanderous than others.  Through His sovereignty, God still uses even the slanderous work of unbelievers to glorify Himself and lead people to salvation.  However, the fact that God uses the Devil’s lies for good does not mean that we should look to slanderous stories to see reflections of truth.
Did I understand?  I also want to briefly raise an issue from Rebecca’s comment on the other article:

That’s God’s work, God’s doing, not the movie makers who clearly made nature divine and espoused any number of pseudo-Eastern mystical ideas.

But C.S. Lewis used blatantly Pagan elements in The Chronicles of Narnia.  I think Eastern mysticism could likewise be used to glorify God and to tell a truthful and beautiful story.  I’ve read/watched stories with a prominent pseudo-pantheistic theme that were nonetheless truthful and beautiful in many ways.  Avatar is among the least of them.  Nature is not God, but neither are the Pagan gods that Lewis depicted.  Both Lewis and Tolkien created imaginary universes where the gods of Western Paganism are “true” but are subservient creatures of the One True God.  If God has redeemed Western culture to the point where we can now use the falsehoods that our ancient ancestors believed to tell stories that reflect God’s truth, then we should be able to do the same with Eastern falsehoods.  Jesus is not Western, and God is sovereign over every culture and every false belief system.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Thanks for jumping into the conversation, B.

First, let me say why I think this issue is important. As I see things, discernment is at stake. Stephen has said a number of times that seeing God’s glory in all stories shouldn’t lead to an “it’s all good” attitude, but the truth is, that’s the current trend, even among Christians.

Rather than seeing only how God uses the false to bring glory to Himself, I think it is vital we Christian readers look at stories, compare them to the truth of Scripture, then stand up and say, Look! What that story says is false. It’s when we do this that lies can’t hurt us. Who wants to believe a lie when you know it’s a lie? It’s only when the lie looks like the truth that someone is tempted to believe it.

I can’t speak for Stephen, but I think I haven’t been clear about my position because your restatement of my views isn’t reflective of what I actually believe.

I think the place where your statement diverges is here:

  Therefore, every story that was not explicitly made to reflect God’s glorious truth is blaspheme or slander.

All truth is God’s truth. Because someone doesn’t intentionally set out to show God’s truth doesn’t mean they will not. When we hold a work of fiction up to Scripture and compare, we may find many places that in fact do agree with God’s word. But at the same time we must contrast that work with Scripture and see where it contradicts what God teaches.

So you see, I don’t say that only Christians can tell the truth. There might even be some truth statements about God that non-Christians make. They do, after all, live in the world that He made which reflects His nature.

I’m not sure what your position is regarding Avatar (are you saying it is the least offensive or the least pantheistic?) I happen to think it’s a very good movie to illustrate the point. In no way do I believe it was made to tap into trends. Rather, I believe it was a clear statement of James Cameron’s beliefs. I did a series of blog posts on it (if you’re interested, you can start with “Avatar and Christianity” and follow the links at the bottom.) At one point I compare the movie to poison:

From time to time we have poisonous things in our houses, but we also clearly mark them with the symbol for poison. Poison is only dangerous for improper use if it is easily accessible and unmarked. However, if it is served in a beautiful goblet, flooded by a sweet smelling wine, it may not be detected at all. In such an instance poison becomes deadly.

This quote makes my point. When we say God is glorified in all stories, I believe we are handing readers a goblet of sweet wine filled with poison. Which is more important–to recognize the quality of the wine or the poison it contains?

I also make a case for Avatar promoting idol worship, which is precisely what panenthism is. As I said in one of those posts, it’s as if we’re all standing by watching Solomon build the idol temples his wives desired. We’re saying, Wow, that beautiful stone sure shows God’s glory. Well, yes, but the temple doesn’t! It is an edifice of disobedience, and we need to recognize it as such.


Rebecca LuElla Miller

Oh, here’s a quote that shows what James Cameron was intending.

Interestingly, writer/director James Cameron put to bed all the questions about the message of Avatar in one of his acceptance speeches (he also received the award for best director):

“Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other and us to the Earth.” (from “The Na’vi, the Borg, and the Church”)


Paul Lee

Oh yeah, one other thing.  I don’t think either George Lucas or James Cameron were intentionally trying to slander God with their movies, not in the same way that Pullman slandered God in His Dark Materials (at least reportedly, I haven’t read it either).  If you can show me a YouTube video in which Lucas or Cameron brags about overthrowing Christianity and brainwashing all the kids in Sunday School, you will prove me wrong. 😉
I think the anti-Christian themes in Star Wars and Avatar are due to the creators’ desire to fit in with popular flavor-of-the-month Postmodern morality.  Fashionable environmentalism.  Fashionable feminism.  Fashionable relativism.  Fashionable romantic-love-is-based-on-emotional-infatuation-and-sex-ism.  That kind of thing.
Those worldly values are always changing, but God’s values have always been the same.  Despite having worldly themes, I think both Star Wars and Avatar have some more lasting themes.  And I think a lasting theme is a holy theme, because it is only God’s values that endure.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

OK, one point that might help clarify my position. You said, Stephen,

The way I’ve read her comments, they mainly offer a caution against equating a story that reflects truth “by accident” to stories that reflect these truths on purpose.

In truth, my caution is that we should be as diligent in finding what is false as we are in finding what is true. If the emphasis is on giving God glory or worshiping Him in our reading, I don’t think we are as apt to ferret out error. I don’t think we should be looking for His glory as much as His Truth. For one thing, God’s glory isn’t something we have to dig out as if it’s hidden. When He showed up, people fell on their faces.

The same is true of more-innocuous themes that could be taken too far, such as the sickeningly-sweet and -prevalent “just be true to yourself / believe in yourself” pablum, or even the slightly-closer-to-truth-but-still-squishy concept of “everything we know about [perceived enemies] is wrong” (as in How to Train Your Dragon). They’re simply fashionable. Trendy. Thoughtless.

I disagree. I don’t think these are innocuous themes. I think they are honoring the god of this age: self.  (Stephen, you’ve called it Me-ism before). I think these writers know exactly what they’re doing–espousing their own values. (Maybe it’s because I live so close to Hollywood, I get a larger dose of their worldview.)  If a Christian would do this, we would all–Christians and non-Christians alike–slam that work as being preachy. We don’t do this with these neo-mystic works because we don’t recognize them as the pagan propaganda they are.

1 John 5:21 tells us to guard ourselves from idols and Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:14 to flee idolatry. Gideon was instructed to tear down his father’s idols before he went to battle. I think too many of us in the Church today are walking right past the idols our culture has constructed and even thinking they might look good in our own worship center. YIKES! We need to see the lies that come out of stories as lies and call them so. Loudly. Often.

Stephen, the lasting themes of Avatar? From one of my posts on the movie when it came out:

it preaches the panentheistic party line:

  • Nature is One

  • We are one with Nature

  • Therefore, animal life is to be valued as is human life

  • But death is part of the cycle of life

  • God (the Na’vi called her Eywa) doesn’t take sides (in good/evil struggles) but maintains the balance of the universe

When it comes to themes, Avatar is not a good movie.



Rebecca LuElla Miller

Hey, Stephen, I’m not sure what you meant by this (who is giving away what and who is the imposter?):

Is there a way to genuinely “give God glory” without also being aware of error?

Or would this attempt be given away as an imposter, self-defined “glory-giving”?

As I understand what you’re saying in general, “error” isn’t significant. God receives glory because He created the person who writes and gifted him with the ability, so regardless of content, God receives glory. What’s more, according to what I hear you saying, even writers who want to dishonor God can’t help but give Him glory because they use the story structure that mirrors God’s own true story.

I don’t agree with either of those points. But even if story structure did always mirror God’s true story, and given that God causes all things to work for good to those who love Him, that does not mean all things edify or glorify.

I’ll go back to the poison in the wine metaphor I used earlier. As I see it, you want Christians to marvel at how great the wine is and I want to tell readers, be sure you know there’s poison mixed in.



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