What do these three story-related controversies have in common?
- Comedians get criticized for triggering audiences with their jokes.
- The movie Joker gets criticized for potentially inciting real-world violence.
- Fantasy authors may be faulted for seeming to endorse real-world magic practices.
Answer: In each case, storytellers are being challenged (at best) or blamed (at worst) for leading their fans into temptation.
Which leads us to this vital question:
Should Christian storytellers help keep their fans from temptation?
One article can’t answer this question. But let’s try a condensed exploration.
storytellers individuals …
I do limit this discussion to Christian storytellers.
So when we say Christian, we’re talking about people who want to glorify God (according to God’s word.) However, before their identity as storytellers for other people, these folks have a more important and individual identity before their Creator. They are Christ-ians. They are people whom Jesus calls to die to themselves and become spiritually reborn. These creators have (to some extent) a biblical worldview. God has called them to strive to live like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s a simple definition of Christian. But let’s pause to note what callings this definition does not include:
- Helping fix all that’s Wrong with the Church.
- Using their work to push “conservative” or “progressive” culture.
- Creating stories in order to enact social change or preach the overt gospel.
I don’t mean that particular Christian storytellers should not have these callings. But I do mean that if someone does have these callings, they are not the callings of every single Christian.
. . . Help keep
their fans other people from temptation?
Again, before we speak about Christian storytellers and fans, let’s ask this:
What is the Christian person’s responsibility to keep another person from temptation?
We should take this question seriously because the Bible takes sin seriously. Jesus himself presents firm warnings about leading someone, especially a weak individual, into sin (see Matthew 18:6, 23:15).
The apostle Paul warns Christians about being sensitive about actions that aren’t sinful, but which can tempt other Christians (see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8–10).1
So it’s not rude or legalistic to ask, “Does my non-sinful action tempt anyone into committing sin?”
Note that when Jesus and Paul warn against tempting other people, they refer to specific sins or even abusive acts. Then, when Paul warns about not making others stumble, he doesn’t caution against us just causing someone to be offended. He warns against spiritually “weak” people, who see another person’s non-sinful action, associate this with their own beliefs about evil, and fall into actual temptation.
- Example 1: I invite a new family from church to a fall costume party. They tell me they believe that’s the same as a Halloween party. Now they can’t help wondering if they should go along with Halloween, even including the anti-resurrection themes associated with it.
- Example 2: You invite me to see Joker with you. Despite my my disinterest, I go along. But unlike you, I end up being dragged down by the movie’s apparent deconstruction of Society and things, and depressed about a life of nihilistic villainy with no heroes in sight.
Such challenges call for biblical wisdom.
You need to know your Bible, and what it says about sin and where sin comes from.
You also need to know the person or type of person. Often this is where the issue becomes more challenging. After all, do we talk only about immature Christians when we talk about discernment? Or should we also make room for mature Christians who may be more free? That is, they are not carefree or foolish, but are more advanced in their faith and thus have built spiritual immunity to some temptations?
Tense argument: Present temptation versus future temptation.
Let’s note one vital assumption about these examples: they’re in the present tense.
When we limit the question to the present tense, things get simpler. Just as they do when we compress the question to the individual level.
But things get more complicated if we ask whether Christians must prevent people from being tempted by our actions in the future.
- Example 1: I think that family might be strange. But if I try to invite them to do anything, could they end up associating me with sin?
- Example 2: You suspect I might not be interested in Joker. But if you let me know you’re seeing it, will this tempt me to see it and sin?
Those are mild examples. But note their chilling effect. If we try to avoid even the tiny change that these actions will cause hypothetical temptation, we end up causing tiny little communication blocks. These in turn can wedge into Christian relationships. Even if we want to keep the other person from sinning, we’re not treating them like a person. And this creates greater distance. Instead of talking with the person, we’re trying to guess about what we would do that might cause them to “stumble.” We’re trying to keep our interactions absolutely temptation-free in the future.
We can’t prevent all future, hypothetical temptation.
If we try to keep anyone from being tempted by anything we do, that’s both unworkable and unbiblical.
First, it’s unworkable. In theory, anyone doing anything could “tempt” someone to sin. Even reading the Bible or praising Jesus looks like evil to some non-Christian people! Similarly, if a good Christian enjoys discussing doctrine, others may associate this with discord and conflict, and associate him with sin.
Second, it’s unbiblical. Paul himself did not urge believers to find all those possible temptation hot-zones and steer clear of them in advance. Instead, he addressed an actual, present-day problem in an actual church. Paul’s solution wasn’t hushing up the temptation problem or blaming anyone. Instead he aired it publicly in his open letters. He urged more talk, not less. Only then did the tempted people have greater chance to grow, and the mature people (who weren’t tempted) have a chance to respond in love to their family in Christ.
Christian storytellers can’t keep every fan from temptation, but we can talk openly about our struggles.
This reframing of the question—on individuals, not groups; and on the present tense, not future tense—may help to clarify a lot.
Christian storytellers are individuals before they are creators. And they cannot foresee all potential fan-temptations.2
They can only respond, in the present, to any temptations their stories may have actually caused their actual readers.
It’s unworkable, and unbiblical, to expect any Christian to do more than that.
Thus, if a Christian storytellers seems to have caused temptation to actual people, we ought to encourage more communication, not less.
So, if we’re concerned about a Christian creator’s story that has potentially tempting themes, why not reach out to the author? Assume the best, contact that storyteller (maybe privately at first!), and graciously ask about this storytelling choice. You might need the author’s perspective. And, of course, the author might need your reminder that at least one reader, and maybe a few more, may truly struggle with the story’s presentation about such-and-such.
If we do this, however, let’s ensure we’re not acting like big dang Heroes, speaking up for the hypothetical “little guy” of tempted victims( that is, people we know about, but who are nowhere near us personally).
Such posturing can easily lead us into the wrong kind of hero complex.3
Instead, let’s remember that it’s Jesus, not us, who leads real people out of temptation and delivers us from evil.
- In response to Travis Perry’s overall helpful challenges about this article, I’ve added the word Christians here. One must be careful in applying the Bible’s commands about intra-Church issues to people outside the Church. ↩
- Christian storytellers should not also be expected to prevent all of the potential, future temptations of
peoplenon-Christians who have not even read the story. (This sentence has been edited for clarity.)
For example, my friend Travis Perry has previously shared his knowledge about people who actually worship the ancient Norse pantheon of gods. If I met these people, I would certainly hesitate to recommend to them the Marvel comics or films that feature Thor, Loki, Odin, et. al.
(Or would I? Fantasizing these figures, for some pagan worshipers, might actually help to recast them as the fantasy characters they are.)
However, what if I were a fantasy author adapting these characters for a story? In that case, I wouldn’t let the mere existence of these particular pagans out there somewhere bother me. I don’t know them. And I have no idea whether they will read the stories I created.
What if, however, these people were in my church, recently converted, and still struggled with thoughts of bowing before Thor’s mighty biceps? Then I would have a long personal talk with these folks to make sure they understood my beliefs. Then I would need to decide whether to proceed with creating the story.
Edit: The point is not to conflate the Bible’s instructions for Christians with our treatment of non-Christians. The point is that Christian storytellers cannot rationally act according to the mere suspicion that some people out there, somewhere, could in theory and in the future be tempted as a partial result of the Christian’s story. Nor can the Christian storyteller prevent all such temptations from arising in fans. ↩
- In recent extreme cases, we’ve seen how big-dang-heroes make an industry out of standing up for “the little guys,” whom the heroes believe will be “triggered” (that’s secular-speak for “tempted”), and try to shut down communication and even the legal rights of free speech. Unfortunately, this pattern follows a similar pattern of some Christian holiness-heroes, who feign to stand up for victim groups (who may or may not have been personally consulted). ↩