/ / Articles

This Is Fiction Legalism

Obvious legalism is not the only legalism, and is discerned based on Scripture, not feelings or rules.
| Sep 12, 2013 | No comments |
Obvious legalism is not the only legalism.

Obvious legalism is not the only legalism.

Legalism is an attitude of the heart.

You can’t define “legalism” with strict rules. That is how you get legalism in the first place.

The bad: Appearance-based judging

So in real life, if I see among a group of Christians that everyone is enjoying alcohol save for one awkward person, and think, “That person is legalistic,” then I have become the legalist.

And if I read a fantasy novel in which the author avoids showing a certain sin or swear words or what-have-you, and I decide this means the author is only trying to please people or publishers or Fundamentalists, then yes, the author may be legalistic. But if I don’t know the situation, her heart motivation, or the audience, then I’m definitely acting like one.

In either case I’ve judged someone based on a wrong notion of appearance of evil — that is, whether that person has violated my own personal “rules” and not a Biblical command.

After last week’s quiz 1, I realize even more how absurdly easy it is to condemn others’ legalism based solely on appearance. No, judging based on appearance is not always sinful, but it’s severely limited — especially if we don’t even know the person, or her heart, or if we simply don’t know how to discern according to Scripture rather than one’s own feelings.

cover_theshack1. We don’t know the person.

I could say that The Shack’s author wrote an overall bad book, with a sentimental style, at-best-silly ideas about God, and strict legalistic attitudes toward Christians who desire to be faithful to Scripture. That’s based only on content. But I don’t know him personally. I can’t say, “This author is doing this because he personally hates X” or “he’s only doing it for the cash cow of liberal ‘emergent’ readers.” (Conversely, if I don’t know this public figure personally, I can’t say for sure, “He only wants to help by reaching out to nonbelievers!”)

Not suitable for editing.

Not suitable for editing.

2. We’re not discerning per Scripture.

If I’m reading a novel without swear words, especially if the story veers into “swear words would really make this a better story” territory,” then I may wonder why the story avoids such language. But I can’t require the author to do this because Scripture doesn’t require it. Scripture’s own arguable use of vulgar or “bad” language is at best sparing (Paul’s mention of filthy rubbish or exasperated wish about oppressors’ self-emasculation, etc.).

Also: If my own chief mission is to persuade non-Christians that Christians aren’t up-tight legalists, and if I think someone else isn’t following that mission, then that’s not the other author’s problem. It may not be a problem at all. It may simply be a difference in callings.

3. We’re judging based mainly on feelings.

Biblical judgment is never wrong. But feelings-based judgment may be wrong. And often we use our own feelings to make legalistic judgments, including against “legalism.”

  • “You said homosexuality is wrong, and that feels mean to me. You’re a Pharisee.”
  • “I read this novel where the story explores lust, and it feels tempting. That’s sin.”
  • I feel like this story is attacking my personal religious traditions. It’s a bad story.”

The good: Pulling out planks

critiquingcriticsofchristianfiction“Now hold on,” a critic may rightfully say. “If you’re judging that someone is legalistic based on appearance, because it appears to be evil judging, isn’t that more of the same sin? A sin on top of a sin on top of a sin?” That’s absolutely right, and that’s why I’m already on that.

Surely there are right ways to discern based on appearance. For example, if I grew up being exposed to a certain legalism — let’s call it by the theological term “You Can’t Watch PG-13 Movies” Legalism — then I’ll be more aware of that sin-struggle in myself and in others. That actually aligns with Christ’s command in Matthew 7: first pull the wood beam out of your own eye — by judging yourself — then you’ll see clearly to help others do the same.

“Hey, brother/sister. I understand you not only avoid PG-13 films for yourself, but also forbid them from your maturing children. While there is a lot of junk out there and we must be careful to avoid our own unique temptations, I wonder if you’ve heard my story. …”

Yet what’s the heart motive in such an approach? The goal is not to blast said PG-13 Movie Legalists. It’s to help in their journey, as we were helped. To help another glorify God better.

It’s a spirit of “Aren’t you missing something that glorifies God?” and not, “Sinner! Repent.”

In the field of fantasy fiction, we can’t afford to get this wrong. I’m convinced that when fiction legalism appears to come up — when someone says “Harry Potter is demonic” or “I can’t enjoy stories without swear words and neither should you” — our approach must be like, “aren’t you missing something (that glorifies God)?” rather than, “Sinner! Repent.”

So here’s an application specific to SpecFaith readers and all advocates of fantastic stories: When you meet someone who appears to be a fiction legalist, please don’t condemn him or her. Instead, reflect God’s Story and share your story in light of His (aren’t we all about stories, anyway?). And gently challenge, performing any careful eye surgery if needed — but always, always after making sure our own vision in this area is certified plank-free.

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.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
H.G. Ferguson
H.G. Ferguson

The admonition “abstain from the appearance of evil” has absolutely nothing to do with the presentation of evil in fiction. It has everything to do in its biblical context as a warning against paying heed to false prophecies. The Thessalonians are enjoined to not count as nothing prophetic utterances; to judge all things and hold fast what it is good, and to abstain from the appearance of evil, i.e., an evil unclean spirit manifesting itself in a false prophecy. This is the most natural way to take it in the Greek. Imprimatur. Nihil obstat.


I can’t enjoy stories without swear words and neither should you”
—um, I think WITH swear words would be a more logical sentence, though I could see it both ways.
Grammar aside, I think your point about feelings is a good one. The line between feelings and thoughts can be a blurry one, however.

Paul Lee

“Now hold on,” a critic may rightfully say. “If you’re judging that someone is legalistic based on appearance, because it appears to be evil judging, isn’t that more of the same sin? A sin on top of a sin on top of a sin?”

That seems to be our condition. Human interaction is an endless cycle of sin on top of sin on top of sin, and we are not free from it. I think part of the problem with Christian legalism is that some Christians are desperate to believe that they have transcended the cycle of endless sin, but because they really haven’t, they stay away from activities and places that appear evil in order to hold on to the belief that their new birth is real.

I can sympathize with this. It’s part of my story — trying to prove to myself that I’m really saved. I gave up on that struggle and decided to believe that, as a Christian, I am cursed and damned. The irony is that from a position of death and despair the offer of hope is clearest in the Bible. Hope is simply a different perspective on total despair, because when we totally despair of ourselves, God gives us hope. I am no longer comfortable thinking of people as “unsaved” and “saved” — only as the ignorant lost content to be lost, and the enlightened lost who hate their lostness and hold on to the promise of some day being found. That is how my understanding of Christianity has changed.


Very good article Stephen.


Excellent article!