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.
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!”)
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
“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.