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Three Problems With Religious Rating Systems

Modern methods to rank stories by content can deny their humanity and clash with the gospel.
| Jun 30, 2016 | 16 comments | Series:

Six Problems with Religious Rating Systems

This topic is scary.

I risk breaking a unwritten rule I’ve held for some time: don’t write negative reviews.

I also risk implying that it’s uncouth, unspiritual, or just backward to attempt thinking biblically about stories and songs, including fantastical stories. But it’s not. Christians must think biblically about stories and songs, not out of duty but out of joy. That’s because God gives us the ability to make stories and songs, and we enjoy them more by thanking Him.

However, Christians find many “spiritual” but questionable methods to think about stories. One of our methods is a rating system. These are used by evangelical websites that review stories. MovieGuide.org is one example.1

Religious rating systems, or RRSs, use stars, letter codes, or charts to rank stories according to moral gauges. They might count words, describe violent moments, or attempt to render a conclusive worldview ranking (such as “existentialist” or “moral/patriotic”).

A newer approach by Christian fantastical story fan David Bergsland attempts a different version of this method. Bergland offers a “spiritual system” that sorts stories by categories such as “clean,” Old Testament legal-style, and “redemptive” fiction. Interestingly, Bergland also wants to apply this model to a story’s spiritual villains. (This itself presupposes a certain evangelical approach to fiction and reality. But more about this in part 2.)

I grew up exposed to such RRSs. Now I do not find them helpful or biblical. Here’s why.

1. RRSs do not rhyme with the gospel.

The first reason I don’t find RRSs helpful is this: they do not flow from a gospel approach to life, the universe, and everything—including fantastical stories.

God’s word assures us that His moral standard, His Law, serves several purposes. God’s Law shows us what He is like and what He values (justice, mercy, truth, beauty). God’s Law is an impossible standard that no one can meet. This means we must repent and call out to Jesus, the only perfect Law-keeper who also died to fulfill the demands of God’s Law.

Now Christians live by God-given faith and grace. We do not rely on fear or duty to follow the Law. Instead we are motivated by gratitude and love for Jesus. We want to be like Him, as righteous as He is, and we work out salvation as He works in us.2

RRSs might include the gospel in the system. But the system itself clashes with the gospel—like ketchup on breakfast cereal, or brown shoes with black pants. The gospel says, “Legal codes are meant to bring you to Christ.” RRSs say, “Yes, and now that we are in Christ, let us approach all stories with a legal code.” This does not rhyme with the gospel.

2. RRSs reverse a Christian’s God-given polarity.

Many Christian advocates of RRSs have assumed they know what fantastical stories are meant to do. They assume these stories should help us grow in character, or learn new facts about the world, or help us perform direct feats of Christian evangelism. After all, isn’t the Christian’s “chief end,” or highest purpose, to fulfill the great commission Jesus gave us?

Actually, no. A person’s chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” God defines a huge part of this purpose in Gen. 1:28. Here He gives what theologians call the “cultural mandate.” This includes not only agriculture and gardening, but story- and song-making.

Humans rebelled against God and their role as His image-bearers. This is why Jesus came to save us. It’s why He tells us to make more disciples to follow Him: the Great Commission.

Biblical Christians follow both commands: the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate. In fact, the Great Commission is important—I would even say in a sense more important—because repenting and following Jesus is the only way we can fulfill the Cultural Mandate.

But RRSs do not see things like the Great Commission, discipleship, and spiritual growth as a means of recovering our call to reflect God’s image, including His creativity. RRSs get it exactly backward. They treat our calling of image-bearing and creativity as a mere means to spiritual activities. The RRS reverses our polarity. It weakens both our callings.

3. RRSs do not respect stories’ humanity.

Some RRS-based ministries treat stories, such as movies and television shows, like they are collections of parts. RRS reviewers write as if each part has been split off from a machine called a “worldview” and assembled into a new contraption. Then they assume people may or may not be able to operate safely the story-as-machine (for a purpose left undefined, or defined according to “spiritual” assumptions as seen above). Or RRS reviewers may assume the story-as-machine is entirely ungrounded and will electrocute anyone, so we mustn’t touch.

But stories are not like machines. They are messier, living, organic blends of good and bad, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness. A story reflects human beings. After all, God created humans to reflect His image, and we create culture (including stories) in a similar way.

When we ignore this truth, we deny the image of God in human beings around us.

Imagine using an RRS to review not a story, but the person (or people) who made the story. Imagine saying of a human being, “This [person] said X swear words in ten minutes and has a mixed/Romantic/pagan worldview. Parents STRONGLY CAUTIONED. This is not the best [person] for your family.” What does that do to the gospel? What does it do for our calling to engage with such people, seeing their faults as God sees them, but loving them anyway so we can live in their worlds, as Jesus lived in ours, and reach them with the gospel?

If we cannot treat human beings this way, why would we treat their stories this way?

Tomorrow I will share three more problems with religious rating systems.

  1. Plugged In, a Focus on the Family ministry, has moved away from such systems in favor of more-thoughtful reviews for families.
  2. Philippians 2: 12-13.
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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Yaasha Moriah

Good points all around, but the part that really stands out is the evaluation of story and person. (In the terms of: “I give this person a PG-13 rating.”) You’re right. Stories are as organic and convoluted as people.

When I review a book, I make sure to include as much information as possible so that someone can determine whether or not it is a book they would choose to read, for the sake of the “weaker brother” who might be disturbed by the so-called R-rated content that I have no problem skimming over. It’s good to be honest about the story, but ranking the story imposes an artificial standard.

Also, I’m so glad you pointed out that our chief purpose isn’t evangelism, even though that’s a crucial activity. Glorifying God is our purpose and all things flow from that. I think God sees story in a different way than we civilized Christians. He saw the story of the woman at the well and He called her out on it, but he also offered her redemption. Same thing with the woman they wanted Him to stone. He saw the evil and He did not draw back from it or hide Himself from it. He just challenged it.

That’s consistent with the Bible. Heck, if someone wrote the Bible in today’s English, it’d probably get an X rating. Noah and the Flood? Lot’s daughters? David and Uriah? It’s not nice stories for nice people. It’s real stories for real people.

Autumn Grayson
Autumn Grayson

To me the rating system thing can be difficult because people interpret different stories differently.  I’ve seen many people say that they dislike Harry Potter because it teaches kids to disobey and that people should lie to accomplish things.  But then I’ve heard other people say that Harry Potter teaches kids about courage and love and that bad consequences come from doing bad things.  Either is probably true depending on someone’s personal experience and how they interpret the show.

David Bergsland

You’re missing the point. The rating system does not grade stories or books. They are part of a book review about the book as a whole. At the end of the review we cover the spiritual content. This was originally started because trade publishers were released tons of books listed as Christian which had no Christian content.

The best you could hope for was a book about the pre-flood world of Nephilim, giants, and so forth. As I talked with my friends, we realized that the basic issue is the same ol’ issue: The offense of the cross and the Messiah. Jesus has always PO’d the world. The problem, of course, is that in the 21st century, He increasingly PO’s the church.

So we saw five levels. Each of them include all the previous levels.

1: The dreaded clean read. We don’t worry about gritty stories of reality.
2: Books that are clean, but have ancient writing, prophecies, and talk about God.
3. Books that are clean, talk about God, and have a Savior/Messiah of some kind whom the characters attempt to follow by faith.
4. Books that are clean, talk about God, have a savior, and any person can have their life transformed by accepting that Savior as Lord of their life.
5. Books that are clean, talk about God, have a savior, any person can have their life transformed by accepting that Savior as Lord of their life, and characters who have the Holy Spirit active in their life with power.

This is not a grading system, but a simple acknowledgement of content. For example, I just gave that wonderful DarkTrench saga, a level 3 acknowledgement. I is one of the most enjoyable science fiction series I’ve read in a long while. Satan and His minions are not a part of the story, so on the enemy level it gets a level 1.

Another example would be the Ilyon Chronicles by Knight. This is another superb series. The first two were powerful level 2 books. The most recent adds a savior and transformed lives resulting from accepting that he is the messiah by faith 9though Messiah or savior is never mentioned, as I recall. It’s not Jesus, but a creation of Jaye’s. It was really well done. The third book definitely raised the bar to level 4 spiritually. The spiritual level of the enemy is still level 1—they are not ever mentioned or considered. But again, the series is exceptional.

Yes, we can have speculative saviors, different names for the spirit of God, different names for the enemy of our souls. But, for the readers, they want to know the spiritual content level, and this system offers that.

It makes it easy to warn readers of those truly dangerous books: clean reads and level two books which have Satan, demons, et al with no power to thwart them. Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed several books which were level 2, in that they talked about God, but they were dealing with level four demons on a New Testament level. What hopeless messes they were. The only power against the demons was personal will power. How frightening!

The joy comes with a book like Blind Ambitions by Guy Stanton III. Here we have a group of worldly powerful moguls who carefully breed superstars by using sex slaves. The live is horrific, as you can imagine, as the heroine becomes a star on Beyonce’s level. Then she is transformed into a radical spirit-filled evangelist know for her plain talk, no holds barred.

The moguls put out a contract on her, hiring one of the best assassins in the world… It goes on from there. It’s an amazing story, wonderfully told, intense, gritty, certainly offensive to many. He’s a relatively new author, a dozen books or so over the past four years. No publisher will touch him, so the editing, and grammar need some work. BUT, the tale is amazing, inspiring, and completely compelling. Superb book! At the end of the review, we wrote about the spiritual content as level 5 good & bad. The world-building, story, and characters are also 5-star. We don’t feel competent to rate the writing quality.


The thing is, your rules imply that level 5 is automatically better (more holy, more Scriptural, more pure, etc.) than level 1. And the inescapable rules-lawyers are going to look down on those who read level 1’s, regardless of story quality.

What we’re really doing is trying to hammer out how rules apply to Christians. Que the D: D: D: because getting large groups of people to agree is The Worst.

David Bergsland

No, that’s how you are reading it. I’m not rating worth but content. I’m no judge. That’s not the purpose. It’s just an objective comment on the spiritual content of the book. What level you write at is between you and the Lord. I have no bone in that pile. I know what the Lord has told me to write. He’s your Lord. What you write is between you and Him.

I love LOTR which is level one, good and bad.


I’m not saying you mean it like that, I’m saying people can and will interpret it as that, and you have little to no say in it. Sad thing about other people’s opinions.

Autumn Grayson
Autumn Grayson

Maybe assigning a symbol, letter, color, etc would make the intentions a bit more clear to people who might otherwise take it wrong?  A symbol, letter, color, etc would probably be better for illustrating the spirit of each level’s definition, anyway.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

I agree with notleia about the assumption that a “level 5” is better than a “level 1.” and yet in speculative series, you often have a gradual transformation. The first book doesn’t provide the resolution to the conflict!

Plus, not all books are allegories.

But the main thing I want to comment about is the fact that sites that set themselves up as authorities for readers to rely upon are actually excusing them from their need to discern for themselves if a work of fiction is consistent with Scripture or not. This is a dangerous practice–the kind we find in the world where the government does the thinking for the people or in political campaigns where the endorsement by VERY Important Person Known Far And Wide tells voters what to think.

We Christians need to be better than that. We ought to think for ourselves. And discuss. People should voice their opinion, and should hash out what they think with others who see things differently. We should not act as if we are under some kind of mind control and must walk in lock-step with others wearing the current label we used to identify True Christians.


Audie Thacker

–But the main thing I want to comment about is the fact that sites that set themselves up as authorities for readers to rely upon are actually excusing them from their need to discern for themselves if a work of fiction is consistent with Scripture or not.

I’m not sure I completely agree with that. While some people may take it in that way, I would hope that most would take such reviews more as guides then as definite directions. “I found story X to be consistent or inconsistent with biblical teachings because of A, B, and C reasons” is simply someone giving their opinions, hopefully with some biblical support.

A few months ago, I submitted a negative review to SF for a book written by a minister, and it was posted here. I stand by that review, and while it might be unreasonable to expect everyone who read that review to also read the book, I hope that anyone who questions things written in the review would make the effort to validate or falsify for themselves the claims in the review. But that would be true for positive reviews, too.

I don’t think a review is meant to necessarily be a stopper, though in some cases they could be helpful warning signs. But the reviewer can only express opinions and give support for those opinions, not actually make someone read a book or keep them from reading it.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Audie, I agree with what you’re saying, but I think the sites Stephen is talking about set themselves up as an authority. They aren’t entertaining any and all reviews. They are giving their view as the expert, though self-styled expert. Some people would rather follow what a “trusted reviewer” says than do their own investigation. In actuality, these sites can be one piece of the investigation, if people would take them as you suggest–an opinion by someone judging the movie on a certain set of criteria.

So maybe the question should be more about what readers/viewers are expecting from ratings and rating sites than about the sites themselves.


Rebecca LuElla Miller

“If we cannot treat human beings this way, why would we treat their stories this way?” Sadly, Stephen, some people, even professing Christians, DO treat people that way. Oh, he’s a ___ sinner! We can’t tolerate that!

An illustration: a couple weeks ago the guest pastor who preached at my church related that his mom and dad divorced when he was two and both went into the gay lifestyle. Long story short, he became a Christian as an adult. In an area of the country that shall remain nameless, he attended Bible school. He had a chance to preach and his mom attended. Later the elder or person in charge asked him to come back but not to bring his mom because she was “the wrong sort” for their church. Amazingly, as God works in ways that show His love and power, this pastor’s mom and dad have since become Christians.

But here’s what I really wanted to share from his message. He preached from John 8 about the adulterous woman thrust before Jesus. The pastor’s take away was that Jesus offered grace and truth. We Christians too often offer only grace or only truth. He illustrated the point with a large rubber band. If you handle it on one side, let’s say, the grace side, it hangs limply with no purpose. If you handle it on the opposite side, the truth side, it hangs there limply with no purpose. If you handle it on both sides simultaneous, you now have a powerful tool that can be used to its appointed purpose. But the power comes from the tension between the two sides. So with grace and truth!

Oh, btw, the pastor’s name is Caleb Kaltenbach of the Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA.


David Bergsland

No, the attitude is: that’s pretty heavy sin which has hold of him or her. How do you want me to pray, Lord? I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked to go over and confront someone on their sin. However, I’ve participated in a person’s salvation after a long time of prayer.

My father prayed hard for me for 16 years before the Spirit got through to my drug-crazed hippy life. He never once condemned me. That wasn’t his job. His job was to pray. 🙂

Rebecca LuElla Miller

David, perhaps the attitude should be as you described, and certainly your father modeled that, but the illustration I gave is what Pastor Kaltenbach shared with us. I believe it reflects error which can creep into the Church. The people in that body of believers didn’t offer grace with the truth they held to. Even if they prayed, which would be the best thing they could do, they still withheld the visible evidence of God’s grace–the church in action.