Beauty and Truth 3: The Chief End Of Man

Story critics charge that Christians should do “more important things” than enjoy fiction. But a famous Biblical truth reflected in the Westminster Shorter Catechism begins to challenge that notion.
on May 10, 2012 · 8 comments
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Most Christians would agree that fiction is okay. We can enjoy fiction and not sin — even the “weird,” “gritty” stories. But Scripture never says, “Whatever does not proceed from evil motives is neutral.” It says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). That’s a very high standard. Does enjoying fiction meet it?

Many Christians defend their fiction enjoyment by saying “it’s not sinful” or “it reminds me of the Bible.” But as noted last week, they may be tripped up by this criticism:

Christians are saved for a mission. It’s summarized by Jesus’s Great Commission (Matt. 28: 16-20). He said to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them. We work to spread the Gospel, organize churches, support our families, and more. Given all of those clearly defined parts of our mission, why spend time reading or defending fiction?

Missions myopia

I’ve already covered one response to this toughest fiction criticism: that critics would need to apply this criticism more fairly. If obvious Great Commission work is our chief end, why only criticize fiction? Why even wish dishes? Clean carpets? Buy new cars?

Undeniably, even foreign missionaries have downtime. The next time they come to your church, consider: much of their activity is very “unspiritual.” Hours spent in a plane flying overseas could be valuable time spent not witnessing. Once in the city or village, do missionaries spend 100 percent of their time evangelizing? No. They walk or drive, buy groceries, make home repairs like all of us. They aren’t super-spiritual beings who suddenly have no human needs and only ever preach, teach, and get persecuted.

How may even those overseas missionaries redeem their inevitable downtime? What could they do when they’re not doing those “more important things”?

I would also ask fiction critics: what motivates those “more important things”?

The same chief end we all live for: desiring and “getting” more of God through worship.

Man’s chief end

Though they are vital elements of God’s plan, Creation, Christ’s death and resurrection, and even the Great Commission, are not the goal of His Story. What is that end? The same as our chief end, as famously proclaimed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

Please don’t suspect that this beauty, or the wonder of great stories, only distracts from “real” worship.

And as author and pastor John Piper also famously notes, clarifying the phrase:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.

Who faults a Christian who is captivated by the sight and splendor of a roaring waterfall and is moved to praise God. Who says this Christian has “more important things to do”?

Rather, we know we enjoy/glorify/worship God in different ways. That includes stories.

As Russell Moore said, in an article that released the same day as last week’s column:

I’ve found that most people who tell me that fiction is a waste of time are folks who seem to hold to a kind of sola cerebra vision of the Christian life that just doesn’t square with the Bible. The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe.

Ever notice how few Christians view worship music as unnecessary? No one interrupts “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19) to claim we should be doing “more important things.” Why not? Because all these are important. All these are worship. Anything we do is (Col. 3:23).

A critic may say, “But the Bible never commands story-enjoying, only singing.”

That’s not true. Scripture gives us many examples of God-glorifying worship.

But aside from that, consider the Psalms referenced in the above verse. The songwriters of Scripture crafted art, over decades, based not only on propositional truth (the Law they loved) but the glory of God in our world. They weren’t sitting in offices writing this stuff. Imagine their walks in the wild that inspired their songs, which reference mighty leaping whales, gleaming starscapes, crackling thunderstorms, and wind-whipped tree branches, all of which praise the Lord.

To get to the worship songs, we have other, non-singing worship. We stop singing by ourselves and listen to God’s creation sing. We lose ourselves in His wonders.

And without this, we will have no incentive to evangelize or do “more important things.”

Next week: what crucial question must we ask about Story? What is that positive answer (beyond our defensive reminders that nothing is overtly sinful about stories?) By contrast, what assumptions do we often have about “the chief end of stories”? How do these contradict what Scripture assures us is “the chief end of man”?

But for now, what is your “chief end” for living, and for enjoying stories?

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. One of my favorite things about speculative fiction is the way it deepens my sense of wonder and awe at God’s world, and God’s works.  Because I’ve grown up within the church, I’ve heard the same stories and messages repeatedly all my life, and sometimes my ears can get dull to them because they are so familiar.  They become commonplace to me, instead of the astounding things that they are.  In a speculative book or movie, characters or events often broadcast those same messages, in a completely different way, and that gives me fresh eyes to stare in awe at God’s works.  (For example, as I blogged recently, a sermon about angels and a memory of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy catapulted me into an eagerness for heaven that I had never felt before.)  I feel like the highest value of speculative fiction is that it reminds us that this “ordinary” world is actually quite extraordinary, and its Maker is even more extraordinary, even though we may not see Him with our naked eyes.  🙂

    • Galadriel says:

      Exactly! Stories remind me that our life is a story, that God is a story as well as history. As much as I see where certian people are coming from when they insist on calling Noah, David, etc…”biblical narrravitives” instead of “stories”–to emphasize the truth of it–it bothers me, because stories are so important to who we are.

  2. Kessie says:

    I don’t understand where you’re coming from with this series. Are you maintaining, yourself, that stories are a waste of time? Or simply playing devil’s advocate for the people who do?
    …and if it’s all a waste of time, what are we even doing here?

    • Stories are not a waste of time for the Christian — that’s not at all what I’m saying.

      (If I were maintaining this, I have a severe case of schizophrenia, due to being webhost for this site!)

      But why they’re not a waste of time — that’s the crucial question. If it’s true that God is glorified, or should be glorified, in all that we do, that includes story-enjoyment. And as I’ll suggest next week, stories reflect God’s truths and beauties to us based on the Christian worldview that songs, nature, or nonfiction book simply can’t do.

  3. Kirsty says:

    I know my grandparents, who were missionaries, were very pleased when people sent them the Broons or Oor Wullie (Scottish comic books), not just Christian books & magazines!

  4. […] Story. This is based on what the Westminster Shorter Confession says is “man’s chief end,” as noted last week: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him […]

  5. […] 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 […]

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