When will we know the answer to the question, “How far is too far to delve into secular culture and adult content in stories?”1
When Christ returns.
No, that’s not a cheesy youth pastor joke. We’ll never stop talking about these things. There will always be another caveat to add, another angle we haven’t explored yet, another cultural development that throws a wrench into our precisely-drawn lines in the sand concerning swearing, violence, and sex.
Why? Because we all need to draw the line somewhere and suggest that others do the same. And if we do this with intellectual humility, that’s perfectly okay. It’s good—even a blessing to share perspective and wisdom. As long as we are truly trying to honor God with our lives and stories, some variance will take place. Christian freedom allows for it. James calls this the “law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12).
But let’s talk about the elephants in the room: legalism and leniency. I believe these are two things that we do have the ability to avoid in this life since the Bible gives us the tools to address them. I’d like to suggest some principles that may help us all show one another more grace as we try to locate the balance between the extremes of legalism and leniency.
Legalism usually takes two forms. First, it is the belief that following a set of rules makes one righteous before God. Example: Even through they have an unhealthy marriage, a Christian married couple may feel right with God because they aren’t divorced like all their friends.
One example from Scripture: the rich young ruler from Matthew 19.
Second, legalism is the making of new rules that do not appear in Scripture. This is often done when we move away from biblical principles directly derived from the Bible and make law from mere application of scripture. Example: “Read your Bible every day.” That is not a command in the Bible but usually derived from verses such as Psalm 1:2, “. . . and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Here’s an example from Scripture: Matthew 12, where the Pharisees criticized the disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath which was misapplied application of the Old Testament command to keep the Sabbath holy.
In the first example, the couple had right action with sinful motive, and were dependent on their actions alone for righteousness. In the second example, someone created what they thought would be a helpful tool for sanctification, but ended up becoming a law for modern churches that is sometimes obeyed only to make people appear righteous before God (as in the first example).
(Note: I am not saying you should get divorced or that you shouldn’t read your Bible every day. After all, the fruit of the Spirit can spring from even the smallest seed of habit.)
Leniency is the rejection of the law—whether set down by God or man. Often times the lenient Christian makes an idol out of their own freedom. This can happen when one has a low view of scripture and the wisdom of people who appear to them as too traditional. Example: A man believes the gospel has set him free to smoke and drink freely, which dulls his conscience from seeing when those habits become sinful.
Example from Scripture: 1 Samuel 28, when Saul consults a medium against God’s explicit law to seek help from a deceased Samuel.
So what does this have to do with reading and writing fiction? Everything.
We wrongly think that people who are more restrictive and traditional are the true legalists. If someone reads Harry Potter and sends their kids to public school, there’s no way that person is a legalist, right? Well no, not at all. That’s how we fall into accidental legalism. We think we’re “safe” from Phariseeism because we’ve managed to avoid specific stances such as teetotalism.
But in reality, it isn’t the position held on topics such as this that signify legalism, but the attitude. Do you have enough intellectual humility to admit you could be wrong? By this measure, even the most lenient PG-13 storyteller could fall into legalism due to pride.
Of course we can keep talking about why we have specific restrictions on PG-13 content. That can be edifying to the story maker and consumer alike. Yet I think this conversation would greatly benefit from more often speaking of these things on a principle level. This will draw the discussion away from the what of the content to the why. It will turn the focus from man-made law to God-given fruit and virtues.
How do you know you’ve accidentally fallen into legalism or leniency? Ask yourself these questions.
- Do I look down on others that have different standards regarding the use of PG-13 content? Feelings of pride can mean you are unknowingly relying on your actions to make you righteous before God and man.
- Do I feel prolonged guilt when I watch or read something that offends my conscience? Although there is more than one source, lingering guilt could possibly mean you are relying on your own ability to keep the “law” for the sake of right standing before God. It lingers because you cannot keep this law perfectly, and you are not relying on the gospel of Christ that has already set you free.
- Do I keep rules such as “Do not read or write anything with swear words,” in the same way I keep commands that are actually written in Scripture? Keeping man-made laws casts sin upon a person who may not be in sin—whether yourself or another.
- Do I overlook wisdom and commands from Scripture when it doesn’t line up with my agenda for my story? Glancing over or twisting the Bible when it is convenient for us signifies a low-view of Scripture and is a dangerous slippery-slope away from God’s revealed truth.
- Do I choose to read or write PG-13 content because I feel entitled to that freedom? A feeling of entitlement to do as we wish without consulting God’s word may be spiritually harmful to yourself and others. It also creates an idol of certain kinds of freedoms God has not given us.
I hope you were able to pick out a theme through those questions: pride. It is the quintessential counting, “equality with God a thing to be grasped,” (Philippians 2:6). Let’s strive for true intellectual humility in these discussions, being ready to listen and admit when we’re wrong.
Look for a “sequel” to this article in the next Lorehaven magazine issue, fall 2019, where I will discuss my personal standards for PG-13 content.