Last week someone on an email loop to which I subscribe put through a request for suggested book titles for her sixteen-year-old son. Because the boy’s interests include speculative fiction, one member of the loop recommended the Spec Faith library! Yea!! To be honest, this is one of the main reasons we’re compiling the list of books. We want readers who love the genre to discover novels written from a Christian worldview.
As I thought about this mom’s request, though, I was mindful of the fact that picking from the extensive list of books might still be hard. How does someone actually go about selecting books or recommending them or approving them for a child?
Recommending and approving, of course, can be taken care of if a person has first read the books themselves. That’s not possible at all times, however, and doesn’t come into play when trying to pick a book to read for him- or herself.
Once, certain publishers were considered “safe.” For example, several years ago when I would donate books I’d read to my church library, our former librarian would often ask who published them. Certain publishing houses were an automatic “yes.”
But things are changing, even for traditional Christian publishers. One such change is a swing toward “Christian worldview fiction” and the depiction of the dark things in the world as well as the light. Another is the emergence of a host of independent publishers along with an upsurge of self-published titles.
Some people have suggested rating systems to help readers navigate through the maze of available titles. One bookstore chain even tried such a thing for a short time, adding a “Read with Discernment” label to some of the titles they put on their shelves (see “To Label or Not to Label” at my own site for my reaction to this experiment).
That move proved to be controversial. Among other things, the bookstore chain was accused of being greedy–trying to placate their conservative core readership while selling books to a broader audience. I can’t speak to those accusations because I simply don’t know what motivated them to try such a thing or to quickly abandon it.
What I did then and do now believe about rating systems is that they deliver the job of discernment into the hands of someone removed from the consumer.
Movie ratings are often used as an example of what works when it comes to a quick and easy assessment of stories. However, I doubt seriously if any person Hollywood charges to rate a movie does so based on a Christian worldview. Instead, the focus is on external things–how much bad language, sex, or violence is in the movie. The amount of those things is then assigned to certain age groups–kids should be protected from it all, so G; teens should be protected from sex but not sexual innuendo and from graphic violence, so PG; and so forth.
Do Christian ratings do any better? One popular site, Plugged In (a part of Focus on the Family) reviewed the Pixar movie Brave based on Sexual Content, Violent Content, Crude and Profane Language, Drug and Alcohol Content, Other Negative Elements, and, yes, Spiritual Content.
In this latter section, the reviewer camps primarily on the use of magic with a mention of references to “destiny” or “fate.”
Where, I wonder, is the analysis of the movie from the position of what the Bible says about the theme elements? Does it depict women and relationships in a Biblical way? Aren’t those the important questions?
So here’s what I’m thinking. Any review or rating system is flawed. It is imperfect and incomplete because the reviewer is human and brings his or her own beliefs to the party.
I can read the Plugged In review, then, and clearly see that I haven’t been given enough information to know whether Brave is complementary to a Christian worldview or not. So what if there is no bad language or some implied drinking? Those things or lack thereof do not a Christian make.
So what if a couple of (cartoon) kids are shown running around (from behind) in their birthday suits and doing stunts and pranks that exasperate the adults who rarely reprimand them? Is a work “Christian” if it shows good parenting? Or perfectly behaving kids?
Some parents who want to impress upon their children some particular point, such as not doing silly, careless pranks (the kind that could lead to hazing) might want to know that a particular movie shows the very thing they are dealing with.
But should parents rely on the word of this reviewer to know without question that this movie, or any movie, is acceptable or not? I say, no. Reviews help a reader or movie-goer know the direction of the story, but they are starting places, and ought not be conclusions.
Rather, a parent’s job is to provide guidance. We seem to forget that the PG and PG-13 ratings mean precisely that. Parents should evaluate and discuss and guide, not assume, based on someone else’s rating.
So too with reviews here at the Spec Faith library. No reviewer is perfect or has the same life experience as all other readers. Consequently there are no perfect reviews–merely opinions by other readers. Some might prove reliable and insightful, others, not so much.
Readers, like movie-goers, learn to trust the reviewers who are more nearly like-minded. In this day of Amazon reviews, we also learn to trust either the majority of reviewers who concur, or the dissenting voices who give reasoned opinions that square with our own thinking.
In either case, reviews seem to rule the day (and the more, the better, I say). I consider them to be superior to ratings and less likely to create a new gatekeeper (the previous one being traditional publishing houses and/or bookstores). But nothing should replace good old fashion discernment on our part. After all, we will be the ones God holds accountable for our thoughts and attitudes, not any ratings maker.