Should Christian Storytellers Help Keep Their Fans from Temptation?

Are creators biblically responsible to ensure their fans don’t use the story for the purpose of sinning?
on Oct 8, 2019 · 33 comments

What do these three story-related controversies have in common?

Answer: In each case, storytellers are being challenged (at best) or blamed (at worst) for leading their fans into temptation.

Which leads us to this vital question:

Should Christian storytellers help keep their fans from temptation?

One article can’t answer this question. But let’s try a condensed exploration.

Should Christian storytellers individuals …

I do limit this discussion to Christian storytellers.

So when we say Christian, we’re talking about people who want to glorify God (according to God’s word.) However, before their identity as storytellers for other people, these folks have a more important and individual identity before their Creator. They are Christ-ians. They are people whom Jesus calls to die to themselves and become spiritually reborn. These creators have (to some extent) a biblical worldview. God has called them to strive to live like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s a simple definition of Christian. But let’s pause to note what callings this definition does not include:

  • Helping fix all that’s Wrong with the Church.
  • Using their work to push “conservative” or “progressive” culture.
  • Creating stories in order to enact social change or preach the overt gospel.

I don’t mean that particular Christian storytellers should not have these callings. But I do mean that if someone does have these callings, they are not the callings of every single Christian.

. . . Help keep their fans other people from temptation?

Again, before we speak about Christian storytellers and fans, let’s ask this:

What is the Christian person’s responsibility to keep another person from temptation?

We should take this question seriously because the Bible takes sin seriously. Jesus himself presents firm warnings about leading someone, especially a weak individual, into sin (see Matthew 18:6, 23:15).

The apostle Paul warns Christians about being sensitive about actions that aren’t sinful, but which can tempt other Christians (see Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8–10).1

So it’s not rude or legalistic to ask, “Does my non-sinful action tempt anyone into committing sin?”

Note that when Jesus and Paul warn against tempting other people, they refer to specific sins or even abusive acts. Then, when Paul warns about not making others stumble, he doesn’t caution against us just causing someone to be offended. He warns against spiritually “weak” people, who see another person’s non-sinful action, associate this with their own beliefs about evil, and fall into actual temptation.

  • Example 1: I invite a new family from church to a fall costume party. They tell me they believe that’s the same as a Halloween party. Now they can’t help wondering if they should go along with Halloween, even including the anti-resurrection themes associated with it.
  • Example 2: You invite me to see Joker with you. Despite my my disinterest, I go along. But unlike you, I end up being dragged down by the movie’s apparent deconstruction of Society and things, and depressed about a life of nihilistic villainy with no heroes in sight.

Such challenges call for biblical wisdom.

You need to know your Bible, and what it says about sin and where sin comes from.

You also need to know the person or type of person. Often this is where the issue becomes more challenging. After all, do we talk only about immature Christians when we talk about discernment? Or should we also make room for mature Christians who may be more free? That is, they are not carefree or foolish, but are more advanced in their faith and thus have built spiritual immunity to some temptations?

Tense argument: Present temptation versus future temptation.

But could Christian time-travelers prevent temptation that would have occurred in the past?

Let’s note one vital assumption about these examples: they’re in the present tense.

When we limit the question to the present tense, things get simpler. Just as they do when we compress the question to the individual level.

But things get more complicated if we ask whether Christians must prevent people from being tempted by our actions in the future.

  • Example 1: I think that family might be strange. But if I try to invite them to do anything, could they end up associating me with sin?
  • Example 2: You suspect I might not be interested in Joker. But if you let me know you’re seeing it, will this tempt me to see it and sin?

Those are mild examples. But note their chilling effect. If we try to avoid even the tiny change that these actions will cause hypothetical temptation, we end up causing tiny little communication blocks. These in turn can wedge into Christian relationships. Even if we want to keep the other person from sinning, we’re not treating them like a person. And this creates greater distance. Instead of talking with the person, we’re trying to guess about what we would do that might cause them to “stumble.” We’re trying to keep our interactions absolutely temptation-free in the future.

We can’t prevent all future, hypothetical temptation.

If we try to keep anyone from being tempted by anything we do, that’s both unworkable and unbiblical.

First, it’s unworkable. In theory, anyone doing anything could “tempt” someone to sin. Even reading the Bible or praising Jesus looks like evil to some non-Christian people! Similarly, if a good Christian enjoys discussing doctrine, others may associate this with discord and conflict, and associate him with sin.

Second, it’s unbiblical. Paul himself did not urge believers to find all those possible temptation hot-zones and steer clear of them in advance. Instead, he addressed an actual, present-day problem in an actual church. Paul’s solution wasn’t hushing up the temptation problem or blaming anyone. Instead he aired it publicly in his open letters. He urged more talk, not less. Only then did the tempted people have greater chance to grow, and the mature people (who weren’t tempted) have a chance to respond in love to their family in Christ.

What if Kronk had told a friend about his temptations?

Christian storytellers can’t keep every fan from temptation, but we can talk openly about our struggles.

This reframing of the question—on individuals, not groups; and on the present tense, not future tense—may help to clarify a lot.

Christian storytellers are individuals before they are creators. And they cannot foresee all potential fan-temptations.2

They can only respond, in the present, to any temptations their stories may have actually caused their actual readers.

It’s unworkable, and unbiblical, to expect any Christian to do more than that.

Thus, if a Christian storytellers seems to have caused temptation to actual people, we ought to encourage more communication, not less.

So, if we’re concerned about a Christian creator’s story that has potentially tempting themes, why not reach out to the author? Assume the best, contact that storyteller (maybe privately at first!), and graciously ask about this storytelling choice. You might need the author’s perspective. And, of course, the author might need your reminder that at least one reader, and maybe a few more, may truly struggle with the story’s presentation about such-and-such.

If we do this, however, let’s ensure we’re not acting like big dang Heroes, speaking up for the hypothetical “little guy” of tempted victims( that is, people we know about, but who are nowhere near us personally).

Such posturing can easily lead us into the wrong kind of hero complex.3

Instead, let’s remember that it’s Jesus, not us, who leads real people out of temptation and delivers us from evil.

  1. In response to Travis Perry’s overall helpful challenges about this article, I’ve added the word Christians here. One must be careful in applying the Bible’s commands about intra-Church issues to people outside the Church.
  2. Christian storytellers should not also be expected to prevent all of the potential, future temptations of people non-Christians who have not even read the story. (This sentence has been edited for clarity.)

    For example, my friend Travis Perry has previously shared his knowledge about people who actually worship the ancient Norse pantheon of gods. If I met these people, I would certainly hesitate to recommend to them the Marvel comics or films that feature Thor, Loki, Odin, et. al.

    (Or would I? Fantasizing these figures, for some pagan worshipers, might actually help to recast them as the fantasy characters they are.)

    However, what if I were a fantasy author adapting these characters for a story? In that case, I wouldn’t let the mere existence of these particular pagans out there somewhere bother me. I don’t know them. And I have no idea whether they will read the stories I created.

    What if, however, these people were in my church, recently converted, and still struggled with thoughts of bowing before Thor’s mighty biceps? Then I would have a long personal talk with these folks to make sure they understood my beliefs. Then I would need to decide whether to proceed with creating the story.

    Edit: The point is not to conflate the Bible’s instructions for Christians with our treatment of non-Christians. The point is that Christian storytellers cannot rationally act according to the mere suspicion that some people out there, somewhere, could in theory and in the future be tempted as a partial result of the Christian’s story. Nor can the Christian storyteller prevent all such temptations from arising in fans.

  3. In recent extreme cases, we’ve seen how big-dang-heroes make an  industry out of standing up for “the little guys,” whom the heroes believe will be “triggered” (that’s secular-speak for “tempted”), and try to shut down communication and even the legal rights of free speech. Unfortunately, this pattern follows a similar pattern of some Christian holiness-heroes, who feign to stand up for victim groups (who may or may not have been personally consulted).
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. I always struggle with the (paraphrase) “Don’t cause your weaker brother to sin argument” because I went to a Christian college where it was used as a big ol’ club to beat you up over the head to deny Christian liberty (Christian music with or without instruments, and a whole slew of other things).

    I would hear over and over again how “Christian rock music” sounded just like the “evil devil-worshipping rock music”, and yes that was the phrase used, and what would people think if they heard it?

    By contrast, let’s say I actually knew someone who ACTUALLY had listened to “devil rock music” and struggled with it, that’s a totally different ball game.
    Just like I don’t serve alcohol in front of my alcoholic brother, I wouldn’t listen to Christian rock music in front of this fellow Christian.

  2. notleia says:

    It gets so condescending, or wanna-be authorities trying to treat you like children in order to “protect” you. Uh, thanks, I guess, I’m an adult and/or just someone with a brain who can make an informed opinion. Or actually, I don’t want to thank them at all, because more often it’s about them wanting to bump themselves up the social ladder than it is about them actually thinking about anyone else’s benefit.

    I don’t like watching other people make mistakes, but sometimes people just need to make their own mistakes. That’s where I’m trying to cultivate the “not my circus, not my monkeys” mentality. I am not, in fact, in control of other people’s lives for them, and they are not obligated to make them convenient for me.

  3. There’s a reasonable extent where we should try to help people and compensate for their weaknesses. But in a lot of ways it comes down to a lot of similar issues. How strict should we be about spoiler warnings, especially for shows that have been out for years? What about trigger warnings? How do we even ensure people read those things before diving into a story? Sometimes that’s easier on websites like deviant art or Line Webtoon, where they have a mature content filter built in and people have to click a button to move past.

    But for a book or article, that’s harder. In either case, people SHOULD be taking accountability for what they choose to read. There are of course some guidelines, like not putting inappropriate things in children’s books. But there’s a point where people can’t be helped. Sometimes on deviant art, a piece will be blocked with a mature content filter for violence. I clicked ‘view anyway’ and the picture just shows the char having the equivalent of a paper cut. I think there’s even one or two times where there wasn’t any blood at all, just a dead animal(the image contained no mutilation whatsoever)

    Maybe those images still bother people even if they’re tame, but then having a mature content filter on those bothers me because it makes it harder to know when I might want to skip a comic page due to mature content.

    It’s good for authors to be considerate of others’ weaknesses, but how far should that go? Should authors be looked down on or punished every time they don’t put a warning? People can get rude about spoiler warnings, for example. But then the real question is why they’re reading/watching analysis and review videos for stories they haven’t seen yet. Yes, it can help them decide if they want to watch, but it’s pretty obvious that they risk spoilers when they watch analysis vids.

    For trigger alert type stuff, imagine a story that is anti suicide. It very well could have a lot of heavy content involving suicide. It would be good if an author put a trigger warning before the story, but whoever reads it should also be accountable and stop the moment the story starts bringing up suicide, if that is a sensitivity of theirs.

    I don’t know. I guess authors should try, but in general readers need to take responsibility with what they read instead of getting mad at authors. Readers can just walk away from stuff they don’t like, so if they want to punish someone over something they choose to read, that’s a bit eh. Except in a few obvious cases.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I agree that responsible authors of goodwill try to make content that is generally beneficial but cannot control everything readers do. And I also agree that readers are in fact responsible for themselves–but the Bible actually teaches Christians to care about what our potential impact on other believers might be, so we can’t just unload all responsibility on the readers (as you were saying).

  4. Johne Cook says:

    fwiw, it occurs to me Jesus’ first miracle was creating wine for the wedding at Cana.

  5. Some of the ‘danger’ involving certain things in media depends on the prevalence. Are Joker style movies the main or default type of thing that is getting made? And what is the cultural narrative surrounding it? Are people applauding negative behavior in characters, or are they using it to say ‘this is wrong and tragic and should be avoided in real life’?

  6. Tony Breeden says:

    This entire post dragged me down and caused me an hour of depression concerning the insipidity of Church arguments.

    • … Which is itself a perfect illustration of how “weaker brother” vulnerabilities can take many forms. In fact, I’m convinced that for similar reasons, several Christian leaders, who seem to show signs of burnout and even some kind of post-spiritual-traumatic stress, need to exit Twitter and take a break from pro-ministry ASAP.

      • notleia says:

        Heck yes. Involved ministers are basically doing the work of a social worker while also herding all the egos within church politics while writing out a sermon or sermon series, all while they are paid peanuts and very probably don’t have health insurance [[[[[subliminal message about M4A, very sneaky]]]].
        I’ve read stuff about how ministers feel like they have to be “on” all the time and that they feel they can’t have real friends because they have to be “on” all the time and can’t complain about anything, which might circle back to bite them in the butt. They can’t be real people, they have to be Leaders.

  7. Travis Perry says:

    I saw yesterday my mention in a footnote of this article and I’m not sorry I took a day to think it over before replying, because thinking about it has helped me limit my response. In short, what E. Stephen wrote is in so many ways deficient that it will take a post of my own to really address these issues (I will do my best, God enabling, to show grace while dealing with the many gaps in reasoning this article shows).

    But as of this moment, let me address the specifics of the footnote in which I’m mentioned.

    I’ll address again on Thursday the topic of responsibility for what E. Stephen says only seeming to matter if he personally knows a person who has an issue with something. But to give a sneak preview–this reasoning is blatantly wrong, unfortunately for my sincere friend E. Stephen. Why? To use one of many possible examples, his thinking would mean that if he himself doesn’t know anyone drawn to child pornography, then it would be perfectly fine for him to post pictures of children in sexually provocative poses…I imagine of course, he will reject the idea that he can create soft kiddie porn simply because he doesn’t know anyone who is into it (note I’m assuming he doesn’t anyone into child porn based on the fact I don’t know anyone who will openly admit to being into child porn).

    In the first place, the reason to not place kids in such pictures isn’t limited to the issue of temptation, not by a long shot. In the second place, the idea that we Christians are only responsible for reactions of people we personally know, especially in the context of creating art, is very deficient indeed. It actually suggests that people we don’t personally know aren’t real and don’t matter. Something I don’t think E. Stephen actually believes, even though it’s an idea he is unknowingly defending. But more about that on Thursday.

    As for this comment, let me address the meat of the footnote in which I’m mentioned. That is, concerning the modern Neo-Pagans I personally know who worship Thor:

    They are already big fans of the MCU and Thor on the big screen! Of course they know the MCU portrays their heroes as aliens–but so what? Maybe they really are aliens, which doesn’t stop them from still being gods! (I’m explaining the reasoning of Modern Norse Pagans, properly called “Asatru,” whom I actually know, in particular referencing conversations I’ve had with 3 relatives–a sister, a niece, and a nephew.) And so what if the MCU might get a few details wrong–they are still showing a positive portrayal for everyone to see of my favorite god and letting the word get out how great my god is! Yay!

    So there’s no temptation to sin involved in the scenario that E. Stephen framed for his hypothetical interaction with modern Neo-Pagans–though I suppose there could be with someone who was a Neo-Pagan who converted to Christianity (though I’ve never known an Asatru who became a Christian later). The Neo-Pagans see the MCU portrayals essentially as positive advertising for their position–or if we wish to give the word “advertising” a more sinister twist, they recognize favorable propaganda when they see it.

    So the issue of exposing such particular people to the Thor and Loki in Marvell is no issue at all in terms of temptation to sin. But that’s not to say there’s no issue here, that all is fine. In fact, this situation is very much not fine. E. Stephen should be concerned about the broad impact of certain aspects of popular culture on an unbelieving world, not just about tempting particular individuals he personally knows–but he doesn’t understand that, or doesn’t appear to based on this post. I hope for the chance, God willing, to bring some clarity to this issue. But for now, FYI.

    • notleia says:

      Realistically, what could you do to MAKE them turn Christian? You can make them go through the motions, maybe, but I think the only thing you’d get out of that would be suuuuuper loads of resentment. And you would deserve it.
      This is about control, but the reality is that you can’t fix them. It is not your job to fix them. I know that plays heck with your sympathetic and responsibility urges, but that way leads to madness.

      • Obviously people can’t/shouldn’t force each other to adhere to certain beliefs. But if people care about an issue or have a moral belief, you can’t expect them not to talk about it or worry about how certain behaviors might affect others. It’s a matter of worrying about influence, more than literally forcing anyone into anything.

        • notleia says:

          His worry doesn’t entitle him to cross other people’s boundaries, tho. They are not obligated to keep listening, and he is not entitled to censoring them back into the closet.

          • Well, yes. But saying that something is detrimental/that people shouldn’t do something doesn’t automatically translate into trying to ban or censor someone. No one’s obligated to listen, but in a lot of cases they aren’t obligated to shut up, either. He was directly responding to something that was said about him, which is a far cry from chasing someone down and harassing them until they stop. He has every right to respond to something said to/about him and explain his reasoning/why it’s important to him.

          • Travis Perry says:

            How would anything I say or do as a writer or publisher censor the works or beliefs of Neo-Pagans? I never mentioned censorship and I think you must know that.

            I’m talking about Christians deciding, based on understanding some issues, not to give Pagans free advertising for the sake of them getting new recruits. Even if the effect of the “free advertising” is very subtle and is not easily noticeable.

            What’s funny is American Christians are in general more united about not supporting atheists or Muslims than Neo-Pagans. But the issues are pretty similar–a competing world view is not something we ought to be helping, obviously in my opinion. Not if there really is such a thing as salvation through Jesus Christ that we have, which other religions or the lack of religion cannot offer.

            Or were you talking about my response to other Christians? Perhaps I didn’t understand your intent here.

      • Travis Perry says:

        Notleia, I’ve asked you on several occasions whether or not you are any stripe of a Christian. Since you declined to answer my questions about that, you have (as far as I’m concerned obviously) forfeited the right to make any comments about what is and is not Christian or how one becomes Christian or how Christians ought to behave.

        Those are questions for people who actually believe in God and believe that “being a Christian” means something real. Not for verbal snipers who actually don’t care about the answer.

        Now, if you care to explain that you really are a Christian and say what sort you are, then I will agree you have a right to comment. Without any such explanation, I will use my admin powers to delete your remarks here. You have 24 hours from the time you first commented.

        AND I see that you in fact have commented. So I’m lifting the promise to delete.

        • notleia says:

          I’m the type that refuses to let Christianity be defined as necessarily anti-gay, conservative, or literalist.
          I dunno if there’s a good label for what I am (I’m sure a lot of people would choose “backslidden,” but I don’t feel obligated to accept that).

          • notleia says:

            Oh, thought of a label: Methodist once removed.
            Traditionally both sides of my family were Methodist, but I was raised in a Disciples of Christ. Which my parents no longer attend because of some local church politics; they go to an independent now. And I’ve bounced around a few others not limited to Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian.

            • Interesting. Not sure I’ve ever heard of disciples of Christ before, but I tend not to pay much attention to denominations. For a long while I just thought of you as a liberal Christian. I like your Methodist once removed description and think it’s fun, though :p

              • Travis Perry says:

                US President James A. Garfield was a member of the Disciples of Christ, if I recall correctly. I think back then they were pretty conservative, but are more progressive now.

            • Surprisingly conservative churches, overall. Though I suppose that makes sense, at the same time.

          • Travis Perry says:

            Thank you for replying to my request that you talk about your own Christian perspective, no matter how you define it.

            As for “conservative” in the political sense, I don’t really care a great deal about that, which may surprise you.

            I do on the other hand believe that while male dominance a result of a curse, I believe the sexual difference in genders comes from God and the obvious intent of sexuality is heterosexual, independent of what the Bible says about it (if you were trying to assemble some type of bookshelf and you’d lost the directions, you’d reason that tabs go into slots and not that tabs go with tabs or slots go with slots–right?) You probably will define my observation on the original intent of sexuality as anti-gay, but I don’t see myself that way.

            As for literalism, of course certain parts of the Bible are poetic and others embrace symbolism. But faith by its nature is literal (have a conversation with a child and I think you’ll see what I mean). And I think faith is important for Christians.

      • Travis Perry says:

        I think your model of understanding what I’m saying is quite deficient. I don’t believe like Charlemagne did that I can force Pagans to become Christians by some force of the will (Charlemagne had Saxons killed who wouldn’t comply, something I would not have ordered). That’s actually the opposite of what I believe.

        In fact, nothing I said at any point suggested restricting the freedom of practicing Neo-Pagans. Not for a second–the thought never even crossed my mind.

        Remember, I explained in a previous post that my sentiments are generally separatist. I said what I meant. Separatists seek to build like-minded voluntary communities. Separatists only seek to control themselves. I would like to see Christian storymakers agree on some loose community standards and follow those standards–and prefer stories that come from within that community. (Which is what has already happened to a large degree with Christian music and in fact has sorta happened with Christian fiction. But only sort of–but it’s too much to explain here why what’s been previously done falls short.)

        If I may use the term “secular speculative fiction”–I think such secular fiction’s general friendliness towards pagan gods and goddesses in no accident. I think Satan is working to turn our culture back into one that worships multiple gods and goddesses, one step at a time. I don’t want to participate in that, while at the same time offering an alternative way to look at the world.

        Yet I don’t freak out about it and in fact recognize other believers have convictions that differ from mine on this subject. So how is that about control?

        • notleia says:

          Okay, to put it another way, why would limiting ourselves cause anyone to do the same?
          If i didn’t do Halloween this year, why would my pagan acquaintances give a crap? Why would people on the fence give a crap? If a tree Halloweens in the forest and there are no baby Christians around, does it make a sound?

          But my perspective is that of the weirdo long accustomed to not caring what other people think about a lot of surface things.

          • Travis Perry says:

            Do you limit what you read and write in terms of issues you really DO care about? Say, concerning misogyny?

            If you in general think producing works of fiction that don’t show women as doormats for abuse is better than works of fiction that do show them that way (in general, I understand you might allow exceptions) then you are agreeing with me that creators of works ought to consider restricting their own freedom about what they do and do not create. You just aren’t concerned about the same particular issues I’m concerned about. But you agree with the general principle.

            Or to take your question and turn it back on you, why should you care about limiting misogyny if it won’t cause anyone to do the same?

            But you DO care and caring at least on some occasions CAN cause someone else to follow your example. Right?

What do you think?