Continued from Three Problems with Religious Rating Systems.
Religious rating systems try to break stories into pieces that can be ranked according to content, such as worldview, language, or righteous/sinful moments.
But unfortunately, RRSs do not “rhyme” with the gospel in which the “rating system” of God’s law leads us to grace, not vice-versa. Second, RRSs are built with the assumption that our ultimate purpose is to do “spiritual” things, rather than seeing the “spiritual” actions as means to become like Jesus. And thirdly, RSSs do not respect the humanity of stories.
Those are my first three problems with religious rating systems. Here are three more:
4. Scripture books and passages don’t pass RRSs.
If we came up with a modern rating system meant to sort and classify only the “content” of a story, what would happen if we applied this system to the Bible?
The Bible itself would not pass such a system.
I hear this rebuttal so often that I wonder if RRS advocates have grown weary of the repetition. So let me try saying it this way: As Christians, we know the Bible is all one great story. But it comes in several different “parts,” that is, books, stories, genres and subplots. People also see the Bible is “fragments” thanks to our chapter-and-verse divisions of the book. (Chapters and verses were not in the original Old or New Testaments of Scripture.)
Now, imagine if someone—as some atheists actually do!—approached the Bible with an RRS. Imagine someone reading, say, Judges 19, or Song of Solomon. Imagine someone reading a single chapter from Jesus’s “sermon on the mount” without seeing it alongside His entire ministry, and the vital gospel “commentary” from Paul and other apostles. What happens?
You could easily “rate” the Bible’s “content” very poorly. You could insist it is not religious at all. You could call Judges 19 nihilistic, Song of Solomon hedonistic, and Jesus legalistic.
If the Bible itself could not pass an RRS, why insist on these systems for other stories?
5. RRSs can transmit traditions as biblical standards.
A religious rating system does not argue biblically for its own existence or our need for it. An RRS’s maker—whether it is a rating board somewhere or an individual—presupposes these reasons. Hidden underneath are many assumptions and traditions. These may or may not align with what the Bible actually teaches as truth applying to all Christians.
For example, an evangelical movie rating website might say, “This movie has 5 F-words and is inappropriate for persons of faith.” Well, the movie may be inappropriate for children.1 But often such RRS -based reviews imply that a story’s unsuitable for children is unsuitable for anyone. Such websites teach mature Christian adults to remain immature. The sites assume tradition of childhood “innocence” that is at best optional for Christians, and at worst, a denial of Scripture. Mature and holy Christians know what evil is. They must not participate in evil ourselves, but we are commanded to expose evil with light.2
In part 1, I referred to a newer suggestion of a content ranking system. Christian fantastical story fan David Bergsland suggests five tiers of spiritual content in stories. His approach is an improvement on simplistic cussword-counting or worldview-labeling. Bergsland also suggests a fifth and highest “tier” of spiritual content, “spirit-filled fiction”:
They are focused upon characters with (or who develop) an intimate relationship with the Lord. They talk with Him all the time, day in and day out, hour by hour, minute by minute. And He responds with emotional cleansing, answered prayer, and direct guidance throughout the daily life they lead. The characters may or may not be religious in church attendance. …
Arguably, the very thing Bergsland suggests is optional for this highest-tier Christian fiction is in fact non-optional for super-Christian characters: church participation! Meanwhile, the very thing he suggests is non-optional for a top-tier Christian character is, at best, an evangelical tradition—an expectation that Christians pray nearly nonstop and that God “prays” back with “direct guidance” for daily life decisions.3
My point is not to refute a particular evangelical view of the Christian life. My point is to show that this is a particular evangelical view, the same as “the best churches have pianos and organs,” or, to hit a little closer to my own tradition, “theology is best approached in huge books that systematize every biblical theme into complex topical chapters.”
I must say this: to enforce such rules as normative or spiritual for Christian-made stories would be one of the surest way to ruin them. Christian-made stories are certainly better when they are biblical. But we must take care not to equate “biblical” with “my tradition”!
RRSs can err by transmitting traditions as biblical standards expected of all Christians.
6. RRSs presume specific personality traits are standard for readers.
Finally, RRSs appeal to a personality type I am not certain how to classify. So I will call them classification-people. I also like to classify things. I like defined labels, systems, folders and subfolders, alphabetized bookshelves, and carefully delineated theology. This is a gift of God. He created our impulse to organize and put things in order, right there in Gen. 1:28.
But we must be careful not to see our own classification-impulses as morally beneficial, or expected of all other Christians. I think classification-people make this jump when we enjoy a story and try to find a “praise language” (sort of like a “love language”) to express our enjoyment. For example, I might read Marc Schooley’s novel König’s Fire and, if asked why I liked it, I would first refer only to Content. “This novel really explored the problem of evil, and the oft-ignored biblical theme of creation’s groaning and vengeance against man.”
However, König’s Fire is so much more. Its heroes, paranormal creep, magical realism, and overall dark atmosphere together make the story. If I try to classify particular “contents” apart from that story, I’m imposing on the story itself, the author, and other readers. I’m suggesting my own personal “language” for praising the story ought to be the standard.
This is another reason RRSs fail. They insist on classifying “content,” as if the story is simply a box, a worthless shell, carrying more-valuable Content parts—like (as some Christians wrongly suppose) the human body is a worthless shell carrying the more-valuable soul.
I can understand this response to stories. I can understand this response being helpful to fans of similar personalities. But it is a personal response, not a biblically normative one.
Content-rating systems (such as the MPAA’s film ratings) have their place. They can help individuals start to determine if a story is fitting for their own God-glorifying enjoyments, or would tempt them to sins they struggle with. But content-rating systems are only a start. Christians must use them as only one part of their mission to engage stories together.
But I would do away entirely with religious rating systems, which confuse law with gospel, reverse the biblical order of our evangelizing and culture-making goals, disrespect the humanity of stories, raise a modern standard Scripture itself could not meet, transmit traditions as biblical standards, and presume specific personality traits (such as “classify ALL the things”) ought to be standard for discerning Christian readers.
Instead of building better rating-system machines, we ought to help grow better readers. All humans can reflect God’s creativity as well as love for beauty and truth, because all humans bear the image of God. How much more can all Christians, who all have the Holy Spirit, learn to focus not on a God of fragmented or isolated “content,” that must be dutifully classified, but on our personal, incarnate, walking-among-us God, Jesus Christ? He is the Creator of the world and re-creator of us, so we can create and enjoy stories for Him.
Our priority in stories is not dutiful classification, but joyful response in the gospel.
- One legitimate purpose of rating systems is to offer a method of allowing parents and leaders to determine a story’s suitability for children. I do not argue against content-rating systems altogether. I oppose an approach that views religious content-rating as the only way of discerning a story’s content for all Christians. ↩
- Ephesians 5: 11-13, Hebrews 5:12-13. ↩
- Scripture does not record the apostles receiving this kind of direct guidance for daily life decisions. Even if the Bible did say this, it does not teach or even imply that non-apostle believers can expect the same. The Bible is clear that all true Christians are Spirit-filled. See Romans 8: 9-11. The apostle Paul outlines a binary: either you are “in the flesh” or you are “in the Spirit … who dwells in you.” He leaves no category of Christians who are saved but not Spirit-filled. More discussion is outside this article’s scope. For more on this topic and to answer common proof texts, I recommend Greg Koukl’s series of articles, Does God Whisper? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. ↩