This topic is scary.
I risk breaking a unwritten rule I’ve held for some time: don’t write negative reviews.
I also risk implying that it’s uncouth, unspiritual, or just backward to attempt thinking biblically about stories and songs, including fantastical stories. But it’s not. Christians must think biblically about stories and songs, not out of duty but out of joy. That’s because God gives us the ability to make stories and songs, and we enjoy them more by thanking Him.
However, Christians find many “spiritual” but questionable methods to think about stories. One of our methods is a rating system. These are used by evangelical websites that review stories. MovieGuide.org is one example.1
Religious rating systems, or RRSs, use stars, letter codes, or charts to rank stories according to moral gauges. They might count words, describe violent moments, or attempt to render a conclusive worldview ranking (such as “existentialist” or “moral/patriotic”).
A newer approach by Christian fantastical story fan David Bergsland attempts a different version of this method. Bergland offers a “spiritual system” that sorts stories by categories such as “clean,” Old Testament legal-style, and “redemptive” fiction. Interestingly, Bergland also wants to apply this model to a story’s spiritual villains. (This itself presupposes a certain evangelical approach to fiction and reality. But more about this in part 2.)
I grew up exposed to such RRSs. Now I do not find them helpful or biblical. Here’s why.
1. RRSs do not rhyme with the gospel.
The first reason I don’t find RRSs helpful is this: they do not flow from a gospel approach to life, the universe, and everything—including fantastical stories.
God’s word assures us that His moral standard, His Law, serves several purposes. God’s Law shows us what He is like and what He values (justice, mercy, truth, beauty). God’s Law is an impossible standard that no one can meet. This means we must repent and call out to Jesus, the only perfect Law-keeper who also died to fulfill the demands of God’s Law.
Now Christians live by God-given faith and grace. We do not rely on fear or duty to follow the Law. Instead we are motivated by gratitude and love for Jesus. We want to be like Him, as righteous as He is, and we work out salvation as He works in us.2
RRSs might include the gospel in the system. But the system itself clashes with the gospel—like ketchup on breakfast cereal, or brown shoes with black pants. The gospel says, “Legal codes are meant to bring you to Christ.” RRSs say, “Yes, and now that we are in Christ, let us approach all stories with a legal code.” This does not rhyme with the gospel.
2. RRSs reverse a Christian’s God-given polarity.
Many Christian advocates of RRSs have assumed they know what fantastical stories are meant to do. They assume these stories should help us grow in character, or learn new facts about the world, or help us perform direct feats of Christian evangelism. After all, isn’t the Christian’s “chief end,” or highest purpose, to fulfill the great commission Jesus gave us?
Actually, 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 “cultural mandate.” This includes not only agriculture and gardening, but story- and song-making.
Humans rebelled against God and their role as His image-bearers. This is why Jesus came to save us. It’s why He tells us to make more disciples to follow Him: the Great Commission.
Biblical Christians follow both commands: the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate. In fact, the Great Commission is important—I would even say in a sense more important—because repenting and following Jesus is the only way we can fulfill the Cultural Mandate.
But RRSs do not see things like the Great Commission, discipleship, and spiritual growth as a means of recovering our call to reflect God’s image, including His creativity. RRSs get it exactly backward. They treat our calling of image-bearing and creativity as a mere means to spiritual activities. The RRS reverses our polarity. It weakens both our callings.
3. RRSs do not respect stories’ humanity.
Some RRS-based ministries treat stories, such as movies and television shows, like they are collections of parts. RRS reviewers write as if each part has been split off from a machine called a “worldview” and assembled into a new contraption. Then they assume people may or may not be able to operate safely the story-as-machine (for a purpose left undefined, or defined according to “spiritual” assumptions as seen above). Or RRS reviewers may assume the story-as-machine is entirely ungrounded and will electrocute anyone, so we mustn’t touch.
But stories are not like machines. They are messier, living, organic blends of good and bad, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness. A story reflects human beings. After all, God created humans to reflect His image, and we create culture (including stories) in a similar way.
When we ignore this truth, we deny the image of God in human beings around us.
Imagine using an RRS to review not a story, but the person (or people) who made the story. Imagine saying of a human being, “This [person] said X swear words in ten minutes and has a mixed/Romantic/pagan worldview. Parents STRONGLY CAUTIONED. This is not the best [person] for your family.” What does that do to the gospel? What does it do for our calling to engage with such people, seeing their faults as God sees them, but loving them anyway so we can live in their worlds, as Jesus lived in ours, and reach them with the gospel?
If we cannot treat human beings this way, why would we treat their stories this way?
Tomorrow I will share three more problems with religious rating systems.