Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fiction, Truth, and the Gospel

One of my students last year wrote her final paper on why Christians should exercise discernment in their media involvement.  We had a lot of loooooong conversations about discernment, and she really had to work hard to address a common objection about fiction in general -- the "it's just a story, it's not real" objection. 

Just taking Twilight as a case study... one of my issues with Twilight is that young girls don't need someone telling them that that's how love is supposed to be -- that there's a guy out there who's perfect in every way, who's your soulmate without whom your life is utterly meaningless, and that its ok if that guy wants to hurt you as long as he has self control.  And that when a guy ignores you and barely speaks to you except with apparent hatred, it means that he's just seething with lust.  And that it's ok to string a decent guy along until you decide that you do want to be with your perfect sparkly soulmate after all. Teenage girls already are so prone to thinking all that.  It's already programmed into their little texting, MTV (do kids even watch MTV anymore?), Jersey Shore, Bieber-obsessed worldview.  They don't need an adult to confirm it, they need lots of adults to correct it!

I have some pretty big issues with the weirdo Mormon theology that's EVERYWHERE in the books, but the relationship stuff is my major practical concern.  I don't really have much of an issue with adults reading them, since they're more experienced and discerning, and can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.  But girls who are 13, 14, 15, when they're just left to read the books on their own with no one talking to them about the issues it brings up?  Not so much.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not the type to go, "ZOMG it haz teh witchez/magic/fantasy BURNNNNN IT!"  I mean, I did read all the Harry Potter books.  ;)

But I do think as Christians we have a responsibility to ask questions.  And the question isn't, "Does this movie/book/whatever depict a world without evil or darkness or moral complexity -- a nice, shiny, clean, Precious Moments world where everything turns out just dandy?"

We need to ask questions like, "Does it portray evil as evil and good as good, or does it pretty up evil or trick us into thinking something evil is really not so bad?  Does it show the reality of the battle between good and evil?  Is it realistic that sometimes evil seems to triumph?  Does it show human character honestly -- that we're all messed up by sin and make mistakes, even the heroes of the story?"  Again, that's worldview stuff we're talking about here.  "How does the author view life? humanity? love? sex? relationships? purpose?"

For example: I think American Beauty is a absolutely brilliant movie, and that Christians ought to watch it (if their consciences permit, of course).  It's rated R, it depicts adultery, drug use, deception, violence and lots of other truly evil stuff.  But it also shows, vividly and poignantly, the meaninglessness of a life apart from Christ.

Stories are powerful.  We're shaped by them and they impact us in a way that just straight teaching might not.  So we have to be discerning, even about fiction -- maybe even especially about fiction, because it can affect us without our even being aware of it.  I think about how I feel after I watch a movie -- even the fluffiest, silliest, most blatantly unrealistic romantic comedy can change my mood.  It can make me feel dissatisfied with my life, frustrated that I'm still single, annoyed that some sexy leading man hasn't come and swept me off my feet (well... yet... ;p).  Stuff like that affects our hearts.

I mentioned American Beauty.  It's really good, but what keeps it from being "capital-G Good," is that it offers a counterfeit solution to the problem it presents.  It says, "Life is ultimately meaningless.  If you can find meaning in the meaninglessness, you're one of the lucky ones."  We know as Christians that that's not true, that true meaning and purpose and hope are available, and found in Christ.  But just like American Beauty, every story -- from comic strips to epic novels to TV shows -- offers some kind of "answer" to the life's problems. 

Only Christians can offer the real solution, the Grand Story into which all of our little stories can be fitted by the Great Author of the universe.  But a book, a movie, a TV show, whatever -- all these things are only good inasmuch as they can point their readers toward God's truth.  Stories have the power to prime human hearts to see the emptiness of life apart from Christ, like American Beauty, or the reality of the battle between good and evil, like Harry Potter, or the brokenness of a fallen world and our often-futile attempts to fix it, like Sherlock Holmes, or the inherent beauty and preciousness of human life, like Children of Men

Ultimately, we have the freedom in Christ to read, watch, or listen to just about anything.  And we have a responsibility to use that freedom wisely.  So, read Twilight or watch Mad Men or listen to Katy Perry or whatever.  But do it with your eyes and ears wide open, and do it like a Christian.


Laura's mom said...

I'm going to have to read this again; there's too much meat to chew in one sitting. Good stuff.

Radagast said...

Teen fiction in particular teaches young people how to be adults.

That's one reason why Tolkien is so great: “ ‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ … ‘As he ever has judged… Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’”

Sadomasochistic vampire books do teach girls how to be women; but not in a good way -- that's why they worry me. As you say, there is a danger in books which trick us into thinking something evil is really not so bad.

Ultimately fiction presents a worldview. That's why it's great: it can broaden our minds, make us think, make us grow. That's why it's dangerous: it may, very persuasively, present a worldview that's false.

Laura said...

Doug Wilson's commentary on one of the chapters of Twilight is worth quoting in full here:

Okay, so in Chapter 20, Bella is holed up in a hotel room in Phoenix with not much to do, except to find out from Alice how vampires spread their deadly, poisonous beauty.

“As predators, we have a glut of weapons in our physical arsenal—much, much more than really necessary. The strength, the speed, the acute senses, not to mention those of us like Edward, Jasper, and I, who have extra senses as well. And then, like a carnivorous flower, we are physically attractive to our prey” (p. 413).

Then after the poor sap, whoever it is, gets bit, the vampire venom spreads through the body.

“It takes a few days for the transformation to be complete, depending on how much venom is in the bloodstream, how close the venom enters to the heart. As long as the heart keeps beating, the poison spreads, healing, changing the body as it moves through it. Eventually, the heart stops, and the conversion is finished” (p. 414).

All right, let’s rewind just a snippet of that, emphasis added: “the poison spreads, healing, changing...” Healing poison, up is down, black is white, and the squares are getting rounder every day.

In these books, sin and death are ineffably lovely, and a number of Christian parents say, “yeah, but apart from that, what’s the problem?”

Radagast said...


I did like "Daybreakers" ( ) for its very different view of vampirism, though. It was at least clear on the wrongness of the whole blood-sucking eternally-undead thing.

John Roberts said...

One thing that was sadly missing from the lengthy Facebook thread that evoked this excellent blog post was the gospel-driven restriction on Christian liberty Paul speaks of. The whole of Romans 14 (my conscience is clear with this thing, but if my actions lead a fellow Christian to stumble, it's sin for me to indulge my liberty) could be brought to bear on this. But more to the point are his arguments in 1 Corinthians 6 and 10.
1 Cor 6:12 -- "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything.

1 Cor 10:23 -- "All things are lawful," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up.

These verses lay out three appropriate restrictions upon our Christian liberty:
1. Is it helpful?
2. Is it enslaving?
3. Does it edify?

Fiction that does not support a biblical world-view fails at #1 & #3, and may, in some cases, fail at #2 as well. Three strikes, you're out.

Laura said...

Well, I would argue, dad, that American Beauty is both helpful and edifying (if your conscience permits you to watch movies with subject matter like it has) despite the fact that it's definitely NOT representative of a Christian worldview. But it shows the emptiness of life without Christ -- the futility of nihilism, if you will. So I wouldn't use "supporting a Christian worldview" as a kill switch for movies and books and things. But I agree, those three questions are super helpful.

And I do think that my Sojourn friends on that FB thread were trying to avoid legalism or an attitude that attaches holiness to reading or not reading ______. You know?

John Roberts said...

Perhaps, rather than "supporting a Christian worldview," the term should have been "obviating a Christian worldview."

Radagast said...

In my view, many people misunderstand Christian liberty: it doesn't reflect a division between "the part of my life that God owns" and "the part of my life that I own."

Rather, in my view, it's the liberty of a soldier on a special assignment: we are supposed to serve God 100% of the time, but we have liberty to choose (1) ways of serving Him, (2) ways of training ourselves, and (3) appropriate ways of refreshing ourselves on the spiritual battlefield.

Well-written fiction helps with (2) and (3); fiction that helps us understand opposing viewpoints helps mature readers with (2); even the worst fiction may help with (1) if we feel a duty to write a book review or respond in some other way.

Which is why I think that in this case reading and reviewing Twilight was the right thing to do; why I think it would be a waste of my time to do more than skim it; and why for less mature readers it might be actively harmful.

Bobble said...

As always, I enjoyed reading your post. Regarding "if their consciences permit", you assume (and rightly so) that some consciences are more sensitive than others. But don't you think, Laura, that watching things that are wrong will cause our consciences to become less sensitive when we see those things in real life? And what about watching people using the Lord's name in vain, committing adultery, killing others or anything else that God hates for our "entertainment"?
"Whatsoever things are pure (etc.), think on these things."
Keep writing and I'll keep reading. :-)

Laura said...

I'll respond more thoroughly to this later (in fact it may become a post of its own!) but for now:

Yes and no. ;)

Oh, all right, I'll elaborate just a bit.

Yes, I think watching sin portrayed can harden your heart toward those things in real life, IF (and it's a big if) you're simply absorbing without analyzing. If, however, you're analyzing as you watch (not just with a critical eye but with a biblical worldview) and meditating after you watch, I think movies like American Beauty can actually be healthy and beneficial for a Christian. When I watched it, I was overwhelmed with the despair of the main character, his utter hopelessness -- and what I kept being driven to was, "This is reality for most people in the world, even if it doesn't look that way," and "Thank you, Father, that it's no longer reality for me in Christ."

I actually find fluffy and apparently innocent rom-coms (and even a lot of "kids'" movies) FAR more pernicious than more serious pieces made for adults. Most mature Christians (I would hope) are going to go into a movie like American Beauty with their discernment radar fully on and engaged, whereas plenty of us walk into Enchanted or Cars or He's Just Not That Into You, ready to absorb whatever wickedness we see as just a plot point. Breaking off your engagement because you find your "soulmate"? Sure! Being obsessed with fame and success? It's just a kids' movie! Cheating on your wife to prove your masculinity? Aw, it's only a movie.

Does that make a little sense? Probably more later. :)