Stories and the Importance of Discernment

This past week, my grandma and I went to see a movie called The Shack. It was based off of a book that was the subject of much debate among Christians. Many loved it, but a section of people disagreed with its philosophy and theology and were, understandably, not thrilled that a movie was being made about it. We went to see it because my grandma had previously gone to see it and enjoyed it, but two women we both respect thought the book was horrible. She was somewhat perplexed by this and wanted to hear my perspective on it. In the end, our conclusions about what the movie was saying were similar, yet our conclusions on if the movie was still worth something despite its flaws clashed because I have a more pessimistic view of human nature than my grandma does.

Thursday night–and this was shocking because I am lucky if I go to see three movies a year–I again went to the theater, this time with three of my friends, to see an early showing of Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t realize until I read an article from Church and Culture that morning that this movie was the first movie where Disney was including an “exclusively gay moment.” This proved to be true as in the movie Monsieur LeFou is in love with (or, rather, infatuated with) Gaston, three of the village men are attacked by the Wardrobe and she dresses them in women’s clothes, which one of them obviously likes, and in the final scene, LeFou is seen dancing with this villager. 

So, obviously, these two movies were vastly different. You would expect little Christian me to prefer the Christian movie, right? And yet I liked Beauty and the Beast better and, truthfully, didn’t really mind that LeFou and the village man were gay. 

Watching both of these movies and reading the Church and Culture article reminded me of a question that I once struggled with and is, I believe, extremely important to answer: Should Christians avoid books, movies, etc. that condone practices contrary to the teachings of the Bible? The answer to this question leads of other important questions, such as: If not, are there any extra steps we need to take in order to prevent ourselves from being influenced by these works? Are we vulnerable to being swayed to adopt non-biblical viewpoints even when we follow these extra steps?

 

Understanding Secular Culture

Riddle me this, how are you ever supposed to relate to non-Christians and share the Gospel with them if you don’t understand their viewpoint? That’s right, you can’t. You will be written off as one of those crazy Bible-thumpers and won’t be able to fulfill the Great Commission.

I believe that the best way to understand any culture, including what people believe, why they believe it, and what they value, is to read/watch the stories people tell through oral tradition, books, podcasts, movies, plays, etc. These things are, I believe, the soul of culture and they present perspectives that people may not consciously recognize they hold or that they are unable or unwilling to verbalize.

Christians should read/watch/etc. secular stories because they help us to understand and, therefore, effectively address the non-Christians around us. After all, if we cannot address them, we cannot influence them or minister to them.

Discernment

Alright, this sounds great! Free pass to go watch Family Guy! Well, I hate to break it to you, but if you are going to read (which is the term I am going to use from here on out because writing five different verbs is too tedious) these stories, you can’t just pick up whatever you want and say that it’s helping you understand culture. That’s just not how things work. You don’t learn anything without consciously paying attention to it. In order for reading to be worthwhile, you must be discerning. Discernment is the key to making use of the stories you read. If you take nothing else away from this post, take that away.

Having discernment means being able to determine if something is true or not, and, in this context, being able to find out what the messages conveyed through a fictional work are. This skill involves asking many, many questions. Think back to your high school English class when your teacher would ask you what Shakespeare was trying to say through Romeo and Juliet and you would say, “Um, that you shouldn’t do stupid things like kill yourself because the person you are infatuated with is dead, especially when you’re 13?” Your teacher probably rolled his/her eyes and tried to get you to think about what Shakespeare meant by this line or that and how the line was connected to the ending of the play.

Being discerning is very similar to what your teacher was trying to get you to do. Your job is to think about what the book says, what worldview is reflected by the characters’ actions, what characteristics the bad characters have, if a certain people group is portrayed in a demeaning way, etc.

Now, I know, you’re probably thinking, “What? I don’t want to answer all those stupid questions about metaphors and symbols like I had to in school.” I agree that that would be tedious. And sometimes pointless. And downright boring half the time. I don’t care that the Golden Goblet is a symbol for how life slips away when you aren’t paying attention. I don’t even know how a goblet could possibly symbolize that. Are you absolutely sure that you aren’t over-complicating things?

Even though you aren’t doing something quite as difficult as identifying symbols, discernment is not all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, it is hard work. Reading or watching something is so much easier when you don’t have to think about it! But when you don’t, you either miss much of the book or are unwittingly influenced. Discernment takes a lot of practice for it to become anything like second nature. And sometimes you still have no idea what something was saying until someone else points it out or asks a question that didn’t occur to you. Discernment, like all important things, takes time and hard work.

Now that you (hopefully) understand what discernment is and what it involves, we need to take a small detour before I continue on:

Christian Fiction and Non(ish)-Fiction

Why, Julie, weren’t we only talking about secular fiction and how that is what allows us to connect with secular ideas if we are discerning? That has nothing to do with Christian writing, right?

No.

Christian books are riddled with half-truths, verses take so far out of context that they might has well have come out of The Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (AKA North Korea’s constitution) or Mein Kampf, and information so poorly written that you want to smack the author over their head with their own book. Take Love Wins by Rob Bell, for example. Bell questions how a loving God could possibly have made hell and doubts its existence. Except that if you take a gander on over to the Bible, you can see that God most certainly did make hell and does punish those who don’t follow him (Matthew 25:41, Luke 16:19-31, etc., etc., etc.). Or if you just want terribly written, you can go for The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. Or, instead of books, you can hop on over to the blog biblicalgenderroles.com, which definitely isn’t biblical and dehumanizes women to boot. Or, y’know, apply your discernment skills to taking a look at all those verses commonly taken out of context like Matthew 18:18-20 and 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

In short, you have to be discerning when it comes to Christian works as well. All people are capable of coming to false conclusions, and Christian writers are no exception. Make sure their conclusions are supported by the Bible. Just because your pastor said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Be like the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11).

Now let’s return to discussing discernment. . . .

The Most Important Question

In discernment, that is.

Is this work worth anything? Not monetarily, obviously, but does it give you anything important to take away? Stories can be categorized in several “levels” of value:

1. All-round fabulous

This book has great biblical messages and contains nothing close to objectionable! And it’s well-written! Where did you find this miracle???

2. Good-ish

This book has some great biblical messages, but there are some, oh, perhaps not . . . child-friendly . . . scenes. These books are often very good because they accurately depict human nature. Read as many as you can! Now, if you are yelling, “Julie! You heathen! Read books that contain lots of violence or where one of the characters is involved in adultery? Disgusting!” To which I must calmly respond, yes, because the Bible doesn’t depict anything remotely violent or gross. . . . Have you ever read Judges? Or 2 Kings? Or Songs of Solomon? Or just the whole thing in general?

3. Neutral

These books don’t have particularly influential messages, but are still entertaining and well-written. Their purpose is to entertain and little else. To be honest, they are my guilty pleasure. Stay armed with discernment, but enjoy! The Jeeves and Wooster stories by P. G. Wodehouse are wonderful.

4. Bad-ish

These books do not have any or have very few good messages, but are still good to read (with much discernment) because they reveal human nature or show you realities of how the world is or what the world thinks. For example, I love a podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which has come good messages, but is a parody of the US from a very liberal perspective. I think it is very entertaining because it’s ridiculous, but I also see value in it because I get an eye into their worldview.

By the way, there is a fine line between these books and the books that belong in #5.

5. I need salt and holy water, stat.

There are some books, and keep in mind that I am a book-lover, that I don’t believe anyone should read. They don’t have any good messages, the bad messages don’t give you any greater understanding of the world, the writing often isn’t very good, and the story is usually unrealistic. Case in point, a book I just finished called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book was executed poorly, crude in parts, disjointed, annoying, and had no true resolution or point. It made me more fed up with people instead of more compassionate and felt like a complete waste of time.

Unfortunately, you probably won’t know if a book isn’t worth anything until after you finish it. So if you find that you have accidentally picked up a #5, I beseech you to use it as kindling.

Influence

The problem with spending a lot of time reading/watching biblically inaccurate things is that they may begin to influence you toward adopting one of the viewpoints they preach. This has happened to me a couple times. Until about ninth grade, I would soak up books and not think about their content at all. I judged books by whether they were fun to read or not. Don’t get me wrong, that is important. But I was not in the least discerning and I let the books I read influence me to form views that, on closer inspection, I did not actually think were true.

From this experience, I learned to be discerning as I read. But, even so, I again ended up being swayed toward having more lenient views on things I knew were wrong because I was reading things that supported them. I was being discerning! How did this happen?

Because discernment only goes so far. Too many negative messages is too many negative messages. As they say, garbage in, garbage out. The way to remedy this is to have a balance. By all means, continue to read what you want, but keep your head on straight by supplementing that with reading the Bible.

I know, you’ve heard this advice before. Yada, yada, yada, please stop reaching for cliches, Julie. But hear me out. Some cliche advice is still good advice. Reading the Bible strengthens your relationship with God, making you less likely to waver in your faith. You take in God’s commands and you learn about him and the early Christians. You see the mistakes the Jews and early Christians made and are able to apply their struggles to your own life. Implementing what you learn from the Bible allows you to become more Christ-like and to fight against the negative influence books may have on you. (And remember to pray for discernment and wisdom while you’re at it!)

Now, simply doing this may not be enough. Some things inspire you to sin, and you may need to avoid those things. If you know that reading stories where characters’ selfish attitudes are justified makes you more likely to justify your own selfish behavior, then be discerning and avoid stories that show selfishness in this light. You already know how some of the world views selfishness and reading more of these stories probably won’t give you a more accurate picture of selfishness.

Also, remember that what may not negatively influence you may negatively influence your friend. Keep that in mind if you recommend a book/movie to someone else.

Christians should read and watch secular books and movies because they give us an understanding of culture and human nature more than facts and scientific studies ever can. Stories are the soul of culture and must be studied in order to truly understand that culture. But, no matter if you are watching The Shack or Beauty and the Beast, be discerning so that you are not unwittingly influenced to form an opinion that is not supported by your worldview. And, further, maintain a balance between the secular and the Bible so that you are continually becoming more knowledgeable about your faith.