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.

Why Should You Wake Up Earlier

Have you ever been jealous of the those remarkable people who wake up at 7 AM or earlier because they actually want to? In other words, have you ever been jealous of “morning people”?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone ever want to be one of those dastardly creatures that is cheery and talks in the morning? Well, I don’t mean “morning person” in this horrid sense. In fact, I can assure you that cheeriness is the antithesis of me. I instead use this term to describe one of those remarkable individuals that enjoys mornings and makes good use of them without being obnoxious.

I have become increasingly jealous of these morning people because, for the last few months, I have often thought, I hate how late I start working in the morning. Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not your typical teenager who sleeps till noon. I haven’t done that in a very long time because I feel like I have wasted my life if I do. I usually get up between 8 and 9, but I have hypothyroidism so I don’t eat breakfast first thing. And why do anything more productive than getting dressed before breakfast? Then once I do have breakfast, I read manga while I eat, so there goes another 45 minutes. . . . In the end, I seldom start working until 10:30 or 11. Or 11:30. What have I been doing for the past 2-3 hours? Nothing productive, that’s for sure!

The solution to this problem would be to 1) get up earlier, and 2) begin my day doing something productive. Otherwise, I will find myself twirling through an infinite cycle of “I started working so late again today. I’ll wake up earlier tomorrow morning so I start working earlier.” and “I’m up early-ish, but too tired to do anything productive.” You may not have the same schedule as I do, but you may find yourself stuck in the same cycle. Why should you break this cycle (aside from lessening your guilt), and, further, what can you do instead of wasting your time in the morning?

Enjoy Your Mornings

I think that the number one reason to break this cycle is because you can then begin to enjoy your mornings. “Impossible, Julie,” you might shout, “there is no such thing as ‘enjoying’ mornings. They are awful. I am forced out of my cozy bed and must do things instead of enjoying my sleep.” True, to an extent.

Mornings can be awful for several reasons:

  • You didn’t get enough sleep;
  • There’s a lot of stuff to do today and you don’t want to do any of it;
  • People are around you. And they’re talking.

I’m not going to promise you that you will magically love mornings once you start waking up earlier. If I convince you to try waking up earlier by the end of this post, you may wake up tomorrow morning and decide that your productive task for the morning will be planning my immediate demise. Like most things, you must move gradually to your end goal. You may feel frustrated because you have yet to get results.* But you will get there eventually. I would suggest waking up 5-10 minutes earlier every day (ex., Monday: 9 AM; Tuesday: 8:50 AM; Wednesday: 8:40 AM; etc.). If that’s too fast, wake up ten minutes earlier than usual and maintain that time for the rest of the week (ex., Week 1: 9 AM; Week 2: 8:50 AM; etc.). It’s fine if you must have different wake-up times for different days of the week as long as they are consistent and not vastly different. It may not be a good idea to match your weekend wake-up schedule to your workweek wake-up schedule.

Now, the second reason your morning may suck is harder to address. I find myself in this mood sometimes. Why can’t I just sit here and seethe? Honestly, I don’t really have a solution for you. Only, remember that you can either do it today or you can spend the time until you do it suffering because it will just be constantly hanging over your head. And maybe you’ll find that starting your day productively makes you more willing to tackle that task that previously sounded worse than being thrown into a pool full of piranhas.

It would be very nice if people learned to keep the noise level down, especially in the morning. Unfortunately, most people haven’t, and it isn’t a very good idea to cover your peers’/colleagues’/family members’/roommates’ mouths with duct tape. Depending on your schedule, you may be able to solve this in a less . . . rude way. Can you wake up earlier to avoid their noise for at least part of your morning? Depending on who is making all that noise, can you politely ask them to turn down the TV a little or make some other simple changes that won’t prevent either of you from enjoying your mornings or doing something that needs to get done?

Provided that you either don’t run into these problems or you can solve them, the early morning may become an enjoyable time for you.

*Note: I often struggle with this, not because I want instant gratification (as nice as that would be), but because I feel like I’m not working hard enough. This can sometimes be true, but often doing more would be impossible or destructive rather than helpful. One way I avoid beating myself up over “failing” is repeating to myself something that I have often heard Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene say: “Acknowledge where you are today.” In my mind, this doesn’t mean “Stop working hard” or “Don’t change things that need to be changed.” Instead, it means to remember that things don’t change in an instant and that you shouldn’t beat yourself up while things are still in process.

Mornings Are Peaceful

Early mornings, like nighttime, can be extremely peaceful. I don’t really know why they are peaceful. Maybe because a lot of other people are asleep and the world seems to be moving slowly. Maybe because they allow for solitude unlike the middle of the day.

Regardless, if nighttime and early morning are similar in this way, why bother changing your night-owl schedule?

Well, to begin with, if you drink coffee, waking up earlier is great. Chances are, you don’t often drink coffee at night. Therefore, more time in the morning=more coffee. After all, to quote Stranger Things, “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation.” If you don’t drink coffee, I’m so very sorry for your loss.

Secondly, there are some things that I leave till the end of the day to do, and I usually find that by that time, I am too tired to put in the brainpower required to do them to the best of my ability. In the morning, yes, you are somewhat tired, but I often find that I am far more likely to put in the effort needed to think about or work on something at this time than I do at night. Also, I spend less time editing because if I do something late at night, I often have more to edit the next day. Case in point, the many drafts of this blog post.

Also, in my house, most of my family members are night-owls. This means that it often isn’t silent or near silent in my house late at night. Any sense of peace is shattered. On the other hand, in the early mornings, either people have left for work, etc. or are still asleep. Therefore, mornings often feel more peaceful than nights. Of course, if most of your family members are (loud) morning people, maybe you will find the nights more peaceful. Then again, you may still have to grapple with how to address other problems that would otherwise be solved by waking up earlier. Or you might be an extrovert, in which case, you would probably prefer to have others around you in the morning. Which sounds terrible to me, but whatever.

Morning Motivation

Now that you are getting up earlier and moving toward enjoying mornings, how are you supposed to make them productive, especially when you are tired? I mean, when is the last time you actually felt like doing something productive when you were tired, specifically at night? If you’re like me, your idea of being productive at night is cleaning up your Pinterest boards or finally watching that video someone told you to watch.

While you may be tired in the morning, I have found that mornings inspire a feeling of productivity that night does not. As such, it is the perfect time to do productive activities. I often start my mornings by reading, which is, I suppose, a recreational activity and not truly productive. However, if you have a book to read for school/other responsibility, this is the perfect time to read it. On the other hand, if it’s really boring, you might fall asleep. Maybe read it during your lunch break instead.

If your book is beyond boring or reading isn’t your thing (you heathen!), you can do everyone’s favorite task: cleaning. Okay, to be honest, I actually like to clean. And I’m not advocating that you clean your baseboards and windowsills (if you’re up to it, go for it). Do your routine mindless, calming chores like cleaning the bathroom sink, washing the dishes, or changing your sheets. These don’t take much energy, but they keep you moving, which prevents you from falling back into a doze. And, bonus, you won’t have to do them later.

Of course, you may be horrified at the thought of starting out your day by cleaning. Instead, spending time with God is a great option. I usually read my Bible at night, but end up reading less than I planned or not journaling after because it is nearly midnight and I need to be up at 6:30. That’s not meeting my goal, or, more importantly, making God my first priority. Unfortunately, I end up pushing him and his Word aside in favor of sleep (which, don’t get me wrong, is important, but I am hardly giving God enough of my time). By reading your Bible in the morning, you may find that you spend more time thinking about what you have read or that you are more likely to apply what you have just learned.

Then again, you might not be a Christian. What help am I being to you? Well, you could also do that simple task for school/work/your personal life that you have yet to get to. Write that email, find that bank statement, organize your history binder, or sew that hole in your blanket. Get those little things done first so you can focus on the bigger tasks once your brain is fully engaged for the day.

I have one more suggestion for making your morning productive: yoga. Sure, you could hypothetically do any kind of exercise. But doing sit-ups is just boring and, frankly, puts me in a bad mood. Yoga is a far better form of exercise in my mind. Part of the reason why I like it is because there is a practice for every mood. Hate the idea of sweating in the morning? Try a practice that focuses on stretching or on holding relatively easy or relaxing poses. Want a real workout? Do a vinyasa sequence or a series of challenging poses that require a lot of strength (of course, warm up a little first so you don’t injure yourself). Just want something quick and energizing? Do a short sun salutation practice. Exercise in general is a good way to start your morning because you get a boost of energy and it’s good for your health, but I recommend yoga because it is so versatile (and fun!).

Why not wake up earlier in the morning if you can make your mornings enjoyable and productive? Doing so will remove the guilt and that unproductive feeling caused by starting your work at 11 AM, and you will be more likely to fully apply yourself to tasks, unlike when you try to do them at night. So, tomorrow, if you can, wake up earlier that you normally would. Enjoy your coffee (or bemoan your aversion to this heavenly caffeinated drink), try a little yoga, sweep the kitchen floor, read a chapter of your book, figure out just where you put that recipe, or start your morning with prayer and study. After all, mornings should be a time of peace and contemplation.

A Response to Paulo Coelho

A few days ago, I was browsing (okay, wasting time on) Pinterest–which is a chief passion of mine–, and I eventually happened upon the following quote:

A jaunt on over to that ever-resourceful compendium of vaguely unreliable knowledge, Wikipedia, revealed to me that Paulo Coelho is an extremely famous author. Admittedly, I am ashamed that I’ve never heard of him. I love books and yet. . . .

That aside, I find that I, quite frankly, violently disagree with the above quote and another quote of Coelho’s:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Why do I so disagree? Because, practically, both these quotes are utter nonsense and, biblically, they are entirely incorrect.

Practically

I can see how trying to please others could make one feel depressed, anxious, or stressed. Why, expending a lot of energy on anything can lead to any of these things. For example, I find that sometimes I’ll be working on a story, reach a roadblock, and start to feel all of those things because I feel like I’m not doing well enough by not meeting my deadlines/self-appointed goals (which are entirely for my own benefit, by the way). As long as you take time to “recharge” after spending time pleasing others and don’t help others to the point that you compromise your own health (you need sleep too), you should not feel depressed, anxious, or stressed. Actually, you should feel quite the opposite.

I (and this is coming from someone who is a bit misanthropic) find great joy in genuinely helping and pleasing those I love. For instance, my grandma is currently trying to organize and minimize so that she can move this fall, which means she needs my help. Sure, it’s great for me because I get paid more than minimum wage. However, the money isn’t my motivation. My real motivation is that I want to serve my grandma so that things are easier for her. My ability to help her gives me a sense of joy that vastly overshadows any depression/anxiety/stress conjured by this extra responsibility.

Finally, how would one live truly only for oneself? Would that not exclude doing anything to benefit another person? In other words, screw those starving people in Africa and the millions of people who are trafficked every year? Push that person off the cliff if that means that you survive? If so, you may have antisocial personality disorder.

On to the second quote. I haven’t the slightest idea how Coelho came to this conclusion or how anyone could believe this. One look at the world dashes this idea to the ground. I’m sure the aforementioned trafficked people want very much to be free. Yet they aren’t and, unfortunately, some of them never will be. Their captors certainly don’t want to let them go. This is a business worth tens of billions of dollars, after all. And far from helping them, the majority of the world is either ignorant of the suffering these people experience or lack the means or will to assist anti-trafficking organizations. The universe is hardly conspiring to give these people what they want.

Further, how does this quote apply to people with opposing views? To reach into the fire of controversy, think back to the recent election. A great many people wanted Hillary Clinton to be president. Another great many wanted Donald Trump to be president. Others wanted neither, thanks. But, as of January 20, 2017, Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States. Soo, what happened here? Did the people on President Trump’s side want him to be president more than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters wanted her to be president? Is that why he won? And this is simply the United States. What about people in other countries who, frankly, would like everyone to shut up about American politics and give them their change already? Regardless, the whole universe did not conspire toward a single outcome.

Even on a smaller scale, I really wanted to go to college for free (and I mean really free, not paying for it via taxes for the rest of my life). Did that happen? No. Was the universe chipping in to cover the cost of higher education? Well, if it had, I would be going to my top choice college.

Coelho’s ideas are entirely unfounded in logic. While there is a possibility that living to please others could give you stress, depression, and anxiety, this is unlikely when you continue to take care of yourself while you help others. And the joy that comes from helping others completely overshadows any of these feelings. In addition, the universe simply does not work to make everything you want come true.

Biblically

The first quote advocates selfishness, which is contrary to the teachings of the Bible (Philippians 2:3-8, Romans 15:1-3). After all, Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves:

“And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

-Matthew 22:39, English Standard Version

Of course, to understand this, we must understand what love is. So what is love?

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.”

-1 Corinthians 13:4-6, English Standard Version (emphasis added)

The connotations of Coelho’s statement is in direct violation of the Gospel and, therefore, entirely incorrect.

The second quote is similarly incorrect. Your spiritual father is either God or Satan. If it is Satan, he is for you. Or, more accurately, is using you to corrupt. If your spiritual father is God, Satan is continually warring against you, but you have God to rely on (1 Peter 5:8-9, 1 John 4:4, James 4:7-8). Either way, there is a force constantly warring against you, making it impossible for “all the universe” to work for what you want.

For claiming to be Catholic, I’m not sure Coelho has ever opened a Bible.

The Bible makes an excellent case for the falsity of Coelho’s words. And whether you are a Christian or not, whether you believe that the Bible is God-breathed and complete truth or not, the ways of the world itself contradict his assumptions. Serving others fulfills God’s commandments and brings joy, and something is always fighting against what you want.