Teaching Story Transitions 1: Mediating Extremes

This article was originally posted at Speculative FaithOnly some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Feature link: http://www.speculativefaith.com/features/teaching-story-transitions-1-mediating-extremes/

 Series link: http://www.speculativefaith.com/series/teaching-story-transitions/

Jared Moore and E. Stephen Burnett

Summer is here, school work is over, and rest has begun.  Most children, however, will not rest from enjoying stories this summer. They will hear about new movies, television shows, or even books. And with each new offering you, as a parent, may consider two choices:

  1. You may take a mostly hands-off approach, letting your children read or watch whatever they like. Or, at best, you may rely on others (other children’s parents, librarians, friends, or Christian leaders) to let you know if a story is okay.
  2. You may apply arbitrary, legalistic boundaries to your child’s story choices.

As a Christian, father, and pastor of a Baptist church, I definitely don’t encourage any kind of hands-off approach about what your children read or watch. However, I also do not want to encourage applying arbitrary legalistic boundaries to your children’s media choices.

Option 1: Fuzzy boundaries

I say this from experience. When I was growing up, I attended a Southern Baptist church. At this particular church, other youths and I were told not to listen to any secular music or watch any R-rated movies. We even had random youth events where the youth would burn CDs of secular music. And by that I don’t mean they were making copies. They literally burned the discs. We would have a “CD burning party,” then in a few weeks, all the youths would buy more secular CDs. To this day I’m not sure of the spiritual value of this exercise.

Throughout all of these practices, the “rules” were hanging in midair. None of the youth or adults that taught us these standards practiced them on a consistent basis. As a result, all of us went back and forth between liberalism and legalism, with no personal discernment.

Of course, this is not limited to my experience, or to questions about music CDs. Arbitrary legalistic boundaries abound in evangelical Christianity when it comes to enjoying media and storytelling. People tell themselves, other Christians, or their children: “you can watch this, but you can’t watch this.” But what ultimate standard is there for such discernment?

Often, the answer is simply that one’s own conscience is arbitrarily forced on others.

One example is Todd Friel (whom I respect), host of Wretched Radio. In one radio episode, dated July 19, 2011, he condemned any Christian enjoyment of the Harry Potter movie and book series, while speaking positively of the novel Pride and Prejudice. What was his basis to condemn Christians who enjoy Harry Potter? He said, “It’s a sin. Deuteronomy 18. God hates that stuff. I’m not going to ingest that stuff, nor am I going to let my kids [ingest it].”

Is Friel correct? Yes and no. Harry Potter indeed contains evil elements, and these evil elements must be rejected. But where he is wrong is in the fact that Pride and Prejudice also contains evil elements that God hates! Anyone reading the Jane Austen classic novel (or watching the popular 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) will see this. In fact, the story itself is named after two very common but dangerous sins, which the Bible condemns, but which the main characters (at least at first) practice!

This is what I mean by arbitrary legalistic boundaries. If one sins by enjoying Harry Potter, then one also sins by enjoying Pride and Prejudice. If a little evil corrupts the whole form of story, and the witchcraft corrupts Harry Potter, then disobeying the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself in Pride and Prejudice corrupts the whole as well.

Furthermore, in the same audio clip, Friel rejects the hero Harry Potter as a Christ-figure because Harry is sinful. Of course, Friel is correct that the character of Harry Potter is sinful. But so is every other Christ-figure in Scripture. Is there any Christ-figure in Scripture who wasn’t a sinner? Think of King David, the main Christ-figure of the Old Testament. He committed the sins of pride, deception, adultery, murder, etc. Does this disqualify him as a Christ-figure? No.

So here they are again: boundaries that are legalistic, arbitrary, and ultimately hypocritical. No one consistently applies these standards for engaging storytelling books or movies.

But the cure is not simply applying our strict standards more consistently, such as rejecting Pride and Prejudice just as firmly as we reject Harry Potter. Rather, Christians must understand that God hates legalism as much as He hates liberalism. Legalism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin. Christians should also be encouraged that we do not answer to men for our story enjoyments, but to God alone — assuming you are loving God and your neighbor through your enjoyments.

Option 2: Few to no boundaries

The other common practice in evangelical Christianity is to drink deeply of all forms of media. Often, well-meaning Christians see books and movies as “neutral.” They may say, “It’s just a story.” They believe that seeing or reading that story is only entertainment, nothing more and nothing less — as if this action, apart from any other practice, is somehow outside of the realms of righteousness and unrighteousness.

But the apostle Paul says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Eating and drinking are the basic needs of all humans. From the foundation of human existence to the complexities of living in the twenty-first century, God expects Christians to live every second of every day in such a way that glorifies Him. Enjoying stories in books and movies does not escape this Biblical requirement.

Biblical balance: discernment and enjoyment

The answer to these two extremes of Christian story participation is to enjoy God through enjoying man’s stories. Our goal of participating in stories is not the absence of discernment or the mere enjoyment of “neutral” entertainment, but to glorify the Lord.

How do we do this? As with any spiritual habit, this takes study, practice, and help from others. I’ll spend this whole series exploring the concept. But I can summarize it here.

First, to glorify the Lord as we read or watch stories, we must learn to spot, and reject, Satan’s fingerprints. Second, we must learn to discern God’s fingerprints — the things that reflect His truths and beauties — and connect them to Christ’s creating, sustaining, and redeeming work.

For example, whether one enjoys Harry Potter or Pride and Prejudice, we must reject all of Satan’s lies in those stories. At the same time, we must also extract all that God has created true, and connect it to God through Christ. We must recognize truth, and bring more truth from the Word of God to all stories for the purpose of enjoying the Lord.

One day in the New Heavens and New Earth, we will enjoy the Lord without needing to fear Satan’s lies. There, we will always and forever participate in stories unto the glory of God. Of course today we live in this old Earth and old Heavens, but we are still citizens of the New ones, of that coming Kingdom. Our true citizenship is there. We must live that way now. And how we enjoy stories in this world is one way we either admit or deny that we are citizens of the New Jerusalem.

If we must live in an evil world, we must answer the question: “How shall we live unto the glory of God?” The answer is neither legalism nor liberalism, but the consistent application of a biblical worldview. This is God’s world, and all humans admit they live in His world. As we participate in stories, let us discern where they exhibit His fingerprints. Then, let us take these fingerprints and connect them to God through Christ as an act of worship.

For you, this may mean paying more attention to stories. First, you might start thinking about what stories you read or watch, and repenting of your sinful motives for doing so. Then, second, you might begin watching your children’s story-enjoyments more carefully.

Or your response to these truths may be more like mine: learning not to fear stories or to draw arbitrary legalistic boundaries, but to discern and enjoy stories for God’s glory.

As I have studied Scripture more and began to understand how all of creation, including humanity, serves to send humans running to God in worship, I have sought to participate in storytelling media for this purpose. Through over ten years of ministry, I learned that most Christians, regardless of age, are ill-prepared to live in a media-filled world.

To help remedy this problem, I wrote a book titled The Harry Potter Bible Study: Enjoying God Through the Final Four Harry Potter Movies. Its purpose is to help Christians exercise discernment as they view the final four Harry Potter movies. Yet the book also gives a blueprint for basic Christian interaction with any other stories unto the glory of God.

The principles in that book helped me to not only enjoy God through stories, but also to enjoy God through all avenues of life. An 85-year-old lady at my church, a lady who has been a Christian twice as long as I’ve been alive, read the book and rejoiced over enjoying God through all of life. It’s a tragedy that such a senior saint had never been taught that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Don’t force your hearers or children to wait until the New Heavens and Earth to enjoy God throughout life, and particularly in what media and stories they enjoy! Instead, start now.

To help, I’m writing this new Speculative Faith series: Teaching Story Transitions.

In part 2, we will explore these themes further. First, why do Christians often go from teaching “children, be sheltered,” directly to “parents, shelter your children”? What does the Bible say about what stages come in between? How might parents guide their children to discern and enjoy stories with God’s help?

(Editing and additional writing by E. Stephen Burnett.)

Only some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.


  1. Christiane says

    When I was a kid . . . long time ago, we didn’t have exposure to the types of ‘entertainment’ that young people are exposed to today. Our television sets were blessed by shows like Andy of Mayberry and I Love Lucy (this was a LONG time ago) . . .

    I think young people today are up against something that they aren’t ready to encounter without some guidance . . .

    the question is: what KIND of guidance ?
    Do you tell them: you can’t watch this, period.
    Or do you help them to come to a point where they can begin to understand WHY a show may or may not be the kind of thing that is good for them to see at this time in their life ?

    Young people, once they enter their teen years, are far more affected by their peers than the adults’ opinions in their world . . . and that fact does point towards some consideration towards strengthening their own ability to evaluate and reject those things which are harmful.

    I’m glad my own children are adults and not exposed to today’s media, and I KNOW that very young people must be strictly guarded from some of the exposure to it, yes.

    But as a young person begins to develop their own sense of discernment, they do need to be able to come to their parents and ask their advice and opinions . . .
    if parents haven’t fostered that kind of relationship of trust and respect with their young, then the peer group takes over as the sole source of advice . . . and that can often lead to very sad consequences.

    some thoughts

  2. says

    I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say, or imply, that only in our age do children need to learn discernment for themselves (that is, with only God and His Word as their guide, and not parents as intermediaries).

    Closely watching “I Love Lucy” or “The Andy Griffith Show” will reveal quite a prevalent mix of moralistic maxims and even suggestive content! I particularly recall one “Andy Griffith” episode in which a voluptuous blond manicurist (played by Barbara Eden of later “I Dream of Jeannie” fame) is shown walking down the street, from behind, with comedic drumbeats accentuating her steps. (It’s played for laughs, and “edgy” for that show.)

    By this I don’t mean to imply that we must draw discernment standards against even all older TV shows or stories. Instead I’m trying to say that “it’s old” or “it was made in the 1950s,” two very common standards that Christians unconsciously use as thumbs-up criteria, are not Biblical standards. Sin is often the same in any generation. We must discern it all.

    • Christiane says

      I suppose if you can find evil in the Andy of Mayberry Shows, then our world must be a very frightening place for you, indeed.

      Goodness knows, without Christ in it, our world today would now probably be like the world pictured in ‘The Hunger Games’ . . . a bizarre, brutal, and deadly place that consumed its young for entertainment.

      But fortunately, Christ is in the world, and what He taught us is in more than one way reflected in some of our entertainment, if we can take the time to think about it.

      I thought there was kindness shown in the Andy Griffith Shows . . . and consideration, too, and many other values that we all loved in those days.
      Andy Griffith replays are still a great favorite of mine, when I need to visit a world that has gone by, and remember better times. :)

      • Stephanie L. Jones says

        I think that certainly kindness and other virtues were obvious in such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” overt in a way they may not nearly as often be today. But we cannot excuse the sin displayed. For example, just today I watched the pickle episode. Andy, Barney and Opie lie to Aunt Bea to spare her feelings; they manipulate the situation by substituting store-bought into the jars. We do not watch TV or listen to radio or read books and place each scene or page on a scale (this much was ‘holy’/ this much was ‘sinful’) in order to say, this show is OK; that one is not. I think that was the author’s point: Be aware. Be aware of the entire content of the show/song/book. Note what is praiseworthy, and what is not. Learn from what is praiseworthy and discard what is not.

        • Christiane says

          “But we cannot excuse the sin displayed. ”

          I must not have been looking for ‘sin’ in those shows, because I never saw ‘sin’ celebrated in them . . .
          I saw a lot of things, some sad, some extremely funny, some very very human, and yes there was the ‘kindness’,
          but most of all, that show gave our family ‘joy’ and laughter . . .
          and good memories, and I am grateful to God for those family times watching ‘Andy’ and ‘Barney’.

          Did you notice the joy in those shows? It’s in there.
          God love you. :)

      • says

        From Stephanie:

        We do not watch TV or listen to radio or read books and place each scene or page on a scale (this much was ‘holy’/ this much was ‘sinful’) in order to say, this show is OK; that one is not. I think that was the author’s point: Be aware. Be aware of the entire content of the show/song/book. Note what is praiseworthy, and what is not. Learn from what is praiseworthy and discard what is not.

        Exactly. That was the authors’ point. Our point was not to say “Andy Griffith (now the late Andy Griffith! :-( ) is just as bad as other shows.” Our point was: “Almost all stories have ‘mixed’ worldviews. We must discern and enjoy all of them for God’s glory.”

        By contrast, Christians have often done just what Stephanie said: given a complete thumbs-up to one Thing, and a complete thumbs-down to another. Life, and stories, are not that simplistic. The Andy Griffith Show does, in effect, endorse some sins as good — such as enabling someone’s bad pickle-cooking (in the case of Aunt Bea), or horrible choir singing (in the case of Barney). It’s played for laughs, of course, and without that situation there would be no comedy. But it makes it especially amusing when Andy and Barney managed to catch a con artist, and Andy sternly yet comically tells him, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Well, I say, start with your own house, Sheriff!

        Similarly, many Christians gave a 100 percent thumbs-up to a movie like Soul Surfer, as if it had no discernment quandaries whatsoever — again, upholding an arbitrary “it’s okay just because I personally think so” “standard.” I am not saying it is 100 percent evil, but we must be aware that for a film like this, moralistic messages may, for many viewers, trump the faint Biblical or Gospel echoes in the story. And for other viewers, particularly men — let’s just come out and say it — bikini babes trumps everything else. From what I have read, this movie may be one of the few which children (and women) can see without facing temptation, yet adult men may need to pass up.

        Make no mistake. With Christiane, I enjoy The Andy Griffith Show, along with classic television such as Get Smart, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family, and The Munsters. But let’s not trick ourselves into believing that all these have no discernment issues just because they are older or familiar! Bewitched has just as much “witchcraft” as Harry Potter, yet without the redemptive context of good-versus-evil and sacrificial themes. Some, however, will defend Bewitched (and ignore overt scenes of seances and divination, one of which even made it into The Andy Griffith Show!) while inconsistently rejecting or slandering Harry Potter. Our standard for discernment must be based on the truth that a story is “mixed,” not 100 percent good or evil.