When Christians Review

Blog | | Monday, April 21, 2014
My fear is that we Christians are slipping down the same path the people of Israel took. They had a relationship with God and they had His Law, but they wanted so to be like the nations around them. So they began to compromise.

Bible-openI think as long as I write fiction, I’ll have questions about how much of my faith I should incorporate in my stories and how clear I should make what I believe. I don’t have the same uncertainties with writing reviews.

If a Christian writes a novel and incorporates something that is in opposition to Scripture, I think it’s appropriate for me as a reviewer to point this out—or at least question it. For example, I recently finished a middle grade story (not speculative) that had as one thread the return of an estranged parent. The child expressed fear, and the other parent gave reassurance by saying, You don’t have to worry because I’ll take care of you; I’ve already taken out a restraining order.

I have a hard time with that attitude, not because it isn’t realistic, but because the protagonist is portrayed, as is the parent, as a Christian who prays about problems and tries always to do what is right. So, in regard to the return of this parent, it seems odd to me and inconsistent that the author doesn’t at least introduce the subject of forgiveness.

Most Christians, it seems to me, understand our need to extend mercy to others, even those who have hurt us. We may not want to do it, and we may not end up doing it, but it ought to be a topic we wrestle with, at least.

In addition, if a character prays about less important things, why would they ignore prayer about perhaps the most hurtful experience in their life? If they depend on God to intervene in other matters of concern, why not trust Him in this event as well? But no. It is the other parent and the restraining order that will keep the child safe.

These inconsistencies are story problems, but they are also spiritual problems. They well might reflect the way real people live—all too often believers don’t live up to what we know we should do. But as a reviewer, I don’t have a problem pointing out both problems.

Christian writers need to raise our game, I think. We ought to reflect God’s truth as much as we reflect our culture, though portraying the former may be handled best by showing a character’s struggle to do right.

As a reviewer, then, I think it’s right for me to expect more of Christian words.

For example, if a novel depicts a Christian character who cheats on his wife, without showing that behavior as wrong, one way or the other, I’d have a problem with it. I don’t think it’s OK for a Christian character to behave in a way that contradicts the Bible and have his actions treated as normal, accepted, or unquestioned.

My standards for reviewing a work by a non-Christian are also based on Scripture. By and large, however, those stories aren’t showing Christian characters. Consequently, if the protagonist is motivated by revenge, and he never struggles with the need to forgive, I wouldn’t think that’s a great omission.

Rather, I’d believe the character is acting in a way that’s consistent with our society unless he’s been given a motive that sets him apart and communicates that his values are different from the general population. I certainly wouldn’t expect a non-Christian character to hold Christian standards.

At the same time, if I’m reviewing a work of fiction written by a non-Christian, and I’m using the Bible as my standard to evaluate the truth of what this work says or means, I wouldn’t expect Christian truths to be at the core, apart from the ways that those have served to undergird the values of our culture at large.

Fighting_lightsabresThat doesn’t mean I may not see parallels with Scripture. I’ve used Star Wars as an example in the past, and I think it’s apropos again. When I first saw the movies, I didn’t know anything about George Lucas, and I wondered if he might be a Christian. I saw parallels between “the Force” and God. I also saw parallels with the church and the rebels in their struggle against the Empire. I wondered whether Luke Skywalker might be a Christ figure.

There came a time, though—when it was clear Darth Vader was Luke’s father—that I had to abandon my idea that this epic work was mirroring spiritual truth. I still loved those first stories, still understood God to be powerful, perhaps in a clearer way than I’d thought about Him before.

In other words, my realization that these movies were thoroughly pagan didn’t mean I couldn’t still learn from them, couldn’t understand truth in a deeper way, and couldn’t appreciate them as well-told stories.

Nevertheless, as a reviewer, even though I may also present the truth about God which I saw played out unintentionally on the screen, I have an obligation to point out the error, the sin, the false worldview.

My fear is that we Christians are slipping down the same path the people of Israel took. They had a relationship with God and they had His Law, but they wanted so to be like the nations around them. So they began to compromise.

They built high places, for instance, where they could worship God—a small departure from what God had told them about worshiping only in the place where His tabernacle (and later, His temple) would be set up. But that one step of compromise led to worshiping other gods as well as God Most High. And idol worship eventually led to child sacrifice. How far they fell!

We Christians can fall into this same kind of compromise. Well, the story mostly contradicts a Christian worldview, but there’s this one redeeming aspect, and besides, it had great acting and was really entertaining, and therefore I highly recommend everyone go see it. God and idols.

I suggest we do one major thing differently when we write reviews. I suggest we call idols, idols. We can praise what is good and revel in the emotional experience, even the spiritual experience, we had because of whatever redemptive aspect of the story hit us. But we must also state without compromise the lies the story tells about God and His ways.

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14 responses

  1. HG Ferguson says:

    You are a brave, brave warrior princess in Christ Jesus to utter such words of such conviction, particularly in this historical moment when so many turn away from the hearing of the Truth and wander away from the Faith into the myths. They want their myths with the Faith. But what fellowship does Christ have with Belial, or the God in whom there is not one single speck of darkness at all with the neo-Taoism of Star Wars? Yes, we can appreciate these things as well-told stories, but they don’t tell us anything about the Truth and it is biblical foolishness to assert otherwise. Thank you for standing tall and strong and for telling the Truth without comprise. God bless you!

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  2. You are a brave, brave warrior princess in Christ Jesus to utter such words of such conviction,

    True that. Preach it, sister.

    particularly in this historical moment when so many turn away from the hearing of the Truth and wander away from the Faith into the myths.

    Gotta offer a caveat here, just in case. This moment isn’t so historical. Jesus Christ and the apostles prophesied such myth-turning in their own lifetimes. What we see today is merely a reflection of that centuries-old tendency and so we should react accordingly, e.g. we can see it as a “fully expected outrage.”

    They want their myths with the Faith.

    Depends on the motive. Some of us want to see myths in perspective, compared with and contrasted to the Faith, rather than having fear of them.

    But what fellowship does Christ have with Belial, or the God in whom there is not one single speck of darkness at all with the neo-Taoism of Star Wars?

    I get your meaning here, but at the same time we might ask what Greek philosophy has to do with the Gospel and Gospel-preaching — and yet there is our boy praising-and-subverting pagan mythology like a boss before those darn Greek philosophers (Acts 17) and then for an audience of Christians quoting pagan poetry and even using Greek virtues-list genre as inspiration for Phil. 4: 1-9. That does not mean Christians must say anything less than, “Pagan culture is pagan (and thus it has many dangers).” But it does mean we need to say more than this.

    Yes, we can appreciate these things as well-told stories, but they don’t tell us anything about the Truth and it is biblical foolishness to assert otherwise.

    They tell us nothing new, no. But they can be useful anyway. In fact, I would argue that if a story doesn’t tell us anything about the Truth (likely something we already know, merely a reflection of capital-T Truth), then it is not a good story. I see absolutely nothing good in Star Wars or any other popular-culture myth and would not at all call its stories “well-told” if they didn’t reflect some truth.

    Anyway, I’m sure we’re on the same side but I wanted to get that in there, brother. :-)

    By the way, apologies for the lack of the formatting box with all the buttons. Our last WordPress update must have ended up disabling that lovely little option (for now?).

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  3. Now I’m wondering if I’m the one who prompted this. In any case, it looks like I’ve only managed to write one review out of three or four that suits the editors’ tastes. Oh, well. [Insert my blog plug here]

    But you can’t get rid of me that easily: I still have the comments section. Mwah-ha-ha!

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  4. Thanks for sharing how you approach reviews. I appreciate that some Christians feel it’s their obligation to point out sin and error wherever they find it, and state what they feel is the un-compromised truth.

    For myself, I’m still starting out in my participation in the book review process. Generally, I see it as a way to express how I felt about a book, in the context of sharing something useful to another potential reader.

    I think on Goodreads.com I tend to be more casual, and may just include a line or two about whether I enjoyed the book and what I liked. On Amazon and my blog I try to be a little more thorough.

    Sometimes I’ll mention a content issue if I think potential readers would want to know — for example, one time I read aloud to my kids a cute contemporary fantasy story about intelligent mice. The story was fun, but the whole theme of the work was “Humans are messing up the planet and we need highly evolved animals who hold different values to raise awareness about global warming and invent more ‘green’ gadgets to save us.” Maybe that won’t matter to some folks, but as a mom, I like knowing what kind of propaganda my kids are being fed so I can counter it. I thought other moms might feel the same way and want to know.

    That said, I don’t hold the same value you do regarding Christian characters needing to be perfect models of Christian morals. No Christian I know is living the perfect life. I have come to terms with the idea that Christians are flawed human beings and I would much rather have them realistic than perfect. Sure, it bugs me whenever I see a Christian character (or a Christian) living in a way I know is less than God’s best. But I don’t think I’d point it out in a story as an issue unless the whole story is somehow negatively affected by the portrayal. And even then, I’d probably not review the book at all rather than give a negative review.

    I lean heavily towards the idea that every Christian is at a different place in their walk, their understanding of the Word, their sanctification process. I don’t want to judge an author for what they put in their book. I don’t want to judge a reader for reading and enjoying it (or not). Let God convict them. Let God lead them.

    If my goal as a reviewer was to provide an in-depth listing of the content of a book, as a guide to conscientious readers, so they’d know if the book contained profanity, immorality-portrayed-as-good, gratuitous sex or violence, etc, then that’s one thing. That could be a useful service to some readers. But I’d probably put those reviews on a website for that purpose, rather than mixing them in with general Amazon reviews, because that’s more a cataloging of the content than a review of the story as a story.

    But that’s just my thoughts off the cuff. It seems that there are a wide variety of approaches when it comes to reviews, and I think they all serve a purpose, to some extent. When I scan through reviews on Amazon, seeing a variety helps give me a sense of what a bunch of people think. That’s useful, too.
    Teddi Deppner’s recent blog: Quality vs. quantity in indie publishingMy Profile

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    • Teddi, I would agree that a review should reflect our reading experience. Hence, our emotional response to a story is important. But I don’t think we should check our brains, either.

      I used to tell my Bible students from time to time that dirty jokes are funny, but that doesn’t mean they’re OK. Because they make us laugh doesn’t give them some kind of pass.

      So too with other aspects of fiction that might make us enjoy a story. We can experience the tension of the story, love the characters, cry buckets of tears at the poignant moments, and reporting those things as a reviewer is important. But at the same time, I think we should also add in whatever is true or not true on a spiritual plain.

      This is not easy. I see now that my examples in the first half of my post were perhaps ambiguous. In the first, I’m thinking about the value that Jesus put on our forgiving others as the measure of the forgiveness we’ve received. In the second I’m thinking about the morality of faithfulness reflecting the right theology of following Christ.

      In other words, I think we ought to keep our eyes on the truth behind a story more than on the moment-by-moment activities of a character. The latter can lead to a “works” reading: The character prayed three times, disobeyed her parents twice, obeyed five times, and lied, or didn’t tell the whole truth four times. So let’s add up the score and see if this is a Christian book. I don’t think that’s a good way to read Christian fiction. Flawed characters will show their flaws–or ought to, if the author is writing an honest story.

      That characters sin isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s what the author does about their sin that matters—praise it, pretend it isn’t sin, acknowledge it as sin, have the character pray it away, have the character acknowledge it as sin and struggle against it. Personally I think only the latter is effective.

      I agree that seeing a variety of reviews is helpful. No two people see things exactly the same, so when certain parts of a story are receiving wide-spread praise or criticism, it makes me take notice.

      Becky
      Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: CSFF Blog Tour – Numb by John OtteMy Profile

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  5. Interesting thoughts! Honestly, I don’t often review works of Christian fiction, and when I do it’s speculative fiction. I think one of the first things I bring up is the overall narrative story and use of originality, because in this day when publishing is cheap (or free), thought-provoking ideas and concepts are in short supply. For speculative fiction, the concept and the originality and how the story recasts core human conflicts and issues within different worlds or kingdoms or etc is vital. If the story isn’t good and doesn’t keep me reading, then I won’t get to the theology, no matter how ‘by the book’ it is.

    Question: how picky are you about your biblical truth? Are you seeking what some would dub the “general conservative evangelical framework” or something specific to a particular denomination? What if a story cast something in a light that clearly pointed to Calvinist ideals–but the reviewer was Arminian? To put it in more basic terms, what if a story was told in a way that reflected the principle of “free will”, but the reviewer was staunchly in favor of predestination? Should that also be addressed within the context of a review? I knew one author who felt passionately that her stories not only reflect Christ, but specifically reflect a Reformed Christian worldview–and that the ‘good guys’ should all ascribe to that.

    Or is that going too far? Just curious. Coming from a background that includes many different denominations, and currently having friends from different denominational backgrounds, it’s something I consider in my writing–whether they are quibbling because a concept is violating a basic salvation or Christian principle (if I’m portraying a Christian character, might need to look at that) vs. a doctrinal issue (in which case, do I agree with that doctrine? Would that character agree with it?)

    *sighs* It does seem easier sometimes to just tackle the original concepts and ideas. ;-)

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    • That is something I would like to see answered, since literalism apparently isn’t concerning but anything too (whatever “too” is) abstract/metaphorical(/liberal) is. I’m sure the short answer is “Biblical,” but that is probably one of the more useless words in Christianity anymore.

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    • Janeen, great questions. I’ve written a number of posts on my own site about the difference between morality and theology, so first, know that I’m not talking about a list of do’s and dont’s some group has come up with, or even my own moral convictions which I think God has led me to.

      As Notleia said, I think the standard by which we need to evaluate a work is the Bible. I’ll disagree with the idea that “Biblical” is a useless term, though. Sure, people can and do misuse “Biblical” in the same way that they misuse “Christian.” Their misuse doesn’t mean the word itself is not capable of communicating something important and true.

      In this case, Biblical means something the Bible teaches, not in one isolated verse or specific to a cultural setting (such as the Levitical dietary laws, which we know were specific to Israel before Christ, because they were countermanded by God’s Spirit, recorded in the book of Acts). Rather, if something is Biblical, it is true to the core of the Bible which shows God’s nature, His plan, He work in the world to reveal Himself.

      Your example of the strict Calvinist position versus those who believe in free will is a good example. Since I believe the Bible teaches unequivocally God’s sovereignty and humankind’s choice—seemingly a contradiction—I would be comfortable with a story that shows either position simply because not all of what God has revealed is ever going to make it into one novel. If, on the other hand, a story went about to show that God wasn’t sovereign or that man didn’t have the responsibility of choice, I’d point to that as an error.

      Actually, when it comes to reviewing Christian works, I’m more inclined, when evaluating the theme, to point to just such aspects, though I think there are others that might be more egregious (the “not forgiving” attitude I mentioned in the post being one).

      I guess I would perhaps issue a caution. If we’re going to say that something “isn’t Biblical,” we should have unshakeable reasons. Saying “because my pastor said so” or “because I read it on Facebook” probably doesn’t qualify. If someone else says something isn’t Biblical, that ought to be a red flag, but I think it’s important to do some investigating ourselves.

      Harry Potter is too perfect an example to pass up. I was warned off Harry Potter by any number of Christians, all repeating, I’m sure, what they’d been told. When I first went to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I had to re-think everything I’d been told. The story was not about the occult. It was not a promotion of Satanic influences. It was as pretend as Narnia’s talking animals.

      My investigation of Harry Potter led me to conclude that the overarching themes of the books and movies were not contradicting Scripture. Yes, there were some moral issues that I’d want to discuss with teens if I had the opportunity, but I think that’s probably true of all literature since conflict raises the issues of flaws and struggles to do right and failures and yes, sin.

      Regarding the portrayal of a Christian character, then I think you get to decide if he is a Biblical Christian or one that favors a particular doctrine over others, which might bend his Christianity. Sadly, I think there is way more of this bending in our western churches than we care to acknowledge. But once you’ve established your character, then the story needs to be about what he believes. You as the author, of course, get to determine if his worldview or that of the antagonist is going to win out.

      I think you’ve perhaps landed on why too much Christian fiction seems so generic. No one wants to offend believers with different bents. ;-)

      Becky
      Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: CSFF Blog Tour – Numb by John OtteMy Profile

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  6. Some of us want to see myths in perspective, compared with and contrasted to the Faith, rather than having fear of them.—
    AMEN! Just because I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman mythos doesn’t mean that I accept its potpourri of deities– I can love the imagination and wonder of a fictional world without agreeing with all the implications thereover. Stories are not theology, though we can and should see aspects of theology as they impact stories.

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    • Julie, I use Avatar as an example of this kind of enjoyment. Yes, I thought it was stunning and poignant and beautify. But I also thought it was diametrically opposed to God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. I am sorry for all the people who saw it and thought that Nature is a real goddess they can worship and appeal to for help. But I am in no way harmed by seeing the movie, enjoying the parts that were well done (plot NOT being one of those), and pointing out the ways in which it contradicts the Bible.

      You’re absolutely right that stories are not theology. But they do show people working out their theology, and the theology of the author may well be embedded in the story as part of the theme (it’s what I think Christian writers should do.) So as a reviewer, I think it’s important to call attention to what might not be particularly evident to the casual reader. Then, when they come to the scene about worshiping the tree, they can say, Look, there’s that bit of idolatry I heard was part of this story. How sad that people believe a tree can help them and don’t know the Creator of the tree. That sort of thing. It renders the error of the story as powerless.

      Becky
      Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: CSFF Blog Tour – Numb by John OtteMy Profile

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  7. Maybe we’ve just been reading in different circles, but I don’t see a lack of biblical morality in Christian characters as being much of a problem for Christian fiction. Indeed, I’d say a much greater issue tends to be the black-and-white, easy-answer approach many Christian novelists take toward morality in general. In fiction, it’s a cinch to present the right choice as the obvious one. But that’s just lazy writing: it requires no stretching on the part of a writer, no struggle on the part of a character, and no thought on the part of a reader. It fails to reflect real life, in which temptation is attractive by definition and Satan masquerades as an angel of light.

    So while I agree that truth and grace must be well-represented by any character intended by a Christian writer to represent Christianity, I think there’s a real danger of overemphasizing such a requirement to the point where it stifles any hope of realism. For me as a reader, it’s in the midst of vicarious moral struggle that deep thought occurs. In other words, the journey’s just as important as the destination. For instance, it’s not enough for me to be presented with an example of a Christian who eschews vengeance in favor of forgiveness. For that example to mean something to me — either intellectually or emotionally — I must watch that character wrestle with his or her fleshly inclinations in order to reach that conclusion. I must be made to wrestle with him or her. The final result must be in doubt at some point. If, on the other hand, a certain action is presented as a given just by virtue of a character’s Christianity, then that action and the logic (or seeming illogic) behind it has been devalued to my eyes.

    For me, the heart of story is struggle. Without real, emotionally-and-intellectually-tangible struggle, it’s all just a sermon in narrative trappings.

    None of this is meant to argue with the points you’ve made in your post. I agree that, if a character’s presented as a Christian, the reader’s takeaway perception of said character should be in line with God’s moral will. But I think it’s important to emphasize the fact that truth gets transmitted in many ways, and that the “long con” of truly good fiction that forces a reader to make an arduous mental or emotional journey with the protagonist is often the most effective method. And besides, the Christian character who spends an entire novel sinning (not intentionally, of course!) and then repents at the end ultimately represents a greater truth than the Christian character who’s exemplary from the start. While the former is forced to fall upon the grace of God, the latter can easily be mistaken for Superman.

    And there’s only one Superman.

    In the real world, the right choice is rarely obvious. I’d like to see more Christian fiction recognize this reality without losing sight of what the right choice actually is.
    Austin Gunderson’s recent blog: An End to the MeansMy Profile

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  8. Austin, perhaps I needed to spell out the fact that theology and morality aren’t the same. I wrote several posts on the subject at my site, the last being “Theology Versus Morality, Part 3″.

    I think any of the dangers you identify in Christian fiction–easy answers, lack of struggle, the difficulty of applying moral truth to real life circumstances–need to be things reviewers point out if those elements sneak into a novel.

    Too often Christians reviewing Christians are in “agree mode”–This story says what I believe, so it’s AWESOME. Well, it may be truth-filled but not well-told. I don’t think Christian fiction should be lacking in either aspect.

    Becky
    Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: CSFF Blog Tour – Numb by John OtteMy Profile

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