Friday, January 24, 2014

Discernment or Deception?

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My goal, with every book I read, is to read it with Christian discernment. Back at the age of fourteen when I made the remarkable discovery that I would never read a perfect book written by humans, I determined that since I could not eradicate sin, I would have to be on my guard and take captive every book to the obedience of Jesus Christ.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
~2 Corinthians 10:5

Since then I've read multiple new authors. Alexandre Dumas. Susan Cain. Anthony Trollope. K.M. Weiland. Victor Hugo. Authors that I could never have read profitably, unless I read with a running mental commentary of weighing their writings against Scripture. Some of these authors were Christian, some were atheist. Some I'll definitely read again, and others I won't. But I couldn't have discerned that unless I learned to think while I was reading.

When I was younger, I only wanted to be carried along in the flow of the story. And don't get me wrong: I still very much get caught up in the action. When the main character's at point of death, I generally don't stop and work out a 15 point treatise on the exact brand of evil they're up against and all the Scriptures that define it. "This antagonist just violated [insert 6 Scripture references], this is how they were punished in Old Testament law, and according to Revelation, they're going to be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur."--thoughts like that don't generally occur to me in the heat of the moment. On the contrary, I generally think something like "Wow, I really want my favorite guy to be okay, and that bad guy is just awful."

However, after the dust settles, and generally when I'm sitting down to write a blog review, then I start going over things in detail. Sometimes in very minute detail. Was the main character honorable? Were any situational ethics involved? If so, were they biblically justifiable, or were they morally compromising? Did this story build me up, teach me something, or did it tear me down in my pursuit of Christ-likeness?

Such then, is what I'm learning to do as I read books with discernment. Progress is slow and halting; I'm certainly not as knowledgeable or in-depth as I would like to be. But for all that, I've grown over the years, and hope to grow still more in the years to come. Discernment helps me to take books captive by sifting through what's in conformance to the Word of God, and what's not. That way I can read a book, and not swallow down the bad with the good.

However, there comes a point when reading a book while trying to take it captive is, quite simply, a waste of time.

Around this time of year, I sometimes struggle with blog-hopping and seeing people's upcoming book lists for 2014. I'll be honest and say some of the choices disturb me, for even read with discernment, they really aren't profitable, and they have some dangerous worldviews behind them. But the question remains, how can I really say that? After all, Christians can read books with different worldviews and gain much profit from them, even though we exercise extreme caution in doing so. But we are bought with a price, we are responsible for what we fill our minds with, and the fact is inevitable that not everything the Church reads, not everything our friends read, not every appealing book will be something that we should read, even if we are exercising a discerning mindset while doing so.

So how do we know when it's profitable to take up a book that might have some unsuitable elements, and when it isn't?

The short answer is that there is no answer. Books have to be judged individually. Authors have to be judged by their fruits. Factors of individual conscience, differing spiritual maturity, and varying personal struggles come into play. The only constant in the equation is the fact that God's truth doesn't change, and we constantly hold up the books we read to the mirror of God's truth to see how they compare.

However, I think we can find a couple of principles to give us some guidelines on when a book wouldn't be profitable to take captive to a biblical worldview.

1. We should not force redemption when redemption isn't there.
This is perhaps the biggest error I see (and commit myself) when taking books captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ. We're supposed to give grace, yes. Somehow, though, we've shifted from giving mercy for acknowledged sin to making allowances and pretending the sin didn't exist in the first place. There are some books--Christian as well as non-Christian--that really have nothing valuable to recommend them to our attention. And yet we read them because all our friends are reading them, or it hit the New York Times bestseller list, or we read three reviews by people who liked the book and it piqued our interest. Neither of those are bad reasons in themselves--but they shouldn't be the deciding factor on determining a book's worth. And we shouldn't let popular opinion sway us into believing that a book has merit when the author did not put in anything redeemable at all. Just because the characters have moral values, or a woman kneels down in prayer, or someone entreats God to have mercy on a situation doesn't mean the author intended the story to be Christian or redemptive. And the most dangerous thing we can do, when evaluating a book, is to force a redemption message on it that it doesn't have.

Take The Harvester, by Gene Stratton-Porter. The main character is a chivalrous man. He treats women well. He loves the earth, he's thrifty, he wants to better the world. He preaches truth and labors honestly, and when I read that book I loved him deeply. But in spite of his sacrificing love, in spite of his clean manhood, I couldn't pretend away the fact that The Harvester believed good works led to salvation, and the world was created by some omniscient Being who used evolution. Good morals? Yes. Lovable characters? Oh, yes, yes. But the redemption was not there, and I could not pretend it was. So I let it go.

Taking captive means acknowledging the actual contents of the book, and seeing how they compare to Scripture--not forcing better meanings on it to make it worth our time. So a good question to ask when reading is--am I making up the good that I'm finding, or is it genuinely included in the pages of this story?

Yes, we do give grace. If an author is in error on a theological point it doesn't necessarily mean the book isn't worth our time. And we understand that all authors are human, and therefore all authors include errors. But true grace--the grace that is kindest for us to give--is a grace that sees error with clear eyes, and wants to fix it, not grace that hides the error itself.

2. We should never pretend a worldly author has a Christian worldview.
I know this seems to contradict statements I've made before on the blog. After all, I've said again and again that even non-Christian authors can borrow principles and elements from a Christian worldview. If there is any good in a book, then it must be borrowed from God, for no goodness can be created solely from a man-centered worldview. However, just because an author puts in good (laying down a life for a friend, a man loving a woman, conquering evil forces) doesn't mean that the over-arching theme of the book is good. And when we pick up a book, the over-arching plot must be Truth if it is worth keeping. The sub-plots don't make the book. The main plot does. And the book must live or die by the main plot, because that's what our mind is going to intrinsically accept as the lesson of the story.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
~2 Peter 2:1-3

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.
~2 Timothy 6:20-21a

We must be careful. We must be wise. We must be wary. For some authors who write fiction write it to lead us astray. Even Satan masquerades as an angel of light:

And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.
Their end will correspond to their deeds.
~2 Corinthians 11:14-15

Satan is the original deceiver, and he knows the plot elements we like, the characters we connect to, and the things that draw us in. He won't hesitate to use them to work in deceptive worldviews and philosophies that will influence us while we are unaware.

All this is not to say that we should be afraid of being led astray every time we read a book. The Lord is stronger then Satan, and he's given us transformed minds (Romans 12:2) so we will be able to discern between that which pleases him and that which denies his truth. But at the same time, we must be cautious. It is easy to hide pride under discernment: "I can handle the false philosophies! I'll just take them captive." Pride and leaning on our own wisdom leads to destruction, even when that pride is based on the purest and most laudable intentions.

So don't just pick up anything you see. There are some books that genuinely should be avoided, that will neither build us up, nor offer us a profitable exercise in taking captive false philosophies. We as Christians are called to be holy. To put off the old self, and put on the new.

Pick up a book with confidence. Rigorously think through it's themes and actions and worldviews. Sometimes even authors who don't have good worldviews can be profitable reading. But in your reading, remember this: we are human, and we can fall. So we must be careful, and realize that our wisdom is not of ourselves, for left to ourselves, we would go astray. But our wisdom is from the Lord.

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
~Jeremiah 9:23-24

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Excellent post. I've enjoyed our discussions at the supper table about this. ;) You used a couple of Scripture verses I've memorized, too...
    I think our greatest delight can come from pleasing the Lord with our reading. And it is our goal to know Him better and the books we read play into that. ;)

  2. Great post, Schuyler. As Carrie-Grace said about pleasing the Lord with our reading, I also always desire to read things that would really be God-glorifying and not something that would pull me down in my walk with God; if I can read anything that can in anyway edify me, than well and good. That's not to say I don't read books that are not written by Christians--in fact, these days I am just as cautious with reading books by Christian authors. As you said though, though I will read books that I sometimes don't agree with in everything (worldview, especially), I am very cautious of reading any book unless I am relatively sure it will not have anything I will feel drastically uncomfortable with. Inappropriate things such as how much romance is played into the story without taste, vivid depiction of revenge and satanic themes are probably the biggest flags for me to avoid a book. With worldviews and the actions of characters in books, I sometimes am willing to read a book that isn't necessarily as I would have it if I feel I can learn a lesson from it, or if it has enough redeeming qualities (as in the main plot like you pointed out) that would make it worth my time. I am a picky reader--I think my father helped instill this cautiousness in what I read since he is a huge reader of theology, devotional writings, philosophy, etc. and I very much shy away from the thought of reading a book I KNOW I might have problems with just to offer my criticism afterword and 'take every thought captive'. Know one can be above temptation... and stories with subtle truths (or lies!) have a way of infiltrating your heart and mind in ways hearing thousands of lectures would not have on you. May the Lord grant us wisdom and courage to read like He would have us read, to write as he would have us write and not simply go with the world's poplar current.

    1. I would like to see your father's books, Joy! :) I think they would be fascinating to look through, and he sounds like a man I would very much enjoy conversing with and learning from.

      I think you and I came to certain classics at similar ages (later than some other people) and that actually was probably a benefit, as we were well-grounded before embarking on the multiplicity of beliefs that we encountered. Always best to be later, I say, and be ready, then take up a book too soon and have it do damage. My mom had me wait on books like Jane Eyre, Wives and Daughters, North and South , etc, until I was 15-17, and then when I was 17 (almost 18) I got my first taste of Tolkien. I enjoyed them much better that way, and I think sometimes even certain books are worth waiting for because the rich, deep, worthy themes are easier to catch around 17-20 than gobbling them up as young children!

      And definitely agree about the Christian lit. You bring up a good point. Just because it's Christian doesn't mean it doesn't need just as much discernment and evaluation.

      Speaking of picking good books, you had a lot of good-looking books on your Goodreads list the other day, and I kept meaning to comment on them, but I fear me I struggle with keeping up on everything. :) Several favorites of mine and some new, intriguing-looking titles that I hadn't heard of as well! Your shelf definitely has some inspiration on my to-read list. :D



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