For years, Christians have debated over books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because they cover controversial and potentially offensive topics. These books discuss racial prejudice, rape, witchcraft, sexuality and many other sensitive topics, creating controversy among both believers and unbelievers. However, does that mean that these books and others similar should be banned from a Christian’s reading list? As Christians, it is important to have Scriptural standards for entertainment. The main issue Christians face with literature is knowing by what standard to evaluate “good” literature.
In this context, “good” refers to any literature that has a moral message that is both worthy of reading and beneficial. As a Christian evaluating a piece of literature, we should evaluate the message of the work first and foremost. What is the author trying to say and why did he include this controversial element? Words have great power, and as Philippians 4:8 says, we should focus on things that are pure, lovely and edifying. However, immoral elements in a work of literature do not make the book wrong.
Often, authors will use evil or immoral actions like theft, rape or murder in their plot to illustrate a grander point. Those immoral actions are needed to convey a moral message. The Bible, the greatest book ever written, has multiple accounts of betrayal, murder, rape, theft and other terrible sins. For obvious reasons, Christians do not consider the Bible immoral writing, yet when the same issues are portrayed in literature, many people label the book as wrong. Dr. Brent McNeely, a faculty member in the Division of English Language and Literature, said we are always evaluating when we read to find what is profitable. Whether a Christian or secular author, “these authors are image-bearers, and they reveal truth,” McNeely said.
How does the Bible define a “moral” message? God clearly outlines His standards of morality in Galatians 5:22- 23, saying, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” If a book’s message reflects the fruits of the Spirit, it is not promoting immorality but using those elements to promote good. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee uses racial discrimination, rape and prejudice to show that all people should be treated with respect, a message that correlates with the Bible.
The next step is determining what level of literary exposure is valuable for Christians. Each Christian should have personal boundaries. It is not wise to fill our minds with temptation or obscenity. Psalm 23:7 says, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Ideas shape us into new people, meaning Christians should show caution with their reading.
Dr. Bruce Rose, chair of the Division of English Language and Literature, said, “There is only one book we can read without fear of falsehood, evil or error, but even Scripture contains references to those things. It is not possible to distinguish good Christian literature from everything else because it is a matter of degree.” Book choice depends on the context of the reading, the purpose behind the reading, and the person who is reading.
A wide range of reading stretches our minds, teaching us lessons we would not otherwise understand. Consider your spiritual growth. Do you grow more when life is comfortable or difficult? Literature is often the same way. Authors strategically implement controversial elements to exalt the good.
Gene C. Fant, in his article “C.S. Lewis and the Virtues of Reading Broadly,” says, “Literature forms character by allowing us to examine ideals and failures from a front row . . . In heroes, we see the possibilities of human will, just as in anti-heroes, we see its weaknesses.”
John Milton, an English poet and intellectual, teaches that you know good by evil in his book, Paradise Lost. Without evil, we do not have a clear understanding of good, and evil is necessary to appreciate true goodness. The ultimate measure of a book in the life of a Christian is whether or not it is pleasing to God, Rose said. As Christians, we must each evaluate literature and entertainment based on God’s Word, but we must also consider the message of a book rather than its controversial topics before we remove it from our reading lists.