Discerning Fiction

Thought of the day:

Is it okay for me as a Christian to consume any kind of fiction? Should I read Harry Potter? Should I play Dungeons and Dragons or Magic the Gathering? Should I watch Star Wars?

Paul says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (1 Cor. 10:23-24) So are these things beneficial? Obviously part of me would want to say yes, or else I wouldn’t want to partake in them, and part of me would have at least a nudge to say no, or else this wouldn’t be a question.

Paul continues, regarding food sacrificed to idols, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” (1 Cor. 10:25-30)

The two greatest guiding compasses for whether something is beneficial or not are, first, how it helps or hurts my love for God, and, second, how it helps or hurts my neighbor and his/her love for God.

The defining characteristic of fiction is that there is something about it that does not match the real world or the way the real world works. With historical fiction, the events are fake but the rest is realistic. With sci-fi, some of the technology and course of history might be fake as well, and sometimes some of the laws of physics. With fantasy or anything with magic, you can make potentially anything else fake on top of that.

So when is it beneficial to consume knowledge that you know is at least in part not perfectly real or true?

We often talk about “suspending disbelief” when consuming fiction. It really comes down to what you have to suspend belief in.

All stories teach something. All fictional stories require you to suspend belief in something. But not all details of a story are important for what the story conveys. It is okay sometimes for those details to be not quite accurate to the real world if they aren’t important to what is conveyed about the real world. This means the story should not confuse the audience about what details are and aren’t fictional.

Consider Jesus’ own parables. “A sower went out to sow….” I would call those a type of fiction insofar as they are not talking about historical events in the strict sense. But the hearer knows that these are parables and can therefore come away without being confused about what is and isn’t fictional. Everything told in the parables is conveying truth. That makes them very good to consume.

With any good fictional story, the audience can hand-wave away the fictional parts because it is clear that they are not meant to reflect the real world and that they are irrelevant to what the story conveys.

Consider also The Chronicles of Narnia. It is a fantasy setting with magic and fictional talking creatures and multiple worlds. But every reader knows that the fantasy world of Narnia is fictional. The main content of the story conveys truth through the themes and actions of the characters in that setting, and everything else can be hand-waved away. The story never tries to explain how half-human fawns or centaurs are biologically plausible, as if this was something that you might actually find in the real world. (Where are a centaur’s vital organs anyway…?) And no one cares, because everyone knows that’s irrelevant to the story. It can be hand-waved away.

If a story portrays human nature or good/evil as being something that does not match the real world, that might be more problematic. It can be harder for a reader to tell what is and isn’t fictional on that front (especially if even the author isn’t aware of how or why their portrayal doesn’t match the real world).

At the end of the day, if it’s not part of how the fiction influences the consumer, then it’s no big deal. But if the consumer has to suspend belief in how the real world works in order to receive the story, then the story is teaching falsehood.

If a fictional setting or game requires me to suspend belief in God and Truth, then as a Christian I cannot in good conscience consume it.

So can there be magic in a story? If it’s a hand-waved plot device, such as in Narnia or Lord of the Rings, then for the most part it is probably irrelevant to what is taught. But if, for example, the presence of magic is a means by which the protagonists channel demonic forces to save the day, then in order to have magic in the story you also have to suspend belief in how people ought to view the demonic. That’s a problem. Or if the way the protagonists use magic to solve their problems is portrayed in such a way that it prompts the reader to fantasize about using magic themselves in the real world in order to solve their problems (trying to claim God-like powers and overwrite the laws of creation), as an alternative to the way we are supposed to address our own problems in the real world (with prayer, for starters), then that is also a big problem.

Can there be ghosts in a story? One would have to be very careful. If a person died and lingered as a ghost, what does this say about what happens after death? What does the existence of a ghost imply for an overall system of life and death in the fictional world? What does this say about who God is? The more one tries to explain it, the harder it is not require suspending belief in real truth.

Similarly, does a role-playing game require me to pretend to be a character who believes in a pantheon of pagan gods? I can’t just decide to stop being a Christian for an hour while I imbibe in a story and then resume being a Christian when I’m done. So I cannot play that game. But if a role-playing game doesn’t require me to believe and pantheon, and any magic or fictional creatures are simply hand-waved game mechanics, then it’s probably fine.

Ultimately, it comes down to how it affects the user.

Some people are more equipped to discern between reality and fiction than others. Each person can be affected differently by different things. If I would cause my neighbor to stumble by a story I tell, then even if the fictional details might seem irrelevant to me, I should not tell the story to that person! This requires discernment and knowing your neighbor.

But “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31)

May we never suspend being Christians in our hearts or minds or in our stories simply for the sake of entertainment. Anything that teaches a false view of the world is of the devil. Anyone who says otherwise has already forgotten the real world.