Do “Christian Books” Require More or Less Discernment?

by Mike Duran · 41 comments

Admittedly, many of those who read Christian fiction do so to escape the world, rather than engage it; they read Christian fiction to bolster, reinforce, and corroborate their worldview, not challenge it. Which leads me to ask, do Christians read Christian books to sharpen their discernment or to give it a rest?

This question assumes that Christians are supposed to value and cultivate discernment. The writer of the Book of Hebrews describes a “mature” Christian as  someone who has “their senses trained to discern good and evil” (5:14). The idea is that good and evil are not always distinguishable. Even “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Cor. 11:14), so Christians should be “trained” to look beneath the veneer. False doctrine, evil, idolatry, and deceit are often wrapped in inconspicuous garb.

Question: Do those who read Christian fiction do so to strengthen their discernment or avoid having to use it?

From my perspective, most avid Christian fiction readers believe they need MORE discernment when they read ABA books than when they read CBA books. The “Christian” label is equivalent to a religious “USDA Approved” stamp. No bad beef here! However, let me suggest that it is easier to spot false doctrine in ABA rather than in CBA books.

Let me give you an example. In Christian Romance Novels: Are They Our Harmless Little Secret? author Susan Verstraete asks five questions of the readers of Christian romance novels. This is one of them:

Does it teach idolatry? I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out. If the heroine in your novels is always saved by a lover, that’s a false redemption. Christ is our Redeemer, and God is our ever-present help in time of trouble. Our hope is in Christ, not in Prince Charming. No mere man can fix all our problems. Accepting this idolatrous view of romantic relationships will cause you to place pressures on your husband that will end in deep disappointment, if not disaster. Only Jesus can be your Savior.

I think Ms. Verstraete’s point has a much larger application than simply Christian Romance. Could it be that what we’ve come to call Christian fiction is seeded with images, ideas, expectations, and caricatures that are subtly, yet entirely, unbiblical?

Perhaps one of the most common expectations of inspirational fiction is that it contains “redemptive themes.” But what does that mean and how does it jive with the Bible’s concept of redemption? Have we come to see “redemptive themes” as simply happy endings? Good triumphs over evil. Boy-gets-girl. Down-and-outer becomes up-and-comer. Love wins. Do these expectations conjure a biblical worldview? All that to say, is it possible we’ve come to portray an entirely biblical theme (redemption), in terms of shallow, feel-good, tidiness?

Secondly, the best vehicle for infiltrating the Christian worldview would not be from secular books but from “spiritual” books. If it’s true that Satan masquerades as an angel of light, then wouldn’t he be better off appearing handsome, clean shaven, moralistic, church-going, and driving a buggy? Isn’t it possible that our notion that we need LESS discernment to read Christian books… devilish?

Reading ABA fiction, for me, is no different than going to a mall, watching TV, reading the newspaper, or interacting with my neighbors. Christians must ALWAYS be discerning. The notion that we don’t need to be as discerning when reading “Christian” fiction may be the most dangerous of all assumptions.

* * *

Question:  Do Christians sacrifice discernment by choosing to read only “Christian” books? Do Christian need less, more, or equal amounts of discernment when reading Christian books? Do you agree that one of the best vehicles for infiltrating Christian readers would be Christian books?

Carradee April 13, 2011 at 6:50 AM

That’s part of why I often dislike reading overtly Christian fiction. The author has an intentional message that can bury the unintentional ones without me noticing it, because I’m more likely to agree with the intentional message.

But before you brought it up, I don’t think I could’ve phrased it quite that clearly. Thank you.

I particularly like your comment, “is it possible we’ve come to portray an entirely biblical theme (redemption), in terms of shallow, feel-good, tidiness?” I’m keeping an eye out for your book. 🙂

Nicole April 13, 2011 at 7:03 AM

“Do Christians sacrifice discernment by choosing to read only “Christian” books? Do Christian need less, more, or equal amounts of discernment when reading Christian books? Do you agree that one of the best vehicles for infiltrating Christian readers would be Christian books?”

If the objective in reading Christian fiction is to “turn off” discernment, I would wager the reader doesn’t use it to begin with. It comes with the territory of Christianity and is inherent in the Holy Spirit. Discernment is key in our spiritual existence–an ever increasing need to be prayed for and cultivated regardless of what we’re reading, viewing, hearing, and thinking. It’s no less a requirement in the reading of Christian fiction and non-fiction. The harmful implications in either choices of reading are there in doctrinal interpretations. Some are far less harmful to mature Christians but can be a way of infiltrating the Christian audience of immature believers.

There is certainly a large share of shallow and I would venture incomplete faith portrayals in some Christian fiction and some near heresy in non-fiction.

Tim George April 13, 2011 at 7:05 AM

This is like asking where one needs to be more discerning, in a movie theater or at church? The correct answer should be both. Christians are no more likely to put their brains on hold when reading Christian fiction than when they listen to a preacher. Many seem to do a pretty good job of that anywhere, anytime.

As to saying that is the reason it’s better to read ABA fiction that CBA is like saying it makes more sense to go to movies than to hear a preacher. Of course you need discernment at the movies but you also need it when sitting before a preacher. The Apostle Paul praised the Berean Christians for understanding this

Mike Duran April 13, 2011 at 8:13 AM

Tim, I’m not at all suggesting it’s “better” to read ABA over CBA, but that it’s worse reading CBA without discernment than reading ABA with it.

Tim George April 13, 2011 at 3:45 PM

That comment was really in response to what Carradee had to say.

Carradee April 13, 2011 at 4:34 PM

I was expressing a personal preference , not a value judgement (“I often dislike” not “it’s a bad idea to”) I do see your point, though.

I generally prefer to practice my Berean-esque (theological) discernment on Christian non-fiction rather than Christian fiction, myself.

Katherine Coble April 13, 2011 at 8:04 AM

I was initially going to say that I use more discernment when reading a CBA book and then after reading Tim George’s comment I thought about it some more.

I’d have to say I use different types of discernment. You know like how you have “company manners” and “family manners”? I sort of think of it as “company discernment” and “family discernment”. I am parsing and analysing for different things, depending on context.

But I do find that CBA books aren’t as restful for me, because I feel like my Family Discernment is more highly tuned. Little missteps that I can disregard in an ABA book because the author probably ‘doesn’t know any better’ just can’t slide with me in CBA. And if someone puts out something under Christ’s name, I care a lot more about how they say what they say.

I know the “I just read to relax” thing is coming along, because it always does in these kinds of conversations. Allow me to say that because of the way my mind works and the environment wherein I was raised, I find some exercises in discernment and analysis to be relaxing.

Katherine Coble April 13, 2011 at 8:09 AM

I swear I need to learn to put all my thoughts in one comment.

The coda to my main point is that I have long believed this is why the Historical (or Amish) Romance has been so big in CBA. By setting things in a theoretically simpler time and removing the story from contemporary mores and lifestyle, it requires less discernment from readers and is therefore more relaxing. Why fuss over whether it’s bad to go to movies when there are no movies in 1870 or in Amish Land?

Nicole April 13, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Interesting, Katherine, because I find the doctrinal issues of the Amish definitely require discernment. Does a person love God more or know Jesus better or follow the Holy Spirit more completely because they dress or talk or eliminate certain ways in this life? I don’t find the Amish religion “simple” at all. These are just my opinions so please don’t think I’m venting them at you–I’m not.

Katherine Coble April 13, 2011 at 11:13 AM

I grew up Mennonite. I am still Mennonite, actually. And I’ve got several relatives by marriage who are Ex-Amish. They’ve got families still living in the Way. I know many many Amish people and before I knew it was a played-out theme I was writing a book about a woman who leaves the Amish. So wrestling with that particular dogma is literally a way of life for me and mine.

But the stories I’ve read which come out in the CBA are more using the Amish because their doctrinal issues are pretty easy to hash through for the purposes of story and meanwhile you don’t have to worry about characters who swear or get tattoos. They’ve got issues, but their apartness makes the issues easier to get at, as it were.

Gina April 13, 2011 at 9:05 AM

It’s interesting to me that you ask this, because I just wrote a piece asking whether overexposure to contemporary Christian music blunts our discernment! Link is on my name above.

Thank you for this thoughtful article.

Jill April 13, 2011 at 9:07 AM

I’m a born critic, analyzing anything and everything ad nauseam. I wish I could turn off that part of my brain just to relax and have a modicum of freedom. In fact, my friends would like for me to do the same. I would love to read a book for the pure pleasure and relaxation. Sadly, I would have to get stunningly drunk in order to do that, because even after a few glasses of wine, I find myself STILL analyzing and critiquing the world. Sometimes, God asks me to be still and just listen to him.

Okay, so all of that has nothing to do w/ your questions. Yes, of course the deceiver uses Christian fiction–why wouldn’t he? He has a captive audience. He’d be a fool not to. As for redemption–it’s a concept in our society’s collective understanding of the world. Not every book needs a redemptive message, but redemption on the smallest level upholds the Christian ideal that redemption is necessary for mankind. You could just as easily claim that Christ used trite ways to deliver his messages. I mean, really, agriculture–how ordinary is that? But agriculture, like love and romance, is something that humans relate to. Men and women alike relate to romance–and speaking of God’s own imagery, he uses the image of the bride and bridegroom to describe the indescribable nature of love between himself and his people.

Mike Duran April 13, 2011 at 1:39 PM

“…redemption on the smallest level upholds the Christian ideal.”

This may be a good example of the different types of disernment spoken of above (Katherine’s company manners vs. family manners). In a generic sense I’d agree that all redemption forshadows Redemption. Whether right or wrong, I would bring a different set of expectations about redemptive themes to CBA lit. Which makes me wonder if there isn’t also a very real “false redemption” that can inhabit our tales.

Jill April 14, 2011 at 11:11 AM

Um, yes, I saw one in a movie not so long ago called Inception–the movie was essentially about mind control, and there’s a scene at the end where the main character is mind-controlled to reject his father’s wisdom and be re-baptized into what he wants to do for himself. He literally dies and is reborn as a redemptive act–redeeming himself, basically.

xdpaul April 13, 2011 at 9:32 AM

Discernment in practice:

What is interesting to me is that it is okay in the CBA to set Christian-themed stories within an Amish context but you’d be hard pressed to find one set within a Seventh Day Adventist context. Both religious sects present somewhat similar theological challenges and differences from what would be presented in a CBA non-fiction book on sound doctrine.

In fact, I’d argue that the Amish context, as practiced, actually presents _more_ theological dispute than SDA does with the traditional CBA doctrine. In non-fiction, the CBA publishes theological critiques of the Amish: challenging the biblical arguments for the doctrines of shunning, separatism and the potentially extrabiblical adherence to Ordnung.

Yet I very much doubt that these massive theological flashpoints are commonly central in Amish fiction. This is no different than a Christian author taking a Mormon sect, stripping it of fundamental doctrine, and using it as a vehicle for a simple story about community and love.

It reminds me of secular fantasy books that are set in a quasi-medieval setting and uphold the “Divine Right of Kings” as a central theme, yet never mention the Divinity! [See also Theodore Beale’s Summa Elvetica]

In other words, if the driving principle among the Amish is Ordnung, what happens when Ordnung plies the individual _away_ from his ability to follow Christ?

Now, that would be an Amish book I’d definitely pick up.

Katherine Coble April 13, 2011 at 11:16 AM

Well then maybe I oughtta just go ahead and finish mine after all. But I’m distinctly given the impression that the World doesn’t want books about the Amish which aren’t all apple butter, quilting and hunky men named Daniel who’ll leave the church with you at the end.

xdpaul April 13, 2011 at 2:35 PM

Yes you oughtta!

Rebecca LuElla Miller April 13, 2011 at 11:32 AM

I appreciate this post, Mike. I’ve been singing the “no safe book” song as a solo, it seems, for some time, and it’s good to get a chorus going. Christian fiction absolutely requires discernment. Readers who rely on “CBA Approved” to select their books, then turn their brains off as they lose themselves in the story are open to all kinds of erroneous thinking no matter what the author intended.

BTW, I think Monday’s Spec Faith post is a good companion piece to this one: “Romanticizing Christ?”

Becky

R. L. Copple April 13, 2011 at 12:16 PM

I don’t know that Christian romance readers would come away from their novels thinking the hunky man who saves the day for the woman and makes everything OK is being substituted for Christ. Actually, Christ uses people to “save” others from various problems, even as He is the only one who can save us from our sins, the only one who holds the keys.

But like the whole Barbie thing for young kids, I think the unrealistic expectations can set folks up for disappointment and discouragement when they lament that their husband/boyfriend is not like this wonderful guy!

Probably is, that’s the romance thing. There’s always the guy that sweeps the woman off her feet, or the other way as well, and they are both society’s ideal of what makes a “perfect” couple, whether we’re talking secular standards or CBA standards.

Most all stories are unrealistic for the most part. We do our best, but the whole concept has a basis of unrealism to it that the reader simply accepts in order to enjoy an entertaining story. If it was just about the realistic and normal events of most of our lives, few would get past the first chapter.

There are real events that make compelling stories, and stories can have lots of realistic events and characters in them. But the requirement for fiction is that it first be entertaining, and that often means putting our characters through things that less than 1% of us would ever end up going through. I put my character through fourteen gut-wrenching events between the age of 14 and 25. I’d never want to be him. But it makes for entertaining reading. 🙂

And I think discerning readers know a lot of this going into it. Sure, there are those who are mentally not all there and think it is “reality,” but most understand. Where it can be problems, however, is in setting up expectations that are unrealistic, both about each other, and at times, about God.

Rebecca LuElla Miller April 13, 2011 at 12:39 PM

I don’t know that Christian romance readers would come away from their novels thinking the hunky man who saves the day for the woman and makes everything OK is being substituted for Christ. That’s the problem, Rick — not seeing that we’re substituting trust in a man for the security we seek instead of trust in Christ for the security He offers.

I agree with Susan — it’s a form of idolatry. Anytime we put anybody above Christ we’re engaging in idolatry, don’t you think?

And yes, I also think it puts an unsustainable burden on a man to be all that a woman wants him to be — the source of her security and significance and support and … you get the drift.

Becky

R. L. Copple April 13, 2011 at 9:07 PM

Yes, anytime we put anybody above Christ. My thought is how many are actually doing that? Depends on what you mean by “above.”

Consider that St. Paul says that the husband is to the wife as Christ is to the Church. Is that putting the husband above Christ, or pointing us all to Christ? Especially us men who have such a heavy responsibility.

Or that we are called to be Christ’s hands and feet, and to let our light shine so that they might see Christ in us? If we do that through our fictional characters, are we creating idols or pointers to Christ?

Certainly any woman who reads a romance novel and comes to the conclusion that to save her from hell, she needs the perfect man in her life, has created an idol and putting the man above Christ. And while I think the danger of creating false expectations is also a real problem, I don’t think it necessarily rises to the level of idolatry.

All depends on what is in the heart of the person, not necessarily on outward actions. We need discernment in reading all fiction, as Mike points out. And while the danger of creating an idol is there and to be avoided, I don’t think one avoids it by getting rid of all the lamps attempting to show the light of Christ to the world either. Rather, it is a matter of teaching and learning.

Let’s not go to the other extreme and stop showing characters that point to Christ, for fear of them becoming someone’s idol. There’s a balance there.

Rebecca LuElla Miller April 14, 2011 at 9:20 AM

Rick, you said All depends on what is in the heart of the person, not necessarily on outward actions.

I think that’s the bottom line. We can’t know whether a reader is drawn to a Christ figure as a Christ figure or whether she will put unrealistic demands and idolatrous expectations on the men in her life.

Which brings us back to Mike’s original question. Yes, we absolutely must read with discernment so that we can know things about our own heart.

Becky

Rachel April 13, 2011 at 12:56 PM

Such a keen, keen post. Very poignant.

Lyndie Blevins April 13, 2011 at 1:47 PM

Mike, great questions and discussion. I’m leaning more toward thinking of myself as a Christian writer and let my work find its own path. I have found through out my ‘entertainment life’, whether books, movies, music or plays, when I thought I was choosing something to just entertainment, I was always betrayed by the truth or lack of it in the medium.

Niki Turner April 13, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Excellent post, Mike. I completely agree with you, and not just about books, but all forms of media and art.

Sally Apokedak April 13, 2011 at 3:40 PM

Well, I can feel a blog post coming on. Because I have a LOT to say about this. But, in short, I disagree with the idea that readers of romance will think the man is the substitute for Christ. Readers, even romance readers, are not all idiots. (No, I’m not a romance reader.)

While I agree with some of Susan Verstraete’s points in her post, the one I mostly disagree with is the idolatry point.

Idolatry is a matter of a sinful heart. I wrote a post at Spec Faith a while back about how I was saved while reading a novel. In that novel, the husband was the Christ figure and as I saw how that character loved his wife, I was overwhelmed with a desire to be loved by Christ. To be forgiven by Christ. Why did I feel that way? Was it that I was a discerning reader?

It was because God was calling to me (so, yes, he gave me the ability to discern his voice), and in that character’s love I saw Christ’s love. To suggest that women will idolize male characters and that the heroines need to be saved by Christ instead of by the hero misses the value of Christ figures in fiction. If women will idolize heroes who love unselfishly and who will die to protect the heroine and who are always faithful and always willing to forgive, what’s to stop women from idolizing the men in real life who love and protect them well? Should men stop loving their wives to save them from idolatry?

All sacrificial, faithful, protective love, in novels or in real life, is a shadow and type of Christ. And if some people miss Christ, does that mean we should stop loving each other and stop writing books with Christ figures?

Christ figures point readers, some of whom are not very discerning, to Christ. We see these good men in novels, and we long for that kind of sacrificial love. We hunger after a lover who will love us so completely that he will lay down his life to save us. And that hunger drives us not to men. We aren’t idiots. We know men can’t love us that way. We have that God-shaped hole in our souls. We long to be cherished and to find that One who is worthy of our love and devotion.

And if God is saving us, we will find Christ. If he is not saving us, maybe we’ll go from man to man looking for love in all the wrong places. Romance novels, like anything else, can play a part in our salvation or our damnation.

Oops. Sorry for not keeping it short. 🙂

Tim George April 13, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Just had to jump back in and say, “Way to go Sally!”
We men have our own redemption figures in pop culture. For me as a child it was John Wayne and Randolph Scott.
And your final paragraph is an excellent explanation of how something can be the sweet savor of salvation to some and the stench of death to others.

Tim George April 13, 2011 at 3:56 PM

These are all good observations. I’m not ready to jump on the “let’s drive the Amish monster from town” band wagon. Personally, I don’t get it. I have lived around black hat Mennoites, Strict German Baptists, and the Amish. No offense to any of them because they are generally very enterprising people that make good neighbors. But their lives seem very …boring. How that makes good novel material is beyond me!

If people want to read something that is harmless and safe, so be it. I still like Andy Griffith (but only in black and white and with Barney). Do I need to be discerning when watching Andy. Their is an episode where the pastor preaches about the most univsersalist clap-trap you would ever hear. See, I was discerning.

Katherine Coble April 13, 2011 at 4:08 PM

But their lives seem very …boring. How that makes good novel material is beyond me!

You’d find yourself very, very surprised. Very.

It’s not that they’re all “boring”…just that some of them keep secrets very very well.

Mike Duran April 13, 2011 at 3:58 PM

Sally, these are very important thoughts, and well worthy of a blog post. I was reluctant to use the Romance quote because this post is not about Christian Romance. In fact, I think your comments perfectly represent my point: We DO need discernment when reading Christian books. You have obviously spent a lot of time mulling this issue, to your credit. But do all Christian readers think as deeply about this as you? Terrific comments!

Sally Apokedak April 13, 2011 at 4:55 PM

I agree that we need discernment when we read Christian books. We have the same problem in children’s books or in G-rated movies. Some parents think that Disney movies are neutral. Nothing is neutral. Every storyteller brings his worldview to the tale.

Gina April 13, 2011 at 7:13 PM

I had a comment that I think got lost in the spam filter — could you please check and see? Thanks. 🙂

Mike Duran April 14, 2011 at 5:43 AM

Got it, Gina. It appears back up at the 9:05 AM mark. Thanks!

Patrick Todoroff April 14, 2011 at 6:18 AM

I agree a Christian should never shut off their discernment. I’m kinda stunned at the suggestion in the first place.

I have to confess here and now that I’ve tried for years to read Christian fiction. Nine times out of ten I couldn’t take it – the work was so ham-fisted or saccharined, freighted with unsound doctrine and unrealistic caricatures of faith, sin and redemption, that I threw them away before I’d reached page 50. I’ve pretty much given up entirely at this point.

I understand the purpose of fiction is escapism and entertainment, but all those books struck me as support for the accusation that Christian faith is intellectual suicide, sentimental wish-fulfillment and blithely ignorant fantasy.

God help us.

Rebecca LuElla Miller April 14, 2011 at 9:26 AM

Patrick, give Christian fiction another try. If you like mystery, try J. Mark Bertrand’s Back On Murder. Speculative? Try George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon or Thomas Pawlik’s Vanish. For supernatural suspense start with our host Mike Duran’s Resurrection. I don’t think you’ll find any of those titles anywhere close to “intellectual suicide, sentimental wish-fulfillment and blithely ignorant fantasy.”

Becky

Patrick Todoroff April 14, 2011 at 2:50 PM

Sorry if that came off harsh. Someone (who hasn’t read my book) informed me I was a “tool of Satan” because my novel contained profanity and violence. Yes, they were serious. *sigh*

Tomorrow is a new day.

Carradee April 14, 2011 at 3:56 PM

[sarcasm]
Ooo! I have polygamy and incest in some of my stories! Can I join the “tool of Satan” club?
[/sarcasm]

I think some people haven’t read Genesis, Joshua, or Judges (incest, rape, other disturbing violence) or Song of Solomon (sensuality). Or how about the Psalms—try those imprecatory ones for some explosive anger.

Yes, tomorrow is another day. Thank God for that.

Katherine Coble April 14, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Patrick,

You’ll have better days. I’m on my way to hunt down your book. I mean LIFE is violent and profane, right?

Patrick Todoroff April 15, 2011 at 4:49 AM

That’s what I figure, yes. Not that’s it’s right, but that’s what humanity deals with. And that’s why Jesus is so unique and precious in contrast, rising above all this mess.

Those kind of comments are just the Baptisneyland crowd voicing their midget indignation. No sense of proportion there.

(apologies to any midgets)

Janet April 16, 2011 at 1:48 PM

I know readers who only buy books from “Christian bookstores.” As if they can trust anything/everything in the store. Of course, I think they miss fabulous books in other genres by doing this.

jeff May 27, 2011 at 5:51 AM

ISIAIh 41 BRING forth your IDOLS did they PREACH to you see they can’t speak they can’t DO ANYTHING all they do is cause confusion. spalms 115 and spalms 135 thier IDOLS are FALSE cant speak can’t hear cant smell and those that make them shall become like them. Jeremiah 10 they nail their IDOL down like a scarecrow it can’t move can’…t speak can’t move must be carried these are nothing but the WORK of CON men.john 10 jesus christ sais his sheep hear his voice and another voice thy will not follow and if another person tries to preach to them they WILL FLEE from him. jeremiah 5 the priests bear rule on their own authority what will you do when your judged my word is not inside them. Now here is the kicker john 5 son of man voice goes back in time mathew 16 jesus christ claims to be the son of man.‎1 cor2 mind of CHRIST preached internally and john 16 sais the spirit of truth comes in the future. Ezekiel 13 lying prophets of ISRAEL my word is not inside them saying god sais god sais god sais wrote hoping mankind would CONFIRM their WORDS. all of this is EASILY verifiable.

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